Whenever I arrive in a distant place alone my instinct is to dump my bag in the nearest hotel and walk. I never feel comfortable until I’ve begun to sense that I understand the basic geography, the nature of the people and, in a subconscious sort of way, the escape routes. In certain countries I imagine what would I do if there were a coup or some other dastardly violent act. Who would be my friends? Besides, I’ve long experienced a chronic loneliness while travelling (although the last few years I’ve found it much easier), so if I know nobody I quickly move to remedy the situation.
This time it wasn’t someone in my fat address book (the editor of Prospect magazine, an ex FT guy, says it’s the most comprehensive he’s ever come across) or a friend of a friend who I’d been recommended to phone up. It wasn’t a politician or diplomat or newspaper editor whose name I’d gleaned in London. Going to St. Vincent, a small Caribbean island, had been a rather impetuous decision so I arrive empty handed. I only had, as usual, a small knapsack. So when I got off the airport bus I started walking.
I intended to chat. It was easy. The town was on the streets. It was carnival time. Every doorway had its loudspeaker. Every store was a bar whether its normal business was selling hoes or clothes. Nobody was still. It was the end of the day and people were getting ready to move their bodies.
The capital of St. Vincent is not much more than a quay by the dock, accompanied by a short main street, part British Victorian and part twentieth century Third World concrete.
Propped up against one of the more garish modern pieces of architectural work were Roots and his friends. I gave them a nod. This was all they needed. “Just say man, whatya need. We can getya anything- a girl? Speed?” I told them I was looking for a cheapish room. Roots, the tallest and strongest-looking of them, took the initiative. Perhaps, he decided, I was a little reserved. He beckoned me over, and then turned on his heel. He ducked into a shack. I followed. I thought he wanted to show me the carnival costumes hanging on the walls, rhinestones and golden glitter in the shape of birds, angels and demons. “Just say, man, what kind of a girl are you looking for. No problem, man”. “No Roots”, I laughed. “I have a girl friend at home. I just want a bed with clean sheets and a clean bathroom.” I stared at the costumes on the wall. The most intricate designs- and high priced too, a cool $200 to $250 each- for becoming for three or four days a being from another world, dressed in glory, feathered from head to toe in the brightest emerald, turquoise, ruby, gold and silver.
We started to look for a hotel. Roots appeared to know half the town and I looked at the people to see how they greeted him. What was in their eyes? Did they look relaxed or was he a hoodlum, a rip-off artiste, that made them avert their eyes? Or just a big boy on the street corner with a loud mouth?
There was something a little incongruous, even on an island where odd visitors come and go every day, for Roots to be accompanied by a white man who was clearly not a student or a hippy. I could see that the people who looked at us couldn’t quite get the measure, at least in the four or five fleeting seconds the hellos and goodbyes were made as we flat footed it around the boarding houses.
The first place that had a room turned out to be something of an embarrassment. Partly out of friendship for Roots, partly to please me, the young receptionist gave me a room. But hardly had I put my bag on the bed her mother arrived and explained the room was already let out to some out-of-towners coming in later. I told them not to worry and ordered a drink from their tiny bar. Roots asked for an orange juice and for the next two days we spent together he drank only that. In some of the mountain villages we visited there was only bottled stuff and he would disdainfully refuse to drink. It had to be pure orange juice, straight from a nearby tree. Beer or the ubiquitous coke were no substitute.
Eventually we found a small hotel. I booked in while Roots chatted up the girl behind the desk. I soon learnt that Roots knew most of the young maidens in town, at least enough to say hello to. Of course every new conversation was a challenge and in a short while I learnt to leave him to it. I’d hurried upstairs and hurried down so as not to keep him waiting. He reprimanded me, as we walked away. “If you had given me five minutes I’d have had my hand on her breast”. “Roots”, I said, “I’m sorry I cramped your style. You can always come back later. Anyway you need the darkness to succeed.”
We carried on walking. Roots, I realized, was his “nomme de plume” or perhaps his “nomme de guerre” in his hunt for young ladies. Everyone else called him something more down to earth which I could never quite catch since he and those he met on the street spoke in a rapid patois where the words seemed to be rolled into one extended vowel.
Not only did Roots not drink he didn’t appear to eat. He was self-sufficient. He never accepted my offer to eat in a café. Perhaps he was a boy of the earth who lived on digging up and eating raw potatoes, and coconuts he scrambled up palm trees to dislodge. Or maybe he just wanted to make sure that I understood I was not accompanying him for financial return.
