gamut (2006-01)

Cheap rum but less reggae than roundball

At home he’s a tourist…

St. John the Revelator…

Binghiman don’t give up…

What would Che do?

Sitting here in limbo…

No shirt, no shoes, no shit…

Sometimes, a cigar isn’t just a cigar…

A tale of two Charlottes…

The tipping point…

by Jack Rentfro

Here be a tale of leaving cold, gray Tennessee for a place where it’s in the ’80s in the winter and the sky and water create an indescribable palette of blue. It is my first trip farther than western North Carolina in more than 15 years. Me, this broken-down milquetoast of a pirate looking deeply into middle-age, trading his usual neuroticisms for a week of sunburn, food poisoning, drowning, shark attack and jet crash anxieties. The culture wars. My sinuses.

To some extent, Tennessee went with us or was waiting for us when we got there. My wife, a radical Lady Vols fan, got the notion to combine this long-deferred vacation with a chance to watch Pat Summitt’s team smite all their foes at a friendly tournament in the U.S. Virgin Islands dubbed the “Paradise Jam.”

At home he’s a tourist… The U.S. Virgins—St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John and a few dozen islets—are the western tip of the Lesser Antilles with Puerto Rico and its notorious U.S. Navy bombing range, Vieques, immediately to the west. To the east, the rest of the Antilles string out toward the Atlantic and then down to South America. For the most part, they are volcanic in origin, with rugged, verdant highlands that drop steeply down to white sandy beaches and womb-warm waters.

After our first wake-up on St. Thomas, we go to the supermarket next to the K-Mart. It’s in a suburb called Tutu Park. We learn our first lesson in Taxi-conomics: $6 per person to Tutu; $8 per person to Charlotte Amalie, the capital. Then factor in the 20 percent tip, as with every other personal service in the islands. By the time we pro-rate taxis against renting a car (which also calls for learning St. Thomas’ spiderweb of roller-coaster roads driven English-style and laid out atop the islands’ original pathways—donkey tracks), it is too late for the arithmetic to work in our favor. We become shameless at making nice to people with rental cars.

St. John the Revelator… St. Thomas is for shoppers. St. John, about two-thirds a national park thanks to a Rockefeller grant, is for nature lovers. And only on St. John did I meet a local who could expound on the local flora and fauna. Our charter bus driver likes to be called “Homes.” This is “so you’ll always remember where you’re from—your homes,” he explains. Look, the guy’s a professional driver, not a semiotician. Among the various sights and stops are the ruins of an old cinnamon plantation. My sandal-clad feet kick over an anthill as we hike up a rocky path. It is the last time I wear the de rigueur beach footwear that had already blistered my feet all to hell. Figures—see what happens when I try to relax? After that, it’s back to my Tennessee black canvas fast-starts. But as the ants finish flaying my already tender feet and carry off pieces to build a fort somewhere, Homes assures me that “there are no dangerous ants in these islands.”

Later, Homes explains how cinnamon bark is cured and how to use the leaves as well. The affable jitney driver also lectures on the shmoo-like versatility of the noni tree and the toxicity of the machineal tree, which will pretty much just reach over and kill you.

St. John also is Luttrell native Kenny Chesney’s tropical home. I interviewed Chesney long ago when he had toured the Soviet Union right before its dissolution. A “local boy becomes a Redstar” kind of thing.  Sixteen years later, I am in a tour bus stopping by the walled entrance of the country music superstar’s estate long enough for a couple of excited young women in our group to run over and take snapshots of the security gate. Considering real estate prices in the islands, it is fair to say that the value of the Chesney compound is equal to a sizeable chunk of the change the United States paid Denmark for what had been their Virgins in 1917: $25 million. The Danes needed the cash and we needed to shore up our southern flank against the Kaiser.

Binghiman don’t give up… There is a compact little outdoor market along the quay downtown where cruise ship tourists can be deprived of their cash in the most efficient way possible. Within this, say, sixteenth of an acre are about 100 vendor tents and stalls. Every single one sells t-shirts, but some of the more diversified retailers also offer fake red-gold-green Rastafarian tams with a knotty mop of ersatz dreadlocks hanging out the back (the island version of the go-to-hell cap with mullet wig), ganja paraphernalia, sunglasses, straw hats, sandals, bongo drums, shot glasses and other gimcracks.

