Bushwacking Union Island

We hiked all over that damn island! Bushwhacking with our loyal stray dogs. Two golden labs who found us on the beach and followed us all day. Compared to the rest of the island dogs they were bigger, whiter, furrier and seemingly more civilized. (Except when the young male snatched and crushed a baby chick in one snap of his jaws. But he was just excited, right?) Island dogs who chase goats get a whack with a machete, and our escorts themselves sported a few swollen gashes.

First impressions of Union Island didn’t exactly grab my heart strings and pluck. The splash of our anchor into Chatham Bay summoned a succession of wooden launches, each boat-boy pushing their beach-shack restaurant, or selling bread, or fish, or lobster, or garbage services. On the beach we ladies were greeted by a tall, smiling, squinting man who offered hiking tours, taxi service to the village, and finally himself as company. Even after we spoke of boyfriends, real or made up, he invited us to come to shore later and “look him up”. “I’ll wait for you,” he winked at Alice. So we headed back to the safety of our boat.

We landed the rubber dinghy with a bump against the plastic hull to find the boys talking with another launch, discussing lobster prices. I felt fed up. At least in Barbados it wasn’t so obvious that everyone was trying to sell you something. I was short with the fishermen. “I don’t eat lobster!” I said, as I brushed through the cockpit. But I do, sometimes. We didn’t buy from them, they motored away on the force of my cold front. I could have been kinder.

I wrote my complaints to my mom, and she sympathized, remembered it much the same way twenty-five years ago. “They’re really poor there,” she reasoned. “They’re just trying to make some money.” Her words thawed my frustration. To them we’re rich. Anyone who has a boat and the freedom to travel the world over, who has phones and computers and solar panels and…yeah, we’re rich. Still, it’s disheartening when two little boys dancing in the street give you a high five, wait until you walk a ways, giggle and then shyly call out for a dollar. Walking dollars.

We had left Barbados as soon as our water-maker parts cleared customs. The steady trades whisked us away from that out-of-the-way, magical island. With every mile I felt the distance increasing the upwind struggle to return. Like a veil of mist settling over a fairy land, wrapping protectively, concealing the path back. So hard to get to, just a speck on the route from Europe, and if you miss it, the winds usher you on your way. Isolated. (Except for the airport, of course, with its inherent ability to take the mystery out of secret corners the world over.) I felt grateful to have seen it, and sad to leave. I doubt I’ll be back soon.

We set out at sunset, and covered 113 miles for sunrise in the Grenadines, a smattering of small islands, including the Tobago Cays marine reserve. Despite their name, half of the Grenadines are part of larger Grenada to the south, and half part of lush St. Vincent to the north. Union Island marked the start of the St. Vincent Grenadines, and as we were traveling north, we decided to head there, rather than deal with customs in both Grenada and St. Vincent.

After a starry, speeding sail, surfing and skimming the sea, Luci and I watched the sky lighten over a horizon of dry green mounds wrapped in rings of light blue water and shallow breaking reefs.

A few days of strong easterly gusts was predicted, so we cleared customs in the ghostly town of Clifton, then wrapped around the lee side of the island to seek shelter in Chatham bay. A wide horseshoe harbor with steep green hills hugging in on three sides. Thirty or so boats anchored close to each other, and the beach spanned one edge of the horshoe. A modest resort with a few small bungalows and several open-air tin-roofed shack-bars spotted the sand.

We reversed hard on our anchor, digging it deep into the sandy bottom, as the wind rushed down the hills to spin in our bowl of a bay. It was debatable whether we were sheltered there, or if the gusts were amplified. They were nearing thirty, ripping mist off the surface of the water and spitting it through the air. They howled through our rigging, sending us twirling and tugging at the anchor, and then marched on to toss the next boat. Furious invisible ghosts, leaving only footprints of dark rippled lines racing across the water.

By now the boys really needed to get off the boat. They were still hacking away at the water-maker, as they had been since its second day of use. They were at the point of complete disassembly and reassembly, and still it chugged and thrashed and spit everything but fresh water. They’d spent days teasing it, begging it, cracking beers and rum at noon to fight their boredom and stress. They were convinced it worked best when they played The Doors for it, so we listened to them at least once a day. (I’d already gone through a full cycle of interest to appreciation, to requesting, to slight annoyance, to complete burn out…and back to some sort of humorously exhausted tolerance of the repeated album.)

But this day we ignored the water-maker and set off for some exploring. Lola, the little rubber dinghy, fully loaded with the three boys and Alice, me swimming behind, and Luci staying on the boat alone (a luxury in itself.) Our new dogs trotted up as we tugged Lola over the sand to a tree, tongues flopping, tails wagging, all friendly and cuddly. Hard to resist after months on a boat, without pets, without affection. Pleasures are enhanced by their absence.

A rutted track climbed out of Chatham bay to the start of a white cement road. We took a path to the left, to a field overlooking the bay of boats. Long grass and branches bent sideways in the wind bursts and scrawny cows lay with legs folded neatly, conserving energy. Their skin hung loose on sharp bones and I wondered if you ever get used to the feeling of being hungry, if it becomes a normal numbness.

