Our first mornings at the resort we are greeted on our little porch by stray cats and hummingbirds with iridescent green blue heads. We enjoy coffee, then switch quickly to screwdrivers. While we relax in robes sipping beverages and coaxing cats to come closer, we peruse the little resort newspaper that is delivered before we awake to find out what restaurants are open and what events we might like to take part in.
PREVIOUSLY: We see a beautiful island from air, worry a bit about the squalor witnessed from street view, and begin to learn that all-inclusive may mean never-let-you-rest.
The room is well appointed with a bed and bar and little desk. It is a romantic nest, really, with only one exception: a small bathroom with a louvered door. I suppose the little patio is designed for one half of a couple to sit while the other uses the bathroom. At least we gave each other that courtesy.
On the second morning, we prepare for our first and last excursion, a rum tour that promised free samples and an experienced local guide. We like rum. Still, that morning I am filled with apprehension. Having an appointment of any sort creates an interruption in the beauty of the life of leisure. A place to be at a certain time does not win a battle in my vacation mind against mindless wandering. By the third vodka and orange juice the plan is tolerable.
I think back again to the race through squalor on the way to the resort. Looking past the sad structures one could see the rainforests and ocean, the banana fields, and the beauty of nature. Looking at ground level, though, all that stood out was trash. Economic levels are defined by their relative ability to hide trash. The poor have no where to put it, and some of it must be saved for later use of some sort. The rich, represented by the resort in which I sit, produce more trash, never keep anything for later use, but have superior methods of hiding it (usually where the poor live). On our unguided walk-about, we discovered a couple places just beyond the walking trails and rooms and restaurants where trash peeked out from the overgrowth.
The story of America is no longer limited to America. It is places like this where our garbage washes up on shore and our citizens walk by it saying things like “Isn’t this paradise, honey?” with no sense of irony. Ah, the casual amateur drinkers of sweet and trendy liquors live blissful in delusion, not wearing rose-colored glasses, really, but blinders. They are only able to see up and beyond, away from the ground and out toward the postcard horizons. I have to look downward.
This is what I think about as L takes a shower, and I am left alone with a dead salamander and the chirping of tree frogs–a sound that must have inspired modern smoke alarms. I take another drink, though, and breath in the sweet air, and feel lucky despite not being able to ignore things like economic disparity while I prepare for a rum tour.
The tour van picks us up and then drives to the other, larger resort, to pick up our tour-mates, four young honeymooners with bright smiles, bathing suits, and colorful shirts. To be clear, it was two pairs of honeymooners, not four people all married to one another. Our guide, a paunchy, confident man of about 60, introduces himself as Stormin Norman. He rattles off a long list of activities that we will enjoy during the afternoon, none of which have much to do with rum. We look at the honeymooners inquisitively. “I thought we were going to a rum distillery,” one of them said. OK, all of us except Norman at least were on the same page.
As we pull out of the larger, more glitzy, resort, I see another machete man. Not far down the road, a man who appears to be his ugly cousin trudges up a mountain, shirtless, sweat sparkling in the sun, a long machete by his side. I would say he is expressionless, but that wouldn’t capture the menace. His eyes burn behind his unmoving face. It is the more subtle yet intense anger one earns when walking up a mountain and each step is up–an analogue for his life, no doubt–knowing he must always battle harder and hotter for less progress than others like us who zoom by in an air-conditioned van.
I am beginning to think the machete men represent the national dress code and briefly picture Stormin Norman shirtless and wielding a long knife.
The streets of the city we enter are narrow and yet people navigate passing, avoiding parked and parking cars. They drive with the agility of fish. When no room remains between vehicles, a bicycle appears and squeezes through.
Norman talks while driving, sometimes to us, and sometimes to those outside who can’t hear him. Suddenly he smacks the van into a local man riding his bike on the side of the road. The dreadlocked bike man is understandably angry and yells for Norman to roll down his window. Norman does He takes the offensive strategy, in both senses of that word: “Watch where you’re going, boy,” Norman yells. “Get out of here with that bike.”
