ROUGH & TOUGH: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CARRIBEAN. WELCOME TO GRENADA.

By Edward Wilkinson Latham.

Photography by EWL

OUTPOST MAGAZINE

Republished as Climbing into Paradise - National Post Travel

“THERE IS A SAYING IN GRENADA that when cars pass each other they shrink to fit the narrow roads.” Lennox, the driver of the minivan, is shouting over his shoulder, all too matter-of-factly. “ I am the safest driver in Grenada,” he says, as he taps on his car horn like a percussion instrument, warning every unsuspecting animal, vegetable and mineral to get out of his way.

The road twists and corkscrews between the island’s coast and mountain highlands with so much enthusiasm that we never leave the third gear. Meanwhile four speakers fill the air with the sounds of Bob Marley as Lennox rounds a hairpin turn and skillfully shrinks the van once again.

On the dashboard sits a photo of Lennox’s wife and three children, stuck to the tail of a lion of Judah statuette. From the rearview mirror hangs an assortment of good luck charms; on the upper portion of the windscreen ‘Rough & Tough,’ the van’s name, is stenciled in large red, gold and green letters. With attitude and Rastafarian-style Lennox drives his customized sound system on wheels like he’s trying to find fault with the vehicle.

I sit sardined amidst a lively couple of farmers with sharp-looking machetes, six school girls sporting impeccable uniforms and devilish grins, two pint-sized boys with matching Spiderman rucksacks, and three businesswomen with ornately sculpted hairdos. The conversation goes swimmingly despite the odd back-fire and sudden gear change which makes everyone in the van nod forward and then back in unison with the music like we are a group of back-up singers. Brightly coloured wooden houses and weathered, old hand-painted signs advertising Guinness whisk past against a warm backdrop of blue ocean and rainforest slopes. A cool breeze fills the van as we nod to a shakin’ new beat. Someone in the congregation shouts “turn that tune up Controller!”

DRENCHED IN SUN and a laid back ease, Grenada is one of the smallest counties in the western hemisphere. Lying at the hem of the Lesser Antilles, where the Caribbean's eastern frontier meets the Atlantic, Grenada and its sister isles, Carriacou and Petit Martinique, are a mere 100 miles from the coast of South America. These islands, formed by the volcanic eruptions of a tectonic ring of fire, have a history of clashes between various European powers bent on colonization, not to mention the first contact between the French and the Caribs who once populated them. As a result of centuries of struggle, the rich blend of French, British, Dutch, Spanish, African, Guyanese, Indian and Chinese influences has formed a diverse history and culture. This now quiet corner of paradise still goes by the name that it has been known for centuries: The Spice Islands.

Measuring only 18 by 34 kilometres, Grenada rises almost 3,000 feet from its aqua blue shores to a ragged backbone of rainforest-covered mountains. One of the most beguiling things about this small nation is its refusal to get excited about tourism. There are few tourist shops, no hotels taller than a palm tree, and a law that forbids private beaches. For a brief time in the 1960s, Grenada did hit it off with the tourists, due mostly to the capital of St. George’s deep harbour and an array of stunning, isolated coves and black and white beaches. Before you could say “Holiday Inn,” however, notions of independence began to sweep the island; a general strike in 1973 almost closed the island completely, scaring off the travellers. The man who led that strike, union leader Eric Gairy, was soon the Prime Minister, but his rule grew increasingly dictatorial, with violent repression carried out by his secret police, known as the ‘Mongoose Gang.’ A bloodless coup in 1979 led to the nation becoming a pawn in the Cold War theatre; as we now know, Grenada backed the wrong horse and became a petri dish of Soviet and Cuban interest. After 1,900 US troops invaded in 1983, Grenada dropped off the map for more than a decade. During this time the relaxed island became a yachtsman’s utopia.

The ride with Lennox’s Rough and Tough mobile takes me along the northwest coast of the island, past colourful fishing villages and snoozy towns. But punctuating the stretches of pristine natural beach and secret coves are reminders of a sometimes tempestuous past that might make a Central European city look uneventful. St Patrick’s, the northernmost parish on the island, is home to many of the well-preserved old British plantation homes that fueled Grenada’s sugar and spice trade – the very things that made the nation so appealing to the Europeans.

Tapping on the roof of the bus as a signal to stop, I disembark and follow a dusty track along side a graveyard to Les Sauteurs. The view of the windswept Atlantic from this village is dominated by two churches, one Catholic and one Anglican – symbols of former colonial powers that face each other like opposing chess pieces. It was here, at the cliff’s edge dubbed Carib’s Leap, that Grenada’s native inhabitants, the Caribs, leapt to their death in the mid-seventeenth century rather than surrender to the French invaders.

