23. marec 2008

About the Nevis Island

It all started about a million years ago when a volcano erupted out of a turbulent sea on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and added another island to the already existing chain of islands that was much later named the Caribbean Islands. Because the volcano remained dormant, it changed into a tall mountain that provided a barrier to the warm and humid air from the ocean, much more so than the neighbouring islands without such a peak could do. The air then condensed and formed white clouds that for a while lingered at the mountaintop and then poured rain onto the increasingly fertile ground. When much later the wild South American Indian tribes began to settle on the archipelago, they chose this island and also its larger neighbour.

Two main tribes, the Caribs and the Arawak, took turns in ruling the island. The former tribe prevailed in the end, largely because of its aggressiveness and fighting skills. Amongst other things they demonstrated their power by the ritual consumption of their defeated enemies and this is why in later times any people who ate the flesh of other human beings were named after them: the cannibals. But who knows what the Caribs called their beautiful island!

The island was given its current name, Nevis, in 1493 by the mariner Christopher Columbus (the neighbouring island of St. Kitts is named after him) who discovered the island on his second voyage to the New World. He used the Spanish word for snow, nieves, because the mountaintop covered with white clouds looked like a snow-topped mountain.

The Spanish, British, French, Dutch and Portuguese quickly conquered the island population and pushed it to the verge of extinction, then they started fighting each other for the wealth of the islands. In those times the size, speed and the number of guns of the navy determined the outcome of the conflicts. Huge wealth was at stake and the risks were enormous. The country that dared to send its navy to this part of the world during the autumn rainy period met with little resistance and could easily conquer a few islands in a short time. However, if the navy was caught unaware by the regular intruder into the area, the hurricane, then the whole fleet could be destroyed, as once happened to the French, who lost 17 ships and 2000 sailors during one such devastation.

In the end the imperial powers shared out their military successes at various peace conferences and in this way their colonies came into being. The island of St. Kitts was either under French or British rule, but Nevis was for most of the time a British colony. Since the British were deeply involved in defence, trading and economy, they didn’t have the time or energy for manual work. For this reason they started to bring a lot of African slaves, the third race to join the island’s population. The slaves on Nevis mainly worked on the sugar-cane plantations.

As the number of original Caribs decreased, though their genes still persisted in the children of mixed couples, the number of the slaves increased and soon 90 percent of the population of 10,000 inhabitants was African. Though the slaves were exploited, they didn’t complain too much. When they compared their lives with the ones on the other islands, especially those ruled by the French, they could see that their lives were comparatively good. When the French attacked Nevis in order to take it from the British, who at that time did not keep the necessary protecting navy nearby, the slaves got themselves barricaded into a fortress and kept defending it even after their masters had already been defeated. By fighting so bravely, they stopped the French from becoming a strong force on Nevis, so that the British, when again in possession of their famous navy, could retrieve the island. The British thanked their slaves for saving the island, but also discretely made it clear that they should now return the weapons and that life should go back to its old ways. The slaves complied with the demands, but also got new benefits from the British: more time to rest and better food. In this way both sides were satisfied.

When Europeans began to replace sugar cane with sugar beet there was an economic crisis on Nevis and many firms went bankrupt. As a consequence the British began to leave the island, some of them moving to the neighbouring United States. At the beginning of the twentieth century there were already very few white inhabitants and the members of the black population were increasingly taking over the important roles in society. With the end of colonialism the territory became independent and since 1983 the two islands have been joined into the state of St. Kitts and Nevis, a member of the United Nations Organisation and also a member of the Commonwealth.

Centuries ago the visitors to Nevis called the island “the Queen of the Caribbean” and today we can still use this expression to describe the island. Although tourism is the main industry, the island is far from being ruined by it, and the local people remain “unspoiled”, which is a common feature of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

Over recent years some of the other Caribbean islands have become synonymous with mass tourism, including Slovenian tourists, but Nevis has retained its original “innocence”. Such elitist tourism is by no means easily affordable, and if, in addition, you organise your flight on your own, you will pay much more than a tourist agency would charge you. But such a holiday is worth the money; a man of pleasure will be richly rewarded. It isn’t surprising that many retired American millionaires have built beautiful houses in the remote parts of the island and that the largest proportion of the guests, staying in the wonderfully designed hotel complexes, are newly weds. For them the hotels organise special events including romantic suppers on the sandy beaches. However, in the midst of all this beauty, we again find that it is the people who remain the key promoters of successful tourism.

