In her latest article for the New York Times, advisory board member Edwidge Danticat writes about Ciné Institute, Carnival, and our home town of Jacmel.
My Caribbean: 5 Vignettes
By BERNICE L. McFADDEN, RAQUEL CEPEDA, EDWIDGE DANTICAT, COLIN CHANNER and ELIZABETH NUNEZ
How do you define the Caribbean? Writers intimately acquainted with the islands answer with postcards from their ancestral homes.
I was just 8 years old when my grandmother announced to my brother and me that she would be taking us to Barbados for the summer.
Where is that? I asked. Her response was, in the West Indies, but I had no idea where the West Indies was or what type of people inhabited such a place. Did they all look like my grandmother or something else?
I spent most of the hours on the Pan Am flight staring out into the darkness, wondering about this foreign land we were traveling to. From my dinner, I’d saved the dessert, a square slice of pineapple spongecake. It would be my offering to the great chief of the West Indians that no doubt would be meeting us at the airport.
After landing we walked out into the warm morning air, heavy with scents of sea salt and sugar cane. The sun was just beginning to glow, casting a soft light onto the surrounding pastures, dotted with grazing cows, hogs and goats.
Weeks before our departure my young mind had churned out visions of the West Indies in a dream that placed me shaking and scared in a tepee circled by Indians clutching bows and arrows. But my grandmother’s cousins looked nothing like what I had imagined, nor did they look like my grandmother; they were short and stout in stature, similar to the women depicted in Botero’s paintings.
They embraced me, but I did not drop my guard, no matter how wonderful their fat arms felt wrapped around my slim body. I presented them with my gift, and they giggled.
My brother and I slid across the broad leather seat of a 1956 Fairlane as it sped down unpaved roads that snaked through hollowed-out mountains dripping with pink and white bougainvillea. The vast, unbelievably blue Caribbean was always to our left, bucking with exultation as the sun slipped over the horizon and sprinkled it with shimmering rays of confetti.
Their home was in Paynes Bay, St. James, an area known as the Gold Coast. They lived in a small brown and beige chattel house that rested on a foundation of quarry and sea stones. It shook and shivered when we walked across the thin wooden floor.
My first meal in that strange land was steamed fish and a molehill of something that looked like mashed potatoes, but was buttery in color, made of cornmeal and okra.
“What is this?”
“Barbados national dish, flying fish and coo-coo.”
Flying fish? Fish with wings?
I was intrigued.
In the weeks that followed, I became comfortable with barefoot living and the green lizards that watched me curiously from the windowsills and walls. I looked forward to dusk as I had become fascinated by the ruby-colored soldier crabs that climbed from earthen holes to begin their nightly scavenge for food. In Brooklyn, stars were scarce, but in Barbados, the night sky was littered with them.
Our playground was the sea, and most of our days were spent frolicking in it. We were thrilled when the Jolly Rogers, a party cruise boat, entered our playground waters. The soca and calypso music sailed our way and we would bump, grind and gyrate in the “wuk-up” style of dance that has come to be known as “twerking” — but has ancient African roots.
Every day I thought about the flying fish and secretly watched for them in the emerald-colored canopy of the breadfruit trees.
As the end of the summer approached, I promised myself that I would return again and again. Forty years later, I honor the promise at least once a year.
The day before we were set to return to the states, I fell into a deep melancholy because I did not want to leave and I had not caught a glimpse of the elusive flying fish. I was swimming, and the sun was just beginning to set when my aunt called us children in for dinner.
“One last time,” I screamed in response, sucked air into my lungs and dove deeper than I had the entire summer, so deep that my ears popped as I surged toward the creamy-colored sand beneath me.
When I resurfaced, gasping for air, I found myself turned around, my back to the beach and my vision fixed on the place where the ocean empties into the sky. Just an arm’s length away the water began to ripple and a school of flying fish burst from its depths and sailed through the air. The moment was magical, and I was struck with my first profound sense of awe.
BERNICE L. McFADDEN is the author of eight novels, including “Sugar, Nowhere Is a Place” and “Gathering of Waters.”
2. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
The lobby of the upscale resort where I was staying in Santo Domingo in late spring was a study in the colonial legacy of my mother country. There was a litter of mostly white men dressed in business casual and local women in every hue of brown feigning interest in them. The men cast knowing looks in my direction, undoubtedly mistaking me for a prostitute too.
It isn’t easy to place me. Although I was born in New York City, both of my parents are from here, and I lived nearby in Urbanización Paraíso with my maternal grandparents when I was a child. I may have been rolling sans suit, but I was in town on my own business, filming part of a documentary. While the rest of the small crew I was traveling with filed upstairs to unwind, this dominiyorkian was looking for a much-needed ice-cold bottle of Presidente beer, to reflect on my time there.
