What do you think of when you think of the Caribbean?
It is interesting – lots of people have different views. We have to admit that we were so focused on getting across the Atlantic that we almost forgot that we would then have five months cruising in the Caribbean. We hadn’t met many people who had been to the Caribbean and those that had been had very different perspectives – one couple – Susan and Andrew from S/Y Andromeda in Lagos spent years there – cruising extensively and other friends had been for holidays, a two week, all inclusive holiday at a resort or one week in a hotel in Barbados. We spoke to a lot of people who were anxious about security in the Caribbean and we had been told horror stories of yachts being boarded, murders, machetes and theft. One person told us that we would have to lock ourselves in each night and that we would have our dingy and outboard stolen if we didn’t always have it locked if we went ashore or hoisted onto the deck if we were out at anchor. There was also a lot of talk of boat boys being a nuisance and being threating. So all in all not a very gleaming report. The reputation of the Caribbean being a vision of crystal clear ocean and gleaming white sands is so tarnished by these security fears. But, having grown up in Belfast in the 60s and 70s I know what it is to come from a place where people are afraid to visit and I know that the fears is not the same as the reality. Northern Ireland is a stunning place and that fact was not changed by ‘the troubles’ – we found the same when we visited Iran – a beautiful place but their issues cloud this too much for many people to risk a visit. I think that I have an affinity with these places. It also seems to be the case that people who live in places with security fears welcome visitors with special care and warmth as they are aware of the fears their visitors may have.
We have found a different Caribbean from the one that the naysayers prepared us for. Everywhere we have visited we have been welcomed and respected. The people have been warm and friendly and fun. We have never felt unsafe or threatened in any way. We are not sure if it is the way we travel and how we interact with people or if it is just that the incidents of violence and theft are few but much publisised – the fear of crime is an issue in many places including the UK or perhaps we have been fortunate.
When we arrive in a new place we always take time to talk with the boat boys – warmly, if they are there working. They are only making a living and they are always interesting. We always look at what they are selling. If we want something we do negotiate, they are good at persuasion and they do, of course want to get the highest price they can. We have bought – T-shirts, bread, wooden turtles, fruit, baskets, diet coke and fresh fish and we have used the water Taxis and the guys who own buoys (that sounds wrong doesn’t it!) Then when we are ashore we always stop to talk to the people who want to see May. May is so popular here as many people have never seen a Maltese Terrier before. We keep her always well groomed and so as she trots along on her lead her hair flowing resplendent in the breeze – she stops traffic – literally people stop their cars and want to meet May. Children cluster around her and she has been known to turn a 7ft 15 stone Rasta to mush. She is happy to be stroked and held and although she keeps her eyes firmly on us the whole time – I am sure she loves the attention. Local people in the Caribbean do not walk dogs on leads there are street dogs and dogs at home but no dogs on leads with their owners.
We went to the beautiful island of Bequai a few times and on our return visits – local people in the street would shout out “oh look, it’s May” and “Hello May” it was so lovely – May is a star here!! Several people has said, “Oh, hey man you have a Rasta dog” I wonder what they would think if they saw a Puli or a Komondor.
We have noticed that each place we visit – whilst having some similarities is unique. Each Island has its own, unique culture and we are fascinated to hear what the local people say about how things are for them – education, health, employment and infrastructure – roads and housing. Generally things seem to be improving all the time for the people across the islands. Education is the key to it all of it of course and if they have well travelled and well educated people in power then it seems to be going well. For example the people in Saint Vincent are pretty happy with their Governor for now as he is working on building secondary schools and focusing on health and education.
The Caribbean is a large and complex place – you cannot give an answer to “So, how was the Caribbean?” The Caribbean it is not a place of course – it is hundreds of places, there are hundreds of islands– some are independent and the UK, France, Holland and others govern some. In the south there are the Netherland Antilles – Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire – the ABC islands as they are known – they are Dutch. Then there is Martinique in the middle, which is French, and at the top there are the British Virgin Islands – there are also private islands like Mustique and there are independent Islands like Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Some islands are tiny and some are large – some are flat and some have spectacular mountains and volcanos. All these cultural influences and geographic differences make for a rich and varied experience for visitors. Cruising sailors who have the privilege of being able to spend months visiting different islands will get a very different experience from those who only visit one place. We are so very lucky to have time to get to know these wonderful people and spectacular places. There are many things that add up to a Caribbean Culture that the islands share. The positive, healthy and loving Rasta culture, the wonderful local food, the spirit of enterprise, creativity, the love of nature, the reggae music, dancing and singing, brightly coloured houses, smartly dressed children going to school, laughing a lot and Mum is the boss!
