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.
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…
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…
“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