Splayed out like freaks on display are what appear to be genuine Rasta mystics. Binghiman—like Bob Marley sang about—a wild holy man come out of the jungle with his hair in tangled nests of okra-clotted dreads draped to the ground. The two or three ascetics scowl at the fat white tourists as we lurch around the bazaar, fending off the constant spiels for deals and taxis. Unhappily, it dawns on me they may be the equivalent of the American Indian “chiefs” who worked the roadside attractions of the Smokies, once upon a time.

The convincing-looking blackheart men plainly have nothing to do but to be seen wearing their knee-length djellabahs, swirling gorgon tentacles of iron-grey dreadlocks trailing around them. Perhaps they were there to hurl jeremiads at the ungodly trade taking place, but they also just seem sort of lost or trapped. Either way, I decide they didn’t need this white fool in stupid shorts trying to go all reggae on them.   

What would Che do? Almost all the t-shirts display St. Bob, or cannabis leaves, or some iteration therein. At one stall, a woman in an African turban comes out from behind her table to hold a little shaving mirror up so I can see myself in the sunglasses she’s selling. Behind her, a bright red T-shirt catches my eye: Che Guevara’s stogie-smoking face appliquéd above a clumsy, overlong revolutionary slogan. Even though I could have bought 10 other T-shirts for what it cost, I must have it. The old Commie Martyr would have delighted in the whole awkward exchange as a demonstration of the Marxist dialectic. Or maybe it was Reagan’s “trickle down” theory.

The first time I wear the Che shirt in public, my friend Benny Smith sees it and asks, “Hey, isn’t that the guy from ER? You know. George Clooney?”

Sitting here in limbo… There’s a lot to say for rum, soca music and the perfectly slow modulations of surf just a few yards away. And if it’s Wednesday, it’s Mocko Jumbie night over at Iggie’s, the hotel’s open-air bar and restaurant. This mini-version of the local Carnival is staged every week by the hotel. The star of the show is King Heron, champion fire-eater, glass-dancer and limbo man. With the layered rhythms of the soca trio intensifying behind him, King Heron begins a kooky buck-and-wing dance.

A Rastafarian harlequin in red-gold-green calypso shirt and tights, King Heron’s dervish act seems to start and stop on instructions from the subconscious. He alternately grimaces in mock fear or supplicates upward to the diamond constellations turning in the night sky. The fakir’s sidekick brings a pillowcase of Heineken bottles onstage. King Heron gingerly taps the bottles against each other until he has a pile of green glass shards. One bottle that would have been perfect for a barroom fight is left in an upright position in the middle of the heap. King Heron resumes the twirling and prancing to work up the crowd. After wondering how the poor fellow’s luck had held out during all the preceding torch-eating, I can’t take it anymore. “Don’t do it! That’s gonna hurt!” I yell. He does indeed jump up and stomp the jagged pile—so furiously that it’s hard to notice how his feet very nimbly dodge the upright bottle. Sweaty and smiling, King Heron ends the show, making a grand finale from picking what appear to be glass splinters from the soles of his feet.

No shirt, no shoes, no shit… You know you have received a message from God when, in one day, you’ve snorkeled up face-to-face with a monster barracuda, and then that same evening, sat a few feet away from Pat Summitt as she stalks the sideline and fixes that cold-blue laser stare on errant players.

Let’s face it, soccer is the only sport that matters. But even this interloper is won over by the phenomenon of Summitt’s generalship. I sense from arm’s length the trauma and triumph of the players: Sidney Spencer’s animated cheerleading; Sybil Dosty getting chewed out; Sade Wiley-Gatewood playing hurt; Candace Parker overpowering all comers and hurling one-armed passes the length of the court; Shanna Zolman shelling the bucket for three-pointers all night long. Lindsey Moss getting a headbutt that did this soccer hooligan proud.

The first game was a Thanksgiving treat—the Ladies handing Michigan State its collective ass, payback for the Spartans’ spoiling UT’s appearance at last year’s NCAA tournament. For the middle game of the series, plucky Gonzaga proves to be a reluctant sacrificial lamb.

So far through the series, we have this amazing vantage point from the front-row VIP bleacher seats that we claim as if we were, well, VIPs. By the last and hardest fought victory—against Maryland—the jig is up. Kenny Chesney’s entourage files in and claims them. The hillbilly homeboy himself, looking somewhat gnomish in a baseball cap and glasses, eschews the best seats in the house to skulk in the locals section of the stands with one of his homies. He talks to Lady Vols radio announcer Mickey Dearstone at the media table and briefly joins his pals on the front row.

