Whales and Sunsets

St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a country that consists of thirty-two islands. Scattered over an area of 150 square miles, these islands range from rocks with barely a space for anchoring to the main island of St. Vincent. Only nine of the islands are inhabited, and the rest are a charming combination of impassable, and secret paradise. I spend about a month exploring and sailing these waters. If I was going to go back to any one area of the Caribbean, this would be it.

Tobago Cays group of islands, St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Photo courtesy of barefoot offshore sailing school

The sail from St. Lucia to Bequia (one of the larger Grenadines) took about twelve hours. Bequia is a beautiful little island with a small town, and miles of tree-lined roads. My arrival happened to coincide with Emancipation Day. Most of the little shops were closed, but luckily some of my cruising friends I’d met in Dominica were in the harbor. We walked around the town and ended up at a hidden bar that was full of celebration. Four large tables lay underneath a concrete awning. A small wooden bar counter crouched in the furthest recesses of the shade. It was impossible to not make friends.

Shortly after we sat down at on of the tables, we were joined by a lady and two of her friends. They were drinking a clear liquid out of a small bottle labeled Sunset. I watched as one of the newcomers carefully poured a shot into his beer, swirling it expertly. The lady noticed me staring, and smiled.

Sunset Rum

“You ever try Sunset?”, she asked.

I shook my head

“Well girl, you gotta have Sunset if you come to the Grenadines! It’s made right here in St. Vincent. 90 proof. Don’t drink it straight”, she added conspiratorially. ” We mix it with beer or water. Here, have a taste girl”.

She motioned to one of her friends and he slid over a brimming shot glass. I tentatively tipped it into my beer, and swirled. A small sip. Six eyes watching for my reaction. I smiled.

“It’s delicious!”, I lied

One of the many friendly beach bars of Bequia

Everyone laughed and introduced themselves. The rest of my friends wanted to try some, and the bottle was passed around merrily. The woman introduced herself as Gladys and her friends as Kingston and Mav. Gladys told us that she was born and raised in Bequia. She showed us photos of her house where she lived with her husband. It was painted bright pink and had a large garden tangling around the front walkway. They grew vegetables and sugar cane behind the house, and flowers in the front.

Gladys seemed to know everyone on the island. We plied her with questions about where to get canvass work done, the location of the best chandleries, and which stores were suitable for provisioning. She happily answered each question, pleased to be able to present her island to appreciative visitors.

We eventually made our goodbyes, and headed back to our waiting dinghies. On the return trip, we passed a bar where the stools were made out of whale vertebrae. Giant rib bones creaked from the ceiling, and the sign had a fat whale painted on it. Curious as to how a bar came to be filled with whale bones, we did some quick smartphone research. As it turns out, whaling is still legal in Bequia.

Whaling Boats in Bequia.
Photo courtesy of 3telus.net

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, whale meat was a staple food in Bequia. Whaling was introduced to the island in the 1870’s, when a Scottish mariner began whaling operations in the area. Today, the islanders are allowed to catch two or three humpbacks per year. They remain one of only a few populations in the world that are allowed to take whales.

It seemed odd that a Caribbean island could have taken a tradition from the arctic and incorporated it their warm colorful lives. I’ve always thought of whaling as a way for people to get food in areas where extreme cold makes it impossible to grow crops or raise livestock. Set against a backdrop of lush fruit trees and stray goats, I wondered at the relevancy of this outdated practice.

Frisbee on Palm Island with sailor friends

I stayed in Bequia for a happy week, but the other islands of the Grenadines were calling. There are a bunch of tiny islands that are only good for anchoring in certain wind conditions. Because of this, most people skip them completely. The idea of a totally deserted anchorage is very appealing to me. In the crowded Caribbean, it’s often hard to find breathing room, let alone a private paradise.

I said my goodbyes to Bequia (and my good riddance to Sunset rum), and set off for my next tiny island adventure.

Is This the Right Bus? How About Now?

Guadeloupe is a large butterfly-shaped island full of french people, and cheese. Just south of the mainland lie Les Saintes. They are a series of small, beautiful islands only accessible by boat. One of the islands, Terre de Haut, allows you to clear in, and I made my way there first. There was some sort of extended lunch break going on when I arrived at the office, so I sat down on a bench outside with my book to wait. Presently, a ferrety man slouched up to me and sat down on the other end of the bench. He introduced himself in french, and I happily indicated that I couldn’t understand him. Unfortunately, he spoke english as well. He began the conversation by kindly suggesting that I shouldn’t get any more tattoos because they’re not ladylike. I made a ladylike grunt, and told him that I actually had forgotten, but I didn’t speak English either. The Ferret ignored this comment and asked if I needed a guide for the island. Luckily at that moment the building re-opened, and I curtseyed my way out.

