Missing the Pirates

He told us his name is Desmond. "Just call me Des," he said with a wide grin. He was taking us to Layou Petroglyph Park, around 40-minute drive from downtown Kingstown, the charming tiny capital city of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The Park itself, I found later, was less impressive. And particularly disappointing for me. I had got obsessed with it, after reading about it in the flashy brochure laid in my bedroom. I've always got a soft spot for anything related to indigenous peoples. So, although we spent an hour or so going to the location - half of the trip was a detour to pick a friend - I thought it was worth it. The box office was already close, although it was not yet 5 pm - closing time, according to the signboard. But the gate was unlocked, so we could sneak in.

You can imagine my little surprise when all I saw was, amidst and despite the neat and maintained small park, this rock carving.

Now I understand why the Vincentian ambassador didn't look too enthusiastic when I asked about the petroglyph, although he still politely answered my question.

My travel mate, a Timor Leste guy, was quite delighted. I was glad at least one of us was. I picked him up almost an hour late. Thanks to Des's tendency to get carried away when talking about his homeland, we had to detour halfway to Layou when he realized we had been too far from Licindo's - the Timor guy - hotel.

The trip to and from the Park was, however, gratifying. The island's hilly roads allowed us to indulge in the picturesque sight the Caribbean Sea, adorned by the beach resorts and the island's seaport. Even the container terminal could look pretty.

"They were built by the Taiwanese," Des explained. "The Taiwanese are our friend."

Of course. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is among the small number of countries forming Taiwan's hard fought diplomatic circle.

We were in the island for a UN decolonization seminar. SVG's diplomatic ties with Taiwan somewhat befitted its hosting the seminar. I wonder if it ever occurred to the Taiwanese to bring their case to the UN's decolonization committee. It would be difficult for them, though, as their situation does not fit the definition of a "colonized" territory. China is hardly an administering power - unless you count threatening and isolating as parts of administering (well, they CAN be, but in different circumstances).

Licindo gushed about how much the terrains remind him of his hometown.

"Where are you form?" Des asked.

"Timor Leste."

"Ah! Welcome! I never saw an East Timorese here before. You gained independence a few years ago, right?"

"Yeah," replied Licindo, glancing at me. We were both quite wary of what our driver might say next.

"What was the name of your leader? Who was captured by the Indonesian?"

"Xanana". (That was the first time I realized that Xanana is pronounced "Sha-na-na").

"Yeah, Xanana. What a man! And you, miss?" he cast his eyes on me through the rear mirror.

"Indonesia." I smiled.

"Ahh!" But there wasn't an awkward pause - not that was noticeable - before he continued, "Indonesians are nice people. Really. I like them."

This man would be a great diplomat for St. Vincent and the Grenadine. He's knowledgeable, and he knows what to say. But later I found out he was indeed acquainted with Indonesians: he once worked for a ship company with a group of people from all over the world. "Indonesians are easy to work with. They are not high tempered," he commented.

I thanked him.

Des told us that the native name of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is Hairoun, or "Land of the Blessed". His description of his country is full of superlatives. "We have a fantastic health system. If people go to the national hospital [it's the only one there] they don't have to pay. If they go for surgery, they only have to pay a small amount of money for the bed."

How about education?

"We have the best education system. Pupils don't have to pay anything, free books. They only pay for the uni. And we have plenty of very, very good schools..."

The Caribbeans may always be associated with beaches, voodoo, reggae, and Bob Marley, but they are also home to two Nobel laureates, Arthur William Lewis (Economics, 1979) and Derek Alton Walcott (Literature, 1992).

We skipped the shooting location of Pirates of Caribbeans, since I had to catch the evening flight and Licindo was heading to the Prime Minister's house for a reception. We witnessed the sun set as Des paced his new van, honked in impatience to slower drivers. The sun rayed softly on the colorful houses and roofs and the cobblestone alleys, where pedestrians walked and students chatted and giggled, all ready to hit home.

This island manages to retain its beauty and optimism, apart from the dangers lurking from its, probably, closest friend: the sea. (Vincentians dedicates a national day for fishermen, marking the importance of sea resources to their economy). Like for other small islands, the global warming and sea level rises are now an imminent threat to the livelihood of the people.

"We were hit by tornadoes and earthquakes, but they never tore us down," Des said. "We are indeed the Blessed People."