Friday, March 16, 2018

Grenada: Rum, Chocolate, and Communist Airplanes

Today we booked a private tour to multiple sites around Grenada's main island. Since we were the only ones in the car I figured I would try to add a little of my own personality to the journey. Our tour guide Von was really amenable to this so it was happy times all around.

We saw several mentions of the Fish Friday sort of festival thing in the town of Gouyave which is on the opposite side of the island. I figured going all the way home after the tour then booking a car to Fish Friday would be a waste of resources and why not swing by there during the tour? Well Von poo-pooed that pretty quick. He said that it used to be good but too many tourists have started attending which has driven prices up and quality down, and now locals hardly go at all. I wondered if it was really that bad or he just didn't want to go, but fine I was convinced.

My second request was a little bit more esoteric. My go-to guide for international travel has always been 1000 Places to See Before You Die. While that book is still treating me right I want to incorporate some less obvious stuff into my travels. So I got a copy of Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders which covers a lot of that quirky stuff that lies off the beaten path. You know it's real when it includes the latitude and longitude of each location.

Atlas only had one entry for Grenada which involved a derelict airport. That plan was approved by Von so we were good to go.

I charged my solar batteries poolside at the Sea Breeze Hotel while we waited for our guide.

Von was one of my favorite guides ever. He had a good mix of fun and intelligence. He was from the sticks, and said when he was growing up he was only allowed to go to the city twice a year: once on Christmas to buy 2 toys, and once on his birthday for ice cream. The only exception was if he was sick and needed to go see a doctor. His humble upbringing had its advantages however. When Hurricane Ivan devastated Grenada the country people knew how to cook and clean without electricity while the city people were out of commission.

I commented on the lack of traffic lights while we were driving out of St. George's and Von said that Grenada got some in the 1990s but there's only 2 left and they don't work. He said they preferred roundabouts.

Our first stop was Grand Etang National Park.

It got a little windy while we were checking the place out and I thought that the wind looked really cool through the trees.

The visitor center was built with USAID money.

Out of nowhere Von stopped the car and said something about being a good Grenadian. He then got out and macheted a branch that was hanging into the road.

Then we headed to Grenada's old airport: Pearls Airport.

Ok history break. So the United States invaded Grenada in 1983. Now that I've witnessed a few BS wars I know that a lot of the supposed reasoning for these things are lies, but there were a few things going on that lead up to the invasion. The government was communist leaning, the prime minister was murdered in a coup, and a big catalyst was that Grenada built a nice new airport that was military-aircraft-capable and the US was worried that the Soviets would use this to bring in weapons a la the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Oddly enough Grenada observes Thanksgiving Day on October 25, not for turkey stuffing or indigenous people meeting, but to commemorate the US invasion. I asked Von about this and he said that there are multiple sides to the story, and that this is a governmental politics thing that isn't actually celebrated by a lot of people.

Following the invasion two Soviet planes were abandoned on the old airfield and have been sitting there rusting ever since. Sounds like my kind of party. Von seemed kind of embarrassed by the place and insisted that the aircraft were not military. This was awkward because I could clearly read "Cuban Air Force" in Spanish painted on the side of one of them.

When we arrived there was a very bored looking lady in a purple shirt concentrating on her cell phone. Her job was to prevent any additional looting of the planes. Very rewarding work, I'm sure.

Mayday Mayday!

You may recall I was complaining that we arrived in Grenada on election day so all of the bars were closed. Well the winner of that election had his victory party out on this abandoned airstrip. I read that it's also an official drag racing location for the Grenada Motor Club.

Von was pretty chill about everything but he was a whiny old lady about how hard I was closing the car door. He scolded me a couple times so I just started leaning on the door to close it. 

Von was really talking up the River Antoine Rum Distillery and I was sort of rolling my eyes. in my experience distilleries, breweries, and wineries are frequently present in touristy places but rarely are they notable. Well in this instance I was pleasantly surprised at how wrong I was.

The first thing you'll see on your approach are the huge piles of squished sugarcane husks.

By far the most unique part of the operation was 1840 water wheel powering the sugarcane crusher.

I don't really want to know how many body parts have ended up juiced along with the sugarcane.

Von asked one of the workers to fetch us a fresh sugarcane and the worker proceeded to hack off the outer rind with a machete. Doesn't get more real than that. Von cut us off chunks and then.. we chewed them. It's pretty much like chewing deliciously sugary wood pulp. Once the flavor is gone you spit out the remainder.

