Confessions of an Expat – What exactly are the West Indies?

This is most people’s idea of the West Indies


The idiot’s guide to the Caribbean

A recent brief trip to Barbados started me thinking about the whole Caribbean area and how it sees itself, as opposed to how the rest of the world sees it.

The UK thinks there is this group of islands called the West Indies.

It’s all Christopher Columbus’s fault. He was trying to get from Spain to south Asia, but ended up in the Caribbean. Easy mistake to make. Just fail to turn left when you come out of the Mediterranean and you are heading across the Atlantic ocean, bound for the wrong continent.

Columbus would have been better off going overland, as it happens, but he wasn’t to know that, so he did his best and, when he found land and didn’t know where the hell he was, he assumed he wasn’t far away from his desired destination. If he was looking for clues from the local population, he may have noticed something Asian about the eyes of the Native Americans.

“Anyway, we were looking for the Indies [i.e. something to do with India] and we’ve found a place with vaguely Asian-looking people so let’s call it the West Indies. Strayed a bit there, Mr Navigator. Pull your socks up – but we can’t be far away.”

Nowadays, some people refer to south Asia as the East Indies, which also helps to disguise Columbus’s enormous miscalculation. He hadn’t even found north or south America, as it happens. But none of these places had names, anyway, so he could call them what he liked.

Some 400 years later, the English, having muscled in on the ‘New World’ and given the locals everything from organized sport and commerce to fancy foreign diseases, started playing cricket against the West Indies, and that was the British perception up to the middle of the 20th century. Cricket is the only sport in which the Caribbean nations compete as a group and under the name West indies. Usain Bolt comes not from a generalized WI but the highly specific Jamaica.

(It should be understood that England is part of Great Britain (and if you add Northern Ireland, it’s the United Kingdom), and therefore British can mean English, although it can equally indicate Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people.)

After the Second World War they ran out of bus drivers in London and, the British population having been depleted by casualties, someone had the brilliant idea of bringing some West Indians, mainly Jamaicans, over to help out. Global integration was on its way (although it has been a frustratingly slow and antagonistic process).

But xenophobia (in both directions, mind you) is by the by. Air travel suddenly made it possible for the British to visit the tropics on holiday.

Americans have a different story to tell, but all I really know about that is that they call the Caribbean nations ‘the islands’ in a rather proprietorial way.

For us Brits, we couldn’t get enough of the sun, sea and sand. Not that we don’t have our own, but unfortunately the thermostat is stuck on a low temperature for most of the year.

What we knew from cricket was that in the “West Indies” there was Barbados, there was Trinidad and there was Guyana. Yes, Guyana. Well known (to cricket fans only) players such as Basil Butcher, Lance Gibbs and Rohan Kanhai were all part of the West Indies team that toured England in the mid 60s, and then came Clive Lloyd. All Guyanese. All playing for the Windies. And therefore Guyana must be an island in the Caribbean, right?

Wrong, actually. It’s a country in South America. Pardon one’s ignorance. And anyway, Guyana, along with Suriname, doesn’t consider itself part of South America as much as part of the Caribbean.

Culture was on its way, too. Bob Marley gave the world a kind of music that would be loved everywhere.

Memorial for the man who put the jam in Jamaica

There was a hit pop song in the UK in the early 70s, complete with faux-Caribbean accent,  that went ‘Oh, I’m going to Barbidas, blah blah blah, oh, lots of pretty palm trees… in the sunny Caribbean sea.’ It was a catchy tune and the British music-buying public are susceptible to a bit of holiday daydreaming a la Y Viva Espana.

Now Barbados is known by some as Little England, and from my brief  visit I can confirm that there is certainly a lot of British influence – and the people I met were not sullenly resentful of white people, which sadly can be the case in other islands.

So the British perception was that the West Indies was Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana and Jamaica.

Then came the ultimate Caribbean cricketing hero, Viv Richards, and we heard of Antigua, because that’s where he is from. And people started getting married on the beach in St Lucia. And there was Grenada, the spice island. The Caribbean map was taking shape.

