Walking the Bowsprit

`LET'S walk the bowsprit,'' I invited my school friend, Sally, to the annual festival. In the care of our nursemaids, we made our way down to the waterfront. It was Dec. 26, a legal holiday in Grenada, a celebration in the town of St. George's, and on the Caribbean Sea.

The waterfront spread out in semicircular formation around the inner harbor; an asphalt roadway trailed beside it. Away from the road and into the background, varied-colored bungalows clustered on the green hillside, their red, sheet-metal roofs peering down at the gathering crowd. Along the edge of the hillside were a scattering of office buildings and small market places. Across the inner harbor, and on the opposite end of the waterfront, barges, rowboats, launches, and schooners lay anchored.

Native folk sat around the waterfront in swimsuits and swished their bare legs through the clear-blue warm waters, while beams of golden sunlight moved over the gentle waves. A school of tiny, silvery fish shot briefly into the sunshine, their bodies shining into the splendor of the tropical morning. And the huckster women, wearing bright costumes similar to those worn by peasants of this once French-ruled island, paraded the wharf with trays of native foods balanced upon their heads.

``Nice codfish cakes today, ladies,'' one woman hawked.

``Pigeon peas and rice with hot-pepper sauce,'' offered another.

The calypso players, in white shorts and matching T-shirts, wore wide-brimmed straw hats and played from the jetty beyond, while the regatta, far out to sea, pushed toward the finish line.

Sally and I sat close to our nursemaids, while our parents, with the other ladies and gentlemen of the island, had taken up pursuits of their own. We watched the sailors on the schooner nearby furl the sails and coat its bowsprit with lard. Then the waterfront crowd grew silent, as powerfully built Cyril left his seat on the waterfront to begin the celebration. Into the waters he dove, and swam to the schooner. Then he pulled himself up onto the bowsprit and began his slippery walk.

From the end of the bowsprit, gifts in plastic bags dangled above the water. Chocolates, plum puddings, favors, and a 25-pound ham tempted the daring. Cyril balanced, slipped, balanced again, then made a belly-flop into the water. We all laughed, then Sally and I hit the water with the courageous and swam to the schooner.

Some of us held on for a second, others pulled themselves up to begin their walk. They slithered along the slippery spar toward the gifts; but one by one they flopped back into the water. Sally managed to take two brief steps on the spar before she, too, joined the others below. I tried to climb aboard, but my efforts were all in vain. I couldn't pull myself up. Then suddenly, I felt two hands upon my waist. I was being hoisted into the air.

``Fear not, little lady,'' a voice assured, ``I'll help you.'' Then I caught sight of Cyril as he set me down to begin my walk.

I balanced, I slithered, I took a wavering step, I heard the lard crackling behind me, and over I went.

Once more the sailors smeared lard on the spar, and the waterfront sitters returned to their places. Again we saw Cyril approach the schooner and pull his strong body up onto the bowsprit.

``Come on-na, Cyril,'' someone yelled.

``Go for de ham, man,'' cried another.

Cyril stretched out his arms and began to walk. One, two ... he cautiously slid one foot in front of the other. He stopped, almost lost his balance, then continued.

``Go for de ham,'' an onlooker called.

``De ham, de ham...'' we all chanted. We wanted Cyril to get the ham, for we knew he would have a party for us at Grand Anse beach.

Cyril paused, wobbled along. Forward he pressed, leaving in his tracks sounds like bursting bubbles. Just a few more steps and it will be over.

Silence hovered over the waterfront as Cyril slithered toward his goal. He hesitated, took a deep breath, steadied his arms and, like a predator after its prey, made a dash for the ham. Hurrah, he grabbed the ham! And together, the two fell into the water amidst an outburst of applause.

Promptly, the waterfront sitters left their seats and jumped into the briny water. The swimmers kicked and splashed till a thick, white foam encircled them, while from the jetty beyond came the sounds of the calypso steel drums.

Ting-ting, tee-tee-tee, ting-ting, tee-tee.... The players tapped wooden mallets against their drums.

``Codfish cakes ... pepper sauce and rice ... pigeon peas...,'' the hawker women continued to ply their wares from the waterfront, as the sweet smell of food flavored with onion and fresh thyme saturated the air.

