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Life-altering travels, part I - Catherine Fischer [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Catherine Fischer

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Life-altering travels, part I [May. 2nd, 2004|01:13 pm]
Catherine Fischer
[mood |giddyDaydreamy]
[music |Japura River, from Aguas de Amazonia, by Phillip Glass]

…Life-giving is really more like it. When I set out, I felt old, used up, the well of creativity a desiccated dustbowl of ghosts and ruined dreams. I have gone back in time, to reclaim some of who I used to be, and have moved forward into my future, seeing myself with a greater freedom than I have ever realized – and all within two weeks and a few hundred miles of Caribbean. Bless you, Windward Isles, for saving another soul.

To begin again, at the beginning…

I have to remember who I was, then.

Friday morning. A sleepless week, with 4 finals; the last of them, Small Animal Medicine, was a 32-page monster, filled with a demand for the sort of detailed understanding that I was entirely too wrung-out to command. Certain I had failed the thing, despite having loved the class above all others, loved the professor, and done well on the previous exams (if only that exam had been FIRST! I could have done it!), I left my affairs in hopeless chaos, threw the last necessaries in my suitcase, and headed for the airport. (Catsitter/plant-waterer arranged? Yes. Toothbrush packed? Yes. Anything else I can think of? I cannot think – will deal with it later.) There I met the majority of my class – none of whom were particularly happy about that exam, but all of us were too exhausted to care. We drank a beer at the airport bar, wandered into the waiting area, and waited, and waited…my flight was an hour late. I should have guessed this to be a bad omen. It was.

A three-hour tour…

My 3-hour flight to Grenada, listed by the clueless travel agency I bought my tickets from as “nonstop”, stopped first in Antigua (my least-favorite airport – a big echoing concrete bunker with poorly-laid-out seating which is always filled, a PA system that is never intelligible, the world’s most unhelpful airline representatives, and the highest concentration of delayed or canceled flights in the Caribbean – it’s LIAT’s homebase), where I waited for 3-4 hours just to find out if I was flying the rest of the way or not. At the last minute, they decided that yes, they were going to fly us to Grenada…except they flew us to St. Vincent instead, made us get off the plane, and then told us that the plane that would carry us to Grenada was broken down in Barbados. (My brother, waiting for me in Grenada, and trying to find out what had happened to me, called the airline – LIAT, AKA “Leave Island Any Time” – and they didn’t even know which island they had stranded us on.) I waited until midnight for them to tell us that the Grenada airport was closed, and the plane was still broken. (I think they were hoping that the mob of us would just go away.) They put us up in a fairly nice hotel, which I saw very little of (I saw the insides of my eyelids for about 2 hours before having to get up again), fed us a poor dinner, promised us breakfast but failed to deliver, and boarded us on the plane to Grenada only 2 hours late in the morning. 18 hours total. Now, this is hysterically funny, and a definitive part of Caribbean life. Then…well maybe not so much.

So I arrived in Grenada in a real state. (Didn’t U-haul use “adventures in moving” as a slogan? Poor choice, guys. One usually doesn’t want an adventure in the getting-there part.) My family, although happy to see me, didn’t have a great deal of reality with the state of my mind and emotions – after all, most normal people, when their lives go up in a mushroom cloud, do what they need to do to deal with the grief, anger, upset, betrayal, depression, low-self-esteem, and all the rest of the baggage; they don’t just lock it all down tight and grit their teeth through a brutal course-load in medicine, forcing themselves through it, despite coming apart at the seams. Sigh. It would be nice, I think, to be a normal person. (Ancient Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. My life has always, always been interesting. Just not easy, and seldom peaceful.) Wound-up and high-strung, I drove my brother, sister-in-law, and aunt around the winding mountain roads of lush Grenada, trying to give them a mini-tour and a feel for an island I love – they spent most of the trip screaming in terror at the roads, Caribbean drivers, the bucketing rain, and the fact that I was driving from the RIGHT side of the car. At some point, it just became hilarious for all of us, and we laughed uncontrollably all the way down the mountain.

