Islands of the Gulf Stream
by Joe Harkins 

    The title of Earnest Hemingway’s early memoirs described Paris as "A Moveable Feast" but that phrase could just as easily describe the Caribbean where he lived a major part of his life. Few parts of the world offer so much variety in such a relatively compact area.

    Not that the Caribbean is small. At least three-dozen island nations, roughly two-thirds of them scattered like a broken necklace across thousands of watery miles, are within or along the edges of the Caribbean Sea. Together they contain millions of people speaking dozens of languages. Each country contains at least one distinctive culture; some many.

    Some are as obscure as almost-abandoned, volcano-devastated Montserrat or the gem that is Anguilla. Others, like embargoed Cuba, are bigger than a few mid-sized American States. Then there’s the Dominican Republic, a delight-filled world, complete unto itself, with mountains almost two-miles high, plus wide, arid deserts, Jurasic Park jungles, fertile valley farmlands, some of the best beaches and golf-courses in the world, and more first-class resort rooms than almost all the other islands combined.

    Countries on the Central and South American mainland with long Caribbean Sea coastlines include Venezuela, Belize, Columbia, Costa Rica, Panama and even Mexico. Inland, each may be a large, even semi-industrialized nation, but their Mar Caribe’ shores, like the Yucatan’s Cancun or Cozumel, still pulse to an urgent tropical beat.

    The most obvious differences are found in the variety of voices arising from the region’s turbulent political history. A lyrical form of English is spoken in places such as Jamaica, Barbados, Bermuda, Trinidad-Tobago, Bahamas, as well as the British and US Virgin Islands. There are islands where Dutch, French or Spanish is official. However, much of the non-European population of the Caribbean speaks some form of patois, usually called Creole. Despite the common name, isolated dialects of Creole are as different from each other as the official languages.

    Entire vocabularies for ordinary words in Spanish can vary so much from one Caribbean country to another that a visitor needs to be careful. Only 10 years ago, a Japanese car-maker discovered to its great embarrassment that the four-wheel-drive vehicle it had sold for years in Mexico under a macho-sounding Spanish name could not be exported to the West Indies because Spanish there had shifted the meaningof the word to a mean-spirited slang word describing a man with an un-macho gender preference. Nameplates, billboards, TV and print ads, even the vehicle owner’s manual and mechanic’s guide, created outside the region, were turned back at Customs.

    Toss in some obscure tongues such as Papiamento (Aruba and Curacao), the lively vestiges of pre-Columbian Inca and Aztec variations around the western curve of the region, plus Sranang, Tongo, Sarnami, Javanese, Amer-Indian and Bush Negro Tribes (from the wording of the official government fact sheet supplied by the government of Suriname), some Hindu and Gujaratti pockets in places like Trinidad, and you have the makings of a towering palm-tree of Babel.

    If there is anything common to all the Caribbean cultures, it is the love for, and skill with, music, dance and graphic arts. Those are, as they are in much of the western world, gifts of Africa, that long-lost but never-forgotten, ancestral home of many islands’ modern populations. Unlike the linguistic barriers that separate them as effectively as the long stretches of deep waters, those gifts have become bridges of energy and joy that connect the isalnds and those who visit.

    Consider Trinidad & Tobago, the tiny, two-island nation nestled up against the breast of the South American coast like a pair of nursing calves. On a number of occasions every year, the capitol city, Port of Spain, presents what some consider to be one of the greatest musical festivals in world. This is where steel-pan bands and male and female singers with names like Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchner, Roaring Lion, Atilla the Hun, Pretender, Iere, Destroyer, Caressa, and Growling Tiger virtually invented Calypso music.

    If you want a taste of genuine Calypso, and have an Internet connection that supports streaming audio, listen in at But be forewarned; unless you are ready to dance holes in your shoes, you'll have to bolt your chair to the floor and tie yourself down to it with a strong seatbelt.

    Few destinations have been as clever at using music to attract visitors as the Cayman Islands. Their perky little promotional jingle, carefully timed for broadcast across North America at an hour when most of us are stumbling around in the cold dark of winter mornings, looking for the snooze-button on the radio alarm, pulls in more than 350,000 tourists per year. That’s ten tourists for every one of Cayman’s 35,000 residents. Still, the most successful music of any of the islands in the stream has to be Jamaica’s Reggae. Its beat subtly echoes that of the human heart. Many listeners aren't aware that genuine Reggae is religious music, as sacred to the Rastafarian religion as any Gregorian chant or Pilgrim hymn.

    And that brings us to Caribbean religion, in all its vivid, genuine or pseudo-Christian, semi-African, Moslem-influenced, spiritist and "pagan" forms. It’s a pervasive, powerful force in the daily life of a large portion of the Caribbean people, no matter on what island or backwater. Their religiosity is so broad, so over-arcing, so deeply entrenched and so fundamental to Caribbean music, art and life that it’s as hard to see as a high wall that’s only an inch from your nose and more difficult to grasp than a lone grain of sand stuck to the middle of your back.

    But, once you learn how to look out of the corner of your eyes you’ll begin to see it. You’ll see it in the carefully tended rural churches, dignified in their poverty and austerity, but clean and neat. It’s the hat in the hand of an old man standing at a lop-sided gate while speaking to a neighbor-woman. It’s the white-washed cross at the side of the road where someone has died in an accident. It’s the naughty party song whose words are filled with double-entendre. It’s the flagrantly confident, life-affirming, hip-twitching dances of lust and joy.

    Yes, go for the sunshine. Enjoy the rum. Blow a few bucks at the tables. Unwind a little. But don’t forget to look around at, meet and enjoy the people.

    They are the Caribbean.


originally published Sunday Newark Star Ledger - April, 1998

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