``Go for de goodies,'' Cyril spurred the swimmers on when they went by. ``Grand Anse beach later.'' He lay on his back with the ham balanced on his chest.

THE sun shone down with noonday brilliance, and the people returned to the waterfront. Still dressed in swimsuits, women held tightly covered pots of warm food wrapped in thick towels; men hastened to the opposite end of the waterfront to free rowboats of their moorings.

With oars fitted into oarlocks, boatmen stood and pulled toward the waiting crowd. Calypso players, too, with steel drums at their side, joined the merry gang. And with Cyril at the lead, the steel band struck up to accompany him in song:

Today there ain't no farming of de land,

No, no! No stevedoring, no fishing, man,

For today we is free....''

``Yes, yes,'' chorused the group, ``today we is free.''

An' de women better behave,

'Cause today they's we slave -

Dey cook an' fix de meal,

Oh man, what a deal!''

``Yes, yes,'' chorused the group, ``today we is free.''

The boatmen pulled up alongside the waiting crowd and helped them into the boats. Then keeping close to the shoreline, they headed for Grand Anse beach.

In the distance lay the outer harbor, where cargo ships, ocean liners, and tankers anchor, where the expanse of water spread out like a sheet of shiny glass. To the rear of the harbor, and on the green hillside's summit, stood the old French fort, its defunct cannons pointed toward the sea.

The boats bumped up onto Grand Anse beach, where almond and seaside grape trees, showered in purple and green fruit, formed a line along a stretch of dry sand.

People ran onto the beach, welcoming the freedom. The frolickers lay down and rubbed gritty sand over their bodies, then relaxing, welcomed the rush of the oncoming tide to wash them free of sand.

``Come on-na, man,'' Cyril stood on the beach and called, ``let all-a-we dance de jump-up dance to de beat of de calypso steel band.'' And calypso players gathered beneath an almond tree, while palm trees waved to one another.

Tee-tee, tee-ting-ting, tee-tee, tee-ting... the players tapped wooden mallets onto the steel drums and broke into song:

Bowsprit festival now is gone,

So let all-a-we have some other fun -

Come dance, le' we dance, man, have a good time,

Move you foot, I say, `cause you's feelin' fine.

``Yes, yes,'' the people rose to their feet, ``we's feelin' fine.''

``One foot to do left, do other to de right,'' Cyril demonstrated, ``then shimmy an' jump!''

The people followed; up the beach they went, stamping imprints into the sand. One foot then the next, while the waves rushed in to splash at their feet.

Sally and I shuffled our feet too - one foot to the left, the other to the right, we shimmied and jumped. Then suddenly, Cyril bolted from the beach and dove into the blue waters.

``Time for a swim!'' he called; and in an instant the merrymakers dove in after their leader. The warm Caribbean covered the swimmers, helped them onto crests of friendly waves, tossed them to shore, and returned them to sea. A game, they say, of the playful Caribbean Sea.

After a while women went back to the shore, uncovering the pots of food. Tantalizing smells reached out and lured everyone back to the seaside grape trees.

There was white rice and the brownish-purple pigeon peas, cooked together with a stick of clove, chopped chive, and crushed thyme. Okra, a small green pod with pink, edible seeds, cooked just enough to retain its shape, enhanced the appetite. And the traditional bakes, portions of dough pressed flat and grilled, were cut open and spread with butter.

The ham was baked in curry sauce; chickens, cut up and rubbed with lime juice and onion, were browned in burnt sugar and stewed in a dark gravy. Codfish cakes, made from the dried, salty codfish, had been soaked overnight, then chopped and fried to a crispy golden brown.

A deep silence swept over Grand Anse beach as the people moved from one flavor of food to the next, ; tasting and enjoying.

``A-h-a...h-u-m...a-ha-a...'' sounds generated by the pleasure of eating delightful food punctuated the surroundings.

``Boy, dis food really sweet!'' Cyril spoke up.

``De ham taste good, man,'' one woman commented. ``You cook dis?'' she teased.

``Not me, gal,'' Cyril replied. ``Cooking is for de women!'' and everyone laughed.

After a while, the people reluctantly rose from their seats. With dogged footsteps they returned to the boats and pushed off toward home before the fading of the day. They could still hear the seaside grape trees and their neighboring almond trees whispering pleasantries to the wind. The majestic palms waved them farewell.

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