We then proceeded to the various stages of the distillation process. There was a definite circle of life thing going on, with both the spent cane and even old rum boxes being thrown into the fire.

We then proceeded to the boiling house.

Everything was very out in the open. There was nothing left to the imagination on this tour.

You may not be surprised to learn that heating up outdoor swimming pools worth of sugar water attracts a few flies.

The 75% alcohol stuff the locals drink is so strong that it surpases the FAA's limit of 70%. I think any higher than that and it counts as a combustible liquid. So we bought a few bottles of the weak stuff to bring back home. Only 69%. Sad. They don't age anything here so it's all pretty much sugarcane moonshine. It's actually surprisingly flavorful for an unaged spirit. Von said that this is because River Antoine's distillation process is so old school that they include a lot of extra flavors that the industrial guys filter out.

We grabbed a couple bottles of the passion fruit flavored stuff on the right as well.

Got a sweet new rummy sticker for my journal. It's not a diary it's a journal, ok?

Von's story of why rum is sometimes called grog was that pirates would raid ships full of it and take the rum for themselves. The best rum was reserved for the king and the barrels were stamped Georgius Rex Old Grenada. Sounds like complete BS but it was a good story.

Around here the beach is like the local makeout spot.

In the country towns there were trucks driving around with loudspeakers thanking people for their votes in the recent election. I thought that was nice.

Von gave us some islander life advice: "Don't park below a coconut tree."

After our success at the rum factory I figured we really couldn't go wrong at the Diamond Chocolate Factory. It's situated in a converted former rum distillery built by French monks in 1774. Cools points were already being awarded and I hadn't even seen anything yet!

Another tour was already in progress so Von took us around back to the cacao trees to take a peek.

Fresh cacao looks like an alien egg pod. The beans are covered in a sweet goop that you can suck off before spitting out the beans. There was a lot of sugary spit flying on this trip. The taste of the bean snot is reminiscent of soursop.

I thought about pulling an Augustus Gloop and sticking my face in one of the tanks.

Apparently Grenada only made raw cocoa and not actual chocolate until some Americans came and invested. USA! USA!

Then we headed to the gift shop. Contrary to the rum, Diamond's Jouvay brand chocolate bars were already well known to us. 

Never ever turn your back on Lydia when there's free chocolate samples around.

I had no choice but to buy a Chocolate Mongoose porter brewed by West Indies Beer Company. I proclaimed that I would like to be referred to as the Chocolate Mongoose the rest of my time in Grenada but was ignored.

Turns out that that was for the best, because when you google Chocolate Mongoose the beer is not the first result. West Indies Beer needs to work on their Search Engine Optimization very badly. It's a real emergency.

We stopped for a bite to eat for lunch. The food was unremarkable but Von did grab us a nutmeg to play with while we waited.

Ripe nutmegs crack their shell like this.

Inside the shell is the nut but it's covered with a red, waxy thing called called mace, which is sold as a completely separate spice.

We've actually eaten those white nutmeg shell things before. I bought a box of them that had been pickled/candied at the airport in Kuala Lumpur. I recall them being very very strong tasting.

You're surely thinking "Thanks John, now I know everything about friggin' nutmeg". Well friend, you're wrong and frankly, a know-nothing nutmeg dummy. After lunch we sped, sped to the Gouyave Nutmeg Processing Cooperative to learn even more about nutmegggg!

There's lots of different grades of nutmeg depending on the size of the nut, color, something something nutmeg. The mace is graded on if they can get the whole thing off the nut in one piece. Someone's job is to put each nut in a bucket of water and if the thing floats that means something something different quality of nutmeg! Nutmeg!!!

Phew. Workin' up a sweat singing the praises of the nutmeg.

Nutmeg drying. Nobody likes a wet nutmeg. DUH.

Nutmeg sorting. I likes my nutmeg like I likes my burritos. Big. And... spicy?

Nutmeg! It's sweeping the nation!

Every wonder how they get those fancy letters on your burlap sacks of nutmeg? 

Stencils. Mostly just the stencils. I didn't have the heart to bring up the "Isreal" situation we had on our hands. I think we can agree that spelling is way more nutmeg.

Last we went to a waterfall. Every country has a waterfall and somehow I always end up there. I feel like the implication is always "OMG wait until you see how our water falls, it's different in our country" but it's a lie.

Luckily there were monkeys hopping around in the trees. I pulled off an exciting "iPhone up against the shaky-hands binoculars" maneuver that I'm pretty proud about.

Bug spray, sunblock, and beer are really the holy Caribbean liquid trilogy.

Romantic dinner on the beach? BOOM

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