“You only care about the white tourists, not the black man on the street,” the biker yells.
“Look. You damaged my mirror. I should make you pay! You young people have no respect!” Norman rolls the window and drives off, leaving the bike man still waving his arms and yelling in the rear view mirror. Norman explains it all to us, exclaiming, “Today’s youth have more respect for their buddies than their mothers or fathers or sisters or brothers.” We nod our heads, a little frightened of not nodding our heads, I suppose. He doesn’t seem to have a knife, though.
Our first stop on the multi-stop tour billed as a rum tour is to a roadside stand, one of a million little stands like it, to buy plantain chips. The roads are filled with stands consisting of ten or twenty items for sale. Hopeful? The owners sit and wait for someone to stop. I worry no one will stop and feel sad for what appears to be an absurdist comedy version of American capitalism. Their marketing plan? Put stuff out and wait. They are petty-bourgeois spiders sitting in small webs waiting for a fly in winter.
We chat with the woman running the stand as we enjoy the chips, Norman’s treat. She says her daughter just came back from the United States. She points to her daughter and we recognize her from the plane. She was in the seat next to us all the way from Atlanta. She recognizes us as well and is excited by this. We are long lost friends who never met. She takes a selfie with us.
We proceed up steep hills, around hairpin turns and down drop offs that make our stomachs leap. The construction of roads through impenetrable mountains is impressive at a distance, but sickening to experience in person. I wait for Norman to run over another biker or machete cousin. Next stop is the distillery.
At first glance and all following glances it appears as if it would pass about zero U.S. safety or food regulations. The old brick building suffers from the sort of musty aging and crumbling that happens in the tropics–rust and moisture and dirt and fungus permeates everything. The smell of mildew and molasses adheres to the little hairs in the back of my nose. L watches a giant bug leap to its death in an open fermentation vat.
If you’ve ever been to (or even seen on TV) an American distillery or food processing plant, you have seen the lab-coat cleanliness we were expecting. This is the exact opposite. Here the gas pipes barely connect to each other. Everything is dark like a storm except the fires. The place is a bomb, basically, and we notice the people who work here seem to have a detached acceptance of their impending doom. Every day of their life is a lottery with no chances to win big–only an unknown day to die. We seriously wonder if it will blow up with us in it. I uncharacteristically hold L’s hand.
We are introduced to sugar cane fermenting in open plastic tubs in the basement. The newlyweds looks at us with “are they serious?” sorts of expressions. After the tour of the brick enclosed bomb, we are left to our tasting outside the gift shop.
They bring us bottles to sample out on a picnic table out in the heat. Everything is warm, but some of the rums are delicious. Free is always delicious. I lose track of what I have tried–banana something, special something else, dark, light–since I drink quickly to quell the fear of death still lingering somewhere between my heart and liver.
The newlyweds brought no cash with them. We have maybe forty dollars and a credit card. “We thought we were just going to the distillery and back. We didn’t know we needed money,” the newlyweds say. “Same here,” we say. And it was the truth. We use the credit card to buy a couple bottles to take home. The storekeeper and Norman try unsuccessfully to hide their disappointment of the four newlyweds. I can hear their thoughts: “Rich Americans ‘forget’ their wallets. Sure.” But their case, our case, is true. We didn’t know we were going to be taken on a multi-stop planned pick-pocketing excursion. But that’s what it is. We were supposed to buy something at the plantain chip stand. We were supposed to buy something at the distillery.
And we are supposed to buy more at the next stops we knew nothing about.
On the way to who knows where we pass motivational posters (Progress is at hand!) and institutions (Church of Positive Life) that are part and parcel of poor neighborhoods, like Diet Coke advertising in a nation of obesity. I am always saddened by false hope, so I turn my head. I wish we would pass a sign reading “This is as good as it gets.”
Next stop, famous fish patties. Norman stops because he has to stop, but he knows no one has any money. Here we are supposed to delight in the local favorite fish patty. Norman buys one plate and shares with all of us. “Good,” we say. “Thank you.” We are all going through the slightly uncomfortable motions. I am starting to think Normin has sort of kickback deal with the plantain stand and fish patty place. His disappointment isn’t just for his friends’ not making money, but for himself as well. He is probably counting his lack of tip in his head.
