Finding the Real Bequia

The last time I was in the Caribbean Islands, I was sequestered on a resort so I had forgotten that most of the people living well on these islands are foreigners. I noted the sharp contrast on our taxi ride from the airport to our rented bungalow in Bequia’s capital, Port Elizabeth. On one side of the road there are dilapidated shacks precariously positioned upon dirt foundations and without indoor plumbing. Across the street are large, well-manicured homes with green lawns and sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean.

My fiancé Leif and I chose Bequia because we heard it was one of last Caribbean islands whose culture was still intact with the maritime trades being practiced regularly. And unlike most of the Caribbean, Bequia has not yet succumbed to over development. There are no fast food chains or imposing multi-storied hotels to obstruct anyone’s view or wreak havoc on the environment.

The first thing we notice when we enter our rental house is that the photographs we saw online have little resemblance. There is no stove, only a hot plate that takes its time to boil water or cook eggs. There is no coffeemaker, only a chipped carafe. The bathroom is on the first floor and the master bedroom is on the third.

Our driver advises us to lock the doors and windows, so we are unable to catch any breeze coming off Admiralty Bay that our rickety balcony overlooks. The view is breathtaking. The surrounding neighborhood is not. There is garbage strewn about, packs of dogs barking till sunup, roosters crowing at dawn, and an angry evangelist screaming the word of God through a loud speaker during cocktail hour and into the night.

In the morning we set out on foot in search of groceries. We find a market bursting with colorful, ripe produce under a crude wooden structure. We are immediately accosted by a smooth talking merchant who beckons me to try his fruit; slicing it open and offering a taste. He puts more in our bags than we want or need and insists we pay for it. Later we discover the fruit is rotten. We feel ripped off. (A few days later, we find a woman selling vegetables from a cart under a tree. She is peaceful and uses a calculator and a scale. I like her.)

On our way to yet another grocery store to purchase the basics, we hear a conch shell blown like a horn. We know from what we read it brings the promise of fresh fish. Today’s catch is snapper and more snapper, whatever the sea has to offer. We buy four. It costs the same as the overpriced fruit.

I watch a cluster of schoolgirls swish by in their stockless, uniformed skirts. I learn later that the uniforms serve to separate the girls from the ladies; the ladies of the night that is. Now inside the store, I fill my basket with rice and cheap wine. There are items without prices, but an apathetic attendant ignores my inquiry. A wordless woman takes my money.

I have dubbed this place the “Dreamless Land”. I try to imagine what being born here would be like with its poverty, limited occupations, and lack of education beyond grade 12 that ultimately affects the choices one has. This is a place where the luxury of dreams cannot co-exist. There is an undercurrent of anger and boredom permeating this lost culture that once consisted of great boat builders, whalers and explorers. People now rely mostly on tourism and of late, there haven’t been that many travelers.

After breakfast we take the dollar van to Lower Bay Beach and find our paradise. Swimming in the clear, clean, turquoise water instantly adjusts my attitude. We meander up the white sand to an open-air bar called Da Reef where we order fried chicken, beer and pina coladas. There, we meet Karla and Ron from New York and Lenny, their local cab driver. Like many people in Lower Bay, they have been coming here for 20 years. It’s a special place they tell. But I have yet to understand what they mean.

Lenny takes us back to our hovel and much to our dismay; the church below is in full swing. It is so loud the house feels like it’s shaking. Obviously we can’t stay here. Additionally, I have resolved myself to peeing in a bucket each night instead of risking the spiral staircase down 2 flights. I am grossed out as I empty it each morning. I want a practical bathroom.

We call the owner, explain the situation, and offer to pay him half to let us out of our lease. He won’t budge. We decide to move anyway. Lenny finds us a beautiful, clean apartment with a well-equipped kitchen for $200 less per week, and it’s right on Lower Bay Beach. The toilet is next to the bedroom and flushes. We have access to beach chairs and towels, maid service, and 4 open-air restaurants within walking distance. Across the road I buy organic greens from a lovely lady who offers me aloe to soothe the heat rash under my arms. It is safe here, and at night we sleep with the windows wide open.