As we are travelling in and out of a lot of different countries we have to check in and out of customs all the time. This is called clearing in and clearing out. The complexity of this is added to significantly by travelling with May. The ministries of agriculture, fisheries and food in each country vary in how they deal with the import of dogs so it is tricky. We have to do our research on how each place deals with things and we then have to get the paperwork and visit vets and officials in offices in tucked away places. May is worth it but you may like this description of a morning in Saint Vincent getting a fit to travel certificate for May.
We arrived into Blue Lagoon on the South of Saint Vincent. The reef is too shallow for Magic to cross but there is one cut known to locals for which you need a pilot. We crossed the reef with Ras Mike – the pilot – we now trust him completely with Magic but we still held our breath as he took the helm and we watched breaking waves either side of our hull. Mark said “Ras Mike, the instruments are saying the depth is 2.5 and we draw 2.8 !” Ras Mike looked at Mark and just said “No problem Captain” and by the time it was said we were over the reef and into the Lagoon. As is often the case around the Caribbean we noticed friends we had met in another bay arriving and had a wonderful lunch with them. They travel with a dog too – a wonderful young couple (young that is in their 30s!) – Simon and Holly – Simon was a Royal Marine and lost most of his hearing in Afghanistan when an IUD went off near him. He is now retired and living on their boat with their fantastic Jack Russell – Scruffy who May loves!
The following morning we had an appointment with the Vet at the Ministry for Agriculture in Kingston. We needed a certificate of health. This paper says that an official government vet has examined May and that she is healthy and that she has all the right paperwork – Rabies test, Heartworm test, and all the vaccinations in the world!
We had booked a taxi and he arrived in perfect time. He wanted to collect us at 07.30 because although it should only be a 20-minute journey the morning traffic is a problem – everyone going to school and work and not enough roads. He thought it might take an hour and our appointment was at 08.30. He drove like a professional through the winding back roads – whizzing past children and goats at an alarming speed. He explained he was taking the back roads through the villages to avoid the traffic and not to be concerned as he used to drive a truck in the USA and he was a professional driver. We did feel safe in his very shiny bright orange van. But I was concerned about the children and goats. As we sped past enormous breadfruit trees and lush dense overgrown fields with coconut palms and banana trees – we thought – it is so rich here – there is food everywhere. As in other islands we have noticed that there is a real mix of housing from very palatial, grand homes with lots of pillars and gates to more modest homes with scabby dogs hanging around in the yards. The houses are all brightly coloured – Blue and Orange and Yellow – our taxi driver show us his lovely blue house in one of the villages we flew though. Our windows were open and as it had just rained and was now getting warm you could smell the earth.
