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Into exotic St. Vincent

Up and down, twisting and turning like a demented snake, the road wound through a realm of fervent green punctuated by precipitous cliffs.

Up and down, twisting and turning like a demented snake, the road wound through a realm of fervent green punctuated by precipitous cliffs.

Occasionally, it would take us into a village of low-slung, shingle houses that was like a vision from an earlier, not to mention a sleepier era.

Occasionally, too, it had bumper-scraping ruts and seemingly bottomless potholes, features you seldom expect on a major road.

At one point my guide, a young man named Ossie, brought our vehicle to an abrupt halt.

Some sort of procession was coming our way. Young and old, healthy and infirm, 100 or so people were dancing and singing as well as rhythmically clapping their hands.

Their merry mood was so infectious that I felt like getting out of the car and joining them. Then I saw a donkey pulling a cart with a coffin on top of it.

“Did the local tax collector die?” I asked Ossie.

“This is how all our funerals are,” he said. “Jolly until they reach the graveyard, but then there’ll be crying and screaming like you’ve never heard before.”

I was so intrigued by this spectacle that I didn’t think to photograph it, or to photograph the ancient-looking man bringing up the rear, whom Ossie said was the local witch doctor.

You will perhaps be surprised to learn that I was not in some remote part of Africa or South America, but the Caribbean.

Yes, the same Caribbean whose islands, the travel industry would have you believe, consist entirely of white beaches on which the only footprints are your own.

On St. Vincent, the island I was visiting, there are no white beaches, only black ones whose sand was so hot that I didn’t even try to leave my footprints on it. I could look up from almost anywhere on the island and see the source of this sand — a 1,350-metre volcano called La Soufriere.

And not only does the volcano create beaches, but it also enriches St. Vincent’s already rich soil every time it erupts (last eruption: 1979).

Rather than burn my feet on a fiery beach, I decided to put them to use on an often-fiery mountain, so I set out to climb La Soufriere with a guide named Irocki.

Up, up, up we hiked, through bamboo groves and across orchid-filled ravines. Every once in a while, Irocki would point to a plant — a wild begonia, for instance, or the so-called Part of a Man Life bush — and tell me that it would cure my headache or toothache, help my asthma, lower my blood pressure, or ease the itching of my scabies.

Whatever doubts I might have had about the efficacy of this sort of medication vanished when I tripped and landed on a sharp basaltic rock.

My arm was bleeding profusely, but Irocki applied a leaf from a low-climbing vine called a corilla (Momordica charantia) to it, and lo! the bleeding stopped in a very short time.

“No charge for the procedure, mon,” Irocki observed.

As we approached the summit, the vegetation, first luxuriant, then more scrub-like, gave way to a moonscape of ash and gravel.

At last we were standing at the rim of a mile-wide crater that looked as if it had been imported from Iceland.

From inside the crater, there was a rising plume of sulfurous smoke shaped like, it seemed to me, an exclamation point. And squatting a few feet away from us was another exclamation point, albeit of a different shape — a large yellowish cane toad with part of a butterfly sticking out of its mouth.

From my elevated position, I gazed out on the Grenadines, the tourist-laden islands extending south from St. Vincent, and I felt a certain pity for all those people who might now be sunning themselves on Bequia or Mustique.

Splayed out in the sun, daubing themselves with various kinds of lotions, they were missing out on all the fun.

Having gone up La Soufriere from the windward side, we went down the volcano on its leeward side. Not long after we began our descent, I looked across a steeply rising gulley and saw some farmers working their fields.

Their crop, at once illegal and St. Vincent’s major agricultural product, was ganja (aka marijuana). But for this leafy herb, the island’s economy probably would sink into a Third World slough.

I suspect this is one reason why attempts to eradicate the herb in question have been somewhat halfhearted.

Toward the end of the trek, we walked along the bottom of a dry river, the Larikai, whose steep walls were so cave-like that bats were roosting in them.

And at the very end of it, I had my only beach experience on St. Vincent.

This consisted of walking across a few feet of sand and wading into the surf, where a boat was waiting to take me back to my digs in Kingstown, the island’s capital.

The following day, I exchanged Iceland for the Amazon rainforest.

I was walking with Clint Hazelle of Hazeco Tours along the Vermont Nature Trail, named not for the Green Mountain State but because it winds through such a verdant landscape.

All around us were sap-oozing gommier trees, strangler figs, monkey goblets, liana vines, and epiphytes. Exposed roots crossed the trail like giant, gnarly fingers.

Unlike the actual Amazon, however, there were no mosquitoes.

Clint and I were hoping for a sighting of a rare bird, the St. Vincent parrot (Amazona guildingii).

Endangered by the exotic pet trade and the reduction of their old-growth habitat, Vincies, as they are affectionately called, survive only in the island’s remote backcountry and, especially, the area around the Vermont Nature Trail.

All at once Clint pointed to an opening in the tree canopy and two dark specks flying in the distance.

They could have been pigeons for all I really saw of them. But then there was a gargling, burbling sound overhead, and I saw a blur of blues, greens, and yellows hopping along a branch.

Then there was a second blur. A pair of rainbow-coloured parrots were courting.

Another, no, two other exclamation points…

Maybe I should mention that St. Vincent might be quite different from the way I’ve described it in the not too distant future. Among other developments, a beach resort with 291 cabanas is currently being constructed at Buccament Bay on the leeward coast.

You might wonder about a resort of this sort on an island where the beaches consist of black sand.

Well, the resort’s developers are importing vast quantities of white sand to seduce the discriminating beach-goer.

So if you want to see the real thing, I suggest that you schedule a trip to St. Vincent soon.

Travel writer Lawrence Millman is author of Last Places: A Journey In the North among many other books.