The Caribbean is the blue bit, so any of the green bits that touch it can – and do – call themselves part of the Caribbean.

But that’s where it stopped for most people. We knew about the Bahamas, but we didn’t necessarily know where they were. Tobago? Never heard of it. Curacao? Somewhere in China. Aruba and Bonaire? Figments of your imagination, old son (although the Dutch know where they are, because they made the most impact there in colonial times). Antilles, Windward islands, Leeward islands? You’re just trying to confuse me.

Guadeloupe? No, that’s a kind of melon. Cuba? Off the coast of Russia, mate. St Kitts and Nevis? That’s a home for stray animals in south London.


Confessions of an Expat – Honeymoon in Chuspa

chuspa 3

We got married in a coastal town an hour’s drive from Caracas. It used to be quite a fancy resort, or so I’m told, but a massive landslide in 1999 had devastated the area and the heartbreakingly steady decline of Venezuela under Hugo Chavez had led to the Caribe end of La Guaira, with its beaches and surfers and Sheraton hotel, being cut down to size. Rather than bringing the whole country up to the standards of the nice parts, it seemed as if the idea was to make sure everybody lived the same way, and if the poor couldn’t be elevated, then the middle classes would have to lose the perks and comforts they had worked for.

The Sheraton now sat sadly abandoned and dilapidated in front of a yacht marina that had only recently welcomed the status-symbol gin palaces which to some people represent all that is wrong with the world and to the rest of us merely demonstrate that the owners have done well for themselves.

Our wedding festivities took place a couple of miles away in a hilltop hotel that had somehow hung onto its dignity, but the town was no longer a place for a honeymoon. My naïve rambles down to the beach called Los Cocos, a quiet, calm place just yards away from the surfing beach, were dismissed as crazy and potentially suicidal by my wife’s friends and family, who muttered to each other that the bad characters who had drifted down here from the capital had made it dangerous. It is hard for someone who grew up spending every possible hour at the beach to regard anything with sand and water as unsafe, with the obvious exception of sea conditions.

You didn’t hear gunshots in such places – that was restricted to grim, grimy urban areas. But that was what had happened to La Guaira, they told me.

Good old days: Venezuela was once the jewel in the crown of South America

My wife, a born organizer, came up with the answer: a seaside village not too far away that had not been similarly affected. It is called Chuspa and although it wasn’t far away, it was a bit of a drive inland, because there wasn’t a coast road. We set off in a little Chevrolet and after a pleasant, flat section we were soon up in the hills where the banks along the roads were perilously soft as a result of the rainy seasons. Dark red earth caked the edges and spread over the whole surface in parts, so the sensation was one of sliding, trying to keep  the wheels in tracks helpfully made by earlier travellers.

Then we came to a bridge over a small river. The bridge was damaged and closed and improvised signs directed us down a slope to a place where the river could be driven through. I got out and walked down to the water to check the depth and try to gauge how solid the bed was. You see people do this sort of thing in films, but when it’s you and your wife’s precious car, not to mention your precious wife, there is no room for macho flippancy.

I tossed a stone in and watched it sink about 18 inches before coming to rest on some pebbles. We decide to give it a go. If I hadn’t been taking my turn to drive at that time anyway, it would have become my turn. Get into the water gently and keep moving, I told myself. If you rush and create waves they will swamp the engine and we’re done for.

Holding our breath, we ploughed quietly through, the river bed mercifully sound, and in half a minute we were back on muddy tarmac, Chuspa-side.  Half an hour later we were breezing down the hill to the village, where we had booked a posada, which means you have your own bedroom and bathroom but share the kitchen.

Chuspa looked as if it hadn’t been touched for 20 years. There was nothing new at all – cars, buildings, haircuts, nothing.

