We spent some time on an island paradise where the most precious commodity is water and during the dry season – half the year – the most common fear is running out. The island has a desalination plant but when the government sponsored piping project failed within six months — because somebody tried to save some money by downsizing the pipe – the plant now sells and delivers water only by truck. The big houses have big cisterns, the small houses have small cisterns, mostly just black plastic tanks and they are the first to run dry. Of course the poorest people live in the smallest shacks and they don’t have money to buy water. Also the desalinated water still tastes salty and is no good to drink. And sometimes the water delivery guy is not available or off island or just doesn’t pick up the phone. People every year have to borrow and beg water from their neighbours or public places.
On this island, the 6-8 thousand people (depends on the time of year) live on a diet of lobster, lambi (which comes from conch shells) barracuda, tuna, marlin and any other kind of fish they can catch with hooks, nets or harpoons. Chickens, goats (cocky tails up) sheep (shy tails down) and the odd cow wander the roads; eggs are plentiful as are the local grown vegetables and roots like cassava, callalu, which after being boiled or steamed tastes like spinach, plantains and bananas. Seasonal fruit like papaya, mango, passion fruit and of course the ever abundant coconut are readily available. Fresh bread and baked goods are sold directly from the back of the vans that crisscross the island and luxuries like yogurt, cold cuts, cheese, butter, olive oil etc. are also available, albeit expensive. Let’s not forget plenty of local and imported beer and wine and of course the ever present rum, cheap and plentiful and from the locally distilled Jackiron which is 160 proof to the XO and anything in between. Local chocolate and nuts are a ready delicacy as are spices like nutmeg, saffron and vanilla and always on my table the local hot sauce and banana ketchup with nutmeg.
Every day is the same, hot and sunny with a smattering of cumulous clouds in the azure blue sky, the waves gently lapping the several beaches around the leeward side of the island. The people have a sunny and generous disposition, always ready to laugh and help. They go to church, have lots of children with different partners, share their bounty in festivals called maroons and carnival, love loud music, always have a polite greeting for everybody at all times of the day.
The politics are as corrupt as you can imagine, from the lowest bureaucrat catering and submitting to handouts and favours to the elected officials enriching themselves from the common trough of taxes, bribes and kickbacks. “Them politicians promise, lie, cheat and steal. Thas all them do.” The locals complain and endure, shake their head in fatalistic resignation and carry on. Change is imposed from the outside without any consultation or inclusion, always fuelled by moneyed interests and common greed.
There is a worrying trend of Chinese loans and so called investments into small island nations, which can be viewed – as in the case of Tonga – as a takeover. First they send a cultural group like acrobats or dancers to dazzle the locals – as they did here – and then they seduce them with promises of developments and investments into much needed infrastructure. Sweet music to the politician’s ears, who already count the rewards they are about to reap for their hospitality. The Chinese hand out loans, cloaked as foreign aid, and then bring their own crews, trades people, materials, bureaucrats and overseers, so all the money they lent for the projects goes back to China but the islands still owe the loans. They don’t buy one local nail and only offer menial labourer’s jobs at below local wage scales. They leave behind large, unnecessary and poorly thought out developments like port facilities, Chinese style (not island style) social housing units, and as in Tonga, a surge of recent Chinese immigrants who start owning shops, businesses and houses, because the island nation cannot repay the loans and ends up giving away citizenships, businesses and land. One would only need to follow the money… A Chinese restaurant and corner store will soon come to your island paradise and the day is coming when Mandarin will be offered in their schools.
* * *
We love it here, live in our comfortable bubble, enjoy the splendid weather – especially when we check the nasty temperatures and storms back home – and basically lounge (called liming in local parlance) around all day like seals, watching the pelicans fish, the sail boats, yachts and tall ships cruise by or anchor out front. Every day is capped by spectacular sunsets into the blue Caribbean waters. Time slips by languidly, world politics are remote and depressing and we consider ourselves blessed by our good fortune and the choices we made.
There are some treasures on this island, not inert, shiny baubles or buried in a cave by pirates or fought over by invaders. No, I’m talking about human gems, unique, special and universally cherished people that one can find here at the edge of the world. One such treasure is Barracuda, who washed onto these shores as a young man all the way from Italy and has since entertained thousand over the years with his guitar and voice. Three weeks ago he opened his own beach side bar where he now plays every Saturday and Sunday. His drummer, Kena, has played with all the greats, with the young Marley in England, amongst many and is the metronome to Barracuda’s virtuoso. Their repertoire stretches from opera to Guns and Roses, from Reggae music to Led Zeppelin, from Purple Rain to Caruso. The two of them, sometimes accompanied by a keyboard and bass player play to a regular and devoted crowd from all over this island. The music draws the patrons out from their many boats moored in the bay and lures them out of the hills, from mansions and cottages, locals and visitors alike. We all flock to Barrakena, the name of the bar, every weekend and dance to the music like it was 1969.
