07 September 2010

It's another Blog Off: where's your slice of heaven?

If it's the seventh of September, it must be another Blog Off day. A Blog off is an event when bloggers from all areas of interest write about the same thing on the same day. I'll have a list of participating bloggers at the end of this post but I won't have it complete until the end of the day. In the meantime, everybody who's participating is already listed on the Blog Off website.

The topic today is Where's your slice of heaven?

My slice of heaven isn't a place, more something that happened on the island of Grenada in the year 2000. Although Grenada more than qualifies as a slice of heaven, I happened upon those shores at the exact moment I needed to be there and I carry what I learned on that island with me all the time.

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If you don't know, Grenada's an independent nation in the Eastern Caribbean. It sits off the coast of Venezuela and its closets neighbors are Trinidad and Tobago to the south and St. Vincent and the Grenadines to the north.

Grenada rings a faint bell for many Americans because the United States invaded it in October, 1983. Grenada had gained independence from Great Britain in 1974 and it remained a member of the British Commonwealth. Grenada's transition to independence was a rocky one and Sir Eric Gairy, the man who led Grenada to independence in the first place was behaving more dictatorially as time went on. In March, 1979, Maurice Bishop led a bloodless coup and took control of the country from Gairy. Gairy received asylum in the US. Maurice Bishop was a wildly popular socialist who was determined to bring his country into the 20th Century. Bernard Coard, a Bishop former colleague and friend turned political adversary, had other ideas. Coard was a Stalinist and raised his own army and on October 19th, 1983 he held a coup of his own. Coard executed Bishop and his cabinet.

Amid a lost of bluster and a media blackout, the United States invaded Grenada on October 25th, 1983. I was a freshman in college at the time and in a pre-CNN, pre-internet world, news came from three networks and the daily papers. I remember thinking that the whole thing was a Reagan Administration publicity stunt. Reagan made a great deal of political hay from it and despite the fact that it was a clear violation of International Law, the invasion was hailed in the US as a more or less painless victory.

According to what we were told at the time, the invasion was a cakewalk and a rollicking success. I remember the invasion being called Operation Urgent Fury and I remember being glad that no one died. People don't die in painless, bloodless cakewalks, do they? I knew that there had to be more to the story than we were being told in 1983 but at the same time, I thought I'd never know what the real story was.

Fast forward 17 years and some friends and I chartered a sailboat in the Country of Grenada. Grenada is a sailor's paradise. The waters surrounding it range from secluded calm spots between small islands and full fury of the open Atlantic. Besides, I'd never been to the developing world before and I thought it would be an interesting get away.

We sailed out of Mount Hartman Bay and rounded the southern end of the island on the first day. We pulled into The Port of St. George's to deal with customs and stock in more provisions.

It was Palm Sunday weekend and the hills surrounding St. George's Harbor were echoing with a loud buzzing, whirring sound and for the life of me I couldn't figure out what mas making the sound. It was a perfect day and as we sailed into the harbor I felt like I'd been dropped in some kind of a promised land. Grenada looks like no where else I'd ever been. Though the island's relatively small at 135 square miles, it has mountains tall enough to generate their own weather patterns. St. George's itself is spectacular. It was established by the French in 1650 and the buildings along the harbor have the red-tiled roofs of Nice.

We stopped in to see the dockmaster and upon seeing our white faces he asked, "Are you British or French?" I'd never been mistaken for anything but an American in my life and I chalked it up to there being so few Americans in this part of the world. We filed out paperwork and paid our dock fees. He told us he'd be around later for a visit.

Going to the market in St. George's means going to the a real market. As in the open-air kind. I'd never been in anything like it. It was packed to the gills with loud, laughing people and from everywhere came the sounds of ska and the scent of cinnamon.

We made our way back to the marina and set about making dinner.

After dinner, we were sitting on the deck and the dockmaster made his way over to us. He came aboard and we offered him a beer. He sat and we talked about general stuff mostly. He had all kinds of pointers for what to avoid and what to see during our adventure. He made no indication that he had to go anywhere and so we offered him another beer. I started asking him about his life, his family and his country. The other guys excused themselves one by one, they were lured by the sounds of a "Jump Up" that was taking place on the other side of the harbor. After an hour, it was just the dockmaster and me.

