CARRIACOU NOTES: IN THE CROOK OF HER KIMBO
I think of it often, of him, his story. But I’m not doing this only for him; I’ve got to do it for me. Now here I am. I arrived so late last night, I saw nothing of the place. So early on the next morning, August 4 2005, I dress and prepare myself to encounter Grenada. First, some victuals, so I walk along Lagoon Road in search of the supermarket. I am not sure how and why, but I wander into a rumshop and meet a group of three having their early morning alcoholic intake, like I have coffee. We get to talking and I tell them where I am from, why I am in Grenada, and what’s my mission in Carriacou. I am researching the local folklore of Grenada and Carriacou, and, as a lagniappe, I would like to link up with my father’s people in Carriacou. The caramel colored young man with the attractive eyes says, “Yuh goin’ to my place!” and asks to which family in Carriacou I am related. When I say the Primes, he pauses mid-sentence and his mouth falls open; his eyes wide with disbelief. It turns out he is a Prime from the village of Belvedere in the north side of the island – the very village from which the Carriacou Prime family hails. Reynold Prime aka ‘Tuttle,’ as he introduces himself, tells me who his mother is – Vena Prime – and where to find her. Is that spiritual or what? Destiny? Just so, I get the hook-up? The first person I meet in Grenada is mih own flesh an blood, however far removed?
So at 5:00 in the PM, I head for the Carenage (yeah, they call it Carenage here, too, although they insist on calling it Careenage in Barbados, yuh know how them is Little England and all); the Osprey Express shuttle leaves at 5:30. Mrs. Hajee, my landlady, tells me where to find the Carriacou jetty but not finding what I know has been historically defined as a jetty, I pass by, hunting all around the Carenage, taking taxi up and down, and wasting one set o money, until an old man of whom I make enquiry sets me straight.
“Go back dong by de fire station,” he tells me. “Is right opposite de station. Yuh see dat tree which part dem people standin’ up? Stand up right dey; de boat go come in soon enough.”
“An where ah could buy de tickets?”
“Right dey self! Dey does start sellin’ dem just before de boat ready to leave” he says with authority.
More than just a little bewildered, I thank him and walk back down to the place he indicates, the exact spot my landlady told me to get out of the Bus. I still don’t see a jetty, just a slab of concrete in what appears to be shallow waters, so I ask a young woman sitting there under the tree amid a wash of suitcases, like she come from ‘farin.
“Yuh in de right spot,” she says.
“Oh Lord! This is a jetty?” I say in my mind, quoting from Paul Keens Douglas’ ‘Fish,’ “Why de government doh build a jetty?”
As I wait, I process the first shock to my system which every one else seems to treat as an everyday fact of life. This is a jetty? But sure enough, the shuttle comes and pulls up directly alongside the slab of concrete. But it is when they draw up de 3-step ladder to allow people to alight that I almost have a heart attack. What! No gangplank like on de Lynx, de Sonia and de Panorama dat do de Tobago run? By this time a huge crowd has gathered -- meeters and greeters, taxi drivers in search of passengers, and the Carriacou-bound like myself. Now I begin to wonder again where to get the tickets. A cute-looking taxi driver who see dat ah from ‘farin decide to take me in hand. He show me where to position mihself to get tickets.
“Stand up right behind dis lady” he says” dey go start sellin jus now.”
Well I say he know he onions, so I stand up behind de lady but I wonderin’ all this time how they go see me behind this big mamma. An ah still ent seein no office or nutten for sellin tickets. So I decide to scrutinize de people alightin’ to see what Carriacou people look like. But eh! eh! Is how dey mix up so! One set of mix-up light skin, brown-skin kinda people with well-fashioned physiognomies. De gyuls dem especially a-have high pulchritude quotient. But eh! Eh! Historical happenstance and creolization well toss dem up good and proper! Then, as if in concurrence, the rain start to threaten to bless mih observation.
My self-appointed St. Christopher, seeing my consternation tells me, “doh worry, doux-doux, if yuh do wot ah tell yuh, yuh ent go get wet. You go get yuh ticket early an be de fus on de boat.”
