The runway has no lights. It is a short, black tar strip that leads off the land to the emerald sea where waves break over a reef. The sun beats down on the lush green countryside that rises up toward mist-shrouded mountains and dwarfs the airport, a small clapboard building with ceiling fans and signs that say, "Grow More Food: Build the Revolution."
Across the road from the airport a young man in army fatigues moves about in front of a tall gate painted in a green, camouflage pattern. About 17, he looks nervous as he fingers the machine gun that hangs at his waist and eyes me warily while I try to keep our 1-year-old son out of the puddles.
Run by a revolutionary government that took over in a bloodless coup two years ago, Grenada has become an outpost for adventurous tourists. It has everything going for it: spectacular beaches, a dramatic landscape with tall mountains and towering waterfalls, a picturesque town that rises from the sea like a miniature, rough-hewn San Francisco, and perhaps the most openhearted, genuinely friendly people you'll find anywhere in the Caribbean.
Unfortunately for its tourist trade, Grenada also now has something else about it: an air of political uncertainty.
On the Grand Anse Beach, a two-mile crescent of white sand where most tourists and many Grenadians revel in teh Caribbean's natural splendors, a woman with sad eyes shaded by a faded Budweiser beach cap stands in bare feet and a loose, print dress against the sparkling bay before us. She sells spices to tourists and would like to go to the States.
"You can see what's going, but you don't know what's coming," she says. "The day of the changeover, there were four cruise ships right out there," and she gestures to the unbroken blue horizon.
"Maybe things'll get better," I offer.
"Maybe, but there will be war."
"Too much guns. The Cubans bring them in on their ships."
Grenada has gotten the reputation, expecially in the United States, of being a dangerous place to go. But when you're there, it's hard to feel threatened among such friendly people, and European tourists -- especially Germans -- don't seem at all squeamish about going to Grenada.
Grenadians are peaceful people. There is comparatively little crime on the island. Female students at the American-run medical school hitchhike without qualms and walk about freely, day and night. Grenadians are neither pushy nor pushovers. Outside our room at the Spice Island Inn on the Grand Anse Beach, there is a constant stream of Grenadians selling their wares to tourists when teh cruise ships do come. They always approach you quietly, bargain in a respectful (but not obsequious) manner, and go away quietly.
Sometimes they stay and talk after a sale, introducing themselves by name: It is a conversation among equals. There is an unmistakable, natural pride among these great-grandchildren of slaves who live simply and for whom the expression, "No problem," has become a kind of national byword that even turns up imprinted on T-shirts.
Grenadians are also an industrious, relatively prosperous people. It is cetainly not a posh country, but not an abjectly poor one either. "The people have plenty to eat," says a cabdriver. "In fact, many mangoes are wasted every year. More mangoes fall and rot than there is sand on the beaches." Many houses, even in the country, are brightly painted and well kept.
The capital of St. Georges is a bustling town dotted with Georgian architecture from the British and French eras and pastel-colored warehouses along the harbor. In the marketplace bus drivers hawk for riders, and smiling country women sell handfuls of vegetables carefully arranged on unpainted wooden tables. Old stone churches -- Catholic, Presbyterian and Anglican -- dominate the tops of the hills where some streets give way to steep stone stairs with banks of pink bougainvillea blossoms for banisters.
It is a country you can care about, wich makes its current political plight all the more poignant. Maurice Bishop, son of a martyred opposition leader, took over the government in March 1979, when Eric Gairy, who had seen the country through independence in 1974, and had been prime minister ever since, was out of the country.
Few people objected to the takeover. "He is a devil, that man Gairy. He was good in the beginning; he helped the people. But he became a wicked man. If it weren't for him, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in now," says a young man selling coral carvings on the beach. Gairy became fascinated with flying saucers and was at the United Nations pleading for an investigation of UFOs when his government was overthrown. He now has asylum in the United States.
Bishop, a young lawyer who wears a full beard and army fatigues, came in with the help of the leftist New Jewel Movement. There is now a strong Cuban presence in Grenada in the form of doctors, fishing boats, anti-imperialist slogans, and hundreds of workers helping to build a large new airport, which Grenada says will greatly help tourism but which the United States fears will become a Cuban or Russian base.