Sunday evening. Having spent the entire day at the pool doing very little (except developing a stupendous sunburn, in my brother’s case), we boarded the ship (a sleek and elegant 3-master – lord of the seas in a different age) for “stowaway night”, were taken topside for rum punch (not especially good, but then again, I’ve lived in the Caribbean for 2 years)…and noticed that our fellow passengers appeared to be a very large crowd of sloppy-drunk, loudly-complaining, chain-smoking middle-aged middle Americans, most of whom could no longer stand unassisted. O god. Someone please shoot me now.

The crew, however, was a different story. I have never happened on a cooler group of West Indians – close-knit, efficient, friendly, skilled, and unflappable (thank god), the trip would have been hell without them and their good grace. (And did I mention that I immediately noticed that several of them were extremely attractive? This caught me off-guard; I haven’t thought that way in more than 6 years.) Dinner was a buffet beneath the canopy, topside – solidly average food, and largely spent running away from the clouds of tobacco smoke. Lots of checking in, paperwork, getting settled into the tiny cabins (really tiny – but shockingly comfortable, marvelously efficient – the cabin I shared with DeeDee was cozy, and felt like home within two days). Danced like a wild woman on deck, and received the terrific compliment from one of the crew that I dance like a West Indian. Watched one of the fabulous lushes draping herself over the long-suffering purser, announcing she couldn’t read the paperwork she was being asked to hand in. Lisa, the purser, handled this with aplomb, and found a way to fix the situation – patience of a saint. Man, am I ever not cut out for this sort of work. A pity, really, because not only did the sailing electrify me, but I spent all week watching the tight little family of the crew with increasing envy. There was so much belonging, such a sense of surety in one’s place…there are times I think I complicate my life unnecessarily. But how to uncomplicate it, having come this far? (If wishes were fishes, we’d all be fishermen.)

Slept like the dead. Still catching up. Morning light came in through the porthole like salvation to the inmates of an aquarium. The breakfast bell rang at 7:30 – one of the stewards like the town crier walking through the halls shouting “breakfast!” Still being accustomed to waking at 3 in the morning, I forced myself to sleep in all the way to 6 (in 15-minute increments). Still keyed up, but starting to have moments of echoing silence in my mind, not filled with the buzz of stress, the hum of the workings of medicine. Long enough to start wondering who and where I am. Disorientation, vertigo set in in brief, frightening waves. I go out in the world, filled with brilliant tropical light, to shake off the looming heartache, absorb the life around me, fill the vacancy in my heart. The excited and cheerful chatter of my family helps. After breakfast, we all decide to walk the Carenage, one of the world’s most scenic harbors, and another beloved part of my dear Grenada. My brother, unaccustomed to West Indian manners, is put off by the aggressiveness of the vendors located immediately outside the port authority area, and is abrupt with the remaining people he meets. My aunt, more willing to have patience, is rightfully incensed when the vendors presume to take liberties, but amendable to meeting people, and so enjoys the stroll more (which seems to have turned into a power-shop for my brother and sister-in-law – perhaps I do them injustice, but I felt compelled to apologize to some of the people on the street Josh interacted with, and discovered that most of those left in his wake were not, after all, hustlers. Slower pace, different culture. Grenada is not Jamaica, thank god). Midmorning snack (and mighty tasty, too) at Tout Bagay – “All things possible”. I believe this is my new toast, my new slogan. (May I never forget it. All things are possible, indeed.) My family’s first taste of favorite West Indian treats – lambi fritters, callaloo, seamoss, lime squashes. Then back onto the ship for lunch – once again, unmemorable food. But memorable in the extreme is sailing out of St. George’s harbor, the sails going up to the strains of “Amazing Grace” and going taut against the pull of the brilliant Caribbean blue sky. (Long has this been one of my favorite pieces of music, and I would have sung the solo, had we ever performed it, dammit!) St. George’s falls away, the green coastline of Grenada slides past, and we are underway, borne on the magnificent sea!

What will I ever do, landlocked for a year, homesick for the taste of the salt sea air? I pray to Tethys, far below, to keep me sane.

