An old black man carrying a machete looked at our beat up car coming out of the woods on the rugged mountain road, if it could actually be called a road, with a look of disbelief. We drove down the dirt path that wound through the sugar cane fields and nodded to him as we passed. He nodded back and then shook his head and continued on his way. We looked beyond the cane, towards the sea in the distance and tried to act nonchalant, as if we belonged where we were, or better yet, that we had any idea where we were. Neither of those things was true. It was our second day in St Kitts.
A few years ago I took a Construction Management job on the island to rebuild the Catholic School in Basseterre. When my wife and I arrived, the priest gave us a dilapidated old Toyota with far too many hard miles on it and far too little maintenance done on it to be considered a safe and dependable vehicle. The brakes grinded each time I pressed the pedal. The steering wheel wobbled back and forth with enough loose play to force me drive like I was in a 1940’s movie. The headlights were perpetually dimmer than dim. The windshield wipers had been worn out for so long they had dug scratches in the glass. The tires were bald and the gas gauge didn’t work. All in all, it was a typical island car. To top it off, we had no map to show us where we were starting from or where we were heading to. With all that said, we somehow came to the conclusion we should take our newly acquired vehicle and go out on an island adventure in a land we knew almost nothing about.
So we drove out of Basseterre, the main city on the island, and then drove through a few small villages. At some point we saw a tiny little village on the side of a hill and decided to drive up and see what there was to see. We drove into and out of the village in a matter of a minute or less, but the road didn’t dead-end, so we said, “What the heck. Let’s keep going.”
The pavement ended as we continued up the side of the mountain and it turned to a smooth dirt road and we said, “Why not.” And we drove further.
Ten or fifteen minutes later we realized the road had gone from pavement to smooth dirt to not so smooth dirt to barely a road, but we had come this far and figured we would eventually turn around, or we would come out on the other side of the forest. As we went up hills and down into valleys the drop-off’s to our right or left seemed to get steeper and deeper. And the road seemed to get rougher and narrower. The forest was getting thicker and darker and we laughed at the absurdity of what we were doing. And we laughed because we were getting nervous and the laughing kept us from panicking. There were some bad washouts in the road that I wasn’t sure we were going to make it through, but turning around was an option that had disappeared as the road had narrowed and the drop-offs grew. And there was no backing up and down the mountain as a way out. We had committed to the journey. There was no turning back.
Each time we crested a hilltop we sighed and thought we had finally worked our way down the backside of the mountain. And each time we reached the bottom of a valley we realized there was at least one more mountain climb to be made.
When we eventually reached the bottom of a mountainside and it sort of flattened out in lieu of diving into another deep valley we held onto hope that we may make it out before sunset. We drove the last few hundred yards out of the forest and into the field, and just as we had the nerve to celebrate in the slightest bit, a new obstacle arrived. As we drove over a small hill and headed down again, ridges began popping up in the road every couple hundred feet and each ridge was progressively more extreme than the one before. At first they looked like little dirt and rock formed speed bumps, but by the third or forth one, they were about a foot tall and the bottom of our car lightly scrapped the top of them. By the time we got to the tenth one, the ridges were eighteen inches tall and grinding away on the parts of the bottom of the car that I’m sure were about ready to fall off before the cane field speed bumps had entered the picture.
At long last, the mountains and valleys and skinny half lane, washed out, dirt path/road and speed bumps were behind us. We could see the long winding dirt road that seemed to go on forever through the Kittitian cane field as it headed towards the sea. We could only hope the road would hit pavement before it reached the water.
Just when we thought we were going to make it, the final twist entered our adventure. The sun was beginning to set and the shadow of the mountain reached across the field. Silhouetted against the thick sugar cane, almost hidden by the shadows, was a tall, scruffy looking island man wearing ragged clothes and carrying a two-foot long machete in his hand. He lumbered towards us from a hundred yards away without looking directly at us. We slowly drove towards him, hoping the road actually lead out of the field as opposed to leading to a place to turn around, and forcing us to relive our journey. As we passed each other, I glanced towards him and with a nervous smile on my face and I tried to act as if we were simply out for a Sunday ride. He glanced out of the corner of his eye and I’m pretty sure I saw his hand squeeze tightly on the handle of the machete. I’ve often wondered if he was as scared of the crazy white people coming out of the Caribbean mountain forest as much as we were scared about running into a big guy with a big knife in the middle of nowhere at sunset.
I’m guessing that when it was all said and done, he probably laughed at us as much as we laughed at us. At least I hope he did.