So I headed for the bar, passing by the seemingly endless hallway to the left, the one festooned with tawdry frames featuring pictures of the Dominican Republic’s one-time Führer Rafael Trujillo chilling there in his heyday. The images were a contrast to the current and mostly unreported proletarian awakening of African and indigenous consciousness, especially among younger folks.
The island’s real history is too complicated to frame and hang on a wall. The Dominican Republic is the place where Christopher Columbus set up his second settlement in the New World, nearby in the Zona Colonial. However, that part of colonial history wasn’t what we were in country to see. We had spent one day navigating dirt roads and unmarked turnoffs to the ruins of two former colonial sugar mills, Engombe and Boca de Nigua, with the Caribbean historian Frank Moya Pons as our guide. As we stood on that sacred ground, he told us that in 1796, 200 slaves at Boca de Nigua rose up against the Spanish, setting the sugar cane fields and surrounding buildings ablaze. I dug my hands into the earth, trying to imagine those events playing out around me as the cows peacefully grazed nearby.
The next morning we started out at the Cuevas de las Marravillas, an ancient Taino cave about two hours outside of Santo Domingo, near San Pedro de Macorís, where my father’s mother was born. Her mitochondrial DNA revealed a direct maternal connection to the indigenous people of the island. Those original inhabitants used the caves for religious and funeral rights, and for shelter against the forces of nature that sometimes ravaged the island. One petroglyph depicted what looked like a helmeted Spaniard, which made me shudder. And still, though we were literally enclosed in history, I felt something wasn’t quite right. The cave was so overly renovated it felt as if we were walking through an art installation in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. An employee, likely sensing my dissatisfaction, pointed me to Pomier, a less-gentrified cluster of 55 caves she said contained some of the oldest and finest pre-Columbian rock art in the Caribbean.
We made a dash for our bus and drove for what seemed like hours. After a long wait, the unofficial boss man arrived on the back of a rickety moped. The jefe was a tall and imposing older man decked out in a military-issued uniform. His grin was both wide and menacing at the same time. I’ve seen that face before, on sketchy policemen in Rio, Tangier and Freetown.
After begging him to let us film the cave, the jefe left without saying a word, and a tall young man from a nearby hood, dressed in a neon green YMCA Camp T-shirt, long plaid shorts and flip-flops, appeared in his stead. He carried two small flashlights and began the tour with the uninflected tone of someone who would have rather been anywhere else. But his knowledge of the caves was masterful and his love for them fierce. He recounted an epic saga between the community and the companies that have put these caves in danger by quarrying limestone nearby.
Seeing the depictions of life before the Western invasion — and right before the cave’s inevitable gentrification — was mind-blowing. But all along, I felt a chill, as if this may not end well. Different scenarios played out in my mind, all ending with the jefe robbing us, and maybe worse. We emerged safely, though, passing by what looked like a used condom at the cave’s entrance before heading back to the hotel.
Later, sipping my rimy beer, I was grateful. The universe had allowed us to retrace humankind’s historic footprints. As the breeze shrouded me in its warmth, I felt it was well worth those moments of uncertainty.
RAQUEL CEPEDA is a filmmaker and the author of “Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina.”
On the southern coast of Haiti, in a town called Jacmel, a group of film students dream and create, surrounded by a super lush landscape that includes clusters of hibiscus, palm groves and birds of paradise. But the sea is never too far, crashing loudly against the cliffs and grottoes that surround Ciné Institute, Haiti’s only professional film school.
The day we arrived on campus, the school year was wrapping up and students were showing the short films that are their year-end projects. In one film, a local Lothario spends his days in a neighborhood gym plotting ways to seduce the girl he thinks he loves. In another a father is tempted to steal a bag of rice to feed his family. In yet another a young man becomes an unwilling apprentice to the town sorcerer. But in one of the simplest, a woman simply tells a story.
All the films make full use of the historic town of 40,000, which the original Taino settlers had named Yaquimel, or fertile land. The thatch-roofed open-air classroom, where the students assemble, looms so high over the sea that it could just as easily be the site of a lighthouse. The entire five-acre campus was once the site of the Indian Rock Hotel, which was made up of colorfully painted bungalows. The owners of the hotel were planning to turn it into a scuba diving center. Then came the January 2010 earthquake. The film school lost its location in the middle of town. The hotel owner got called elsewhere and allowed the film school to take the nonfunctioning hotel by the sea.