ONLY A SHORT WALK ALONG the coast from Sauters, at the northeastern tip of the island, Levera National Park and bird sanctuary is home to mangrove forests and some of Grenada’s best fishery hatchlings supporting some eighty varieties of tropical birds (*clunky). A site for Arawak petroglyphs and ancient ruins, the park has long been popular with island inhabitants because of its small freshwater lake and nearby hot springs. Where the park looks out on the Atlantic, small islands, some private, others deserted, doze just off the coast; fishermen throw their nets from the rocky stretches of the shoreline into the choppy ocean waters. On the other side of the beach a lunchtime family fish fry is underway on the golden sand. Two families enjoy the mild afternoon and sea breeze eating fish and watching their children play in the rock pools at the waters edge. Just beyond the rocks and reef, these waters are known for their hazardous currents, which have sunk many ships into legend. Peter, an Englishman from London, visited Grenada seven years ago on a diving holiday and decided to stay. After stints in the Royal Navy and as a commercial diver, he settled on Grenada and opened his own dive shop.

“It’s the diving that brought me here and then I fell in love with the place. Grenada and the other islands have superb diving… amazing reefs and loads of wrecks. There is a 600-foot cruise liner sitting in only 130 ft of water. There’s cargo ships, helicopters, planes.”

“I’ve heard legends of sunken treasure and underwater caves,” I tell him.

“Yeah, me too. There’s a blow hole along the coast that is supposed to be the demon of a pirate guarding a treasure chest. But currents are rough on this coast for diving sometimes. If I find any treasure I’ll let you know,” he grinned, pantomiming a pirate’s voice for his children’s entertainment. I say to Peter that the sun and sea hasn’t softened his south London accent; locals have nicknamed him “London.”

“Yeah, I keep it as a memento. The traffic jams and rain I’ve managed to forget.”

A keen explorer on land, as well as a wreck diver, Peter pointed me down the coast to one of the island’s graveyards of Russian-made machinery left over from Grenada’s dabble with communism.

THE RUNWAY AT PEARLS AIRPORT stretches for nearly a quarter of a mile and carves out a corridor in the jungle before it meets the ocean. Overgrown patches of grass and weeds push up from between the veins of cracked tarmac. Where the trees line the runway old metal containers have been turned into basic family homes. A propeller-powered Soviet Aeroflot plane and a Cuban aircraft sit next to the ghostly shells of a duty-free shop, cafe and departure lounge, slowly being dismantled by weather and scavengers. Abandoned since 1983, cows and goats now graze in the shadow of the planes’ rusting patchwork fuselage. Kids play cricket on the runway amongst the flotsam of junk, curiosities, tales and legends.

Fortunately, not all of the island’s rusting mechanic relics are defunct. Since 1785 a strong, sweet smell has been hanging in the air over the oldest distillery in the Caribbean. "Slightly over proof" reads the label on River Antoine rum bottles, whose 80 percent alcohol rocket fuel is still made using the original British press to crush the locally grown sugar cane. The husk of the cane is burnt to heat the oven as part of the first stage of irrigated fermentation. The brown liquid is moved with an oar sized ladle between large bowls before modern machinery then filters the mixture. I can’t resist an offer to taste the white rum that is too exclusive and high in alcohol to export. Knocking back a small nip, the liquid explodes like dynamite in my stomach rendering me virtually speechless. This flammable elixir is the base ingredient in the much adored Grenada rum punch, though it is the island’s own nutmeg that gives the national drink its distinctive flavour.

Dubbed black gold, nutmeg is said to cure everything from a muscular pain to a stroke. Arabs regard it as an aphrodisiac, while others have been known to smoke it as a substitute for marijuana. Today it's in toothpaste, perfume, soap and countless cups of eggnog. The reason that Britain and France fought for over a hundred years for control of Grenada, nutmeg is the metaphor and the prize in a raging debate over growth, modernization and economic survival – its harvesting and production still supports a third of Grenada's population. The old town of Grenville, just south of Pearls Airport, is home to the island’s largest nutmeg processing plant. Inside, the concentrated odour is almost mind altering, while the sight vision of rows and rows of women cracking open the nuts and sorting them as they have done here for hundreds of years is positively biblical. As part of the nation’s surviving socialist infrastructure, Grenada’s nutmeg co-operative supports 7,000 farmers who are paid an advance upon delivery of the crop according to market prices and are then awarded a second payment at Christmas dependant on profit. Today, however, nutmeg prices have fallen and the industry that was built into a self-sustaining co-operative is under threat and in need of modernization.