Today we meet Boscoe, a fisherman we have been watching the past few mornings. He rows so far out to sea that eventually we can no longer see his dark, black skin against his white, hand built, plywood boat. He is a hard workingman from Trinidad who came to Bequia to escape the violence in his own country. We buy 4 butterfish from him for the equivalent of $3.50US. He sells his bounty to boaters in the harbor and to tourists like us. He also uses the fish to feed his wife Shanti and two small children. The sales from the fish are his only source of income. If nothing sells, he has no money.

Boscoe fishes with a line on a reel, as he cannot afford a rod. He dives for whelks, which are sweeter than conch, negotiating poisonous sea urchins buried in the same reefs. He fends off barracuda whose favorite food are the whelks. It is a hard way to make living. His boat, he tells us, he built himself from a design that was in his head. He is trying to save money for a motor because the self-propulsion is tiring, coupled with the actual diving and fishing. His accent is hard to decipher to our untrained ears. We only catch snatches of his story and then consult each other after to fill in the gaps. What we don’t understand we begin to surmise and fabricate out of curiosity.

He arrives the next day with his family. They all go out on the boat and take Leif with them. I sit lazily on the beach reading and waiting. They return with an abundance of seafood. Using stones, dried leaves and wood from the beach, Shanti starts a fire. She sprinkles seawater on it to back it off when it becomes to hot so our food won’t burn. When the grilled fish is ready, Shanti places it inside a almond tree leaf that doubles as a plate with a scoop of beans and rice she has brought from home. We are touched by their gesture of preparing an authentic island meal especially for us.

As the light wanes, and the kids fall asleep, we sit there drinking vodka, wine and beer that we offer to our new friends. We share all that we have, just as they have done with us. It is the Bequian way, I am learning. Shanti tells us that fishing is harder for her now since her mask, fins and snorkel was stolen. She has no money to replace them, as she can barely make ends meet with what her waitressing job pays. Without discussing it, Leif and I gather our snorkeling equipment that we have had the privilege of using solely for pleasure, and give it to Boscoe and Shanti who need it for their livelihood. Another stark contrast. Shanti is so happy that she hugs my fins to her chest.

The time comes to wake the kids and prepare for their 2-mile walk home, at night, carrying all their gear, over steep hills, with 2 sleepy children. They are too poor to own a car, and we haven’t rented one, but we call a taxi and gladly pay the tab. Before they leave, I quietly scour the cabinets and refrigerator and hand a sack of groceries to Shanti, explaining we are leaving soon and it will go to waste.

I think about how generous they have been even though they have nothing in the way of material wealth. Their home is one of those shacks we saw on the way in. And yet, they share their food and themselves, and give us the gift of an experience we will never forget. It causes me to take pause and reflect on how lucky we are. Without them, we may have never found the real Bequia.

On another note, consider this:

One of the easiest and most pleasant ways to get from southeast England to northern France is via the Dover Calais Ferries. It’s a relaxing, picturesque 75-minute ride past the infamous White Cliffs of Dover. It is here that the English Channel is at its narrowest point.

Onboard you will find a bar with a jukebox and wide array of drinks. There is a Food Court boasting different restaurants with delicious cuisine from around the world, or coffee and snacks for a lighter fare. There is also complimentary Heinz baby food available for the wee ones, and shopping to keep you entertained, or you can take in the sights with a stroll on deck. For folks traveling with children, there are play areas, video games and fun activities that are supervised like painting and drawing to give parents a break.

For those who wish to enjoy a more luxurious experience, there is the option to upgrade for priority boarding and for access to the Club Lounge where a complimentary glass of champagne awaits you to start your trip off right. You can also dine at the Langans Brasserie where you will be served in style.

So instead of taking the train or a plane, sit back and relax onboard the Dover Calais Ferries.

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