The first afternoon’s sail is a bit choppy – the wind is high, and my family finds comfort in the bow of the upper deck, riding the swells like a roller-coaster (and occasionally getting soaked). Flying fish launch themselves like batteries of aerial fireworks, kept aloft on kite-wings and amazing caudal fin rudderwork for hundreds of yards and sometimes more than 5 minutes. Laughing gulls follow the sails, screaming, and the high blue is prowled by the pterodactyl silhouettes of Magnificent Frigatebirds – one of my favorite living creatures, and the uncontested masters of the sky. Squinting into the sun and the bright silvered sea, I take pleasure watching the confident, coordinated strength of the crew about their work. Someday, I tell myself, I too will know that absolute understanding between mind and sinew, muscle and bone; someday my body too will be the finely trained tool I wish it to be. I take such delight in surety…

Dinnertime, and the saloon is probably the roughest place aboard, pitching and rolling with the motion of the ship. My brother and I eat alone, and barely escape capsizing dishes a few times. Everyone else is SICK. Poor DeeDee probably has the worst of it. We had her dinner set aside, and fortunately, she is able to eat it later. Dinner is excellent, despite the instability of the dinner table. I don’t know how the stewards do it – tiny little galley, and MOVING…

Late that night, after I have been lulled to sleep by the front-loading washing-machine ambience of the sea swirling against the porthole, we pull into the harbor at Bequia. DeeDee comes to bed after the ship is anchored and still; moonlight washes the decks. Bequia, upon exploration the next day, proves to be a quiet little haven of tranquility and contentment. Our captain’s home port (he warns us against only buying the wares from his mother’s and grandmother’s shops, as his neighbors get vexed with him – sets off to visit his wife while we’re off exploring). Bequia has a wonderful fresh market, where I stocked up on papaya, mango, pineapple, limes for my favorite rum drink (with a million names: Caipirissima, Caipirinha, Ti’Punch, etc.), but missed the fresh coconut jelly, alas. Home to a Hawksbill turtle sanctuary run by a single retired fisherman (and proudly proclaimed Bequiaman by birth), we all stared in wonder at the tanks of sea turtles, gaining size, gaining chances against the rigors of the sea and its legions of predators, human and otherwise. Local pottery workshop, reclaimed from the ruins of an old sugar estate – beautiful work. In the center courtyard is a pool, tiled with hand fired, hand-glazed fish tiles. The spigots are all fish. A massive tangled plumeria guards the front entrance. The effect is enchanting. Again, I meet with surety, and happiness with one’s place in the world. My talisman the compass rose, traveling the wind’s twelve quarters, I dream of someday belonging to a place so completely. Lunch ashore in a really good pizzeria; haven’t had good pizza in months (not since Zachary’s, in January). Shipboard to change and rest, then dinner ashore in a nice waterfront restaurant. The rich sauce my lobster comes drowned in is exquisite, but the house wines are sour, bitter. Note to self: stick with rum in the Caribbean, you ninny. A band named “Phenix” begins to play – two old guys with greatly amplified electric guitars playing classic rock hits and the ubiquitous Jimmy Buffet. It’s kind of funny, in a willing-to-be-entertained sort of way. Stagger stuffed and logy in the rain back to the launch. Flirt with the cute crew manning the launch. Feel like a bloated old lech. Argh.

