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The Spice Necklace

The Spice Necklace

A Food-Lover's Caribbean Adventure
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The Nutmeg Gatherers
. . . Grenada . . .
It’s a rampage, / The lands are savaged, / My Caribbean ruined,
Not a tree in sight, / That didn’t get hit outright;
It’s a rampage, / Ivan take we hostage . . .
See Barbados (stocking up) / Small Tobago (stocking up)
Poor Grenada, / Lord, what a plight;
After the storm, / All man in the same boat, / Yes, after the storm,
We ’ve got to help each other, / (After, after)
Because livestock (blow way) / Food crop (blow way)
Nutmeg (blow way) . . .
from “After the Storm,” composed by Christophe Grant, sung by Denyse Plummer
The village of Union sits about two inches south of the northern tip of Grenada on my big multi-fold government map— just above the spot where the capillary network of red roads thins out and then disappears. A few old cocoa and nutmeg estates are noted— Union Estate, Malagon Estate, Samaritan Estate— and a few lonely squares indicate buildings. But the map makes it clear this is the start of the island’s undeveloped, empty, mountainous middle.
So I shouldn’t be surprised by the road we’re walking (climbing, really), heading straight up from the village, but still it leaves me breathless, and not just from its steepness. Ahead of us, the road simply seems to end, swallowed up into lush mountains, painted thickly in a dozen shades of green. Around every bend, in every direction, is a postcard. “You see that one?” our old friend Dingis asks, puffing out the words as even she stops to rest. She points to the most imposing peak, where the white mist of a morning shower floats high up, encircling the green. “On deh other side was where all deh nutmeg trees were.”
Early in the morning, Dingis, her friend Gail, and Steve and I had set out from her house in Lower Woburn, on Grenada’s south coast, taking first one bus to St. George ’s, and then another, to travel up the leeward west coast— past Gouyave, known as the island’s fishing capital, though this makes it sound much grander than it is; past Victoria, an even smaller fishing village; to Industry, where the road curves inland. Dingis keeps up an excited commentary the whole way. Her highlights are not exactly the stuff of a standard tourist spiel. “Gail mother live here,” she exclaims at one point, knowing Gail is too shy to tell us herself. And a little farther along, at a spot where a cliff rises up on one side of the road and plunges into the Caribbean on the other: “Dis is where deh bus was hit by a falling boulder and everybody die.” This is not particularly what one wants to hear while shoehorned into the backseat of an overcrowded, overheated-by-the-squash-of-many-bodies minivan of a bus that careens aggressively around each curve. (A longtime resident once gave new-to-Grenada drivers this advice about the island’s bus drivers: “Give them a wide berth— if necessary, stop and let them pass. They are busy private entrepreneurs with an urgent appointment with death.”) By the time we reach Union and Dingis announces, “Dis is where we get off,” I am woozy, soggy with sweat and more than ready to continue on foot.
The bus deposits us across from a square wooden building that has seen better days. Its wide doors are pulled open, and a car sits out front, the driver hefting sacks out of the trunk. “My father used to bring our nutmegs here,” Dingis says. Sure enough, this building is labeled on my map—“Nutmeg Station”—one of a scant handful of government processing stations still operating around the island, where farmers come to sell their harvest. Dingis leads us inside. Near the door, a newly arrived sack of nutmegs has been dumped onto a sorting table, and a lone woman slowly picks through them. But the rest of the downstairs is quiet; and when Dingis takes us upstairs, where the nutmegs are left to dry naturally under the roof, in the hottest part of a hot building, the tiers of screened drying racks are mostly empty.
“Before Ivan, dey were fullll,” Dingis says, drawing out the word into a melancholy musical refrain. Grenadians refer to the hurricane that near-destroyed their island in September 2004 simply as “Ivan,” no need to include the “H” word. They have fully anthropomorphized the storm that eventually became a Category 5, top-of-the-charts hurricane. Though he was still a Category 3 when he crossed Grenada, Ivan killed at least forty-one of the island’s residents, damaged or destroyed 90 percent of its buildings and uprooted close to 90 percent of its nutmeg trees. “Ivan come lookin’ for his wife Janet,” Dingis had told us shortly afterward, describing the disaster. He had waited a long time: Janet, the previous hurricane to strike the island, had visited almost half a century earlier.
