The Caribbean, By a Nose

By Jerry V. Haines
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 19, 2003

If you were to ask me which smell I most associate with the Caribbean, my answer wouldn't be "sea spray," "suntan oil" or "roasting Jamaican jerk chicken." My answer would be "trash fires," even though I am deeply, passionately, certifiably in love with the Caribbean. Sorry, it's my nose and my memory, and I'm stuck with both of them.

Smells trigger intense memories. Scientists say this happens because the memory center of the brain adjoins the part that processes smells. Thus, if you burn the right kind of trash on the right kind of tranquil, sunny day and a wind from the right direction blows it my way, my brain will conclude, "We're in the Caribbean again."

Although the Caribbean really is as pretty as its postcards, postcards don't have smells: the flatulent exhaust of an overloaded jitney laboring uphill at dawn to take its passengers to their jobs as hotel maids and pool men, for example, or the cloying odor of a thousand T-shirts in a beachfront store run by a hymn-singing grandmother who averts her eyes as she rings up a shirt picturing a talking condom. Or a trash fire in a shanty town just down the road from the cruise ship docks and the duty-free store.

The Caribbean is still heaven. Start with a breakfast of fresh mango juice, papaya and industrial-strength coffee while thrushes perch on chair backs, waiting for muffin crumbs. Or rise before dawn on Guadeloupe while the tree frogs are still singing. Or hear the steel bands play at sunset on Antigua's Shirley Heights and watch the lights begin to glow around Nelson's Dockyard. Sway to the music and realize that your eyes are full of tears for the sheer beauty of the moment.

Such experiences are treasures that are all the more precious when understood in context. Most of the islands have known repeated conquests, slavery, fratricide and soul-searing poverty. That such pain could co-exist with such loveliness challenges comprehension. But part of the islands' beauty is their potential to break your heart.

The postcards don't show this. So follow your nose to the real island, stop and take a deep breath. That barnyard smell means goats. You're on Curacao, and the goats patrol the roadsides for food. Goats are resourceful and resilient. On this arid island, the soil is so hard that water pipes have to be laid above ground. But the goats survive, even thrive.

For lunch, try a neighborhood store. The smell of a Caribbean grocery can snatch you back to the '50s. This one's on Barbados, and it smells like, like . . . food! Just as in Eisenhower-era groceries, before everything was embalmed with preservatives, entombed in plastic and interred in fluorescent-lighted produce mausoleums. Let the clerk make a sandwich for you and eat it on a hilltop where Arawaks once stood contemplating the endless sea to the east.

Or try market day at the harbor of almost any of the islands. Get a triple-strength smell memory here: fresh fruit, fresh fish and wet dog.

You might pick up the smell of outdoor cooking. At Carnival in Fort-de-France, Martinique, dozens of grills flame away on Place de la Savane. The smoke blows in through the fluttering curtains of your hotel room, whose location you naively requested for its view of the parades. Sometimes the smoke reminds you of a polite suburban barbecue; sometimes you'd swear they were grilling horns and hooves. You go down for a closer look and risk a sample, but you chase it with a preventative Kaopectate back in your room.

Late at night, sound supplements smell, and in the park the largest Radio Shack stereo in the world cranks out raw, rage-filled reggae so loud it creates waves in your commode. The next morning, you expect to see the city in flames, but the only evidence of violence is a vandalized car whose driver apparently trespassed on someone else's parking spot. "Bonjour, monsieur," says one of the hardier partiers as he kicks an empty rum bottle into the gutter.

There is no rum at George's house, though. There probably never has been.

Instead, there is a gospel preacher on the radio. George has been your guide on this morning's tour of Barbuda, Antigua's poor but pretty stepsister.

You've been thoroughly jostled in the back of his crew cab pickup as he takes you off-road (even on-road loosened a few molars), across fields and rocks to see Barbuda's lonely beaches. He told you of the history of his island, and he said one part so subtly that you almost missed it -- that his island was first settled as a place to raise slaves. And you wonder if you ever could have sufficient poise to speak of a time when your ancestors were graded as breeding stock.

But you're in George's kitchen now, and the smell du jour (aside from the trash fires outside) is of fresh fish and canned peas with rice. You slip the buttery fish from its delicate bones while your wife chats with George's wife. (George's wife will speak only reluctantly to another woman's husband.) They talk in the universal women's language of children and marriage and beauty and suffering.

It is a meal costing perhaps five American dollars, but worth any number of five-star meals and a university course in sociology. Or poetry.

There are the more predictable smells, too, as you complete your multi-sensual tour. The exquisite decay of St. Lucia's rainforest floor. Barbadian rum, sampled at the distillery, served neat in snifters so as to focus the delicate vapor. Hamburgers and onions sweating on a beach bar grill at Anguilla's Shoal Bay. The often-mentioned "smell of the jungle," which resembles the aroma of an Asian grocery store, minus the dried shrimp. On several islands, your nose will find the rotten-egg sputtering of the local volcano, probably shown on your map as "Soufriere."

Nose, eyes, ears, tongue, fingers, toes -- an appreciation of the Caribbean involves all your sensory equipment. It also demands something of you: the willingness to see, hear, feel, touch and smell the unpretty things. Only then can you fully embrace the islands' beauty.

Jerry V. Haines last wrote for Travel about a drive along Lake Superior.

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