"Are you alright, Gil?"
In the most remote region of the island of Tobago, which is already a fairly remote place to begin with, is a village called "L'Anse Fourmi," pronounced "lans-for-me." This is old French for "Bay of Ants."
L'Anse Fourmi Village is hard to get to by road, requiring a drive first to Roxborough — half-way up the coast, and then a winding transit across the mountains which run along the center of the island, as a ridge, to the North shore, where practically nobody lives.
The road reaches the sea at Bloody Bay, which has a history involving pirates inferred easily enough from its name. John Lennon and Ringo Starr were the last two notables to visit Bloody Bay, and did so in 1966, when they were staying at the Arnos Vale Hotel, in Plymouth. There was talk at the time of building a rock 'n' roll hotel at Bloody Bay, financed by the Beatles, but this never came to pass. And for good reason. Bloody Bay may be a fine and deep harbor, and have a history involving outlaws of the sea, but its beach is not spectacular at all. Presently, there is one run-down shack on Bloody Bay, a few nets and fishing boats, and a half a dozen skinny, mangy dogs.
L'Anse Fourmi Village is the next settlement up the coast, high up on a ridge, overlooking the sea. Past L'Anse Fourmi, there is nothing. The road stops here for all practical purposes, although during some times of year, Charlotteville, to the East, may be reached using a four-wheel drive vehicle. Likewise for the road leading West to Parlatuvier; it too is basically impassable. So L'Anse Fourmi is for Tobagonians pretty much the end of the world. You don't pass through it on your way to anywhere else; you go there only if there's a reason for going there. Few Tobagonians, save for the 240 souls who live there, have such a reason, and as a result the place has remained sleepy and unspoiled.
My reason for going there had to do with beaches. It is said that there are sands of great beauty beneath the village of L'Anse Fourmi. Most of them are found within the confines of a 400 acre estate presently owned by one Hilton Clarke — a middle-aged black man who practices dentistry in Scarborough. Although Hilton Clarke has apparently nurtured plans for restoring the estate, which is now thoroughly overgrown, he has not done so to date, and is now talking about selling the estate altogether, or finding a partner who would help develop a use for it.
I am intrigued, and am visiting with his permission, together with a companion. We have been instructed to seek out the caretaker, Toma Hernandez, who has been authorized to show us around.
We find Hernandez sitting on the porch of his house just across the street from the Methodist church in the company of his wife Clara. We sip coffee with the two of them, explaining the reason for out visit. Hernandez expresses some astonishment that we would want to visit the beaches. Clara, who not only lives across the street from the Methodist church, but is its preacher, to boot, volunteers that she has not been "down 'der" in years. Nobody apparently goes "down 'der" any more, ever since the bush grew back.
But we insist, with the naiveté of newcomers, and are taken across the street, to the church, for a closer look at the lay of the land down below.
"Bush," Hernandez claims with a wave of his hand, gesturing out and over the large, steep amphitheater which falls off towards the North, and towards the bays some 400 feet below. In the distance, against a particularly blue sea, are the Seven Sisters — gigantic rocks which send up plumes of white water.
The valley stretching out before us is expansive, and very green. It is studded with acres of orange-blossomed trees, which wave in the breeze. The canyon of air is criss-crossed by screeching wild parrots. Far below one sees the bays. Bluegreen water sloshing up silently onto yellow sand. Foam and white water sliding up along the sides, which are immense, vertical slabs of black lava.
We imagine it would be a walk of a half-a-mile down from L'Anse Fourmi Village to the beaches, and we propose such a walk to Hernandez. Hernandez shrugs, straps on his cutlass, and sets off as our leader into the relative darkness of the rain forest. He doesn't tell us how steep the path will be, and how perilous. He moves quietly ahead, disappearing downwards, with his cutlass slashing, and with his pint bottle of "Bush Rum" firewater in his hip pocket. The two of us follow.
Hernandez is 70 years old, he thinks, but he looks 50. He says he sometimes "runs" up and down this "trace," much to the astonishment of this visitor, who found himself more than once slammed up against a dripping wet wall of hard coral, gasping for breath, and attempting the occasional look down with only the greatest discipline in thinking.
I was reminded repeatedly of Peter Matthiessen's "The Snow Leopard," and of the stimulation to meditation which passage through a dangerous environment provides, when passage is understood as quest.
I was in quest of the magical beach.
A stick, hastily cut by Hernandez out of a phalanx of hard cane, is given to me to use. Jammed on the downhill side of a traverse it can be used to transfer some of the weight to the muscles of the torso, and off one's increasingly rubbery legs.
There are the inevitable thoughts of the consequences of a fall off to the right, which at any time presents itself as a yawning, black abyss of sharp rock and tangled muddy roots and small creatures, or of the failure of one's body to survive the next jarring crash against the thing which would prevent such a fall — now a big root, now a flat stone, now a strong and friendly looking stalk of something.
I try with some success to convert these sentiments into what passes for a deepened state of mind, but this serenity lasts only until the next near-fall, and the corrective collision with the least unfriendly object in sight.
"Jugga, jugga, jugga... Slam!"
Those are my heels I feel, together with a sudden loss of balance, as they skid out and forward. A toehold had been required, not "brakes on." The world spins and presents a hanging vine. It holds, preventing the fall.
It seems to me that the passage could not possibly get steeper — but it does. All at once there is no path at all, but a steep, downwards traverse across a face of rock flowing with mud and tangled vines. A mis-step here would be fatal.
An unidentified bird screeches far above, in the sunlight, in tones which must be mocking ones.
Breathing in pants and huffs seems to help.
"Are you alright, Gil?"
It's my companion Jenny, who also understands about magic beaches, and who has gone ahead, between me and Hernandez.
I claim that I'm doing fine, but am seen to be in rivulets of perspiration, with a wild look in my eye, and Jenny knows better. She calls ahead to Hernandez, and tells him to hold up on her account.
We stop at a place where we can all hang by vines against the wall, although at different heights, dislodging an occasional rock which clatters down and down and disappears.
The sound of surf is now heard, but still in the distance, and still very much beneath us.
I share my handhold with a Praying Mantis-looking creature, who stares at me with what seems to be sympathy. We are eye-to-eye. He jumps off and out into the void by which I am so terrified, as a joke on me.
My heart is pounding, and I am drenched with fluids. I am not yet ready to move on.
Hernandez picks this moment to express his theory about proper plantation management, which involves self-sufficiency in food and, as is becoming more and more apparent — his services to any new owner.
Privacy, for a start, would have to be ensured. Not just anybody can come onto the estate, once it's being properly run.
"He see me, I say 'What reason you have?' De' man must have a reason. Only de' owner come in."
Hernandez goes to explain that, under the control of the Lovells, the English couple, there were strict rules about who could come onto the estate, and who could not. The trees grew fruit, after all, and such produce belonged to the owner, not to the gentle people of L'Anse Fourmi. The fact that the Lovells were white, and the townspeople of L'Anse Fourmi black, did not seem to play a role in Hernandez's thinking. It was the primacy of ownership and the beauty of a well-run tropical plantation which informed and animated this man. If that meant an aristocracy, then fine with him. The Lovells only happened to be white.
I feel the base instincts of the Island King stirring in my lower parts, and savor them without guilt. Even Jenny, that handsome woman and consummate white liberal at my side, does not object for the moment to the Hernandez scheme. It occurs to me here, hanging onto this mixture of sweat and mud on a rock wall in the bowels of Tobago, that Jenny might actually like to rule these parts they call "Lans-for-me."
Photo by Monty Coles for Vanity Fair/Honey Magazine, July 1975.
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All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.