My first real question was about the whirring and buzzing I kept hearing even though the sun had long since set. The sound was coming from the kites Grenadians fly for Easter. There's a reed whistle of some kind affixed to the kites and then the kites are tied to something immobile and left aloft.

As we sailed into St. George's earlier, we passed under the bombed out shell of a building. I knew it was a leftover from the US invasion and I was dying to ask the dockmaster for his story about what had happened in the spot where we were sitting 17 years earlier.

After dancing around the topic for another hour I asked. It's curious, curious thing to sit alone with someone and ask him "What happened when my country invaded yours?" It's an even more curious thing when someone who has every right in the world to hate you, doesn't.

He proceeded to tell me his story of the invasion. He loved Maurice Bishop and hated Bernard Coard. When he and his family realized that the US was invading them, they were at first relieved. Their relief was short-lived. The US Navy shelled the hills surrounding St. George's and what got hit got hit. Most of Grenada's civilian casualties came from a mental hospital that ended up in the cross hairs of the Navy I pay taxes to support.

To him, this was the story of his life and times. He was there. He lived it. He lived through the fight for independence, then two coups and a political assassination. But to me it was news. It was the version of the story I never knew about in 1983. The US invasion of Grenada wasn't some casualty-free cake walk. 69 Grenadians and 19 Americans were killed during that campaign. The names and faces of those dead never occur to the war mongers and Reagan's jokes of the time are even less funny now than they were then.

I didn't go to Grenada to get a political education, I just picked one up along the way. We went on to have an idyllic sail. The Coast of Grenada defies description. We had dinner in a family restaurant in Carriacou. Family restaurant in Carriacou means we ate in a family's home for $20 a head. We dived the Tobago Cays, bought lobster and lambi from boatboys on Union Island, experienced some of the roughest seas I've ever sailed in and I learned that eight days in a sailboat is about six days too many.

Since the assignment was to discuss my slice of heaven, I picked Grenada because I don't think I've ever written about it before. As wonderful and amazing as Grenada and the rest of the Eastern Caribbean are, I'm not calling them slices of heaven per se. But Grenada, and my deck side conversation with the dockmaster marked a real change in how I see the rest of the world and ignited in me a pressing need to know how other people live. That sail was the first time I'd been somewhere and just let where I was reveal itself to me. Whether it's in the developed or the developing world, it doesn't matter. My goal when I leave the US is always the same, to sit still long enough to listen to the stories of unfamiliar places. The world's full of slices of heaven, you just need to get out of the way and notice that they're there.

If you're interested in reading more about the US's invasion of Grenada, please read The US Invasion of Grenada by Stephen Zunes. The photos I used for this post aren't mine. My trip there took place before the advent of consumer-grade digital photography. As a result, the only photos I have of my Eastern Caribbean adventure are 35mm prints. The photos shown here are from a kind Flickr member named shaggyshoo.

As of 8pm today, the participating bloggers in this week's Blog Off are as follows:

Veronika Miller@modenusModenus Community
Paul Anater@paul_anaterKitchen and Residential Design
Rufus Dogg@dogwalkblogDogWalkBlog
Becky Shankle@ecomodEco-Modernism
Bob Borson@bobborsonLife of an Architect
Bonnie Harris@waxgirl333Wax Marketing
Tamara Dalton@tammyjdaltonTamara Dalton Design Studios
Sean Lintow, Sr.@SLSconstructionSLS-Construction.com
Richard Holschuh@concretedetailConcrete Detail
Tim Bogan@TimBoganWindbag International
Hollie Holcombe@GreenRascalGreen Rascal Design
Cindy FrewenWuellner@UrbanverseUrbanverse's Posterous
Steve Mouzon@stevemouzonthe Original Green
Kevin Lee Allen@klad2688KLAD Design
Jody Brown@INFILLncCoffee with an Architect
Madame Sunday@ModernSauceModern Sauce
Saxon Henry@RoamingByDesignRoaming By Design
Barbara Segal@beachhousefindsBeach House Finds
Jane Frederick@JaneFredArchLow Country Architect
Carrie Leber@bloomaciousCarrie Leber PR Blog
Brian Meeks@ExtremelyAvgExtremely Average
Andrea Wolper@AndreaWolperSpin the Wheel