NONETHELESS, THE FORESTS OF BRIGHT GREEN nutmeg plantations continue as they have for hundred of years, a ring around the island, sandwiched between the mangrove forests and palms of the coast, and the darker expanse of thick mountain rainforest. Mangos and bananas, as well as other spices like cinnamon and cocoa, grow along side the nutmeg, creating a haze of perfume that hovers over the interior’s hillsides. Above these plantations the air cools and moistens, forming a refreshing mist that clings to the jungle covered mountain slopes.

Grand Etang National Park, at almost the dead centre of the island, covers 30-acres and is the headquarters of the national park system, protecting areas of volcanic lakes, waterfalls, hot springs and delicately layered subsystems of rainforest. Boasting a spectrum of exceptionally diversity, the vegetation alters from cloudforest to mountain thicket, and elfin woodland sculptured by the wind. Containing a huge variety of tropical flora and fauna, it is here that I have arranged to meet one of Granada’s living legends. Telfor Bedeau has been the island’s number one hiking guide for the past forty years. A highly independent spirit and godfather of Grenadine adventure tourism, he has hiked all over the island, perhaps more than anyone in its modern history. At 63 he has the fitness of a marine – after one glimpse of the man I make a sudden resolution to get fit, loose the gut and cut back on the canapés.

Adjusting the straps on my backpack I notice Telfor’s shoes. Unlike the hiking boots that I was sporting, complete with special tread and secure ankle support, Telfor wears a pair of Rasta-coloured jelly sandals. Noting my disbelief he tells me that he wears nothing but the jellies, whether it be in a boat, on a windsurfer or up a mountainside.

“ I was thinking about contacting a manufacturer and telling them of all the uses I get out of them,” he says.

“The Telfor Mountain Jelly” I quip.

“Something like that, but they have to be red gold and green, like mine.”

With a soft cotton rucksack, a bottle of water and a machete, Telfor is ready for full day of hiking and climbing. I, on the other hand, am regretting that I equipped myself with a Swiss army knife, first aid kit, hydration sachets, insect repellent, journals and a watercolour set. I might as well have brought along a butterfly gassing jar, pith helmet, table, chair and a full set of china plates and cutlery for luncheon. As we ascend the lower vertebra of Mount Qua Qua, Telfor tells me tales of when he was a young man, sailing to England with thousands of others from Grenada in order to secure work. After making some money and exploring Europe, he returned to become a sailor, boat builder, gardener, writer and guide. He has rowed boats for as long as he can remember and in true island tradition built all his own. In one, named ‘Sea Hiker,’ he rowed around the island in 1987; then in 1998, he rowed ‘Sea Hiker 2’ the other way round. He was now considering an attempt by windsurf.

“One of the hardest, though, was walking around the island. Fifty-two miles in 18 hours. That was pretty tough”.

I’m sure he is being modest.

Through the gaps in the trees I can see the volcanic crater of Grand Etang Lake sitting below us. Flanked by some of the island’s tallest peaks and exotic flora and fauna, the lake, like many places on the island, is shrouded in legend and myth. “Some people believe that the lake is bottomless, being connected to dormant volcanic chambers,” Telfor says. “The legend goes that once a diver disappeared in the lake and was found off the coast of St Lucia. I used to believe these things as a child but it didn’t take long for me to decide this was impossible. I actually don’t think the lake is deep at all.”

Telfor takes out his machete and goes to work on the troublesome razor grass or “muchembe” that could reduce a pair of pants to shreds in a matter of seconds. He points out the name of each tree, bush and animal and their connection to the intricate pattern of the forest. Hiking through shady groves of mahogany, teak, Gummier, Bui, Giant fern and Bois Lait, he explains that the island is home to several different ecological subsystems with various elevations and terrains. The rainforest maintains a lush existence, receiving 160 inches of rain every year. Colourful tropical birds, tiny frogs and lizards spy on us from the deep green backdrop. Home to the green-throated Carib, Rufus Breasted Hummingbirds, Swordtails and the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, the mountain foliage of elfin woodland, also supports a stunning collection of epiphytes, delicate flowers and hanging mosses. Through an opening in the canopy above us we watch a broad-winged hawk floating on the thermals like a tightrope walker.