And he was right. As soon as the last people come off de boat, a man who walkin’ wid some authority, like he is de captain or a crew member at the very least, come right where de big mamma standin’ up and put down a desk just so. Right there where the big mamma standing up, almost on top of she toes dem. Shock number three! Eh! Eh! Portable office, oui! An’ nobody seem surprised but me. Sure enough I was next in line to get mih ticket and make it on board and before the rain start to pelt slantways and wet tout monde. Just like mih taxi driver promise, I ent get wet; before yuh could say “Jack Robinson’ ah was on de boat safe and sound and lookin down at de plebs dem still on de jetty who ent have no taxi driver friend. In return as he did take me under he wing, I promise to use his services when I return to Grenada the following day. An next thing I know, we moving away from de “jetty” dry dry so – no horn, no fanfare no nothing. Just push off and is gorn we gorn.
I meet a guy – or rather, he meets me -- on the boat (but I do not register his name), a Carriacou returnee visiting from migrant home in New York. Five years away from home. I get to observe his responses to changes as a result of Ivan – landscape, houses, and vegetation. Also I get to experience his responses on returning home. We speak about my roots in Carriacou and his childhood and growing up years there. He used to be a Big Drum drummer and his mother was a Big Drum dancer/singer. He talks about how Big Drum was and still is a way of life for them and how he grew up accompanying his mother to all the Big Drum activities, so for him it was an integral part of life. Big Drum was their life. He speaks about how you carry it with you wherever you go and how the old traditions are dying out today.” Although they still practice it,” he says, “it is not like it was before.” But he hastens to add that Big Drum is Carriacou and that the traditions will never die.
Our engaging conversation is sharply interrupted by the turbulence of the sea at Kick ‘em Jenny (the underwater volcano named thus as it is reminiscent of the kicking of a female donkey). She is angry it seems; the waves are huge; the boat jumps, rolls, and pitches, dives nose first and tumbles from side to side, spraying water in torrential gushes all over upper deck. The windshield wipers are working furiously to enable the captain to see although there is no rain, just nuff sea spray. We think we’ll go down for sure at any moment. We find out somehow we are caught in the middle of a tropical depression – blame the ever faithful hurricane season, of course. The captain has to check his speed better to control the craft. We are forced to deviate from the usual path and sail farther away from shore in search of less choppy waters. It is scary but strangely exhilarating – like a huge rush of adrenalin. My approach to sea travel in rough waters has always been If I am to die this way, why worry? I’ll die if I do, I’ll die if I don’t. So once de boat push off from shore, I drop all fear, even the one of knowing that I can’t swim one lick. In any case, de waters so rough, knowing how to swim is not going to be of any real use. Not in Kick ‘em Jenny! So my response is laughter and a certain bravado. Again Keens Douglas comes to mind; the fish vendor say is like a fight between she an de devil – she “a-tryin to mek a livin, an he a-tryin to mek a dyin… When de boat hit Kick ‘em Jenny, me say he have me dis time fus de water rough, but me hoist more sail an me get ‘way!” Now I understand!
This is a regular commonplace experience for these my people an’ dem. It must in some way define who they are. The people around us suddenly bond in commiseration and exhilaration, laughing together and chatting animatedly with each other over the Kick ‘em Jenny experience. On upper deck, where we are, there are no sick stomachs, no dizziness, no retching – only joyful bonding. It is a spiritual and sensual high. We feel special, chosen, blest. It is a heady, ecstatic sensation. So we ooh and aah, and laugh friendly scorn at the turbulence. “She not eatin’ nice today!” We laugh at the old woman whose breadfruit rolls out of her bag and makes a hasty escape across deck, only to reverse direction and head right back into the bag with the next plunge and side roll of the Osprey. My new-found friend and traveling companion says to me, “I missed that! It feels good to be coming home again!”