I had been on the campus before for the viewing of “Dix Gourdes films.” With a budget that was the equivalent of an American quarter, students produced short films on subjects ranging from neglectful fathers to the evils of smoking to the unintended consequences of practical jokes. The screenings happened to coincide with Carnival, which the town celebrates with its own particular flair, highlighting Jacmel’s signature papier-mâché masks and historically minded costumes. People come from near and far to Kanaval Jacmel, crowding the main thoroughfare, Barranquilla Avenue, following on foot, or dancing behind the packed floats of their favorite musical bands. There are even plans to build a carnival museum in Jacmel, which, after the 2010 earthquake, has been designated a Unesco World Heritage site.
Jacmel has seen its share of worldly visitors. (In 1816, Simón Bolívar stopped by on his way to fight against the Spanish empire in Latin America.) Recently the town has hosted international fashion shoots and its papier-mâché masks have been featured in a music video by the Grammy-award winning indie rock sensation Arcade Fire, a video that has five million views, and counting, on You Tube. Still Jacmel’s charm remains homebound. Its beaches still feel like secrets, though they are packed on the weekends by visitors and locals alike. Jacmel’s French colonial houses and their wrought-iron balconies look stately even when worn down, as though the ghosts of the wealthy coffee planters, who transported them in fragments from Europe and pieced them together on the island, were still haunting their narrow halls.
These sites are all perfect for adventurous tourists’ cameras or for local film students’ sets. As is the Moulin Price, a rusty 19th-century steam engine scattered in pieces across a grassy plain that was once the site of a thriving sugar plantation. Or Bassin Bleu, a trio of turquoise pools beneath a magnificent waterfall. Or even the town cemetery with its houselike mausoleums.
But sometimes Jacmel tells its stories quietly. An older woman in town who is filmed for a series of short films called “Ti Koze Lakay,” or “A Little Chat at Home,” speaks of a young woman who passes over rich and flashy lovers for the poor, unassuming guy she truly loves. In many ways, Jacmel — along with the rest of Haiti — is a lot like that less flashy gentleman caller, who demands a closer look but is guaranteed to steal your heart.
EDWIDGE DANTICAT is the author, most recently, of the novel “Claire of the Sea Light.”
I first saw the Pelican Bar in 2001, perhaps a week after it opened. I had gone to Jamaica to pursue the reckless notion of directing a literary festival in Treasure Beach, a district of red dirt, blond sheep and hazel-eyed people on the wild south coast. I was traveling with my children: Addis, boy-haired and 6-ish; and her brother Makonnen, 4, who was calm except when seawater touched his feet.
Which was worse, I thought while lifting each into a fiberglass pirogue: taking children on open water without life vests? Or bringing them into a bar? But it wasn’t just a bar, I had been told by my friend Jason, it was a bar I had to see. Or so I thought. He had actually said, “A bar out in the sea.”
The Pelican is an idling spot on a sandbar about a quarter-mile off Jamaica’s southwest coast. In a sense it is an accidental version of a tiki hut reconceived in waist high water. Made of bamboo, driftwood and tree bark and covered by a slump by thatch, it’s saved from “coolness” by sincerity. It may look like a clever dive bar created for the in-the-know, but it isn’t. It’s too roots. It’s a bar where regulars make shallow dives from short, uneven ladders into warm, clear water; where they float over starfish in mind, if not in body; and where they can feel distant, far away and speckish, like grains of sand in the universe.
Since that time with the children, I have gone there many times with friends, writers mostly, leaving from Jakes Hotel, where I directed a book festival for 10 short years. The authors love the leaping, the way the long bright hulls separate from the ocean, then crash into the waves. They love the rumble tumble gray sand dunes. But most of all they like the bar for what it is. To see them settled there among the regulars, cup in hand, is to witness the peculiar comfort of artists settling into kinship with an architecture that has found its own voice. There is a way they pat the slatted wood, running their hands along it without fear of splinters. There’s a delight in using hands to pull their food.
The food there — lobster and fish served fried, grilled, curried or braised — is simple. But it is ready only if you call ahead. Water, soda, beer and rum are the only drinks for knocking back. And it’s not like the owner doesn’t know about martinis.
The best rum is Appleton, from a centuries-old estate in the nearby hills. The bar has no seating. It’s a joint where you cotch — lean in a slight squat to catch an edge of something with your bum. If you don’t have much bum, stand up. There’s always good music to rock, mostly 70s soul, dancehall from the ‘80s, and this being Jamaica, country and western in the mix.
Cowboy films have always been popular here. Sentimentalism travels well and has a long shelf life in places like my country, where basics are expensive. Living in Jamdown is serious business, hence the love of sentimental music. The mood at the Pelican is too blissed to have hipsters adopt it as an ironic accessory.
And this isn’t a place to be edgy, though the Edge from U2 and other famous music makers have dropped in. The regulars come to get the edge off with a sweet view and a drink. Fishermen bring their wives and bona fides. Residents of close districts hire boats and motor in with guests from villas and high-style small hotels.