Tracing the backbone of the mountains, we resort to using hands and feet as we climb the steep slippery ridge of Fédon’s Peak. Named after Grenada’s own Spartacus character, Julien Fédon was a black plantation owner who led a rebellion against the English colonialists and took control of the island from March 1795 until June 1796. Personifying the upwardly mobile French free “coloreds,” whose aspirations for social prominence were frustrated by British rule, Fédon became a champion of the people. Letting his 100 slaves go free, he focused his attention on terrorizing the British to the extent that they even thought him to be “Loup Garou” ( a mixture of vampire and werewolf). After being pursued by the British into the mountains he simply disappeared never to be seen again. Now residing in folk memory, handed down by the oral tradition over the preceding centuries, a more recent tangle in the legend has it that Fédon was reincarnated over a century later as Fidel Castro.

The muddy clay track and near vertical incline to the peak makes the climb challenging, and we must resort to clinging on to the odd vine for support. Panting and out of breath, I crawl to the top and take in a much needed cooling wind. From Fédon’s lookout, Mt. St Catherine rises close by in a series of ridges and platforms to 2,757 feet, crowned by a ring of clouds. Telfor refers to mountain peaks, as many climbers do, in feminine terms. “Maybe she won’t show her face today. In the hundred or so times I’ve climbed St. Catherine there have only been a handful of times it has been clear at the top”.

Below us, however, the vista pans out both east and west of the island, down through the canopy of rainforest to the crystal blue waters of the shore.

Taking out his machete once again, Telfor says that he usually doesn’t bother with hiking trails, preferring to look at his topographical maps and then hack his way through the jungle.

“Is that why someone gave you the nickname the ‘Indiana Jones of Grenada?’” I ask.

He had heard the rumour and asks me who Indiana Jones was. I try to describe the movies and even sing him the theme song. “There’s no place in this jungle for a man with a bull whip,” he says.

The conversation turns to philosophy and literature as I discover Telfor’s favourite author is Mark Twain, and that as a child Huckleberry Finn had changed his life to one of adventure and joyfully stubborn individualism. Feeling like a bit of a Tom Sawyer in his company, as I follow him hacking his way through the wild jungle, we look for suitable route to the peak of Mt. St. Catherine.

I grab onto damp, knotted roots that pierce the red clay floor like witches knuckles and follow Telfor in a different style of climbing, as we swing from branch to vine sometimes leaving the ground for seconds at time. The ridge we follow undulates under and over treetops. A near vertical assault course of tree roots and long palms, the overgrown path is a foot and half wide with steep drops on either side that fall into mattresses of razor grass and trees. Immense pillars of bamboo rise up like gates from the steeply angled slope, tapping ach other in the wind as if in conversation.

Within minutes cumulus clouds begin to gather like vultures overhead. The air becomes thick with a haze of cooling humidity as a ghostly breath of fog wafts overhead. The air vibrates and the storm clears its throat with a snort and a sudden hack. Although the view is becoming obliterated by fog and rain, under the wild, twisting canopy it remains a wonderland. Covered in red claylike mud and bleeding from a number of areas, I am exhilarated. A tall mountain palm stretchs out like a large, ornate parasol to protect me from most of the rain while an army of ants march in file up the slender trunk. A Rufus Breasted Hermit Hummingbird with a blue green crest on its head dips its long beak into the red and yellow flowers of a Heliconia. I feel like the odd one out, intruding on this delicate little soap opera of life.

Swinging out on a vine, I climb over a parapet with nothing beneath me but a carpet of cloud. After a couple more maneuvers we break through the canopy of emerald green foliage. We have climbed into a ping-pong ball of fog and cloud, which obscures the view. The magic that envelopes the peak makes it feel like walking into a mysterious dragon’s lair.

Ducking back under the canopy, we sit perched on a branch, and eat lunch at almost three thousand feet, our feet dangling into cloud-covered tree tops while the exotic jungle life continues on around us. Within an hour the clouds begin to shift and like a curtain rising, the grand vista of the island is revealed bit by bit. I look down from the peak at the subsystems of the rainforest descending beneath me in shades of green, from windswept alpine ridges to the bright treetops of nutmeg plantations. Hems of red and white mangroves fringe the island, home to fisheries and bird sanctuaries. Struck by the natural beauty of my surroundings, I am reminded of its vulnerability, hoping as Telfor does that Grenada will learn from the mistakes of other islands that have lost much of their culture to reckless tourism and deforestation.

“Despite the difficulties that the island had up till twenty years ago we have retained a large part of our ecology. And we can choose to hold on to it and still be modern as some want.” Descending the same way we climbed I took my time, studying my surroundings not knowing when I would see it again.

