The Natives Are Restless

Published by under Short Stories


By Michael.McGrath

9:54 PM 12/18/2001 – San Andres Island, Colombia

The All Inclusive Hotel Resort

I won’t pretend to try to make a lot of sense out of any of this. I am not surprised to be laying back in bed, a little weak after a bout of tourista after one week at San Andres all inclusive resort. I may as well be on the moon. Home seems so far away and indeed a five-hour direct flight from San Andres Island to Toronto and then an eight-hour drive up north makes for my detached reality.  The only one I could count on here is my friend Xavier, a tall Native fellow from the James Bay coast who I convinced to travel with me to paradise.  

It’s not just one thing. There are so many incidental intersections that I am making here. Like the lady I met in the ocean the other day that talked about past life regression, a shaman she met and the fact that she worked with homeless people in Mississauga. She had a large straw hat on. She said she was from Peru originally and she more or less just walked about in the ocean in front of the resort up to her neck in salt water. Most of the time, I found myself conversing with this bouncing straw hat. It wasn’t so much what she said but what her conversation drew out of me.

The lady in the straw hat made me say things as she bounced along in the ocean under the burning sun. She helped me remember a time in the old house when a friend of mine Tom showed up with an acquaintance that was either mentally unstable or had some depth of reality that most people only touch on in their dreams. Tom’s friend was some kind of expert in past life regression. I recounted to the bouncing straw what Tom’s friend had greeted me with. The fact that on entering my home she stood back a little aghast and proceeded to tell me that I was a pirate in a past life.

Somehow this bizarre notion, through this eerie memory, had been following me ever since my friend Xavier and I landed on this tiny little island in the middle of nowhere. The lady with the straw had made me admit it.

There was something familiar here for me. It’s not just what I saw around me but a combination of what I have observed and what I knew from somewhere far away. I can’t even blame it on booze or drugs. I have been clean for so long that clean almost sounds like a dirty word. The fact that this little rise of land, surrounded by coral reef, was a pirate’s lair centuries ago kept this nagging notion rippling through my mind. It seemed more and more to be evolving into some more profound idea or reality that was running its course. Wait there is more.

How is it that I stumbled upon the so-called Native shaman, political mover and islander soul just when I wanted to forget about anything being important? How much of a coincidence is it that I was visited by Storm the shaman, just as I was emailing friends back in Canada from this little dot in the ocean.

I found myself learning far more than what I wanted to about the islanders’ struggle to throw off the Colombian government’s grip in a quest for some sort of independence. None of the information was really new. It seemed as though every time I stopped to talk to an islander over the past week they were eager to tell me about this conflict.

When Storm dropped in with perfect timing to talk to myself and my buddy Xavier in the internet café, I was suspicious. He was intimidating in his stature alone. This black man was at least 6 foot 5 and although graying, he had the body of a much younger man. He looked like an athlete and was fine toned, broad shouldered and spoke with a hint of higher education in his words. In the short time I knew him I had learned that he was a political force to be dealt with and had been leading the islanders’ in their fight for justice. He was unhappy with Columbia’s approach to islanders and he felt that the government had only one thing in mind for them; their assimilation and in the worst case scenario perhaps genocide. Storm was respected by all of the powers at the resort. Everyone from the hotel security guards to the department managers acknowledged his coming and going with tolerance. He was the only outsider allowed to freely come and go. Perhaps the fact that he led the islanders in organized protest and ran a weekly radio show provided him with an elevated place, even amongst the local Colombian officials.

I didn’t censure myself in chatting with Storm, although I felt a little vulnerable, speaking in the open about such intense concepts with a nearby local sleazy destination representative soaking up our every word we let go in the Internet office. I let myself speak. I somehow felt it important to tell this tall and noble islander what I knew about changing things. I reminded him that this struggle should never become violent. For examples I picked the Weathermen and the Black Panthers of the sixties as examples of how not to protest. I assured the well spoken and dignified Storm that if his fight took on any violent means it would all be for not. We discussed the importance of communication and the media to his cause. I reminded him that a violent struggle with one of the largest and most sophisticated military powers in South America would be suicide. I also suggested to him that a true warrior lives to fight another day.