The beach was like something out of The Blue Lagoon and it was easy to imagine there had been no other visitors since the Second World War. But there were shops full of cans and bottles and there was fresh fish. In a back room like a motorbike repair shop, a fisherman cut us some fish steaks (barracuda, I think) using a sort of guillotine. You couldn’t cook it properly because the pans were all cheap and lightweight and the fish stuck to the surface, but it was edible.

chuspa 2
Half-hearted attempts were made to restore the hotel, but it came to symbolise the end of the good times

As we walked into the village and back the locals said hello, sitting outside on indoor furniture, watching the world go by and probably glad that we were providing new, temporary, moving scenery.

In the gift shop we bought dusty old new t-shirts saying I heart Chuspa and we sat on our balcony and drank cheap, half-decent red wine from Chile.

One village, one week, insulated from the 21st century and a country’s decline.

Confessions of an Expat – a table in the car park

La Guaira is a sprawling town which lends its name to a long area on the Caribbean coast of Venezuela.

It’s the closest port to the capital, Caracas. The local baseball team is called Los Tiburones – The Sharks – so it is obviously proud of being on the coast. But it is not a pretty sight, nor sound.

It may once have looked exotic, but it’s a port. What do you expect, palm trees?

We spend the morning at a bank, which is easy to do because they work at an unfathomably slow speed, then cross four lanes of growling, polluting, American-made trucks for lunch outside the fish market at an open-air cafe/restaurant. What’s the word I’m looking for – not quite doghole, but imagine putting tables in between the containers and lorries at Portsmouth docks.

Then the mood changes by courtesy of food. We have a red fish (could be snapper, but most of the fish around here seem to be red) simply fried on the bone and delicious, with a natural strength of flavour that doesn’t need any help from a fancy sauce – just a squeeze of lime if you like. The accompaniment is played by a kind of coleslaw without onion, supported by fried slices of plantain.

Do we enjoy these meals simply because we’re somewhere ‘exotic’, or is this fish really as good as I’m making it sound?

Well, for a start, you wouldn’t find it in an equivalent cheap and cheerful place in the UK – in fact all you would find in such a location in Grimsby is a burger van. There, fish for the masses is either deep-fried in batter or oven-baked in breadcrumbs. If you’re lucky, in a seaside town you might get a mackerel cooked by a chef who has confidence in his ability to bring out the best in the raw material, but it’s a rarity.

harbour car park
Stick a few plastic tables and chairs out there and bingo! An open-air restaurant

As a free starter, by the way, we have a thin, unhealthily grey-looking fish soup which harbours sly, slimy, layabout pieces of vegetables and tastes better than it looks, but don’t expect the fussier members of your party to have any truck with it at all.

There are back street garages in South London more hygienic than some South American fishmongers, and this soup gives the impression of having been prepared from the loot gleaned from the annual sweep-up, boiled and with the detritus strained out through the local good-time girl’s tights. And yet we survive unscathed and live to eat another day.

To visit such a place of preparation is to wonder how you will ever eat fresh fish again, as we find the following week in the remote, romantic seaside village of Chuspa. In the dark, grimy workshop that you can imagine the guy uses to work on his motorbike in the evenings, there is a guillotine-like contraption for making fillets of thick fish. Almost-vertical steel rods (almost clean and almost shiny) stand three feet tall and the snapper, grouper or whatever is placed at the bottom. The operator takes a machete and slams it down, guided by the rods, to separate the fish into one-inch steaks.

Raw materials sometimes look better than end results

We buy a bottle of Chilean merlot with a screw cap rather than a cork, because it stands less chance of being off that way. In a place like this, which is charming in a Second World War film way, reached by broken, mud-scarred roads and involving a tentative drive through a small river because the bridge is out of action, you feel lucky to find such luxuries as wine anyway.

Then it’s back up the hill to the posada – a sort of self-catering guest house where you share the kitchen – to do what you can with a sputtering gas stove and a cheap aluminium pan. Subtlety does not exist in such circumstances: the object is to get the fish cooked and any germs killed, and if it sticks to the pan, that is only to be expected. It becomes fuel, not food, and if there is any pleasure in the eating, that’s a bonus.