Just on the outskirts of town we passed a really unusual old man standing in the road taking notes. He caught my eye and I asked who he was and what he was doing. “Oh, he is writing down number plates – that is what he does – he has been standing there doing that for years! He is a bit mad of course but he is also quite useful. I needed to see if a particular number plate had been seen on the Island and he was able to tell me the exact date when it was last seen by him” – cool
We were dropped at the ministry for agriculture at 08.20 – perfect timing. We thanked our driver for the incredible journey and went off in search of Dry Glasgow with whom we had our appointment. We soon found a peeling green door with a notice pinned to it “Knock&Enter Animal Health & Production Division” that must be it – we were met by several people – “Dr. Glasgow knows you are coming, please wait” As we waited we noticed a lot of things – the office looked as if someone was doing a rubbish job of propping a scene for a 1930s movie –this scene was set in an office – their were heavy wooden desks that were authentic 1930’s but the chipped folding metal chairs seemed to be from the 70’s and the filing cabinets were perhaps from the 50s and the large blotting paper holder thingy on one of the desks was definitely classic 80’s. The walls were an institutional green – I wonder what Farrow and Ball would call that – dead toad probably. There were three desks and only one phone – that was certainly a classic Bakelite phone. Piled up on the floor along the back wall there were piles of yellowing and ripped files and on the notice board were curious cartoon pictures of how to ensure you notice the signs of your pigs catching a cold. We learned that we should boil swill before feeding it to the pigs and we now know all the signs we should be aware of to notice if our pigs are poorly. Outside the heavens’ had opened and it was thundery and grey. School children in their smart school uniforms were screeching and running – rain isn’t something they prepare for like we do in England. It does rain here a lot but mostly at night and if it is in the day it is usually light and in short bursts. As we waited we met a lady who introduced herself as a new vet. She used to work in fisheries and food and this was a good career move. She stood awkwardly in front of her 1930s desk with the 1980s blotter pad. No one welcomed her or helped her settle in. She had no chair, no computer, and no phone. How different with how new people are welcomed into our companies – flowers and a welcome card and lunch out and a really well prepared work space with the best of everything we can get for them. I went outside to see if there were any stores nearby as it would have been lovely to get a vase of flowers to cheer up her desk. Mark said I shouldn’t as we don’t want to cause offence and we don’t know how things are done around here. About 40 minutes late (that’s ok, its Caribbean time) Dr. Glasgow introduced herself and showed us to her office. We had to walk through the surgery and she apologized that May could not be examined there as they had had a chemical spill and hadn’t finished cleaning it. We walking past the chemical spill and past a two-headed lamb pickled in a large jar. We walked down a narrow dark corridor and into Dr. Glasgow’s micro office. Dr. Glasgow, Mark, May and I filled the space completely and we were like one of those puzzles trying to get Dr. Glasgow and May together. The vet put May on her desk and examined her professionally and tenderly. May just rolled her eyes and looked at me. Poor May she doesn’t really like the vet or sailing and she has to do both almost every week! Then May was declared fit and healthy and it was time to pay our $45EC – that’s about £12.00
We were told to go and see the secretary. We handed her the money but she said “no, you have to take this piece of paper and take it to the accounts office which is out this door and around the building to the left” – incredible! So, off we went with our piece of paper to find the accounts building and hand it to an official. We found it and when we entered there were 8 people at dark brown wooden desks – these people actually had phones and computers but didn’t seem to be doing anything with them. There were two glass hatches and no signs so we just picked one. A lady shouted out “not that window!” – So mad here! So we moved 7 inches to our left to the other window and were met by a rather grumpy man who enquired what we wanted. We explained and handed over our paper. He looked at it for a long time. Then he showed it to two other people and then he went and got someone else to serve us. We were asked for our $45 EC but we only had a $100EC note. “We have no change,” he said. Mark was losing it! “We don’t have any either,” He said. The official looked a bit put out and then went around his colleagues to change the $100 note. Finally we had our change and we were given another piece of paper and told that we were to take it back to the secretary in the vets’ office. Feeling like we were in some sort of weird Monty Python sketch we set off back to the vets office. We handed the receipt to the secretary and she handed us our Certificate of Health for May. Process complete – it had only taken 3 hours!
We decided then that we would have a walk around Kingston. It is a small town but busy. There are a lot of interesting shops that sell car batteries and knives along side dresses and shoes. Street vendors sell vegetables and jewelry and it was definitely a local place for local people. May was the center of attraction once again as she trotted along the high street. We stopped and bought a chicken and potato roti from a street vendor and talked with him for a while – it was delicious – a warm, mildly spiced, fruity chicken curry with potato wrapped in a delicate flower wrap. Then it was time to take a cab back to Blue Lagoon and prepare Magic for an early start the next day. Our friends – Holly and Simon and Mays new love interest Scruff came on board for a sailors supper of Spag Bol and we all drank too much and stayed up too late.
The following Morning we had to be ready to leave at 06.30 – as soon as it was light Ras Mike would be taking Magic over the reef again. We were sailing to Saint Lucia and the trip is about 10 hours. We had chosen a weather window and all fingers and toes were crossed that the weather would be correct. We are not up for another 30-40 knots of wind. We want the 15-20 we have ordered.
As we leave Blue Lagoon at dawn we are accompanied by about 10 boobies who are fishing all around us and I find I have time to reflect while we are on the water – 10 hours to Rodney Bay.