Back in Toronto after our first trip, we had kept in touch with Dingis, sharing from afar the milestones in her life and that of her teenage daughter, Gennel. Birthdays. Christmases. Illnesses. Funerals. And then the hurricane that “mash up” their house, and their island. “When you comin’ back?” Dingis had asked at the end of every long-distance conversation.
During that first stretch in Grenada, now almost a decade ago, she had always promised to take us to “deh country,” as she calls the part of the island we ’re now walking, where she grew up and where her father and two of her brothers still live. When we first met, her phrasing had made me laugh, since by my standards, Dingis herself lived solidly in “deh country.” Her Lower Woburn house was barely visible from the road behind a dense wall of tropical greenery— banana, breadfruit, mango and papaya trees; coconut palms; pigeon pea and pepper bushes. A few sheep and goats grazed on the steep hillside behind it, and a couple of clucking chickens pecked in the yard.
But now, up here, continuing on foot along the steep road from Union, I begin to understand. We pass only scattered houses, and are passed by only the very occasional car. This part of the island— more mountainous and with more rainfall than the south— has an all-pervasive greenness, a more intense lushness, and a coolness that is different from the other end. Thanks to the morning rain, the landscape seems freshly washed— glittering, even, where the sunlight splashes the still-wet foliage. “We would climb up and over deh mountain,” Dingis says, continuing her story as we walk, “to gather deh nutmegs, three hundred pounds in a day. My father had two donkeys— we would carry sacks of nutmegs partway down until we reach deh donkeys.”
A nutmeg tree yields two spices. Its plump, apricot-like, yellow-orange fruit bursts open when ripe to reveal a lacy, strawberryred corset wrapping a hard, glossy-brown shell. This delicate red lace is the spice mace; the polished shell underneath contains the nutmeg itself. When the donkeys reached their house, Dingis and her brothers would remove the mace from the nutmegs, slipping it off the shell with their fingers and sorting it into three grades, based on the size of the pieces: “deh pretty, deh not so pretty and deh broken bits”; three hundred to four hundred pounds of nutmegs are needed to yield a single pound of mace. (Even now, as we pass the occasional house along the road, we see various-sized pieces of mace drying on front porches, spread in wooden trays and on plastic tarps.) McDonald Ignatius Naryan, Dingis’s father— everyone but his family calls him “Mr. Mac”—would then deliver the nutmegs to the processing station in the village.
When Dingis had first talked about bringing us to the country, her mom was alive, but a few years ago the eighty-three-year-old suffered a fatal stroke. “She pass, from deh pressure,” Dingis told us in a long-distance phone call. But Mr. Mac still lives in the house where Dingis once helped with the spice harvest. Settled in a straight-backed chair, Pepsi ball cap pushed back on his head, smiling broadly at the arrival of his daughter and her friends, he looks easily a decade younger than his ninety years. Though we know Mr. Mac has had a stroke too, and has trouble getting around, it’s not obvious at first meeting. With his brown trousers rolled up at the bottom, his feet bare and his face stubbly, he still looks like the farmer he once was. He is hard to understand, but we chalk this up to our difficulty with Grenadian English— the accent and vocabulary of the island’s older generations, in particular, take some getting used to— rather than to infirmity.
“Why do you think he still so strong and still look so good?” his fifty-one-year-old daughter now asks us. “It’s deh mountains.” The bare-bones house— worn wooden floors, hot, galvanized metal roof exposed on the interior, curtains tacked across the door frames of the bedrooms, bare mattresses— has ropes strung throughout, so Mr. Mac can help himself maneuver through it. And one of Dingis’s brothers, Rovel (short for Roosevelt), lives here and helps. But otherwise, the two pieces of ragged foam that cushion one of Mr. Mac’s chairs are about the sum of his extra comforts.
Plastic chairs are pulled out for us, and Kimon, one of Mr. Mac’s great-grandsons, is sent to climb the guava tree behind the house to get us a snack. Curling, faded family photos are thumbtacked between the exposed joists of the stained aqua wall near one of the spots where Mr. Mac regularly sits, but the real art here is what’s framed by the unglazed windows: slices of tangled, jungly Rousseau-like landscape. The layered greens are punctuated with spatters of yellow, soft orange and wine red, the pods of the cocoa trees. Mr. Mac farmed cocoa in addition to nutmegs, and along the way today Dingis had picked one of the football-shaped pods. (Her eldest brother, whom we’d met briefly on our walk up the road, has taken over from their father and works the land.) Now, with the household cutlass, a wooden-handled machete with a 22-inch curving blade, she thwacks open the sunset-colored pod and offers us the beans. “Local M&M’s,” we’ve heard them called.