Cow pies sprouted mushrooms, silvery-white nipple-shaped caps. I’d heard that magic mushrooms grow out of cow poo. I squatted to examine them, twisted them upside down to see their gills, took a picture, and then left them where they were. I am not so brave…or crazy.

Up a cobbled driveway, into shade and an unusual lush patch of road. A couple of goats stared at us curiously from their neatly fenced pasture, alongside a tall, well-maintained barn full of chatting ducks. A cement channel guided a trickle of water to a healthy taro patch down the hill. A small house, a hammock and surfboard on the porch. This island is dry, small and dry. Just like St. John. The little homestead and its clever use of water and space filled me with optimism and hope for what I could accomplish there as well.

Back on the white road not one car passed, just a scooter with two girls heading to the hidden homestead. I snapped pictures of plants to learn and identify later. We plucked hanging tamarinds and let our faces go sour as we sucked the fruit off the smooth brown seeds. Arek and Lukas decided that they might make interesting cocktails, so we harvested and stuffed handfuls into a rucksack.

On to a trail through a forest. The air turned suddenly cool and damp, the soil rich rather than baked. I looked up to see older trees with fanning canopies shading the ground and holding in moisture. Could such a thing as growing a forest transform the climate of a small, dry island.

We popped out on yet another lookout, sunbaked until the grass turned dry and only desert plants survived, cactuses, thorny bushes, some type of sage, a distinct scent from my childhood. Our dogs sat and panted and scratched. Chris and Alice had started calling the gentle female Tasha. The young male would earn the name Stiffy, as he always seemed to have his weiner sticking out.

“Alright, where now?” asked Chris, perched on the cliff in his army surplus boots and camo shorts. The trail seemed to die out. I was content to head back to the bay, swim and write. But then he set off again towards the next highest peak, and the rest just reactively followed. And so our procession carried on, scrambling through brush and hints of trails, without really knowing where we were going.

The trail was either nonexistent, or overgrown. And overgrown by a thorny bush that scraped legs and arms as we pushed through, like some sort of purgative religious rite. Island bushwhacking is an art; dodging webs, whacking mosquitoes, ducking low enough under fallen trees to avoid scraping the termite tunnels underneath and spraying yourself with skittering bugs.

Half of us seemed lost up ahead, with the “guide” dogs. Half of us grumbled behind, hoping that we wouldn’t have to come back the same way. We guessed at trails. When I started taking spider webs in the face, I realized that there was no longer anyone ahead of me, so I hooted for the front group to wait. It was important that we stick together! Mainly so they could clear the spider webs instead of me…

The thorns parted, a grassy stretch gave merciful passage, before we started into a dusty, vine-wrapped forest. We followed a dried waterway down, a gut awaiting rainstorms, apparent by the barren tumble of rocks. And we bumped suddenly into the fence of the town secondary school, it’s open field beyond. On the ground Alice found two small round fruit, which revealed an ancient, forgotten lime tree, with sweet smelling citrus leaves. What luck for the boys and their cocktails.

Finally a road, a paved road, where we humans could just zone out and walk, knowing that each foot would fall where we expected, that nothing would smack our faces. The luxury of civilization. Finally a town, Clifton, and a store open on Sunday. We sat and drank cold water and beer, as the old, shirtless owner shelled peas and weighed them into bags to sell behind his grocery counter.

Back home by way of the road. We saw less than ten cars. A lifeless island, or maybe just a Sunday. Tasha and Stiffy strayed to stalk chickens and we scolded them back. They attracted packs of menacing mutts, drawn out from yards and houses. I stood between them and clapped them back to avoid any “situation”.

And finally back down the dirt track to Chatham Bay. Before walking I had felt trapped by the tight bay. Before I found the road out and saw the island, saw what it had to offer. Sometimes a place is just what it is, and there aren’t more layers, but usually you can get deeper, or at least look a little closer. Like learn a new plant, or meet a new person. On Union I just needed to get out and walk, to feel in my body that I wasn’t so limited. I didn’t fall in love with the place, but that is OK. I am in love with too many things already.

As we loaded up the dinghy, I felt concerned for our dogs, that they might be distraught once we left. A local man lounged in a tent beside a bar, and I asked him who they belonged to. He told me that he didn’t know, that they live on the other side of the island somewhere, but come over here and cause trouble, fighting with other dogs, chasing the animals. The other day they ate a baby goat.

I looked at our dopey companions in disbelief. Stiffy was dipping his belly in the water, his tongue flopped out one side of his mouth. “And the other dogs don’t,” I asked, thinking of the scrawny brown mutts in town, barking and ferocious and nervous..but, now that I thought about it, not actually chasing any goats.

“They’re raised more as pets, they’re used to the animals,” he said.

And so our beloved rent-a-pets changed before my eyes. I cringed at my generalization, to automatically favor the big, white, cuddly dogs and condemn the scrappy brown ones, those who are actually protecting their community while ours cause problems. How must it have looked, the troop of white tourists falling right in line, charmed by the big white bully dogs. How impressions can shift! Before we had left the beach, Tasha and Stiffy ran off following another tourist…without even saying goodbye.

They sure were cute though!

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