Harbor in Terre de Haut

With the exception of my gentleman friend, I found Les Saintes to be charming and handsome. There were more cats than people (always a good sign), and I didn’t have to walk more than five minutes from any point on the island to arrive at an ice cream parlor. After a few happy days, I made my way to the big island of Guadeloupe.

Guadeloupe has an excellent bus system. It does not, however, have any sort of online schedule or list of bus routes. The tourist office ladies confirmed that there’s no printed schedule either, but that the busses will stop anywhere for you as long as you flag them down. Further south in the Caribbean, this system works really well. Instead of big busses, there are minivans with the names of their major destinations on a card in the front window. In Guadeloupe, each large city-bus had a very informative number and nothing else.

House in Les Saintes

I memorized the name of the town I was aiming for and the phrase: “are you go here?” Stationing myself by an official-looking palm tree, I waited for my first victim. After several minutes, an orange bus trundled down the road and I flagged it down. Stepping aboard, I asked the driver my question. He couldn’t understand the name of the town I was trying to pronounce, so I whipped out my phone and pointed to the map. The driver pulled a pair of reading glasses from his shirt pocket and squinted at the tiny screen.

“No”

Chicken Alley

He opened the doors, and I stepped back out. Another bus passed, and I played the same charade. Then, a third. Just when I was about to give up, I found my magical orange chariot: 22B. I crossed my fingers that I had pronounced the name of the town correctly, and sat back to see where I would end up. Miraculously, I arrived where I had intended. At the end of the day, there was a brief moment of panic when I forgot which bus line to ride home. But I was good at bus roulette at that point. I only went through two busse before I found the right one. Progress. That’s all I ask for.

Although Guadeloupe is beautiful and friendly, I started to feel lonely after a week. The language barrier made it almost impossible to make friends, and I was developing an unhealthy dependence on baguettes. It was time to clear out and move on. The clearance process in the French islands is the most relaxed of any other country I’ve been to. Usually there’s a computer at the back of the local marine hardware store. You filll out an online form, and bring it to the front desk. The hardware cashier stamps it, and sometimes even checks your passport. At Les Saintes I had cleared in at an internet cafe. Assuming the procedure would be the same in the town where I was clearing out, I didn’t bother smartening up. I had to take a bus into the next town, and was planning on spending the day hiking around. Since I only have three nice shirts, I try to save them for special occasions.

Storm Clouds over Guadeloupe

Checking the map, I saw that customs was located inside a town-sized marina. Paved paths snaked around ornamental trees and perfectly manicured grass. Everyone was wearing polo shirts and seemed to be in a hurry. I looked down at my flip flops, which I had recently repaired with 5200 caulk and seine twine. Thank god I’d fixed them! It would be so embarrassing if people noticed my shoes were falling apart.

At the end of an elegant path stood a round building called the Captainery. I paused to take a sip of water and wipe the sweat off my face before entering. There was a sign on the door in English and French that read: Formal Clothing Only. This was probably a mistranslation of the classic: no shirt, no shoes, no service. I pushed open the door and was dazzled by a shiny floor and giant counter. Oh good. If I stood close to the counter, no one would notice the glue line around the bottom of my flip flops. One of the coiffed secretaries pushed over a stack of papers, and pointed to a little desk across the room. I sat down. As I reached into my bag for a pen, I noticed that the floor was wet. I lifted my bag up, thinking I’d set it in a puddle. Ha! They call themselves fancy, but their floor leaks! A steady dripping now splashed from my bag into the puddle. I looked behind me and noticed a line of water from the counter to my chair. Then I looked in my bag and noticed the now empty water bottle. I’ve never filled out a form faster. Sloshing back over to the counter, I pushed my damp papers across to the secretary. My pack remained hidden under the mercifully imposing counter. I smiled my best smile, and tried to act like I wasn’t leaking water all over the spotless Captainery. The sweet sound of an official stamp filled my ears, and I scuttled out before anyone changed their mind. Once outside the door, I turned my bag upside down, and a little waterfall gently flowed out onto the perfectly manicured lawn.

My favorite anchorage in Guadeloupe

I Need the Water for my Boat!