“Listen to me,” she says, as she always does when she wants us to pay attention to some piece of information she suspects we don’t know. “You don’t bite deh bean— just suck it and spit it out.”
I’d already learned the hard way: straight from the pod, cocoa beans are extremely bitter, lacking not only an appealing chocolate color but also any discernible chocolate taste. But they’re coated with a slippery, slimy white pulp that is sweet, vaguely fruity and very delicious. Once, on a hike in Trinidad that went hours longer than anyone expected, our guide found cocoa growing wild in the rain forest and kept the diabetic of the group going by having him suck the pulp from the beans; it did the trick.
Between the sugar hit from the cocoa and the one from the ripe guavas, eaten skin and all like apples, we’re ready for a hike ourselves, back into Dingis’s childhood. Young Kimon leads the way, in shorts, a new-looking basketball jersey with Michael Jordan’s number, and plastic thongs. Dingis has also donned a pair of flip-flops, changing out of the low-heeled “special occasion” sandals she wore (with the backs folded down under her heels) during the bus trip and walk up the road from the village. She’s dressed for the day in her usual attire: modest, below-the-knee print skirt and untucked, cap-sleeved, white blouse. Meanwhile, I’m in well-worn pants and hiking shoes, sure this is what a trip to “deh country” requires.
Our first stop is a spring that Dingis had told us about many times, where the water bubbles from a rock wall and is channeled within bucket reach via a scrap of plastic eavestrough laid across a bamboo pole. “Make us a cup,” Dingis instructs her grandnephew, and Kimon plucks an elephant ear–sized callaloo leaf that’s growing near the water. With a few deft folds of the leaf and a wrap of the stem, he turns it into a long-handled drinking cup from which we each sip cold spring water. He spots crayfish in a nearby stream— as Dingis had predicted—and captures one with his hands so we can get a closer look. (“One day we will have a crayfish cook-up,” she promises.) She then sends him a short distance into the forest to pick me a wild balisier, or heliconia, the giant red lobster claw of a flower that’s related to the banana and so brilliantly colored, so exotic, and so flawless it almost seems a fake.
The beauty of this land, overflowing with stuff growing, makes my heart catch— though Dingis keeps pointing out what isn’t here. “Before Ivan, we could have picked grapefruits and limes, but deh trees gone now.” She shakes her head, still aghast at the state of the nutmegs. To our eyes, however, there are so many nutmeg trees that it’s hard to imagine how many more there would have been before the hurricane. And the tourist board still trumpets that Grenada has more spices per square mile than any other place on the planet. Some of the trees are ready for harvesting, their ripe fruits (botanically, the pericarp) split open, revealing the glossy nutmeg with its lattice of mace (the aril) nestled inside: Deh lady in deh boat wit’ deh red petticoat, says an old Grenadian rhyme. The overwhelming smell here is of rich, fertile forest after a rain, overlaid with the barest hint of spice from the open fruits.
When Dingis was a girl, she and her brothers would beat the trees with long sticks to shake the fruits to the ground, then gather the nutmegs into large sacks. Nature has already done the work today, and the ground is littered with nutmegs tossed free of their boats but still dressed in scarlet lace. Dingis insists we scoop them up to replenish our onboard supply.
Mr. Mac has been growing nutmegs on this land for nearly half as long as nutmeg trees have existed on the island. “There are . . . some trees which I think bear nutmegs but at present no fruit,” wrote Dr. Diego Álvarez Chanca, physician to Christopher Columbus’s fleet during his second voyage to the West Indies (1493–96). “I say I think because the smell and taste of the bark is like that of nutmegs.” Whatever he smelled and tasted (he was on Hispaniola at the time), it was wishful thinking: nutmeg trees are only native to the Moluccas— the Spice Islands, in Indonesia— and didn’t arrive in the New World until the early years of the nineteenth century. The Dutch, who ruled the Spice Islands before that, were determined to keep their monopoly on nutmeg. To ensure the trees didn’t spread beyond lands they controlled, they washed the nutmegs in lime before shipping them so they couldn’t be propagated elsewhere. They also destroyed trees and even part of the nutmeg crop when necessary to control production and keep prices high. When the Spice Islands briefly came under British rule beginning in 1796, however, nutmeg seedlings were sent to other British colonies for planting, including St. Vincent in 1802. Grenada came later.
