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Published: January 8th 2017
The French founded Kingstown in the year 1722. Back then, it was a mosquito-infested settlement of rudimentary wooden dwellings with a small port to service transport ships. A few years later, the French grew weary of the heat and passed it over to the British. Then the British passed it back to the French, who scratched their heads and wondered what to do with their tropical slice of island. In the end, they decided to do what all the other islands were doing and planted some sugar cane, coffee and tobacco. Today, instead of sugar cane or coffee, bananas are the country’s biggest money-maker, closely followed by tourism. Being one of the latter who enjoyed eating the former, I was looking forward to seeing as much as I could in the one day at my disposal. Alright!
Brian, my wiry and grey-haired driver threaded us down towards Kingstown. And then, at a sharp hairpin bend, he brought us to a standstill. A minibus was coming the opposite way and Brian recognised the driver. After the bus pulled alongside us, it stopped. Both drivers wound their windows down.
“Alright?” said Brian, nodding to the other driver, a man in
a stripy beanie hat.
“Alright,” said the man, smiling a Rasta grin worthy of a reggae album cover.
And that was it. Conversation over. Windows back up and on we went. “He’s a friend of mine,” explained Brian. “On his way to the airport to pick up some passengers.”
The airport, ET Joshua International, the very one I’d arrived into the previous night, was below us, jutting out along a small ocean-flanked headland. Adjacent to it was a cricket ground. I wondered what happened when a ball went astray. Total Gridlock
Down we drove until we hit the busy streets of Kingstown. The capital of St Vincent was not equipped for the sheer volume of traffic it was getting. To coin a phrase, it was in total gridlock. Even a man pulling a cart with a butane gas canister balanced on the back was stuck in it. In an effort to cope, the city planners had installed a one-way system, but this had resulted in streets clogged in a single direction, with every feeder street backing up with traffic wanting to join the glacial one-way system.
A stout policewoman in uniform was trying to
direct the traffic. As well as her white blouse and black trousers, she possessed a large booty and stern expression. She was trying her best, but there was not much she could do. Whenever she ushered a driver to move forward, they gestured that they could not do so because there was nowhere for them to go. In the midst of the logjam, a gangly man in a red and green beanie hat lolloped (in that distinctly Caribbean swaggering gait) to the policewoman. As far as I could tell, he was not in a vehicle, and was merely a pedestrian.
“Alright?” he drawled.
Instead of answering him, the woman tried cajoling a massive lorry into the one-way system. It hissed its brakes and moved forward one centimetre. It was already blocking the main road and a side street. Exasperated, the policewoman shook her head. The only way the lorry would make headway in the scrum was to drive over the top of it. The man in the beanie hat watched the shenanigans with keen interest. “Miss, you need to clear de traffic dat way, ya know,” he said, pointing in the direction everyone wanted to go. “When dat
clear, tings will move.”
The policewoman glared at him. She looked a lady not to be trifled with, especially in the hot and clammy morning. The man recognised the look. “Okay, okay, I’m just sayin’, alright...”
“What are you tryin’ to say?” the woman shot back.
“Notting.” He bounded off, disappearing underneath the shadow of a tropically-stained long building that might have been a factory. Five minutes later, the lorry had manoeuvred into the main street, puffing out a cloud of black exhaust smoke in triumph. Everyone moved forward a few feet. Hectic and bustling
Kingstown looked typical of a Caribbean town: hectic to the point of bursting. Plenty of townsfolk were wandering the streets, lounging around in stalls or resting upon walls. The buildings looked in poor shape, often in a state of disrepair; covered with tropical grime. But they were almost all splashed in bright colours. Shops signs read: Tailor Paris, Arthur’s Transport Rental Co., and the UniQue Boutique, which offered the latest in ladies and gents clothing. While Brian enjoyed another coughing fit, I spied a young woman wearing a clingy white T-shirt. Splashed across her chest was an obscene
slogan. ‘I LOVE COC–’ the final letter hidden behind her ample bosom. Then she turned to cross the road and I read the T-shirt in full: I LOVE COCO.
One thing was for sure: Kingstown was not boring. Fort Charlotte
Getting to Fort Charlotte involved another period sitting in gridlock. It gave Brian a chance to eat a banana, a chocolate biscuit and finish his tea. The cause of the traffic was some road works. A bulldozer and a set of workmen were supposedly resurfacing half of the road, but we had caught them on a break, or they preferred leaning on their shovels. The only member of the work team doing anything was a man whose job it was to turn a handheld sign saying STOP or GO. His other job was to chat to everyone who came his way, young or old, Rasta or granny. When our side said GO, the traffic lurched forward and then stopped. The man with the sign knew a taxi driver in front and the pair decided to have a chat. Wondering what Brian would make of this new – and easily avoidable – delay, I watched for signs of
annoyance. But he showed no sign of being irked at all. Instead, he applied the handbrake and told me that St Vincent didn’t have any traffic lights.
“Yeah, man. Well, we have some, but I haven’t seen any of them working. We don’t need them.”
I begged to differ, but said nothing.
Above us, hidden in the contours of a tall hill was Fort Charlotte. Built by the British, it was two hundred years old, named after the wife of the then King of England, George III. Unusually for a colonial Caribbean fort, the British never used it as protection from sea attack, but rather as protection against local attack. Those Caribs had been a constant source of annoyance for them.
When we eventually reached the top of the ridge, the fort came into view: an imposing fortification of dark-stained bricks and high walls. We parked in a grassy courtyard bordered by small buildings and a tall wall. A trio of goats were munching on a patch of grass. Behind us was a building that had been the officer’s quarters. While Brian waited in the car to finish his breakfast, I went to investigate,
entering the old quarters through a side door and finding myself in a darkened rectangular room full of paintings. A young woman, bored out of her mind, sat behind a small desk looking at a mobile phone. For the briefest of seconds, she glanced my way and then continued to stare into her phone. Museum?
“Hi,” I said.
“Alright.” She didn’t look up.
“Is this a museum or something?”
“How much to see it?”
Finally she looked at me. “It’s free.” She looked down at her phone again.
With nothing else to say, I walked up to one piece of artwork. It showed a group of Caribs trading with some French sailors. It was the friendliest painting there because all the others depicted scenes of English mistreatment. One picture had the caption: 1763 signalled the influx of land-hungry English settlers. It showed a horde of Caribs burning down a sugar plantation in reprisal. The next painting showed British troops leading chained and shackled Caribs towards waiting ships so they could begin their exile off the coast of Honduras.
Back in the courtyard, I climbed a stone ramp
to reach the uppermost section of Fort Charlotte. At the end of a walkway was a small, pale-blue building with an antenna poking from its roof. Inside the building was a thin young man. When I popped my head in, the man smiled. “Do you work here?” I asked.
“Yeah. This is a signal station. If a ship’s in trouble, they contact me.” He pointed at a walkie-talkie type thing. “Then I ring the coastguard.”
“Does that happen often?”
“Not too often.”
I asked him whether he enjoyed working in the signal station.
“Yeah, I enjoy it. Do you want a tour of the fort? I can show you around.”
“What if an emergency call comes in?”
He shrugged. “They hardly do.”
I declined his offer; not wanting the deaths of some merchant seamen on my hands. Instead, I went to find Brian. It was time to visit the set of the Pirates of the Caribbean.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ If you have enjoyed reading about my little adventure in Saint Vincent, then perhaps you'll like the book it came from: An Accidental Tourist: A Caribbean Misadventure, where I visit 10 independent nations,
all by air. https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01NAQGTVE/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1483785552&sr=1-1&keywords=jason+smart
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