At the fish patty stop we are immediately accosted by palm leaf crafter hounds. Norman says they are all “high on horseshit,” whatever that means. They make little grasshoppers out of palm leaves and ask for money.
Though I like the grasshoppers, their eagerness to sell and the fact that we are the only Americans there to buy something fills me with a palpable sense of menace. I’m not sure the people in this little grasshopper and fish patty enclave want me dead, but I think they probably wanted harm done to us–especially since our friends had no money and we had little. We could not tip anyone, which is never a good thing in such situations. Tips are like taxes to the people in power on the streets. Besides, it’s a nice thing to do. At this point, I am hoping we are on the way back to the resort, behind the fences and razor wire, where I can relax.
But we must visit the famous Dr. Doolittle bar in Marigot Bay which memorializes the one movie made here forty years earlier. We pretend to remember exact scenes from the movie as Stormin Norman mentions them. Oh, yes, a giant snail. Ha.
Norman drops us off at the bar and tells us to enjoy ourselves. We must meet him back at the van in twenty-five minutes. “Be sure to take the ferry back,” he says. He leaves us in the hands of more people wanting money we don’t have–that he knows we don’t have. More and more I am convinced that the island economy depends upon a series of short kidnappings of tourists.
I dig deeply into my pockets, and after getting the attention of the bartender order two Piton beers. The bartenders and the rest of the staff continuously look away from us, as if eye contact and communication of any sort would be impolite. We watch as they count money and fold things, occupied in the business of not getting paid. Maybe they have x-ray wallet vision and realize that we are not a good target.
After a brief hesitation, I use the rest of the money I have to buy some beers for the newlyweds. I was saving it for Norman’s tip, but I couldn’t drink in front of them. We drink and discuss why we’re here. None of us know. What are we supposed to do at the Dr. Doolittle bar? We don’t know. Two of them play a quick game of pool. We watch our clocks. “Who is Dr. Doolittle?” one of the newlyweds ask. At twenty minutes, we board the ferry as directed.
The little ferry is more like a raft set on pontoons. There is a faded white canopy over it, held in place by faded red and blue poles. The distance we must navigate is maybe 150 feet. Norman directed us to take this means of travel, though, rather than take the little bridge we used when we arrived. We must obey Stormin Norman. We must pay him more respect than we give to our friends and brothers and sisters.
The ferryman flicks a cigarette in the water and engages the idling outboard motor. “Did you enjoy your stay?” he asks.
“Of course,” someone says.
“Dr. Doolittle,” I say.
Though the water is calm the raft dips up and down as it travels. A little water splashes over the edge. This must be their version of one of those soaker log rides at amusement parks, I think.
We run out of things to say in the ninety seconds or so it takes to get to the other side. As we approach the opposite pier, the boat begins to buck wildly. The front pops out of the water, then slams down. By the third time it does this the jolt is extreme.
The front of the craft submerges about halfway underwater. Water splashes everywhere and then the water picked up by the front of the boat travels in a wave back toward us as it levels off.
The two male newlyweds immediately leap off their seats closest to the front and to lunge to high ground at the back of the boat, saving their shoes and perhaps their lives. Their new brides glare at them as we dock.
“Saved yourselves, huh?” one of the women says. When they look back confused and apologetic, she adds, “so when we’re in danger you leap over me to save yourself.”
“We were saving you. We were balancing the boat,” the husband of the talker says. And at that moment he joined the lame excuse club.
“I guess the honeymoon is over,” I mumble. For the record, I didn’t react at all. I didn’t try to save L or myself. I’m a opossum in emergency situations. Fortunately L knows this already, so her expectations are appropriately low.
Norman says it is now time to go back to the resort. We are pretty excited, though we already know we’re too exhausted from too many quickly consumed samples and the heat and anxiety of the day to do much in the evening. The newlyweds promise to send Norman a tip and apologize for not bringing money when they leave. We simply wave goodbye.