For the longest time his words deflected anything I had to say. He kept telling me of the plight of the islanders who had been turned over to Columbia by the English in the early 1800s. I just kept bouncing back my same message wrapped up in different spins. Finally, I think he got it. He thanked me for the advice at the door before he walked out with one of those funny, yet artful little birds crafted out of palm leaves dangling from his hand. I found it strange to know that such a majestic character made his living braiding palms into birds and hats. Then again, it occurred to me Jean Cretien was the son of a machinist in a paper mill in Quebec.

I first met the lady in the straw hat on an occasion when I stopped to chat with Storm under a large bamboo umbrella on the beach. I had noticed her before. She was bizarre. She looked kind of like a witch and I don’t mean that in a negative manner. She truly looked like someone who walked in that way. She had long graying hair and exotic tattoos on her shoulders. One was an eagle and the other some sort of Asian character. It was as though we already knew each other and that the words were simply an excuse to rub our souls together. Our conversation skipped along like slippery flat stones on a mirror like lake.

Somehow it didn’t really surprise me that we connected in real life too. She had been a teacher in my hometown of Iroquois Falls in the sixties. Obviously that was another life for her that she had long ago shed. Here I was resurrecting it with news of her old school and other teachers and personalities she had bumped elbows with. She seemed to have some association to Storm, which also didn’t surprise me. She brought him food and hung close to him as he braided his birds.

“Drop by anytime – my office is always open,” he said under the bamboo umbrella and laughed heartily and deep as he worked on one of his palm birds with the former teacher at his side. I visited his office often.

Proud To Be A Canadian

The latest onslaught of vacationing Canadians welled into the San Andres all inclusive hotel. They were mostly fat old men with balding heads accompanied by wives with hair permed so tight they looked like plastic dolls. They were all here to drink themselves silly, chain smoke, eat too much and to play cards. I was embarrassed to be Canadian in the wake of their arrival. Hell, they could have stayed home or gone to a local Holiday Inn to play cards and get drunk. Instead they chose to house themselves below my room in what was now fast becoming a tainted paradise. I was blessed with their shallow conversation that churned through the day until it fermented into drunken howls and laughter with the evening hours. Didn’t anybody with a brain come to these places I thought and then I realized the danger in asking the question.

I had become more or less accepting of the fact that tourista was a way of life for me on the island. With that acceptance I was less worried about the fact that whatever I ate seemed to almost immediately run through my system for deposit back into San Andres through its mysterious, yet functioning toilet and sewer system. However, I was less accepting of the fact that part of that mystery seemed to be solved in the murky ocean water just off the man made beach in front of the resort. To discover this through swimmer’s itch was no great piece of detective work.

In my research to resolve my dilemma of being itchy from head to toe, I talked with many on staff in the resort. The lady at the enfermeria didn’t feel good about lying to me about the so-called jellyfish that caused these itchy phenomena. She made up for it by cautioning me not to swim off the resort beach but instead to head out to a nearby island or the beach in town or the one at San Luis a few kilometers up the road. She had no antidote for my dilemma, after all in her eyes – it didn’t really exist. Finally, it dawned on me that the best people to talk to in seeking out a solution to this nasty itch were those who worked at the water’s edge. After two days of putting up with this itch, in ten minutes I had a solution from one of the water sport activity workers. This Colombian mainlander by the name of Gustaw told me straight off that bathing myself with vinegar would rid me of the bothersome creatures who had moved in and by now were quite comfortable living on my skin. The curly haired, brown skinned Gustaw actually provided me with two options, there was the vinegar solution and urine could also be used. I opted for the vinegar sponge bath and somehow it worked. My little buggy guests moved out.

