Captain’s passenger’s log, day three.
I broke away from the nuclear unit after lunch.
In the van on our way back, we passed downtown Basseterre, the capital of St. Kitts. It’s a far cry from the pearlescent pastel perfection of the duty-free whoredom just off the pier. It’s the same merchandise but with a grit and charm that the crush of tourists with their $2 beers obviously lacks.
I had to go back. I packed my camera and passport, zipped my handbag and tied my hair up to protect it from the wind. I waved away my mother’s warnings to be careful then set off back down the pier toward town. A man in a blue clown wig tried to entice me into a cab to the beach; a lanky man in Rasta gear offered to take my picture with a monkey wearing pants. Pass, thanks. Try the next obese Midwesterner coming off the boat. The one in the hat. Yeah, him.
I had no intentions of shopping; I just wanted to see what the town was like.
I weaved around families and strolling couples then passed under the archway of the National Museum – admission, $2, but I’m guessing most from our boat opted for the beer – and found myself in the middle of a traffic jam. My skirt tried to pull a Marilyn Monroe as I crossed the busy intersection, making me intimately aware of my femaleness and my whiteness. Suddenly, for an entire block, I was the only tourist in sight.
Which was exhilarating, actually.
I passed cell phone dealers, religious shops, food vendors selling fried dough balls and bottles of icy homemade drinks. There were snatches of American culture here and there, a woman with a KFC bag or a father and daughter hurrying home with their Domino’s pizza. The farther I moved from the main square, modeled after London’s Piccadilly Circus, the more I loved Basseterre. It was dirty and poor and heavily policed; the streets were packed at 1 p.m. with people just finishing lunch, chatting on the narrow sidewalks and offering mock salutes to the officers patrolling with long, shiny clubs. I felt incredibly foreign, sticking out like a sore thumb with my wide eyes and splotchy sunburn, but every American should be made to feel that way every once in a while.
I embraced my independence, exhilarated and confident, until I rounded a corner by Subway, onto a side street. I was still tailing the policeman I’d singled out to follow for my own safety, but I felt someone following me, too.
Oh, Jesus, I thought. I’m going to die on this island. They’re going to call my name on board at 5 p.m., and I’ll never show up. Because I’ll be dead.
I turned around and saw a man behind me, mumbling to himself, moving at a clip.
Obviously plotting my demise with no regard for the officer in front of me. Suddenly, the officer stopped to talk to some fellow lawmen about how little he cared for the fate of the woman behind him, and I stopped too, stepping aside to feign interest in a nearby landmark.
The man passed me.
I breathed a sigh of relief and crossed the street into a public park with an ornate, crumbling fountain at the center. Safe again, with a Catholic church across the square and a white municipal building next to it.
Then, the mumbling resumed.
I slowed my pace and turned around again; this time, the man spoke up. Asked how I was doing. Please, just kill me and spare me the conversation.
But my gregarious inner Midwesterner won out over my city-girl skepticism. I stopped just shy of the fountain to chat with him. He spoke with a thick Creole accent that I never fully understood, but we communicated nonetheless. He was shorter than me, a black man with scraggly facial hair and dark sunglasses. He wore an Augustana College shirt – which was somehow comforting to me, seeing a foreign man wearing a T-shirt from an American university – and had a plastic folder under his arm. He was on his way somewhere, and that somewhere wasn’t in the park to kill me. But he took time to talk to me.
He told me about the town; he’d just moved in mid-December from St. Thomas to a village on St. Kitts called Cayon; he had two grown daughters, one who was still in college near the village. I said he must be very proud of his daughters; he corrected me. He’s thankful to God.
A moment’s hello became a few minutes’ chat, which turned into a 15-minute discussion.
We talked about America. He loves America. He loves Barack Obama but loved Bill Clinton even more. “That’s how you can remember my name. My name’s Clinton, too,” he said.
He asked if I was alone; I reluctantly told him yes. My family was back on the boat, and I hoped to come back someday with my boyfriend. He chided me – I must have looked too old to be single still – and said, “Maybe your husband next time?”
I mean, sure.
He thinks it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure tourists’ safety on St. Kitts and throughout the Caribbean. “Believe you me!” he repeated over and over. That’s when I knew he didn’t want anything from me. If anything, he’d be like one of the Jamaican men in Paris, down the hill from Notre Dame cathedral, who made bracelets for tourists and chased them down for money when they refused to pay. “What reason do I have to take advantage of you?” he asked. “If I came to Chicago, I wouldn’t want you to take advantage of me.”
We talked about the weather. And war. And terrorists. And the economy. And survival. Life is hard, we decided, and we need to take care of each other to live. “No man can be successful without a successful wife, believe you me,” he said.
“No man is an island,” I responded, a line from one of my favorite poems.
He loved that.
“I will meet you again,” he smiled. “Next time, with your husband.” Then he clapped me on the back and walked off toward the courthouse with his folder. He’d wanted nothing. I felt foolish then for being afraid of him, but I know the situation could have changed completely with a simple shift in the breeze.
I turned down the monkey man’s photo again on my way back through the duty-free maze, but I did stop to buy a T-shirt. The Reggaeton beat lured me inside the shop; I got a good deal. I did what tourists do on these islands, I guess. But I hope someday I can wear that shirt from a faraway land in my own hometown and make a stranger feel more at home. Be someone’s Clinton.