I learned about the “island way” in Bequia, one of the islands making up the Grenadines group in the Caribbean. I’d sailed into Admiralty Bay to drop off a couple of pick-up crew intent on taking the ferry over to St. Vincent Island.
When it comes to Caribbean Islands, Bequia seems to me to be about as perfect as it gets. The island has yet to be overwhelmed by development. Admiralty Bay’s waterfront is lined with colorful shacks properly scaled to match the island’s sandy beaches and swaying palms. Once you set anchor in the bay, there’s little motivation to do much of anything. It’s the island way.
As is my habit when arriving in a new port, I took a few days to get a feeling for my new digs. Having crossed the Atlantic, I’d arrived in the Caribbean only a month earlier, so I was still feeling my way along. I’ve learned from many years of traveling that you want to move cautiously when in a new place, so as not to offend your hosts. Preconceptions, expectations, and preoccupation with personal needs are poison when you drop in on a small community. If you go about your business with a respectful circumspection, doors open.
Handy Andy was one of the first to open his door. Andy, I learned, is the quintessential incarnation of the island’s recently acquired entrepreneurial spirit. He is quick to greet outsiders. He immediately invited me into his internet café, hoping of course to make a sale, but as things eventuated he steered me out onto his deck, handed me a glass of rum, and began a leisurely interrogation. He was picking my brain for ideas and opportunities that might bring more commerce to his little island. He brimmed with schemes–yacht repair, island regattas, new restaurants, and Web commerce. Like other Caribbean island hopefuls, he’s convinced that the prosperity that has eluded his little bit of paradise is just around the corner. One right idea and the top of the hill will be crested. He pressed on, introducing me to local characters who paraded on and off the deck, each with a smile, hearty handshake, and story worthy of telling at some length over another cup of rum. Andy’s enthusiasm was as boundless as his rum. It’s the island way.
Some days passed before I met Andy’s brother, Mitch. Mitch’s countenance was more staid than Andy’s. He’s older than Andy, but by no means “old.” We sat in his open restaurant-café next door and drank Bequia rum. The tone of his conversation was a world-wise counterpoint to Andy’s hustle. The island way, he explained, is about how youthful dreams are quickly subdued by the rhythms of island life. “Today”, he said, “is like yesterday. And tomorrow will be like to today”. In the islands life is hand-to-mouth, day after day. The only insurance policy is the balmy trades that bathe Bequians year in and year out. One day at time. That’s the island way.
I learned that Mitch had been just like his brother some years ago, but now his ambition had waned. He drove me up to the house he was building atop a hill overlooking the white-capped Atlantic to the east. He and his wife lived in the finished rooms as–slowly, slowly–they worked on the rest. He took me for a walk in his garden and proudly explained his drip irrigation system. Bequian soil, he told me, is as impoverished as the island economy. What remained of Mitch’s ambition was devoted to creating a sustainable vegetable garden–a higher calling, he explained.
The next day Mitch invited me to a community gathering at a remote beach on the island’s weather shore. The event was to commemorate the birthday of an expatriate American developer who had brought some jobs to the island. The party would feature local music and the final allotment of whale meat gleaned from the last of the island’s yearly quota. Whaling has long been a principal enterprise of Bequia’s people, along with shipbuilding, and it is said that their strong and upright character reflects the fact that they are descended from whalers and pirates rather than slaves. They are allowed by international law to harvest a few whales each year, using traditional methods–open boats propelled by sails and oars and handheld harpoons. I was thrilled at being invited to the party and agreed to meet Mitch at his café at 6 pm the next evening for the ride to the other side.
On the following afternoon, as I was making my way to Mitch’s, I got waylaid by some locals with stories they needed to tell and arrived at the café about five minutes too late. I scanned the dining area. Mitch was nowhere to be found. I sat down at a table and waited hopefully but soon I began to worry that because I was late, he might have gone on without me.
I slouched in my chair, brooding over the thought of having missed the opportunity to smooze with locals over whale meat and rum when an old woman sitting with a small group of locals called over to me, “Hey you! How com’ you so sad?”
I explained to her and her dinner companions that I’d missed my chance to dine on whale meat because I was late for my meeting with Mitch. Feeling sorry for myself, I moaned, “Sometimes I think that being just a little too late is the story of my life”.
The old woman shouted out a reply to my lament, “My, my, you are one lucky boy!”
That was not the response I had expected. “Lucky?” I called back, “How do you suppose I’m lucky?”
The old woman laughed and went on, “Mon, you are lucky because you are going to live a very long time!”
With sublime logic, she explained, “You are lucky because, as you say, you are always a little bit late, so when the Angel of Death comes for you, you will most certainly miss that appointment too!”
In unison all at the table held their glasses of rum up high, toasted my being late and drank them dry. That’s the island way.