The Watering Hole

Having been faced with the need to travel, if I wanted to swim in the ocean, the resort pool became my last retreat. It was clean enough but I got the feeling I was in a gold fish bowl every time I went for a swim. The card players were at one end and several Colombian families with kids bobbed up and down in the heavily chlorinated water. I sensed that many of the people I shared the pool with were paramilitary Colombians on some sort of leave. It did not take much to imagine these strong young studs in fatigues and carrying machine guns. Just about everybody else in the resort came and went to the poolside during the day. All eyes were on you when you entered the pool. It was as though everyone here at this spot had accepted the tight life of the all-inclusive San Andres resort hotel. No matter how much I tried to ignore it I could not over look the presence of a dozen little kids frolicking continually at the shallow end of the pool. I was pissed off in more ways then one.

The pool reminded me of those watering holes in Africa that you see on National Geographic television shows. It was like a place where every sort of animal comes to have a drink during the day. The different personalities moved here and there to provide room for each other and access to the water. Most of these animals were more or less sedated by mid afternoon through their indulgence in every alcohol drink imaginable. Many of them seemed semi comatose and lay burning under the hot equatorial sun. I spent as little time as possible at pool side and I darted in and out of the scene, making few waves in my quest for a little refreshment.

There seemed to be no happy medium here. It was either burning hot under the sun, humid as hell on a cloudy or rainy day and always freezing in our room. It was surrealistic to walk from forty degree heat into fifteen degree cold with simply the opening of the door to our room. The air conditioning had only one mode of operation which was full blast and freezing. Try as I might to turn the system down I could find no means of moderating the temperature in our room. Still, none of this really took away from the fact that I was at the very least out of boring little Iroquois Falls and the reach of several frantic people that in some way or another had continual intentions to control my life.

Xavier and I rented a scooter one day and proceeded to zoom around the island. There wasn’t much zooming to be done as we discovered that the entire circumference of San Andres could be accomplished on a rattling little 100 cc, two stroke scooter in about an hour with lots of stops along the way. Afterall it was only 12 kilometers long and three wide. Mostly, the island coast was a kind of coral rock with a couple of major sandy beach areas. Strangely enough, although I was told that the island had a population of 80,000, I didn’t see many people in the countryside. The beach at San Luis was a few kilometers long and populated with lots of tourists bobbing on the big rolling waves. The beach in town had an even higher population and there was a lot more activity.

I was surprised to find that town had no name other than ‘town’. One islander we talked to made an effort to provide me with some sort of name for the town. He suggested I call it San Andres Town or St. Andrews Town if that was more to my liking. The fact remained however, that everybody for all time referred to town as simply ‘town’.

The traffic wasn’t too bad out and away from the resorts and town and the highway was pretty smooth. However, the main artery close to and through town was like an obstacle course. The asphalt was all chopped up and traffic far too heavy for such a little place. Most of the cars were big America 1980s taxis. There were Buicks, Chevy Capris, Pontiacs and some of those sporty four wheel drive SUVs. There were tons of motorcycles and no stop signs or stoplights. Somehow, people got to where they were going.

I knew the absence of motorcycle helmets on all the motorcycle and scooter riders meant a high death rate for people here. Yet somehow I felt some false sense of security in being part of the pack. It wasn’t until after a week or so that I began to realize that every second person I met had a tragic story to tell about a brother, sister or cousin being killed on a motorcycle. It was just part of island life or death should I say.

The Other Side Of The Island

Another part of island life that I discovered, had to do with a large number of guns in San Andres and seemingly in the wrong hands. I met Franco at his post in the snack bar of the Isleno Hotel in town where he was only too happy to flush out the island experience for me.

The way he talked about the barrios described a picture of poverty, drugs and violence. He told me a story about riding his bicycle on the road one day near his home. He noticed a strong odour coming from the bushes from the side of the road and he could see thousands of flies focused on one spot. On closer examination he discovered a young man’s body, bound hands and feet with a bullet in his head. He told me this happened a lot and that he had heard about many such killings but discovering an actual body was more realistic then he wanted to deal with. He said he had been plagued by nightmares about the young man on the side of the road with the bullet through his head ever since that fateful day.

Franco painted a picture of terrible poverty and people living in shacks and huts with no running water. He described the average family as having little or no food most of the time, not much access to clean water and no real sewage system to speak of. Many of the islanders, he explained, took their baths in the ocean and drinking water for the most part was collected in large cisterns that caught the rain. He added that in the dry season the lack of drinking water becomes a real problem. He told me that he was going to school but that it was expensive and he had to work to provide himself with an education.