Strange enough, that’s exactly how I feel. For me it is a baptism of fire; it is Kick ‘em Jenny giving me an exuberant welcome home; it is a profound and inexplicable sense of belonging, as Bro. JAK says “A sense of place.” I am beginning to understand what it means to be Carricaouan and what makes them different from Grenadians or other British West Indian islanders. They are a hardy people; to brave this as a matter of course in order to make a living – it is amazing! I laughingly survive Kick ‘em Jenny at one of her most turbulent times – in the midst of a tropical depression. I imagine the enslaved men, women and children, chained below deck, rough cold hard heavy metal against flesh, grating it raw in such turbulence; I imagine the stowaways seeking to escape to what they perceived as greener pastures, stashed away next to the boilers in cramped oppressive crevices below deck – single-mindedly focused on Grenada, Panama, Trinidad or Venezuela. Boat people. Fish people. Trading people. Seafarers. Children of the sea. Leaving a small place possibly never again to see those left behind, looking to begin anew a new branch of the family in a new place. They come, carrying their cultural traditions, their language, their religious beliefs, their resilience, their rituals, their sense of family and community with them to walk in a strange land, not beadless at all, but strong, fortified for the journey and the unknown future. They know who they are and from whence they come. They know.
There she stands, rising lush and majestic from the tumultuous windblown ocean deep, against a heavy grey blanket of darkening night, an emerald jewel glittering with iridescent flickering radiance. A silent, half-slumbering Cinderella. So this is Carriacou, eh! The Carriacou of my dreams! The same one Paule Marshall, Lorna McDaniel and Donald Hill a-write about with so much reverence. A small place but tall and erect like the throne of Papa God himself. A place of remembering and a place of loss, a place bled repeatedly of so many of its precious sons and daughters but still vibrant and rich in culture, tradition, history, community and ancestral pride. I had started reading Paule Marshall’s Praise Song for a Widow many weeks ago because everyone who heard I was going in search of my roots there said I must read it. But when I got to the part of her going on the excursion, a fathomless depth of emotion prevented me from continuing. Must experience it first and know for and of myself. But like Avey Johnson, I have felt for a long time now the call of my grandmother, Princess, of my father’s people, the Primes and the Phillips of Carriacou. Kinship long bin tugging at mih heartstrings. Must know fo’ I passes on. His story. Her story. My story. Not complete without Carriacou. Cousin Verna came ‘fo’e Cousin Jasie crossed over. Only the young ones remain. But must find out somehow so that when they ask me over yonder “Chile, who is your people? What nation you is?” I will know what to say. I will be able to hold my chest high and sound it abroad, aloud and without hesitation. Ibo, if truly so I be, or Chamba, Arada or Temne. And Gran’ Mooma Princess will smile in she grave, cuddling her two young girl children close in the crook of her arms, and softly sighing, finally be at rest. And Daddy, too, will begin visiting my dreams again, this time with a willing mind. He was mad that last time, I know, and so he never returned. So now I pour libation requesting forgiveness for whatever I have done and for what I have failed to do. Pardon mwe! Look with favor at my humble offerings!
It is with hushed awe as if in the presence of godliness, but also with a broad exuberance, that I alight from the Osprey Express Catamaran 27– touch down with the other sea survivors on the Hillsborough jetty – doing a neat balancing act to jump from the still tossing boat to the pier and then to mingle with all the nations people there greeting those arrivants to whom they could lay claim. Hillsborough has already shut one eye and is cat-napping away. Main Street -- ditto. I first encounter Hillsborough as an understatement. Quiet, eh! Not much to do here but find my people and breathe in Carriacou, letting it permeate through and through, percolate my skin, flesh, blood and bones, spirit and soul. Let it fill my senses and set a fire in the depths of me. So dis is Carriacou Main Street, eh! Well yes, oui! And pitch blackness all around, oui! And rum shop like peas! And limers taking up their nightly positions in and around the customary watering holes.