Another such treasure is Kenroy, born on this island and a trove of knowledge about the lore, the history and dubious politics. Kenroy is a tall, strong man with skin like polished ebony and a smile as wide as the sea. He is a valiant defender of the reefs, the marine life and he also plays the big drum and is a fire stick juggler and superb vegan cook. He entertains at night and during the day shepherds people around on his boat, to bays where you can swim with the turtles, to the reefs to snorkel and the small out lying island to wander around like Robinson Crusoe to collect shells and swim. Kenroy also runs an exotic fruit company in Switzerland during the summer months, speaks Swiss German and caters vegan, exotic banquets just like here, operates a stand at farmers markets in Zurich and supplies remote parts of Switzerland with exotic island fruit.
Calvin, another of the island’s treasures is 83 years old, fit, active and witty, winner of multiple cultural awards, builder of boats and a accomplished steel drum player, historian and local legend, is another such enigma on this small island paradise. We had the pleasure of sailing with him and his son on their island built sloop to the Cays for a day. The 42 foot sailboat, with no motor, hand crafted from white cedar, teak and other local woods, sailed like a flying fish across the Caribbean water, propelled by the constant winds and currents and guided with a sure hand and keen eye onto the buoys and back into the windward shore at home. Nothing like gliding across the turquoise, choppy water, without a motor, no noise or diesel smell, just the whoosh of the wind in the sails and the creaking of the rigging and tackle. Made me want to take up sailing again.
* * *
And then we found some real treasure, a fleeting occasion, a treat and a surprise. We met our friends, also from B.C. on the windward side at Tina’s for pizza and wine one breezy Thursday evening. Tina is an expat American and her pizza rivals Excelsia’s – who is a local islander who has a small restaurant on the leeward shore – for flavour and innovation. Tina has the fancy electric oven while Excelsia cooks her pizza in a common household propane stove. Tina’s dough is tasty and comes out flat and bready, Excelsia’s pizza is twice the size for the same price. We love both. Reluctantly I ordered a bottle of red wine and Kishiera, the server, grabbed a bottle from the fridge, which made me cringe. “How much?” I asked, almost opting for a cold beer instead.
“$ 40 EC (Can$ 20),” she said, handing me he bottle but when I had a look at the label my mouth fell open and I thought I was hallucinating. The label read: Chateau Duhart Milon, Domains Barons’de Rothchild (Lafite), 2005, Pauillac, Grand Cru Classé. I turned the bottle over in my hand, careful like a new born puppy, unbelieving and flabbergasted. This can’t be real, I said to myself. It’s a fake, a forgery, a practical joke, a pirate’s unclaimed loot. “How many of these bottles do you have,” I asked Kishiera.
“Let me see, there are two on the shelf, but they aren’t cold,” she said, apologetically.
“Excellent, we’ll have all three,” I gushed, trying hard to contain my excitement which Kishiera found amusing. There were seven of us after all.
I brought the wine to the table but nobody read or noticed the label. All were busy gabbing and laughing. When I pointed out the extraordinary provenance of the wine, I got some raised eyebrows. “How can that be, an expensive wine like this for a mere twenty bucks?”
The mind plays strange tricks, and taste buds are easily seduced by an exotic label, but this wine was truly excellent and so was Tina’s pizza. As soon as I got home I looked it up and lo and behold the wine could be had from a dealer for about US$ 120, excluding shipping and duties. In Vancouver a bottle of this wine would have cost me about $ 250.- and I would never have gotten my hands, my glass or my wallet near three bottles.
The mystery remained. How did this wine end up at an out of the way pizza joint, on this small remote island in the Caribbean? It took some sleuthing but I think I have an explanation now that puts theories about smuggling and forging to the test. You can forge a label but not the cork, the bottle, the cap and contents as well. What would be the point? Apparently a couple of years ago a cargo ship capsized in a storm and sank off the shores of one of the outer islands. Rumour had it that its cargo consisted of expensive wines, caviar and champagne for some of the exclusive resorts like the ones on Palm Island or Petite St. Vincent. What was an insurance claim and a write-off to the shipper and the resorts became a bonanza for the locals. Fishermen, local braves with fins and masks, and some eager divers from around the islands lost no time and retrieved the precious cargo from the sunken wreck, which sat on the sandy bottom in the shallow sea. The loot was quickly sold off for pennies on the dollar or such goes the tale. A case of this wine somehow ended up in Tina’s pizza place and she and she is not disputing the story one way or the other. That’s what you call a win-win-win all around.