Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Conjuring Spirits in the Caribbean and the Art of Samuel Lind - part I

A quick glance of the islands

Outside the Ayala museum in Loiza, Puerto Rico

After a few days I justified the apparent extravagance by accepting that it was a divine gift. Although the trip – a cruise – was a year in planning it was my third for the year (after Ghana, Barbados, Guyana and Surinam). And again, I’d be going to the Caribbean. How and why – since I think things need to have some kind of spiritual purpose lest instead of alignment there is whimsical indulgence.

In any case I felt I’d been blessed already for the year with the earlier trips so I didn’t much aspire to anything and simply sauntered along with my seven companions. In truth, the only thing I hoped to do was a ritual of libation by the sea.

An unsavoury feeling must enrapture any African travelling on a ship across the Caribbean. So long as you stay inside the ship you can convince yourself you’re in an immense, luxurious hotel; one that moved without your awareness until the next morning when it arrived at a different island. You hardly feel the ship’s movements. But you cannot deny knowing of the misery your ancestors experienced in vessels less grand across those very waters. It’s as though you’re redoing the journey in a mirage of fantasy and opulence.
We set off from Puerto Rico toward Barbados. From there we would travel back, via St Lucia, Antigua, St Maarten, St Croix (US Virgin Islands) and back to San Juan (the capital of Puerto Rico). We only had a few hours on each Island before we had to get back onto the ship.
Our ship was the one of the right -"adventures of the sea"
what does this scene look like with these two docked side by side?

I loved these effervescent waves

Inside of the ship

It seemed superfluous that I should be back in Barbados since the island was featured in a recent post. Again it’s impossible to think of the island as anything other than beautiful, a darling of quietness and relaxation for tourists. Last time I was there they were discussing the introduction of fees for education; it seems the government is going ahead with this plan as the global economic crises hits the serenity of the island. Like everywhere else it’s forced to make cuts – and like its Metropolis (England), education is one of many victims.

The day we arrived in St Lucia, it was overcast, which added a rainforest feel to it. Winding roads, homes precariously built on stilts, the permanent threat of hurricanes, breath-taking views, particularly of the Piton Twin Mountains were all part of the island’s makeup. We loved it and dreamed to return for a longer stay. The mud bath in the sulphur volcano springs was joy for our skin, a high point of things to do and see there. Where they used to grow and export bananas, the island now relies solely on tourism. This would be the case for most of the islands we visited. A few of us dared to have a snake rested on our shoulders. I leapt from the mini-bus to try this curious thing I often saw people do. Though somewhat petrified, there was something liberating about the experience, and it allowed me to deal with a lifelong fear of the creatures. I have since convinced myself that my embrace of the snake was symbolic of Wata Mammi, a powerful entity within African spiritual tradition.

The Piton Mountains, St Lucia

Some were braver than others, the smiles masking fears! Or was that just mine?

Antigua had the most stunning view of the Atlantic from Shirley Heights. The rich aqua of the water seemed unreal – the image itself seemed enhanced somehow. In this area you’ll find Fort James, which was built by the British in 1706 to secure the island from mainly Spanish and French invasions. Despite this impressive view of the Atlantic the Fort had an eerie, sad feel about it. Antiguans limed at Shirley Heights on Sundays, so I imagine it would come alive differently then, and at night. Nelson’s Dockyard, though beautiful held the despicable misery of navy slaves. Concrete imported onto the island from Europe was used to build the dock, but enslaved Africans worked on it. It’s a cultural heritage site, in pristine condition, thus to better serve the prestigious annual yachting events, no doubt adored by wealthy European, particularly the British Royals. From the dock there’s an easy view of a house owned by Prince William which he inherited from his great aunty Margaret, whose partying on the island many of us might recall.

View of the Atlantic from Shirley Heights, in Antigua

We were told that there wasn’t much to see on St Maarten– that the French side was better. Here, on the Dutch side they had some lovely beaches but it was mostly fit for shopping. Previously the island was renowned for producing salt, having established the trade from its many salt ponds, but now it relied entirely on tourism. The Cruise ships, some carrying up to 6000 passengers, have their interests by the dock (tourist shops, especially jewellery). The make-ship town just outside the dock discourages cruisers from going into the actual town. We found a cute African Market (boutique) hidden among the multitude of shops in Phillipsburg; I believe it’s located on Front Street – where all kinds of retail outlets - selling clothes, jewellery and tobacco are located.

We were curious about the history and struggle of Africans on the island, since it’s one we knew little about – except that like the previous two we’d visited Africans were enslaved there; and like other islands the indigenous population had been annihilated by Europeans following Columbus imperialist adventures. And so we learnt of One Titty Lokhay, an enslaved female ancestor who would escape to Sentry Hill after committing acts against the plantation owner. She was caught and one of her breasts was removed. There’s apparently a memorial statue in her honour, which we never saw. We were grateful to Jennifer, a taxi driver and tour guide for eventually warming to us and sharing the narrative. As she did so she told us she had goosepimples. So it was that along our way we were conjuring of spirits.

All the islands were spotted with churches on every corner. This one is curiously on the shopping street in St Maarten.

St Croix was bought by the US in circa 1917 for $25 million. Before then it was owned by Denmark, though it had been fought over and owned by seven European countries – the arawaks and Caribs and then later Africans being victims of this economic barbarity. We arrived on a Saturday. Mr Ford, our taxi –driver/tour guide wanted to impress on us how quiet the island was. He took us to the airport where we saw about 10 or so passengers either coming in or leaving the island. If you’re looking for an ultra-lazy, subdued (let’s say “tranquil”) travel experience in the Caribbean (for whatever the reason), you’d find it in St Croix. In the centre we found some lovely jewellery shops but we were pleased to stumble on Riddims, selling Regga music by both local and international artists, clothes, jewellery and natural body care. The green juice and ital soursap juice we sampled from an Ital restaurant was a welcome treat from all the meaty choices on the ship.

From this quiet island we will remember the wonderful troop of iguanas that came out to greet us. There were eight of them to match our eight. The king (I’m sure it had a crown) strutted before our taxi, in the middle of the road, and paused long enough for us to take photos. The queen (as I’d like to imagine it was) was not far behind him but hung out in this little spot, again waiting and poised long enough for photos. The others were a mix of colours and sizes, at once curious looking and spectacular. I felt that these forthright, ancient creatures embodied the spirit of our ancestors.

So much more could be said about the islands – everyone heavenly. Despite the shared history of conquest especially the formulaic presence of Forts as Europeans entrenched their imperialist wings and claimed their portions of their new found gems, the islands have their own unique stories. The beauty and sunshine, the epic views of the Atlantic didn’t stifle the tangible haunting of slavery and the extermination of the original peoples of the islands. And now the people are forced to contend with a reinvigorated wanderlust called “tourism.” Still, I’m sure those smiles weren’t all phoney.

No comments:

Post a Comment