The locals are a self-confident and proud people (they don’t want you to take unnecessary photographs of them), however, they are kind to every visitor. One can notice the positive effects of the English colonial tradition, which is quite different from the traditions of some neighbouring islands that were under the rule of other European countries. On other islands you may be bothered by the beggars or even threatened by the criminals, but on Nevis, smartly dressed schoolgirls and schoolboys (wearing uniforms with knee-length, white socks) will always greet you. While on many other journeys begging hands follow you everywhere you go, on Nevis everybody will always give you back your change. When you find yourself walking along a street away from the populated areas, very soon a kind driver, be it one of the many taxi drivers or just a friendly local face, will stop and take you to the nearest town.

The long distance from the mainland and the lack of other strong business activities make the island look anything but a rich country. Although all the areas around the dominating mountain of Nevis Peak are connected by roads, these are usually in bad condition, full of pot holes, and sometimes also very dusty. Since the island is of a young volcanic origin, there are no hard rocks, not even enough for the production of high-quality building materials. As a result of this, the tarmac and cement are in bad condition.

The traditional houses on Nevis are more like cottages: they are very small, sometimes having just a typical single story. If you happen to be a bit intrusive, you can, while having your evening or early morning stroll, even have a peep into the houses, either through the open doors or through the windows without any glass (the tropical climate allows it).

And there are even more interesting features of the island’s exterior. Nevis is inhabited by an enormous number of domesticated animals. Everywhere you go, sheep and goats will potter around your feet. They look very much alike and you can tell one from the other mainly by the tails. Donkeys graze behind every sizeable bush. In the shade, a fattened pig is tied to a tree and cute piglets run around her. Among the numerous sorts of noisy poultry, the cocks are the most attractive; no day on Nevis starts without their singing. I doubt that anybody lives on stockbreeding only; on the other hand, there can’t be many people who don’t have at least a sheep, a goat or a hen. And they are right in this. Why would they give up their delicious stews and roasted specialities?

There isn’t as much fishing on the island as one would expect. The locals and the tourists can indulge in a variety of seafood specialities, but there is nothing left to be exported. There must be many reasons for this, but already the two most obvious ones explain the situation well: a few hundred meters away from the coast there are numerous coral reefs where huge waves roar, and which would very quickly capsize the small boats. In addition, it would be very difficult to protect larger ships against the hurricanes and heavy storms during the rainy season.

To get to the sister island of St. Kitts, the locals use sea ferries, but the spoiled tourists usually prefer five-minute flights in attractive little planes called Nevis Express. During the main tourist season, winter and spring, large tourist cruisers often come to Nevis bringing a few hundred visitors every day. It is very difficult to decide what to do in just one day: should you take your camera and head towards the picturesque capital of Charlestown, where you can visit interesting museums, like the one about Lord Nelson? Or should you rather enjoy your day on one of the typical Caribbean beaches whose biggest advantage is that they are far from overcrowded? If you appreciate long walks on pleasant, wet sand, then you can stroll for hours along a peaceful beach discovering it in all directions. It is an ideal place for collecting the shells that the waves throw up on the beach; some are as long as 20 cm. You can watch interesting pairs of animals: the pelican and the sea gull circling above the sea looking for a good fish. The pelican dives down, takes the fish in its beak and returns to the sea’s surface where he wants to swallow the fish. In that moment the sea gull sits down on the pelican’s back and waits for an opportunity to steal his prey. Sometimes they get involved in a psychological war for a few minutes: the pelican wants to hide his fish and pretends he has no prey; the sea gull is waiting for the pelican to open his beak, which he has to do so that the water runs out, and tries to snatch the fish.

Various palm trees, some of them bending over the sea’s surface, can be an attractive sight to capture with your camera, but to a resourceful person they can also offer a true delicacy. If you manage to climb the tree, you will be rewarded with a huge coconut. Once you pluck it off the tree, which isn’t all that easy, there are several ways to get to the delicious fruit and milk inside the coconut. It is possible “to stab” the coconut with an ordinary knife, but it is much easier to do it with a machete.

Modern nomads can enjoy such adventures on Nevis in a relaxed way because there are no wild animals, poisonous snakes or other dangerous creatures. There are monkeys in the wilderness, but they are unusually shy so that it is difficult to spot them, let alone take a photograph of them. There were times in the past when man used to hunt them for food and it seems that the ancient fear of people still persists in them.

Who doesn’t want to feel safe nowadays? When planning a journey, we usually also ask: What about crime? Is there a lot of it? Will I be able to walk alone, even in the evening? The expectation of safety and friendliness is the crucial issue that links all those visitors who go back to Nevis year after year. After the first experiences with the island and following the recommendations of other, more experienced, tourists, you discover that it is possible to walk alone on Nevis, that you can meet interesting people (and animals), explore, relax, swim, dive, stay out late, drink…

In short, it is an ideally safe island where nothing threatening can happen to you. Well…?

From my book: Second Place of Birth: Nevis

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