Who died?

Who died?

We have been laid over at Petite (pron. “petty’) Martinique, a sleepy little island off the northeast coast of Carriacou, waiting for a front to pass through. Across the bay is Petit St. Vincent’s, a private resort, invisible but for the yachts out front. The contrast is palpable; $10 million Tupperware motor yachts on one side of the bay, tiny houses with tin roofs on the other.

One narrow cement road runs through Petite Martinique. At first examination there appears to be little to no commerce. Signs are not required. Everyone knows everyone else; what few goods there are can be purchased from tiny homes or shacks. Gloria bakes white bread and sticky buns, which are only available in the late afternoon. Maire McLean sells coconut oils from her home on the main street. The hills are alive with sheep and goats, which look alike, except that the tails of goats point skyward. The sheep and goats are for eating on special occasions.

In the late afternoon a half-dozen women set up their battered Weber grills, fill them with charcoal, and sell barbequed chicken and beer to single men who have no one to cook for them. There is a desalinization plant and a diesel generator that provide water and electricity to the entire island. The Internet service never works. The health center is run by a single nurse; serious medical care by Cuban-trained doctors is a long boat-ride away in Grenada. Elementary school ends at the fifth grade; after that the students a “bused” to Carriacou by boat starting at 6:00 a.m. If there is a library, I did not find it.

Most of the houses are made of cinder-blocks, with sheet metal roofs. The newer ones, built by retirees who earned pensions toiling up north, have concrete balusters. Some even have gingerbread rake boards under their eves. Wash water is collected in big plastic cisterns from gutters when it rains.

Scattered among the white, concrete houses are tiny, shingled shacks with steep roofs and multi-paned sash windows. Most are collapsing from rot. These are a legacy from the time that black sailors from these islands sailed with Nantucket whalers – again going off island to support their families. There is no historic preservation down here; these monuments to a bygone era will merge with the volcanic dust in a decade or two.

The islanders who do not seek their fortune up north fish off the surrounding reefs and sell their catch up the line in big Martinique. Then they smuggle rum, whiskey, or appliances on the return run. (In Grenada we could only find German-brewed Heineken; here we drink the Dutch brew, which is much better. Jack Daniel’s is cheaper here than at home.) If the government of Grenada were to end the smuggling, Petit Martinique would become a ghost town, until purchased by the Marriott Corporation.

However, the chances of ending smuggling here are not good. The story is told of a Grenadian police chief who felt the need to arrest a smuggler, possibly for killing a rival from Venezuela. First he directed his sergeant to make the arrest, but the sergeant resigned instead, so the chief went to the island himself. News of his mission preceded him and when he approached shore in the late afternoon he saw that everyone was gathered around the graveyard in their best clothes. As the anchor line ran out, a messenger swam out from the beach to plead: “Oh, commissioner, sir, please come ashore quickly.”

“I don’t want to disrupt a funeral,” he replied.

“But, sir, we don’t like to bury someone after dark.”

“Well, who died?,” the puzzled chief asked.

“No one yet,” the swimmer explained. “It’s your funeral; the coffin is ready and the grave is dug. But please hurry, because it will be dark soon.”

The chief wisely raised anchor and sailed home.

During the early 1980s, the People’s Revolutionary Movement officially governed this smugglers’ haven, but it is said that its officials, like the chief, always decamped before dark.

–Chris

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