That evening we went to the town stadium for the semi-finals of the carnival song competition. It was packed and with reason. The contestants had worked for months on their newly minted songs. It was not just the singing. It was pure theatre and spectacle. Indeed, so spectacular were they, I wanted to whisk them off the London and get them to perform side by side with the current hit musical to see if they were as really as good as I, at that moment, thought they were. The costumes were extravagant, the bands large, and the voices soared. They acted out every word in the songs which seemed mainly to be variations on the love theme, the scandal of holes in the road and the incompetence of the politicians. It was exuberance of a high order, rocketing the music into my eyes and ears, overpowering me with a sense of magnificence I normally only feel at the ballet or the opera house. This was more than small island pop. It was art.
I said goodnight to Roots and he said he would come by in the morning. He was at the hotel by breakfast time. Again he refused to eat. An orange juice was enough.
I had a list of appointments to get through. I was chasing a story for my column- about a school for young delinquents. Briefly, the situation was this. A group of Scandinavian educationalists had set up a reformatory for young boys that the penal system in Europe had despaired of. It took them not only from Scandinavia but also from Britain. I had been alerted to it by an article in the right wing Daily Telegraph that I picked up from an empty chair by a swimming pool which reported that borstal youths were being sent to “paradise island” at the taxpayers’ expense. I was out to discover what was really going on, since I lived in a neighbourhood in London with plenty of bad boys.
I did the routine in town that morning- the British High Commission, the editor of the St Vincentian and the foreign minister. I lent Roots the car. I said we’d leave in 30 minutes. After an hour the owner of the café I was having lunch in wanted to lock up for the afternoon. “You won’t see him again”, he said. “He’s a bad one.” Thirty minutes later Roots arrived. He’d done the tour of the town. Now everyone knew Roots had a car.
We set off the find the reform school. Roots asked if he could drive. Our destination was the far end of the island, along the narrow, worn road which linked the coastal villages. Roots was more than ready to go. We went. Fast. And through the villages faster. The small houses clustered at the side of the road. Children and animals freewheeled. This was Roots’ moment. He accelerated. For the first two villages I tried to be calm and casual, jokingly suggesting that he was running it a little bit too fine when he almost brushed a wandering goat and then decapitated a disorientated chicken. By the third village my nerves were stretching. By the fourth I was losing my tempter. “Whose fucking car is this, Roots?”, I asked. “Just take it a bit easier, cool it down a little.” He slowed. But by the next village the car raced at full throttle again. The sixth, seventh and eighth villages were more of the same. This was a performance.
Roots had many friends. Every third village we would skid to a halt. A child playing at the roadside would be sent inside to announce Root’s presence. A young girl would appear. A few quick words were passed and Roots would then accelerate fast, leaving behind what he regarded as a favourable impression.
The dilemma I faced was whether I put my life- and probably those of the goats, hens, pigs and children- before one of Root’s rare chances to show his worth. I didn’t like to be mean since he had been so generous- giving up his time to be my unpaid and unfed guide. In the end a terrifying lurch that missed an old woman by an inch made me blow. “Fuck it”, I said. “Roots, I’m going to drive.” My philosophising was cut short. It was now simply life or death. He stopped and moved over without protest.
We continued up and down the backs of protruding mountains, through simple villages of wooden shacks and elementary stone houses. St Vincent has a desolate look, unlike the rugged beauty of Grenada or the gentle orderliness of Barbados, its two touristy neighbours. Its mountains are steep, lurching straight out of the sea and its settlements are squeezed into small coves. It is harsh terrain, unsuitable to agriculture. Houses were surrounded by small gardens of corn and fruit trees of oranges and bananas. The plants looked undernourished. I did not like it.
As we progressed it seemed to become more desolate and forlorn, more windswept and isolated. This was certainly not the “tropical paradise” of the newspaper report.
At last we reached our destination. The school was nothing more than a collection of bare concrete structures on a hillside. Nobody was about. We wandered around until we found a door open and inside what seemed to be the refectory we met four tough-looking white boys engaged in enticing the attentions of a village girl. Maybe this is what the Daily Telegraph meant by paradise.
We asked them where the director was and one went off to look for him. The others continued their cooing and wooing. She was a peasant girl with missing front teeth.
A couple of minutes later a young man came in. He was Danish, I think. Without saying hello he announced that the director was away in England and if I wanted to talk to him he could give me his phone number. Taken back, I announced that I had just come from England and the point was to see the institution first hand. “That’s all I have to tell you”, he said and started to walk away. I followed him and he disappeared into an office. I pursued him, Roots hot on my tail. His office was decorated with pictures of Che Guevara. I read the message. I was the right-wing, capitalist press, about to write another “tropical paradise” story.