It is my childhood all over again; I sit on a concrete corner culvert along Main Street and embrace vacation time like I used to in Las Cuevas on Trinidad’s North Coast, a place very much like here. The men with the gravelly unhurried country warmth stirring in their voices sit with me around the root of the mango tree across from Tan Benita’s shop and wait for their eyes to adjust to the cicada-filled companionable darkness. Uncle Pinheiro sits on a single-seater low bench facing the others. I could make out First Eye, Uncle George, Cyril, Shanito and Cecil. Mackie hails out to them as he passes by carrying a swiper and a flambeau that casts its dancing light on his smooth dark handsome face and tousled hair. Then as if struck by lightning, a sea-brown’d hand with a lighted match freezes petrified in mid air, forgetting the strong-aroma’d Anchor Special left dangling between the lips awaiting fiery sustenance. A salt-filled country breeze rustles through the leaves above and immediately the match becomes one with the darkness. The wistful, wildflower village beauty, Mu-mu Teresa, is passing by and for a moment, Shanito is confused. You could almost hear his heart pump more furiously than before.
“Doux-doux!” he calls out when he locates his machismo again, “Come and sit wid yuh man a while, nuh!”
“Wot! A lady like me sit between all those men?” she cannot speak but she sure can think. “He crazy o’ wot?” In feigned defiance, she tosses her long tumbling mass of jet black curls even as they blur in identity with the night. But the swing of the hips beneath the clingy shift is somewhat more pronounced, more inviting; the come-hither elation in her gait now unmistakable. Like a leopard in heat, Shanito springs up from the root where he is crouched low, buttocks resting on his heels, about to enjoy an OPC (Other People Cigarette). In two twos he is at her side, his right arm over her shoulder, fingers brushing ever so slightly through the thin muslin blouse the perky tip of her right breast. She looks up at him and smiles shyly, but he detects the fire, the promise, simmering deep in those sloe black shining eyes. Pinheiro’s knowing guffaw finally breaks the silence Shanito has left behind under the mango tree. There is no need for verbal comment. All is well with life in their little unhurried corner of the globe; this is their world without pretensions.
All is well, too, with life on Main Street, Hillsborough, the unhurried unpretentious world of my father’s people, his world, now – if only for one day -- my world. He sees me before I see him. My dreadlocked Shanito-wannabe is leaning against the Carib sign on the door of the tiny local fast food joint where I pause for a vital cause – some home grown wings and fries. Out of the corner of my eye, I take in Ras Carrie from head to foot. One leg is raised and folded back behind him, toes pointed downward from foot firmly planted flat against the door for support – a typically Caribbean macho male stance. His shirt is slightly open down front revealing just a peek of chest hair and his ‘jooking board’ abs, that is, ‘six pack’ in West Indian lingo. He shakes his locks and tosses them back offering his strikingly chiseled facial features to full scrutiny. I say goodnight. “Trini?” he says rather than asks, immediately dislodging himself from the door and emerging from the darkness to stand so close I can feel the hairs on his arm come into heated contact with mine. He offers to buy me a drink, and not to appear ungracious at such home grown hospitality, I nod, making known my preference for Solo Apple J. Ras Carrie reaches into his pocket, pulls out a hundred EC dollar bill and pays for my drink. No fear; no pressure. I let my smile convey my thanks. I find no further need for comment. I inhale deeply and let the place wash over my being in gently cascading streams. I am as at home here as in Las Cuevas, another fishing village, another time, another place.
I find her sitting on a low bench at the entrance to her shop at the corner of Main and Paterson Streets. Her long skirt hangs like a curtain between her spread-eagled knees. She is taking a breather from attending to customers. In front of the wooden shack that serves as a shop are trays of retail clothing – underwear, slippers, dresses and other items purchased wholesale on one of her boat trips to St. Vincent. Inside the shop are the vegetables and ground provision displayed on the counter top and in glass cases below the counter. She is one of those strong black women we read about and aspire to be but never quite become. Legendary. She plies the waters to supply her trade. She must have braved Kick ‘em Jenny too many times to keep count. Yes, she seems fearless, oui!
“Ah looking for Vena Prime,”
“Wot yuh lookin for she for?”
I launch into my searchin-for-roots explanation using her son Tuttle’s name for leverage. I let her know I have been to Belvedere and have spoken to Ryan, her gorgeous dreadlocked nephew, and her cousin, Jean. I mention my relation to Cousin Jasie (Jasper). Slowly she begins to let go of her reserve, her suspicion of me a stranger, and her wariness.