Early in the morning, we depart for St. Vincent – alas, another breakfast I spend without my seasick family. I stuff myself on golden papaya, with delight. (B vitamins – appetite stimulant, antiemetic. Pharmacology comes in handy.) St. Vincent is GORGEOUS. Green, lush, wild. The harbor has a rugged little spit of rock sticking out into it – with a resort on it. Another head of rock stands alone in the water with stairs to the top. St. Vincent by sea is very, very different from St. Vincent’s airport seen through the bleary eyes of an exhausted, frustrated, thwarted traveler. Because Nikki was unsure about the tour DeeDee and I signed up for (St. Vincent’s coast by speedboat), Josh and Nikki ended up touring St. Vincent’s interior, instead. They saw the gorgeous, endangered endemic parrot; learned that there are still (possibly cannibalistic) yellow Carib Indians living in the rugged forests of the volcano. That there could be humans isolated from others in that great wilderness, I have no doubt. Originally from South America (and related to the Yanamamo I studied in Anthropology, my first year in college), Caribs once conquered the entirety of the Caribbean – hence the name. DeeDee and I, on the coastal tour, are enthralled by cliff-nesting boobies, fishing all around us, myriad caves all along the coastline (including the home of local fruit bats – hurray!), the dilapidated and horrifying appearance of the women’s prison (for the men, we are shown the gallows – St. Vincent is one of the two islands in the Caribbean that still espouse the death penalty, carried out by hanging…St. Kitts is the other, and we are just about to see the gallows used again, as the long-delayed Fetherstone trial just ended in a conviction and sentence). DeeDee becomes the hero of the day when she moons the other speedboat as we pass them (god, I love you, you fruitcake). We are shown the old leper baths (I shudder, knowing what I know now about the disease), and the site where the recent movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, was shot; we learn that our captain leased his apartment to the director. (“So you spent three days on the beach drinking rum?” “Welcome to the Caribbean!”) That’s about when I notice that the captain of the boat has green eyes to die for, and somehow get sucked into a conversation with him about the hanging scheduled in St. Kitts – how the death penalty seems to deter crime in St. Vincent, but not in St. Kitts. Possibly because all death sentences are appealed in Great Britain (the Caribbean has no court of appeals), where they are invariably overturned. And then it happens: I realize I’m in the middle of a marvelous flirtation, such as has not happened to me in possibly a decade; the slow process of rethinking my age, appearance, degree of rustiness in playing the game begins. He’s utterly charming – straightforward West Indian, but well-versed in this sort of dance. He seats me in the captain’s chair and I get to enjoy the tour from under his arm – which I do, immensely. Suddenly queen for a day, I delight in the emerald green waterfall (Baleine falls), despite the fact that we completely pack the pool with noisy, smoking, jabbering tourists; I neglect to put my layers of protective clothing back on when we return to the boat, wearing only my bathing suit and a sarong, showing off (and get a sunburn for it, too – serves me right). Dashing and courtly, he buys me lunch – DeeDee starts calling him Captain Ahab, which cracks me up. When we stop at a snorkeling spot, DeeDee, either tired of my clinging to her or just being generous (or both), shoos me off to go snorkeling with “Captain Ahab” – which I do. We explore caves, some wonderful volcanic grottoes, let the currents pull us through a narrow cleft in the stone to a cove around the point…where we make out like teenagers. Whee! On the way back to the boat, I finally get to see a fish I’ve been searching for for 6 years – the flying gurnard, which rests on the bottom on long pectoral fins, opening into the most amazing sails in the animal kingdom, edged in electric cobalt, when they’re startled. And not just one, but three! I am high as a kite on the ride back to the ship; we look unsuccessfully for whales or dolphins. DeeDee leads the cheer, jumping up and down on the bow of the boat as we leap over the swells at high speed. Back aboard, I decide to pull out the stops and dress up in the sunset-colored silk two-piece outfit I brought with me. A terrific band comes aboard, and I am swept up by the superb soca, surrounded by the whole jamming mass of us – passengers, crew, guests and all – shaking it until we’re drenched in sweat and rain. I finally convince one of the crew members I’ve developed a particular liking for to come dance with me, and am having a perfect moment, enjoying his grin…and then the band announces they have to pack it up, because it’s raining so hard they’re afraid their instruments (and they) might get fried! Rats! Angel (who I was dancing with) runs off below decks to tend to some of his work (but doesn’t say so); pouting, I go to dance on the quarter deck, where my friend Oxford the bartender is playing DJ. Of course, I am soon driven away by the smokers, and so turn in for the evening. On the way down to my cabin, I tell one of the other crew members that I hope I didn’t scare Angel off; I say perhaps he’s shy (suddenly feeling like maybe I was overconfident, the bubble bursting); little did I realize he’d come back on deck! (I caught hell for that the next day! Angel, of course, got teased for being “scared of me”; first thing in the morning, on our way to Mayreau, he caught me on the top deck watching the waves and explained that no, he was NOT shy, nor was he scared of me. My bad, Angel!)