Chesney’s break-up with A-list actress Renee Zellweger just months after their marriage on a St. John beach last spring still weighs heavily on everyone’s minds. In fact, the most poignant moment of the night is the halftime show when a local troupe line-dances and sings “Just Walk Away, Renee.” OK, that didn’t happen, but rum goggles make everything seem possible. The Chesney party does provide some local color, particularly when one of his cell-phone chattering girls keeps bending over to show us the pink shoelaces she’s wearing as undies.

Note to UT sports-industrial complex: Do you have any idea how much more money you’ll make if beer and rum could be sold at athletic events like it is at the University of the U.S. Virgin Islands?

Sometimes, a cigar isn’t just a cigar… Soon after their discovery by Christopher Columbus, the Virgins, presumably named for their untouched qualities, would not be so pure: For three centuries, the appetite for sugar, tobacco, molasses and rum outweighed any compunctions the colonial powers of Europe might have had about slave labor. The Caribbean remains a microcosmic analogy of that old struggle, and a handful of Old World powers still exert influence through these tropical postage stamps of territory. English sea dog Sir Francis Drake plied these waters in the English campaign to undermine Spanish control of the Caribbean in the 16th century. The United States would prove the champion in the imperial struggle for riches and military advantage, but Great Britain still hangs tough.

The British Virgin Islands (BVI) are clustered a boat ride northeast of their American cousins. If St. Thomas is the Gatlinburg of the Caribbean, the BVI and St. John are its Townsend. Here where the Union Jack unfurls among coconut palms, one feels the breeze coming off another empire that went mad. Sailing to Virgin Gorda, part of the BVI, we see the spectacular Baths, a phantasmal arrangement of volcanic boulders frozen in a geologic still life where they tumbled down to the aquamarine surf. In a calm bay of warm, aquamarine water, I commune with the aforementioned barracuda, motionless as a sunken log under the boat, checking out the snorkelers as we come up the ladder. The journey takes us by Norman Island, supposedly the locale inspiring Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirate epic, Treasure Island .

Thanks to Britain’s lack of a problem in trading with Castro’s Cuba, I am able to do something I’ve always wanted to do even though I have no real taste for cigars. The details of how I got home with some Guantanamera cigarillos and a pair of sweet, hand-rolled Romeo Y Julietas must await some worthy exaggeration down at the pub. It’s all pretty obvious if you’re there, and I don’t want to ruin the chances of the next guy with a yearning for the sweet nicotined vapors of the Workers’ Paradise that lays 75 miles off the tip of Key West.

There is a disproportionate risk/pleasure equation behind the foolishness of smuggling Cuban cigars. At least I have the sense to cut away the identifying bands, so I’ll have a thin tissue of plausible deniability should my cache be uncovered by one of the phalanxes of Customs service, Transportation Safety Administration and Homeland Security officials I pass through. Next time, I’ll buy them online.

A tale of two Charlottes… Our last day in St. Thomas, like swallows to Capistrano, we return to K-Mart. We need another suitcase to carry the souvenirs and other crap. Our carry-on limit is going to be used up by booze. You can take home a six-pack of fifths per person, duty-free, from the ginshops of Charlotte Amalie, providing one of those is a bottle of local product, cheap-as-bottled water Cruzan rum. Buying single-malt Scotch for about a third the usual price was irresistible. Hauling around about 150 pounds of luggage would become a backbreaking problem as we head home, particularly during the death march across Charlotte International to the next boarding gate. The turbulence over the massive North Carolina airport is severe enough to summon panicked thoughts of being atomized over a suburb of Charlotte. Imminent death notwithstanding, my first prayer is for the cargo to be lashed down tight. ‘Ach, Glenfiddich, we hardly knew ye!’ I grieve as the storm buffets the fuselage around like a badminton shuttlecock.

The tipping point… No matter which of the Virgins we travel, one thing is consistent—the islanders couldn’t be a lovelier, more graceful and gracious people. Most would probably not consider their own lives spent in what promoters ceaselessly refer to as “paradise.” In a place where the population far outstrips the ability of fishermen and farmers to support, they know their economic future comes home aboard the cash-cow cruise ships and airliners. And that every exchange brings them a tip, even if the level of service—a waiter taking 45 minutes to bring you a beer, for example—would be intolerable on the mainland—thus showing how masterfully they have combined the greed of their governments with a kind of civil disobedience to the same.

Some things are broken before we find them. Others don’t need fixing and some are even better off broken. Some things ought to be fixed but can wait. I find that sometimes you need a break from families during holidays. You need to break free from your own little paradise. Break the leash. It’s fun.

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