“I is Vena Prime!” she announces at long last.
I tell her who I am and all about my father, Cousin Nathan, Cousin Verna, and Grandmother Princess. She tells me Princess was her grandmother’s sister but she does not know much about her. She believes the older heads in the family would have known but they are all moved away to one far off metropolis or other or have passed on. The last old head was Uncle Jasie (Jasper) who died a few years ago after Cousin Verna visited. Then I pull out my wallet and show her a picture of my father and she is transformed. With trembling, eager hands, she takes the picture from me and peers at it more closely through the glasses she has donned low down on her nose.
“Dat is me grandmother self!” she finally announces. “Me grandmother did look just like dat. Dis is your father?”
On account of the lump suddenly lodged in my throat, I can only nod in response.
She tells me her grandmother and mine were sisters, and that her grandmother had several sisters one of whom was Granny Princess. All the other names escape me now but I remember her mentioning Queen and Ina. She calls to one of her sons who is nineteen but looks fourteen and instructs him to take me to see Tantie Eileen up the hill. She tells me to show her the picture, chat with her then return and we will talk some more. Tantie Eileen is considerably older and as old people are wont to do, does not recall much of the details, except that she did have an aunt named Princess. She does not have any photos to show me because of the hurricane. She says she has been away living in England and has only recently retired home. She has lost a husband last year, she tells me, and is not doing too well since that unfortunate incident. I see Cousin Mattie in her. I know she is my people. So I embrace her and chat a while.
She is concerned that she does not have anything to give me to drink and I say it is okay but she is still upset. Eventually she finds an unchilled can of orange juice with the pull-up opener ring and offers it to me like kola nuts or palm wine. I cannot refuse her humble welcome home. It is a sign she has taken me into her heart. She laments that she cannot tell me more. Her older sister might be able to but she lives in New York. I have a million questions for Vena but do not want to seem like one of them roots tourism ‘fariners’ who are more interested in the romanticized historical past than in the people of today and the harsh realities of their present. I resolve to return and spend more time getting to know these people as me own. We exchange addresses and phone numbers. I take photos of her, of Tantie Eileen and of their place.
From the top deck of the Osprey Express Catamaran headed back to Grenada, I gaze wistfully at C’Cou as it slowly fades into the horizon – few places are as beautiful as this one. Pity beauty does not hold the power to prevent outmigration. Beauty of landscape is not economic power. Beauty of landscape, warmth of the people, and cultural richness cannot stand in the face of hurricane, drought, joblessness, cannot match the pull of a larger, more bustling place with more rags to riches possibility. A silent man, my father bore his pride of belonging to such a place deep within him like a precious jar of alabaster – afraid to spill any of it. She, on the other hand, would spit out his being from Carriacou only when she was angry, spit it out and fling it at him like she would a potty of stale pee. To my childish ears, his belonging to this place became the worst string of cuss-words. I thought it was a bad thing – to belong here. I thought for sure he must be ashamed of the fact. He said nothing but bore his hurt silently like he bore his proud sense of belonging. A sadly misunderstood man, he sought neither vindication nor just treatment. He did not retaliate or try to get his perspective heard. He merely pursued whatever joys he still found in life on the inside of a bottle or between the legs of a docile fawning Indian ‘outside’ woman who didn’t talk back, or he sat in his front porch rocker in the dead of night immersed in some book, newspaper or correspondence course material, seeking to lose himself in that over which he had more control, more chance of success. He reveled in qualifications acquisition, to take him further along the self-made path he was best at – intellectual giantism, integrity. He was a good man. Now I can visit with him in my dreams and tell him so.
I look back at the Osprey with be-longing as I disembark at the Carenage and surrender myself into the keeping of my waiting taxi-driver friend, as promised. That night, I finish Paule Marshall's Praise Song for a Widow and lie to rest with Carriacou lodged forever in my heart. My Dad visits me in my dream smiling while Granma Princess holds me close in the crook of her kimbo. I know without a doubt, I am a Kayak. I feel at peace knowing I have seen home.