  1. Paul, thanks for sharing! It is always eye opening to have the other side of the story.

  2. Thanks Amy! There's a lot to learn from that footnote to the '80s.

  3. Paul, amazing blog and an important reminder of us having to become aware of our impact on others, both as a nation and as individuals. And Grenada? Simply a stunning place and very much a slice of heaven. We sailed there in 1994 but didn't take the time to meet locals and really get the sense of the place that you did. Thank you!

  4. V: For such a small country there's so much there that it's definitely a destination unto itself.

  5. When I look at a map of places and they are just little dots in what appears to be countryside or blips of land in the middle of the ocean. Not very big, how could they be that important? I'm taken aback a bit when I land on the runway of an island and can't see the two coasts from either side of the plane. I realize I am in a real place, with real people who have real stories.

    I think we do that a lot in our modern culture. We reduce people's lives to demographic points on a chart, a FICO Score, a dot on a map, the number of followers they have on twitter, the amount of tax they pay and figure out how to extract what we want instead of just offering them a beer and listening.

    Thanks for the beer, Paul. Not sure if leading with the dot on the map was intentional, but it was brilliant nonetheless. And you are wrong about one thing though; eight days in a sailboat is 7 1/2 days too many. : )

  6. Paul, I love how you love people! You are a story gatherer as much as you are a story teller.

    There was a young man who lived near me in college whose brother fought in Grenada. As with a lot of people who go to war, the brother had two main things he wanted to say about invading Grenada. At 20 or 21, he had never before seen such a beautiful place and it plagued him to bomb it. He was a sensitive type (a little "off") who told me that the conflict wasn't like "they" said it was; it was awful and it had changed him. I haven't seen him since then, and I wonder what ever happened to him.

  7. Rufus: That was intentional and thanks. Also intentional was my lack of scenic photos. I wanted to put a face on the Grenadian people. Hearing stories is why I travel. I always feel bad for the fellow Americans I run into out there who feel compelled to bring the US with them when they leave. How can you tell where you are when you're staying at an all-inclusive?

    Kathleen: Thanks! I have never spoken with a US Veteran from that invasion and I'd love to.

  8. Hey Paul, Just popped over to say hi and read your story. What a fantastic story. Felt as if I was there. Got me thinking about home (Jamaica). I think it's wonderful that you take an interest in other people and their stories. Thanks for sharing.......

  9. Marilyn! Thanks for checking in from the other side of the Atlantic. Jamaica is another case all together. It's a another indescribably beautiful country with a history as inspiring as it is heartbreaking. How old were you when you left?

  10. Hi Paul: all true, our politics and our travels should become a thread with local people. Luckily you were aware and had the courage and words to have an authentic conversation. look how much you gained! tv reporters try to do that, and rarely manage it. Its hearing this story from you, a friend, that makes it come home. nicely done, vibrant images too. Grenada, the invasion we mostly forget. thanks for the reminder. cindy @urbanverse

  11. Enjoyed your story immensely Paul. Both educational and entertaining! (Thank you.)

    Have been to the Carribean more than once, but would have to say my little slice of heaven has to be the region of the Yucatan Peninsula. Love its beauty, its people and intriguing Mayan history. In summary; I feel we are so fortunate to have it as part of our great AmericaS. If I were to immigrate, that's where it would be. -Brenda-

  12. Cindy: Thanks and you're right. I'd been talking around the subject for the bulk of that night and the deckmaster was too worried he'd offend me by bringing it up himself.

    Brenda: The Yucatan huh? It is a beautiful part of the world. I have a thing for being surrounded on all sides by water.

  13. What a touching and beautiful story! Your angle on this topic is truly unique; the lesson is universal. I will remember these words for a very long tile:

    "The world's full of slices of heaven, you just need to get out of the way and notice that they're there."


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