Mayreau is the smallest and quietest island yet. It’s Oxford’s home; he’s shown me pictures of the house he’s nearly completed building. The interior is all in a pale mauve…taking the launch to the beach, I go snorkeling with Josh and DeeDee, who are enthusiastic converts to my favorite sport. The snorkeling isn’t the best, but it’s good enough, and has plenty of the usual suspects to point out to my family. Nikki lounges scenically on the beach; after a picnic lunch graciously provided by the ship’s stewards, I get myself a couple of fresh coconuts (one drunk on the spot, one for later), and then I head off kayaking with Angel, since my family has decided that they will work on their sunburns for the rest of the afternoon. I have missed the long, easy stroke of the paddles, when two people are in synch, kayaking…I had forgotten what a simple pleasure it could be. Angel shows me a beautiful, deserted beach around the point, where a fisherman has laid his net out for mending. The sand is like sugar, made of coral; we paddle ashore and walk for a while, talking. I discover he has a bachelor’s degree in biology, like me – a rare find in the West Indies (OK…so he’s not exactly West Indian; he’s South American, from Guyana, the country caught between the Orinoco and the Amazon). The afternoon winds down in pleasant, comfortable, quiet company. And then, in a splash war in the waves, he kisses me…a very nice kiss. A few of them, actually. And then we get bowled over by the waves, laugh like idiots, and decide it’s time to head back. Where we get in trouble for going around the point, which we evidently weren’t supposed to do (but neither of us knew that). Before dinner, Josh and Nikki and DeeDee and I rest on deck, watching the unfurling glory of the Caribbean sunset, singing together. I have truly missed singing with my family, especially Josh – he and I not only have genetically similar voices, but years of the same training (thank you, Mr. Huber). The sweet, sweet harmonies of “Walk Down That Lonesome Road” stir the most exquisite melancholy into the twilight. Josh and Nikki sing a few of the show tunes from their recent performances, and we all laugh. We make a pact that we will go caroling together, this christmas.

That evening is the “Culture Walk” – Caribbean culture being comprised largely of drinking, it’s a glorified bar-hopping expedition; a rum-shop run. Or stagger, to be more accurate. Since Mayreau is Oxford’s home, he and Lisa, the purser, are heading the expedition; he asks me along. Thinking that my family will be coming out to play with me, and thinking that the stinking, smoking horde we’ve taken to calling the “horrible hurdy-gurds” will most definitely not miss an opportunity to get piss-drunk, I decline (which I actually regret, since my family, burnt all to hell, falls asleep immediately after dinner). So I wander around the deck for a while…finally, realizing that I am NOT actually going to see my family again, I go get my book, and settle in for a few pleasant hours of reading – pleasure reading, not school reading. King of all guilty pleasures, to me. And then Angel shows up, and tells me I’ll ruin my eyes, reading in the dark. (It WASN’T dark. It just wasn’t very brightly lit on deck.) We talk for a while, and then he tells me he’ll be going off-shift in 10 minutes, and would I go down to cabin 32 and wait for him? (A private person, he doesn’t like showing his personal life to the passengers.) It catches me off-guard; I think for a few seconds, and decide, what the hell, to be spontaneous, expecting nothing, open to almost anything. Tout bagay! On the way there, I get distracted by the ship’s roster, the names and ranks of my new friends among the crew. Angel Bethel, Deckhand, Able Seaman. It conjures up a past age for me, a lost world – yet not lost; only estranged from the main workings of every day existence, relegated to the exotic. Angel finds me in the hall, gentlemanly, escorts me into the empty cabin. Which is exactly that: an empty cabin, unused by passengers. Where he kisses me. A lot. It’s delicious, but things move a bit faster than I am typically comfortable with…and then he is called away to tend the launches, bringing back the horrible hurdy-gurds. I wait…and wait…and wait. I fall asleep waiting in the cold cabin, stupidly afraid to mess up the unoccupied bed by covering myself with a blanket. Angel returns, apologizing; apparently some of the hurdy-gurds got drunker than the others (oh, big surprise) and needed to be rounded up. I could tell he was pretty unhappy about the whole business, but he took his work seriously, and went. I fell asleep again. When I awoke, it was nearly midnight, I was disoriented, and suddenly felt very foolish, waiting there in the dark for something I wasn’t sure I wanted yet. I got up and left. (Angel told me later that one of the other crew members, whom I didn’t see, saw me leaving #32 ten minutes before Angel returned to it – told him on his way down.) When I got back to my cabin, DeeDee was pretty badly sunburned, and not feeling well at all; I helped smear lotion on her scorched skin, and felt glad I’d returned. Poor Deed. At least now my family has an appreciation of why I wear a wetsuit skin in the water – they stopped laughing at me after that. (Heh. As I recall, Captain Ahab had said What the shit, cracking up, when he saw me put on my suit. My hands, however, not covered by the Skin, have burned a shade darker than the rest of me, and now are peeling.)

