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Staying Hungry (BVI, Part III)

Flashback, for a brief moment, to the day I landed in Tortola…

One of the joys of travel writing is encountering new people and their belief systems. That’s what I tell myself as my driver, Troy, takes me from the airport to Road Town in a battered van that’s nonetheless in better condition than any of the ultra-battered cars and trucks whipping by in the opposing lane.

“What kind of food you like?” Troy asks.

On the agenda for this evening is a party at the governor’s house, an event where I suspect the only nourishment will come via tastefully presented, but minimal calorie, hors d’oeuvres. “Calamari,” I tell him, “Conch fritters.”

(Subtext: This morning I woke up in Manhattan, and thus far my daily sustenance has consisted of a bag of airplane pretzels, so can we stop for something appropriately artery-clogging?)

Troy doesn’t get the hint. “Oh, there is a fish here—“

“What kind of fish?”

“Any kind of fish. The fish here’s an aphrodisiac.”

I offer him my patented One-Eyebrow-Raised Look of Total Incredulity, in response to which he starts nodding vigorously. “It’s because of the protein,” he explains.

“O-kay.”

Our van swoops into the traffic circle that marks the entrance to Road Town, and Troy starts frantically pointing to our left. “There is a tree here, a very special tree, that is an aphrodisiac, too. See there?”

I see. “That’s… a coconut tree.”

“Yes!” He pounds the wheel. “The coconut water, you drink it, it is natural Viagra. It cleans your blood also.”

Good to know. But not a detail I feel needs sharing with the governor a few hours later, when (other writer in tow) we pull into the foliage-lined rotunda before the giant house on the hill. Balanced on the dashboard: Three Styrofoam cartons of fritters, fries and calamari, trembling slightly in time with the Kanye West beats on the radio. We pile out of the car, smooth our travel-wrinkled finery, and proceed to join the receiving line.

I’m still starving. (Hunger seems strangely endemic to travel, even though you spend most of your time sitting; one time, coming back into the Bahamas after a week in Havana for a story, I devoured a 36-ounce steak, a plate of calamari, and basketful of bread in roughly 15 minutes.) A waiter with a tray saunters past, and I speed into his wake like a shark on a blood-trail. Quick, before that sunburned gaggle of minor-royality-looking Brits gets them – lunge for the last toothpick-skewered fried thingies! Mission success! Quick, find something else! But there is nothing; my consolation prize is the open bar.

Days later, before we steer the catamaran back to Tortula’s airport (which comes with a oh-so-convenient dock), we dive one final time in a cove off Monkey Point. “Don’t get too freaked out by what you’re about to see,” our captain tells us as the dinghy carves a foamy arc towards an anchor buoy. “Down below, you’ll see tarpon, and they’ll be big, but they’re after the minnows.”

I sit perched on the dinghy’s gray-rubber side like a Navy SEAL, if Navy SEALs were lanky white boys in blue swim-trunks whose primary mission, instead of strapping C-4 to enemy hulls, consisted of tooling around the British Virgin Islands for a magazine story. After tying ourselves to a moss-covered rope extending into the deep, I sucked tube and plunged overboard. Opened my eyes to a cloudy sea swirling with motes of vegetation, a deep dark seafloor breaking apart into schools of tiny fish, and…

Shark!

Five-foot silvery beasties gliding on long fins over the sea floor’s ragged topography, fast and intent on the hunt, ready to feast and draw blood with their tiny…

…their itty-bitty…

…snouts?

Not shark!

“Tarpon,” I say to my diving companion, and point; but through the snorkel bit it comes out something like, “Mrph-Ughn.” Not that she can hear anyway.

Down below, the tarpon dart into the schools of smaller fish, ravenous, burning their energy in a spectacular display of sinewy muscle and flashing scales to snatch one little morsel from the brine. They must be so hungry.

I understand how they feel.

Current Music: Massive Attack, “Live With Me”
Current Movie: “Wall Street” (1987)
Current Book: ‘The Master and Margarita,” by Mikhail Bulgakov

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