“Listen”, I said. “I don’t make my mind up one way or another until I’ve seen something with my own eyes”. It was the right chord, though it didn’t take me very far. “We know the press”, he shot back. “You’re here just looking for a scandal”. It was hopeless. I went into a long debate about how there would have been no resignation of Nixon if it hadn’t been for the diligence of the press and about how I’d worked for Martin Luther King. But he was stubborn, unmoveable and kept flapping the piece of paper with the London phone number written on it. He started to get annoyed. “Will you please go? I want you off the premises in two minutes”. I was about to boil when Roots interjected. “Look, mister, you wouldn’t talk to a reporter like that if he were black.” It was a bulls’ eye. The man’s eyes widened. I laughed a big roar and we tramped out, victorious. The silly left-wing creep, I thought, hung on his own petard by a man, who until that moment, I’d thought was rather thick.
We got into the car and started down the hill. I began to argue with myself. One side of me was burning to write a damning piece. “Secretive borstal with something to hide”. The other side of me understood how he felt because when I was a political activist at university, in Africa and in Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement I’d distrusted the press for similar reasons. In fact I first started to write and fight to get articles into newspapers because I thought the truth was not always told.
“Roots”, I said. “Mad as we are we’ve got to find what’s really going on. Besides in the capital this morning all I heard was good”. We bumped into a black boy and a white boy coming up the hill in a tractor. We stopped them and started to talk. They turned out to be from the slummy Holloway end of Islington, my neighbourhood. One had been sentenced to fifteen years for stabbing another boy at a dance.
They clearly loved the work of farming this barren soil. They didn’t miss London. They said they felt they were learning something worthwhile for the first time in their lives. It was the first break they had had. And the world of machine tool workshops and carpentry benches looked rather brighter here than it did in London.
Then further on we came across two members of staff. I did not tell them I was a journalist. We leant out of the car and chatted. They lived here in almost isolation. They were on duty most of the time with only one day off a week. I was impressed by their dedication. In the village a mile down the hill we gave two young local boys a lift and they told us how they had asked if they could be enrolled in some of the workshops and had been allowed to. Now there about 30 local boys who worked alongside the foreigners.
I relaxed. When Roots asked if he could drive I let him, warning him if there was any more speeding I would take over again. The first mile or two were fine. It could not last. He began accelerating. By the next village it was straight down the track, Le Mans. Into the curve, brake, accelerate, spin the tyres, then down into the next village, scattering everything that moved. Then it happened. He took a bend too fast, knocked a wheel against the wall and we ground to a halt. The wheel had been forced right up against the brakes. I waited to see what he did. “Stew in it, Roots”, I thought to myself. “I’ve had enough. You work it out”. The minutes ticked by and we stared into space. But then the two boys in the back said they had an idea. They looked, they shoved. They levered with a piece of wood. They got nowhere. I lost patience. “You guys will never solve the brake problem with a buckled wheel. We are going to change the wheel”. We did. The brake slipped back into place. The car was working and I was driving.
Dark was coming in and Roots was smelling the pull of the evening. “Can we stop in the next village and pick up a girlfriend?” “Sure”, I replied. The girl wasn’t ready. She had to change. We lolled around. There was an election meeting going on at the far end of the village and I wandered up, drawn by the razzmatazz blaring out of loudspeakers. A moment later Roots drew up alongside. “I’m just going to the next village to check on another friend. I’ll be back in ten minutes”. “OK”, I said as nonchalantly as I could. The minutes rolled by. The election troupe folded their paraphernalia and disappeared into the night. It was now totally dark and I was alone. “Goddammit”, I thought. “Roots has pulled a fast one and has taken the car for a rest-of-the-evening jaunt”. Well, I’d been warned by the café owner. I decided to give him another half-hour and then I would resign myself to walking the rest of the way- a good ten miles.
I wasn’t in the mood for any new uncertainties. I’d had enough for one day. Then as suddenly as he had departed he reappeared. I got the story. The girl he had been waiting for had not seemed very keen and he suspected the getting changed bit was just a ploy. So he’d raced to choice number two, but that hadn’t worked out either. “Let’s go”, he said. “The Mighty Sparrow is playing tonight. Wanna come?”
When I took the plane out to Barbados late that night I discovered my wallet was gone. I’ve no idea who took it. I know one thing. It wasn’t Roots