Dawn: Yankee Clipper sets sail for Carriacou, an island which is part of the country of Grenada (not the Grenadines, which we had previously been exploring). The sailing is through a sheltered passage between Mayreau and Union Island, and so we all breakfast together, much to my pleasure; everyone is burnt, but feeling much better. Carriacou has a tiny affiliated cay in the harbor, with excellent snorkeling; Josh and I go together, and thoroughly enjoy the healthy, vibrant reef (it was good snorkeling, even by my reckoning). After which we hang out in the surf, Josh drinking beer. Poor Oxford, up all night with the hurdy-gurds, is passing out drinks, trying to stay awake. I feel profoundly sorry for him; a sweet guy with a generous heart, Josh and I made sure that someone was sending him lunch and a beach-mat (perhaps he could snooze a little, while tending the beach bar), when we went back. Lunch featured the world’s worst band – 3 adorable old guys playing Calypso – the real thing – very badly indeed, but with great spirit. What fun! Afterward, Josh and I headed for town, to check out the shop where DeeDee and Nikki found some wonderful treasures – I bought presents for classmates at Caribbean-real prices (not tourist-inflated prices), and am still extremely pleased. The beautiful hand-batiked mermaid I bought will always be one of my treasures; DeeDee started calling me “mermaid” after the snorkeling expedition at St. Vincent, which I love. Josh then wanted to take a cab ride up to hospital point, the highest lookout on the island; it was gorgeous. Apparently, the hospital was originally put there to avoid the mosquitoes, up where the breeze always blew, thus avoiding the spread of dengue and malaria. Now, the hospital offers the finest view anywhere, the islands stretching away, skipping stones in a jewel-blue sea. Our cab driver was an informative guide, and told us a lot about the island’s history; not much has changed in Carriacou, quiet corner of the Caribbean. Worried about missing the last launch, Josh and I actually return to the ship in plenty of time, but I still miss the opportunity to jump off the deck of the ship (I’m pretty hot, by this time). We set sail for St. George’s, slipping slowly and windlessly around the green coast of Grenada, again. Dinner is a lovely affair, with Turbo, our steward, making a superlative Caesar salad (with great showmanship). We toast in champagne; the sailing is very smooth. The crew’s deft handling of the ship, pulling her into dock sideways, amazes me; I stay up on deck to watch the last of the work done, the lines tidied and secured, the ship brought to rest. Suddenly, it is over; melancholy, I mope around the deck, loving the Carenage, but wishing for the open sea. Turbo presents us all with flaming Bananas Foster on the top deck; Angel finds me and asks if I’d like to go somewhere off the ship. Thinking I’ll be going out partying with the crew, I jump at the chance. Anything to make the trip last longer! (And the chance to continue our acquaintance, which has decidedly caught my fancy.) He asks me if I like surprises; archly, I tell him I do, wondering what on earth he has up his sleeve.
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