Grenada is rife with rumors. People say the airport is so larg it's got to be for military use. They say the Cubans are building a deep-water naval base in Grenada. They say the Russians want a base of operations to interrupt oil shipping lanes from Venezuela. They say the Americans are blocking financing for the new airport.
The U.S. State Department has observed that Grenada, with less than 1,000 hotel rooms, does not have the infrastructure to support the influx of tourists it says the airport will bring, and that the Grenadian government is a virtual pawn of Fidel Castro. Grenada has countered that its tourist industry will never expand unless outsiders have a better way of getting there, and that building a mid-size facility that may later have to be replaced makes little sense. Officials say the project is vital to alleviate widespread unemployment and boost a failing economy.
It's hard to know what to believe, and Grenada's pro-government newspaper isn't much help. The independent Torchlight was closed, according to a cabdriver, because its editor asked too many questions about Bishop's failure to hold the elections he promised.
Bishop himself seems to be personally popular. Beach vendors, who have every reason to be critical for the benefit of American tourists, speak of the good things the government has done, such as improved health care, lowered school fees, developed agriculture, and encouraged local industries. Most people we spoke to worry about communist influence overpowering the government, but seem willing to give current officals a chance to improve life in Grenada.
Meanwhile, anti-American rhetoric has scared away many tourists, cruise ships stop less frequently, and tourism is about 30 percent of what it was before the last years of the Gairy government when the opposition began to heat up.
(The situation is reminiscent of recent serious problems in Jamacia, where voters last fall ousted a left-leaning, pro-Cuba government after eight years of anit-American rhetoric and elected by a landslide a pro-West government that promised to resuce the island from economic disaster. Jamaican tourism, a major earner of foreign exchange, is slowly recovering.)
Half-deserted resort hotels have the air of faded elegance about them, like a southern plantation after the Civil War. There are exquisite places in which to stay in Grenada, such as Secret Harbor, with canopied beds and a Spanish-style dining room, to the Calabash, which looks out on a flower-draped lagoon and a quiet sand beach beyond.
But upkeep is as shoddy as visitors are sparse. Large, orange lizards dart about in the piled-up brush outside the Calabash's stone gateway, and the lone bartender, dozing behind a long polished bar, half listening to a cricket match on the radio, looks like he is straight from the opening scene of a Tennessee Williams play. Friednly serivce at the Spice Island Inn, where we stayed, made up for but didn't hide the unwashed windows, sticking doors, and unpatched screens.
The southernmost of the Winward Islands, which stretch out in an arc from St. Lucia on the southeastern rim of the Caribbean, Grenada is not eay to get to. It's best to fly directly to Barbados, then take a short flight to Grenada via LIAT, the infamous local airline, which provided us with a cramped, prop plane and a stewardes who sprayed Lysol in the aisle. There were so few tourists on our flight that we began to wonder just what kind of an outback we were headed for.
For the adventurous traveler who wants splendid physical beauty and warmhearted people, mixed with a political interest, Grenada is a good place to go. Dotted with coffee, cocoa and banana plantations, Grenada's luch landscape is so fertile that it is said to grow more spices per square mile than anywhere in the world. The "Spice Island" also harbors such sometimes pleasant inconviences as a fickle telephone system and routine power shortages.
The inconvenience of traveling by LIAT was, for us, not so pleasant.
The inconvenience of traveling by LIAT was, for us, not so pleasant. We spent 24 hours at the Grenada airport, interrupted by a Dutch treat overnight at a barely adequate inn, due to LIAT's mechanical difficulties combined with its refusal to send another plane, or charter one, to get 25 of us off the island in time to make our Barbados connections.
The LIAT ad in the Grenadian yellow pages is admirably straight-forward:
"Before We Make it Bigger, We're Going to Make it Better."
We made out connecting flight the next day, after chartering a plane with other stranded passengers to get of Grenada. Checking into the flight into New York, I was talking with another passenger who asked about Grenada. "It's beautiful, very friendly, and a sad situation . . . somewhat sad," I said, qualifying my answer so I wouldn't sound like a typical, Pavlovian anti-Cuban American.
A Grenadian woman who lives in New York overheard and corrected me. "It's very sad," she said. Whether it ends up being sad for Grenadian people as a whole isn't clear, but it's certainly sad for tourists who overlook this gracious land.