My best friend in the French Islands was the Google Translate app. Unfortunately, I’d retained about as much vocab from high school French as a one-year-old with colic. Therefore, the translate app became my sidekick and wingman. Before any interaction, I would look up the required phrases on my app and try to commit the words to memory. Then I would walk up to the store clerk or street food vendor, and boldly butcher the language. If they understood what I said (rare), they would respond in French. If I understood the response (rarer), I would smile and hope they didn’t require further verbal interaction. Usually, this worked perfectly. My vocabulary slowly expanded as I talked to more people. I began to feel confident that I could struggle through any situation. That is, until the memorable day when I needed to fill my water tanks. Although the anchorage was right in the downtown area, there were no marinas in sight. As far as I could tell, there was nowhere in the city to fill up. This meant finding the closest marina that sold water. I took to the streets to crowdsource some answers.

To set the scene:
I am in Fort-de-France, Martinique. Everyone is wearing a stripey shirt and carrying a baguette. Red berets are pushed back on heads because of the heat.

I ask in French: Where are the water?
I get pointed in the direction of the ocean, lapping at the harbor-front

I ask in French: I require drinking for the liquid
I am told that noon is too early to be drunk

I declare in French: My boat! She needs the water!
I am told that there is deeper water to anchor in if I go further away from the beach

I implore: I need the beverage to drink on my boat
I am pointed towards a food vendor selling bottles of water

In desperation: Where is the big water for the filling inside my boat?
Ah! You wish to fill your boat? Go to the marina around the corner and…… the rest I didn’t understand, but I had enough to go on (or so I thought).

Excitedly upping anchor, I motored around the corner to the marina on the other side of the fort. Normally, the etiquette is to call the marina on the VHF before arriving. However, flushed with the success of my previous venture, I decided it would be better to sort everything out in person. The marina consisted of a series of private slips for boats, and one long pier that had no boats on it. It also had no cleats on it, and no visible evidence of water or fuel hookups. But I wasn’t about to let that stop me. Bringing Gecko alongside, I left her on the mystery pier, and walked through a gate that locked behind me. The marina office was dead-ahead. So far, so good. I realized that I had accidentally left my trusted best friend, Google Translate, on board. Since the gate was locked, there was no turning back. Luckily I had memorized the phrase: ‘I am searching for the water for my boat’. Using this phrase, I proudly announced my presence to the lady at the desk. Her name tag read Marcella. Marcella said … something… to me and indicated the area outside her office door.

“The man. He is coming”.

Ah, I thought. The man who has the water. I can wait. After about 15 minutes, a scruffy old man appeared, wearing a dirty Tshirt and board shorts. As he reached for the door knob, I noticed that he was missing the tips of three of his fingers. His hair stuck out around his head, and his shoes were held together with string. He seemed an odd bird to be working at such a fancy marina, but I was in no position to question things. Nor could I, even if I wanted to. I smiled at him.

Coconut vendor in the mountains of Martinique

“I am searching for the water”, I announced in my best French. He nodded and pushed open the office door. I grabbed it and stood in the doorway while he talked to the Marcella in rapid French. Seeing me on the threshold, she beckoned me to enter. I sat while they talked for about ten or fifteen minutes. Then the man got up and left. Marcella turned to me and I repeated my request.

“Where is your boat?”, she asked. This one was easy to understand, and easy to answer.
“There” I pointed.
“And you have a reservation?”
“No. I need the water for my boat.” I’m a one-trick pony.
Marcella’s expression changed. She opened Google Translate on her desktop and started typing furiously. Then she turned the screen towards me.
“You just showed up and took a place on the dock without telling us? What if someone needed that slip? You cannot arrive without a reservation. You might have someone’s spot! Where is your boat?”

Thinking of the long empty pier with no cleats, I sincerely doubted that anyone coveted that particular real estate. As I wasn’t able to tell her this, I smiled and pointed at a large map of the marina that was hanging on the wall.
“I am here. I need the water for my boat”

Mountain Fern

Marcella didn’t look, but began clicking away again.
“Marcella’s mad!”, I realized. “But she can’t yell at me because I won’t understand. What a relief!” I sat serenely while the typing continued. She was telling me the price of staying in the marina. Suddenly I realized our problem. She thought I had showed up and taken someone’s slip! I motioned for the keyboard. Scowling, she slid it over.
“Please. I just need to fill my tanks with water. I am tied up on the long pier that has nothing”.

Everything changed.

“Oh!”, she typed. “Water is what the man wanted too. You must go around the corner.” Suddenly we were friends. She slipped her arm through mine and walked me out of the building. I asked her to open the gate for me so I cold get back to my boat.

“I am sorry my English is bad”, she said in English.
“No, I am sorry my French is bad”, I responded in French.

We smiled and parted. I breathed a sigh of relief, and vowed to never leave home without my rosetta stone again. And if I ever get in trouble, I’m pretending I don’t speak the language. Being type-scolded is so much better than the verbal alternative.