When I left the Pelican that first time with my children, I asked Shabba the boat captain to go down the coast and up the Black River. I was too enraptured to go straight home.
In 15 minutes, we were cruising in a wide channel lined with water lilies and man-high grass. The views were long like those on continents, perhaps the one my ancestors called home. At a certain point the river made a wide S curve. We came out of it sweeping, slowed down, then crept toward a tunnel of mangroves. Their roots and limbs were silver, but their leaves were mostly white. Blossoms? My son shouted at a crocodile sunning on a log. The ibises went gushing in a fountain. I was more astounded than the birds.
On the way back to Jakes we cut between the shore and the Pelican, waving at the people looking out. Farther on the boat began to leap. My son complained about the water on his feet. My daughter shouted high above the engine, “Faster, go faster.” I sat quietly, contemplating what it meant to be home.
COLIN CHANNER is the father of Addis and Makonnen. He has written a few books.
When it first occurred to me to write “Prospero’s Daughter,” a novel based loosely on “The Tempest,” Chacachacare, one of the largest of the offshore islands on the northwest coast of Trinidad, came immediately to mind, mirroring as it does the isolated island in Shakespeare’s play. Abandoned for more than half a century, Chacachacare was once a leper colony and an American military base. Today, still unpopulated, Chacachacare attracts “yachties” who dock yachts flying flags from around the world in the calm waters of its many coves.
I had never been to Chacachacare as a child — few Trinidadians have — and on that first trip to reassure myself that I picked the right setting for my novel, schools of silvery dolphins leapt and twirled next to my boat, accompanying me close to the pebble-strewn beach. I was awe-struck by the stunning vegetation: ancient trees, their branches stretching up to a brilliant blue sky, orange and lime trees, and the calcified stems of pigeon peas and tomato, relics from the time of the leper colony, and everywhere blasts of color, ripening fruit and wildflowers, red, orange, yellow, purple. There is a tall white lighthouse, ringed with wide black bands, on Chacachacare, and on the top, a metal door that opens to a narrow ledge where it seems you could touch the looming mountains of South America.
Neither Chacachacare nor the rest of Trinidad has the blue seas typical of the Caribbean islands. The waters on the west of Trinidad are stained with silt from the Orinoco River; on the east roiling waves from the Atlantic erode the roots of coconut trees already bent low by the relentless trade winds. Yet Trinidad is the luckiest of the islands in the Caribbean archipelago. In just a three-hour ferry ride, I can be in Tobago, Trinidad’s sister island a few miles to the northeast, where the sand is white and rainbow-colored fish swim through forests of coral reefs. To me, though, Trinidad’s greatest stroke of luck is its situation in the Doldrums, that low-pressure area near the Equator, sparing the island from the devastating hurricanes that today pummel the other islands with regularity. Unusual for the Caribbean too are Trinidad’s flora and fauna — wild orchids and lilies my mother collected, deer and ocelots my father hunted. For Trinidad was once part of the Amazon rain forest, cut off from it in that great continental seismic shift many centuries ago. Once my father barely escaped being squeezed to death by a macajuel snake, our name for the Amazonian boa constrictor.
Trinidad is known for its Carnival and calypso as well as for the steelpan, one of the few musical instruments invented in the 20th century, but I am drawn to the gifts nature has given us. In my novels I write about the ribbons of red gracefully dipping and rising across the sky at sunset, the multitudes of scarlet ibis returning from Venezuela to roost in the mangrove in our Caroni swamp. I write too about our La Brea Tar Pits, the largest of the only three existing asphalt lakes in the world.
I grew up on the outskirts of the capital, Port of Spain, where the northern range rose dark blue and magnificent against a gold-tinged sunlit blue sky. Behind the mountains are the best beaches on the island, for years inaccessible until America built a road for us as a sort of compensation for appropriating miles of flat land near the capital for a Naval base.
Whenever I write stories about the immigrant’s longing for home I find myself writing about that road which leads to Maracas Bay where I spent some of my happiest days with my family on the beach. It is the narrowest of roads, on one side a wall of mountain, on the other plunging precipices that never fail to take my breath away: translucent mists floating among cottony clouds and sinking down to valley upon rolling valley where glistening trees of variegated greens cling precariously up the sides, and at the bottom the glorious Atlantic, big and powerful, slapping enormous waves against gigantic black rocks and pitching long, frothy white sprays high in the air. Each time I travel up that miraculous road, I press my face into the wind, I drink in the salt-filled air, I take snapshots in my mind’s eye of the trees, the flowers, the roaring ocean, and I am prepared once more for wintry days in the land I now call home.