SEVENTEEN MILES NORTHWEST from the Grenada coast is the small, attractive island of Carriacou. Meaning ‘island of many reefs’, the beautiful natural harbour and relaxed atmosphere have long been popular with yachts and regattas that gather there, especially in August, and enjoy the sailing, street parties and calypso. A few private dive shops offer certificate courses up to instructor level that attract a regular stream of those wishing to learn in an idyllic environment. The outlying reefs spread out with all the glory of a wildlife documentary. Numerous varieties of colourful fish of all sizes busy themselves around the fantastic coral while the glint of patrolling barracuda and tuna ring the border to deeper seas with sunken ships and legends of lost Spanish galleons.

Once a refuge for runaway slaves, the French were the first Europeans to arrive, but by 1830 Carriaocou also had a population of Scottish sailors, who migrated there to avoid jail sentences for debts incurred in Britain. The Scots established themselves in the village of Windward, maintaining their craft as boat builders, fishermen and traders. Mixed with the African roots of the population, this community of approximately 9,000 possesses a strong sense of individualism, and is conscious of its roots and heritage. The family names found today in Windward are McFarland, McLawrence, McQuilkin, McIntosh and Roberts. Fashioning fishing boats and traditional wooden schooners up to 30 m long, descendants of the first boat builder in Carriacou, Benjamin Compton, still operate under the name J. Compton Son & Cousins.

Carriacou is also known for its festivals. Next to Trinidad, some of the finest pan music can be heard here, while the island’s strong African roots come to life with its Big Drum gatherings. Heralding everything from boat launchings, weddings and funerals, drum gatherings are the heartbeat given the island by West African slaves. Traditional Scottish string music with quadrille dancing is also a regular event during most holidays and in May, there is the traditional English dance of the Maypole.

One night in Carriacou’s hills, near a village called Bellaire, the Annual Maroon Festival was drawing residents from all the island’s villages. The tradition dates back to the earliest settlement of runaway slaves, who gathered before planting season and shared their meagre food stocks. Dubbed the ‘calling of the rains,’ it is rooted in pre-Christian ancestral worship and tribal identities that survived the crossing of the ocean from Africa. Evoking the heavens with the sound of the drum, the festival celebrates the seasons, identity and culture.

An old, crumbling plantation house decorated with strings of lights acts as a central lean-to for a makeshift bar and gallery that shows the work of some of the island’s renowned artists, such as Canute Caliste and Michael Paryag. Huts made of bound together branches act as kitchens for the copious amounts of food being prepared – peas, rice, yams and meat stew, cooked up and offered for free in true Maroon tradition.

Waiting for my plate of food I meet Curtis. He had just returned to the islands after living for years in England; he was spending his retirement in the sun he was born under, and like many retuning nationals he was proud of the island’s determination to preserve its culture.

“There were no Maroons for a long time,” he says. “There was always drum festivals and dances, but Maroons are community traditions. It really unifies all the parishes.” Dressed in traditional African batiks, like many of the festival visitors, Curtis is inspired by the future of the islands.

“As long as you have a strong identity of where you come from and what you are, you can do anything. It’s when we lose ourselves that we have problems”

From under a large tree, drummers start to wind up a rhythm that attracts everyone’s attention. The beat, meted out on old rum kegs covered in goatskins, was amplified across the entire hillside. As a crowd gathers in a circle around the drummers, men and women appear with plates of food and bottles of rum. More drummers join in and the sound grows as loud as thunder. Offerings of rum and water are spilled around the circle to bless the land, as the participants let themselves be consumed by the beat. Hollers and songs of celebration resonate into the night sky as the drums grow faster and louder and bodies sway as though in a trance. Said to cure and even evaporate any pain in the body, it is evident that everyone in and around the circle is drawing strength from the rhythm of the drums. Opening the three-day festival, the drums are the blood of the festival with gatherings night and day, next to string bands with a Latino-Carib flavour and amazingly choreographed African big dances.

FOUNDED ON STRUGGLE, and remembered with pride and celebration, the tri-island nation of Grenada is a surprisingly rich blend of cultural influences. It’s a quiet corner of the Caribbean that despite its minute size and history of conflict, is home to a more authentically preserved ecology and culture than many of its larger neighbours. As midnight came and went, a fine rain starts to fall. I join another drum circle with Curtis and his wife Candice, under the canopy of a tree decorated with small lights, and dance with the rest of the happy crowd.

“This is your first time here right?” asks Curtis. “Yeah” I replied “Do you think you will come back?” I reply that I wish I didn’t have to leave at all. “Maybe you don’t have to. Got any Scottish blood?” “On my fathers side,” I nodded. “Should be fine.”

EWL©