Around 1840, the long arm of the British Empire was further responsible for nutmeg’s spread, when successful sugar plantation managers in the British West Indies were sent to sugar plantations in the British East Indies to introduce their more efficient methods. When the Grenada-based sugarmen eventually returned home, they brought nutmegs with them. The island’s first nutmeg tree is said to have been grown from seed brought from the Banda Islands by Frank Gurney and planted, in 1843, at Belvidere Estate— less than 5 miles as the crow flies from where we’re walking.
Island lore doesn’t give a reason for Gurney’s desire for fresh nutmeg. But around the same time, Captain John Bell of the Royal Navy planted nutmeg seedlings on his Grenadian estate (which he called Penang, after his posting in Malaysia), apparently because he had become accustomed to having his rum punch with a sprinkling of the freshly grated spice on top. Steve and I can identify.
For the next two decades, nutmeg remained merely a curiosity in the Caribbean. But when a nocturnal worm took a huge bite out of the world supply of the spice in 1860, planters in Grenada jumped at the economic opportunity and started to grow nutmeg as a commercial crop. In the twentieth century, it surpassed sugar and cocoa as the island’s largest export, and Grenada became the world’s second-largest supplier (after Indonesia). Nutmeg remains so important to the Grenadian economy that “deh lady in deh boat wit’ deh red petticoat” is depicted on the national flag. Though the island has rebounded since Ivan, nutmeg farming will be one of the last sectors to recover fully: the shallow-rooted, easily toppled nutmeg trees were among the worst casualties of the hurricane-force winds—and new nutmeg seedlings take ten to fifteen years to bear fruit.
“When you comin’ back?” Rovel asks us repeatedly, as his sister Dingis used to. “You must come and spend deh night”—though the house, more than a little rustic, is unsuited to guests—“and deh next morning, I take you hiking in deh mountains.” Dingis conveniently sidesteps the invitation with a more immediate plan: a stop at Kimon’s house up the road to see his manicous—rough-haired, pointy-nosed, scaly-tailed, smallish, cat-sized things that are hunted (in season) for their meat.
Kimon scoops one out of a plastic barrel and sets it on the ground so we can get a good look. In the flash of an eye, one of the local mongrels lunges at it— these aren’t even “Riot-Wilder” pups, like the ones listed for sale in the Classified section of one of Grenada’s newspapers— and the next thing I know, the manicou is lying dead on the ground. I’m horrified—poor Kimon— and feel guilty that we ’re the cause of his pet being out where the dog could get it. But Kimon doesn’t seem upset and neither, for that matter, does anyone else. “A manicou is an opossum,” Steve whispers to me. “He ’s playing dead until the danger is over.”
When it’s time to leave, we catch a ride back to Union in a flatbed truck, Dingis and Gail sitting primly up front with the driver; Steve and I, sprawled in the back, clutching the sides and keeping low to avoid branches as we whip back down the mountain. I sleep most of the way on the two buses home, once again sandwiched into a rear seat. But this time, I’m surrounded on the first bus by the fumes of the local Rivers rum, thanks to the elderly Grenadian next to me, sleeping off his misspent afternoon.
“Listen to me,” Dingis says as we hug good night back in Lower Woburn and thank her for taking us to see where she grew up, “don’t forget to put deh nutmegs to dry. You know how to tell when they’re ready? You shake them, and you can hear deh nut rattle in deh shell.”
Sure enough, when I remember to check them a few weeks later, they click in my fingers like castanets. I put them in a jar carefully labeled Nutmegs from Dingis’s Family Land and tuck it into Receta’s spice cupboard.
By this point, we are already a year and a half into our second journey, and the spice cupboard is filled to overflowing with the herbs and spices we ’ve foraged, bought and been given along the way. Each time I open its door, some package, bottle, jar, box or bag inevitably spills out. Most are labeled with more than simply the name of a spice. Like the bag of nutmegs from Dingis’s family, each has a provenance, a link to the land, a connection to a place and its people. Each wafts a scent that tells an island story.