All of this information that came from Franco and every other islander I spoke to, we had to dissect from the language of Creole. I decided at one point that this English dialect the islanders used had originated from the African slaves brought to the island by the English. Although it has survived centuries in pretty much its original form, it seemed now to be threatened by the years of Spanish influence. I also decided that the language was in part born out of English used to describe things in the way an African slave would think. In other words the African slave thought in his original Native language and translated it into what he had learned as English. This resulted in this almost cartoonesque, quick, musical and percussive San Andres Creole. Of course all of the islanders also spoke Spanish.

Our window to the island opened a little more with a visit one night from Jose, an 19 year old cleaner for the San Andres all inclusive resort. We had learned that visitors from outside the resort compound were not tolerated and specifically those visitors who were local people. On a couple of occasions I had to meet local friends at the compound entrance and plead with the security people to allow them access. Even then, the best I could do was to sit in the reception area and chat. Later I found out that we could buy their way in for a day or for an evening at the disco. The whole thing seemed ridiculous to me. I wondered, were they trying to keep people away from tourists in an effort to protect us or were they trying to keep us away from them in an effort to limit our awareness of what life in San Andres was really all about? I decided it was probably a combination. At any rate it made the place seem more like a prison than a get away.

Jose told us about his side of island life. He mentioned the guns, the poverty and the drugs. As a matter of fact, he had a story of watching his 20 year old cousin murdered in broad daylight right in front of him in one of the nastier barrios while playing soccer. He shuddered a little when he described the scene and talked about running away to save his own life. There were no tears but I noticed that his eyes dampened up.

Jose was better off then most. He had ‘an auntie’ working in the restaurant at Marazul and a ‘black man night manager’ who helped him secure his cleaning job in the resort. He told me that there was a lot of violence on the island but that if you were not looking for it, you were probably okay. In other words, if you got close to the drug trade, you got close to the violence. Of course, there was always that remote chance that as a naive tourist you could wander into a spider’s web if you took a wrong turn in the night. Jose was slim and had very dark skin, he didn’t seem to see himself as black. He talked about people in shades. He made 11,000 pesos a day which was about $11 Canadian. He lived in a small house crammed with ten people but with the luxury of cold running water, a shower and a toilet.

Like most islanders, he peppered his sketch of poverty stricken, violent island life with religious overtones. Most of the people on this part of the island were Baptist or Pentecost of some sort. Jose spoke of his affiliation with the church as though it was just another part of the scene. Religion seemed somehow to be the glue that held the whole stinking mess together.

He told me about the whorehouses. There were several on the island. In fact, Jose, had frequented a couple of them. He talked about sex openly and seemed to have no problem that it was actively sold as merely another commodity under the hot sun.

In a detached way Jose seemed accepting of everything around him. There was no question in him what so ever. He appeared almost medicated through this acceptance of fate and had no great plans for the future. His fatalistic approach seemed to originate in his means to survive. We gave him a T-shirt and a couple of pairs of shorts. I don’t even remember him saying thanks. It was just another thing that happened to him. We were just a couple of tourists that had come in and would go out of his life at the San Andres all inclusive resort. The only thing he might have thought strange was that all we wanted was some conversation with him.

As we took off into the sky in the 757 Boeing and headed back to Canada I caught a last glimpse of the tiny little island of San Andres. It was no longer merely a few paragraphs and photos in a colour brochure I picked up from the travel agent. I saw it now through the eyes of sad and traumatized young people living day to day in a shameful existence in so called paradise. Here I was heading back to certain boredom and a familiarity that provided me with a way of life that was full and rich, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness. I was returning yet again from a third world country with a guilty and sick feeling for not doing enough to make the world a better place for everyone. I was coming back also with the accumulative knowledge that many of the people’s of the world that we use and abuse are becoming increasingly frustrated and angry. I hoped and prayed our flight would make it back safely and I wondered how long I would be able to venture out and to travel safely in this wonderful world. After all, the natives are restless.


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