One weekend, we travelled further. Arden Nelson who ran one of the Central Planning Sections, organised a trip for Margaret, Andrew and me up the Windward Highway. It was another of those wonderful days where you cut a transect through a country and just pick up what you can. We started by going inland up the Vigie Highway at the end of the airfield. It rose steeply above the south coast, and at Belmont we left the urban sprawl behind and entered the plantations. The broad deep valley below us was Mesopotamia, heart of the St Vincent banana industry. Every scrap of hillside seemed coated in a thick green slime, the wide floppy leaves of bananas and plantains. Andrew taught me how to spot the difference between the two plants, bananas have the green stems while plantains are red. In the centre of the valley, the small service town of the same name, probably one of few small island towns that are not on the coast, was sleepy on this Sunday morning. We tried to continue inland, but heavy overnight rain had washed away the road near Greiggs and we had to cut down to the small town of Biabou on the coast. From there the road hardly left the seaside, the battering Atlantic hammering each bay; not exactly the idea of Caribbean beaches that come in to most people’s minds. Village after village we passed through up that coast until we entered a broad boulevard that marked the beginning of Georgetown. The settlements on the west coast are now more substantial, but Georgetown, once the capital of the island, still retained a certain grandeur. Most of the houses were solid stone, with considerable terraces. They all looked similar, as if built by some estate. Georgetown had been the centre of the sugar industry in St Vincent.
Now all but gone, the small Sunset distillery the only real user of the white gold now, Georgetown is almost a ghost town, and on a Sunday morning the lack of any signs of human beings emphasised its neglect. A few rolling bales of tumbleweed were all that were needed to show this to be a frontier town. Indeed it was, for as we left on the northern road, the tarmac faltered then disappeared altogether and much of the rest of the route north was on gravel tracks.
To the west of us lay the huge looming flanks of Soufrière, a 3000 ft volcano. Wide rivers come flooding off the sides, pulling down so much of the soft material that the volcano has spewed from its crater. One river in particular was more sediment than water, the Rabacca. About five hundred feet wide, huge shoals of gravel sat in its bed. Water did flow, but most of it was in tunnels beneath the piles of sediment. Only at peak periods would it reach the surface in more than a few places, and at those times you would not want to be in the bed, as the gravel would sweep you out to sea.
Soon afterwards we entered the Sandy Bay area, one of the few remaining Carib settlements in the Caribbean. The Caribs were a group of Indians from Latin America who pushed through the chain of islands displacing the Arawaks in the south and the Tainos in the north. Caribs got a fearsome reputation amongst early explorers and settlers, and there is some dispute as to whether these were hyperbole, just a few isolated incidents or the bloodthirsty truth. The period of estates and slaves drove them to near extinction, but some efforts in a few of the Windward Islands have re-established some land and rights for the remaining descendents. In St Vincent many have intermarried with the other populations, and it is difficult to see much difference between these and other lighter coloured Vincentians. Despite there being land for them, it is often the poorest quality and isolated from the rest of the country. The area around Sandy Bay was home to them.
Driving out of Sandy Bay and up the cliff on the north side, the clouds had built up and the combination of drizzle and seaspray made the village seem drab and foreboding. We looked back from the top and Arden pointed out to me a pile of rocks in the sea. He said when he was a child that was a playing field. Many squatters had built their chattel houses in amongst the palm trees on the beach, and often cut the trees down to make more room for their chicken runs. The unforgiving storms that came in wiped away the beaches, unprotected by palm roots, and houses too were often swept away. The coastline had eroded some hundred feet in the last twenty five years.
The weather cleared as we entered Owia, the last substantial village on the Windward Highway. We met several of Arden’s friends here and dug into the sizeable lunch which had been collected in Georgetown. Great hunks of chicken, fish and fruit, some banana bread and a clutch of coconuts which Andrew set about with a machete to create a drinking vessel.
Anything we could not eat went to two pigs sat in the back of the trailer ready for the abattoir. I might be eating them in a couple of days when I next ordered bacon and eggs.
There were four miles of road left to the west of us along the narrow north coast of St Vincent. At the end of this winding gravel track was a small village; Fancy. Although less than thirty miles from Kingstown it looked a world away. Indeed when we returned to the capital, a woman in one of the cafés who had lived in St Vincent all her life told me she had never been to Fancy. Electricity had only recently been provided here, the road was in a terrible state. The sea bashed against the cliffs below the little houses clinging to the sides. Up the hillslopes tiny plantations grew, merging gradually with the rainforest beyond. Arrowroot was grown in many of these hidden valleys.
Once popular in cooking or for medicinal purposes, it had gone into a serious decline in the 1970’s. Ironically, the space age have given the crop a new lease of life, as it is now used to coat computer paper used in printers. These crops and others also look similar to marijuana, and there is a practice of intercropping in these fields. I hope they manage to distinguish the two, or else, be careful if you lick your fingers next time you handle computer printouts. The Americans, paranoid of misdoings in their backyard, have occasionally come storming in to Caribbean countries and tried to clear drug crops. They sprayed from helicopters in St Vincent one year, with hardly a by-your-leave. What damage it did to the legitimate crops I do not know, but it was a knock back for the poorest communities in one of the poorest Caribbean countries.