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Caribbean by Cruise Ship

Caribbean by Cruise Ship

The complete guide to cruising the Caribbean
also available: Paperback
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An Innocent in Cuba

day one
sea of happiness

Saturday, February 14, 2004. From the nineteenth floor of the four-­star Hotel Neptuno Tritón there’s a wide-­angle view of the western-­most limits of suburban Havana, the parklike area south of Miramar Beach — lightly industrial, lightly residential, agricultural hardly at all. Clusters of palm trees dot the tops of green hills on the southern horizon. The sky is baby blue and speckled with swirling little galaxylike clouds of baby pink. The lights on tall metal poles around the front of the hotel switch off at precisely seven o’clock. It’s a new day: two loud sharp clangs come from a tuneless bell way off in the distance and small groups of workers quicken their pace to the construction sites. Hotels are going up all around here, with fabulous neo—art deco lines and dazzling colour combinations.

On Cuban construction sites where workers are docked pay for being late or absent, there is much lateness and absenteeism. On jobs where one is not docked, workers will go out of their way to show up on time every day. That’s why workers ­aren’t getting docked these days. I’ve heard this twice already, so it must be true.

Ten years ago the view from the nineteenth floor would have been dominated by the neo-­classical red-­roof Iglesia Jesús de Miramar off in the distance, with its beautiful pearl-­grey dome. It would have had a vast rural rolling landscape to itself, an opalescent island in a sea of emeralds. But now that church, still with all its attractions, has been rendered less significant, dwarfed by recently constructed hotels, the Havana Trade Center, and the beginnings of new residential neighbourhoods.

Traffic on the highway below seems light — a few speeding toy cars well spaced, now and then a toy lorry loaded with cement blocks. People will casually sidestep onto the sidewalk to avoid the occasional bus jammed with people. A former beauty queen from Venezuela is touting Reduce Fat Fast pills on the twenty-­two-­channel universe, and gives different numbers to call for different Latin American countries. Each country is listed on the screen, except for Cuba, where obesity is rare, beauty contests are considered moronic, and few people have credit cards.

Winter storms have paralyzed traffic in Istanbul, airports have been turned into dormitories in Athens, in Toronto it’s fifteen below — but in Cuba it looks like another fine day with hot sunshine. The only snow is on an old man’s beard and the only ice is in his first drink of the day.

The flight from Toronto was full of people from Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, New York. They were a serious bunch, curious about Cuba rather than just wishing to sprawl mindlessly on the beach for a week. They were more interested in sizing up the island, sniffing out opportunities. A group of five had been corresponding with the Council of Cuban Churches and were now excitedly going over their maps and discussing their plans to visit every single one of the Protestant churches in Cuba — dispensing advice, no doubt. Nine out of ten such churches are said to be lacking pastors. Anti-­abortion feeling is high among the faithful, and the more outspoken get thrown in jail. The non-­Cuban world, including Amnesty Inter­national, calls these people dissenters. Most Cubans call them worse names. What seems clear is that there is a long-­standing majority tradition in Cuba of considering a woman’s desire for a safe abortion to be inviolable.

At the José Martí Airport last night, it was like being trapped inside an ant’s eye. Every television monitor was showing a weary but ­passionate old Fidel giving yet another speech. We were in Toronto when he started and he’s still at it, with no notes, no teleprompter, and no wire in his ear feeding him lines by his brother Raúl. The speech is being delivered to the people who love him and understand him, and anyone else who wants to tune in. Passengers disembarking stare at the tv screens with an unconscious look of disdain, as if at the shock of actually seeing Fidel on the tube speaking, instead of being the invisible subject of unfriendly one-­sided roundtable discussions on the U.S. networks. [Note: This was the speech in which Fidel said that President George W. Bush ­couldn’t debate a Cuban ninth grader, and that after four decades of economic blockade the Cuban economy is in better shape, in certain important ways, than the U.S. economy, which is hanging by a thread. Also, he said once again that Bush was actively plotting to have him assassinated and planning to invade Cuba. Cubans should get ready to defend their country with guerrilla tactics. He may even have mentioned bomb shelters.]

A. lives in Toronto and ­doesn’t travel much these days. She has been generous with her memories of her two-­week urban ramble in Havana ten years ago, all the little details from beginning to end. For starters, she related how high-­spirited schoolteachers from southern Ontario filled the plane with their crazed screams and sudden eruptions of funny noises and silly remarks. The pilot was careful not to break the law by flying the more direct route over the United States, which would have saved an hour of corny jokes. After the teachers staggered off the plane in Varadero, A. was the sole passenger to continue to Havana. She said she felt like a shadow. The one person on duty in the dimly lit customs shack had no desire to look at her shadowy passport, her shadowy bag, or to ask where she planned to stay. There were no taxis or buses waiting.

In the tropical night, gawking up at the full moon among the towering royal palms, she was approached by a friendly tall beanpole of an Afro-­Cuban and his very short black wife, plump and with a sense of humour. They said they were driving into the city. They often drove out to the airport to watch the Canadians disembark, to see the joy on their faces as they feel their bones thawing, their allergies disappearing, their sex glands self-­secreting. Did they actually say that about the sex glands? A. laughed and admitted she made that up. So, could they have the pleasure of her company? They would drive her into the city and help her find a hotel. Of course!

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