February 5, 2008

I Could Use Your Vote
Vilcabamba, Ecuador

On New Year's Eve, I received this e-mail from a project manager at BuzzParadise:

My name is Shawn, and it is a pleasure of mine to invite you to take part in a blogger campaign we've just launched.

Speak out and get a chance to win an all-inclusive one-week vacation package for two in Martinique, a tropical French island nestled in the Caribbean Sea.

Your chances are exceptionally high, as only 25 first-rate bloggers have been invited to participate! That's 1 out of 25 chances!

It's simple:

  • Write a 500-800 word account of your wildest, funniest, most exciting, travel or holiday experience
  • Email me your story (Word document) by January 3rd

How it works:

  • Email me your story by January 3rd at last
  • Voters will rate your story online, starting January 7th on the French Tourism Office website
  • The highest-ranking writer will win a free trip to Martinique for two.
  • Invite your friends and readers to vote for your story from January 7th. This way, you'll increase your chances of winning this free trip, but you will also bring traffic to your site and enhance your readership appeal
  • Plus, one voter will be randomly selected to also win a dream getaway to Martinique

If your story isn't a hit, you'll still receive a tasteful gift basket directly from Martinique.

I thought about it, did a little research on the company and the French Tourism Web site, and decided to participate. I wrote out my submission pretty quickly (just a random one of many possibilities that popped into my head), and waited.

It's a month overdue, but the contest finally went live a few days ago. This was my entry:

A Glimpse of Grenada

The edges of their machetes gleamed as the blades swiftly passed across the patches of afternoon sunlight, punching through the dense canopy of Caribbean vegetation above. Several men were leading us deeper into the jungle, all carrying razor-sharp cutlasses, as they're known in this particular region of the world. They knew the area well, and if things went awry, there'd be no escaping them—and no one to hear our screams.

In late-January I'd become a crewmember aboard the 20-meter sailing yacht, Odessa, during her final days of dry-dock at the Port of Spain, in Trinidad. Although I had no sailing experience, it's quite simple for an outgoing traveler to pick up a free ride through the Caribbean, or along the coast of the Americas—something people pay thousands of U.S. dollars to experience. Many captains are simply seeking conversational company, an extra pair of hands and eyes, or a new recipe for the galley. This is how I found myself on the island of Grenada, that memorable Valentine's Day in 2006.

A few days prior, I'd taken refuge in a boat when a blinding torrent of rain prevented me (and the German captaining the dingy I'd just hitched a ride on) from finding the Odessa, lost at anchor in Prickly Bay. It was Captain Axel who introduced me to Jason, the machete-wielding Grenadian who would later lead a small troop into the green depths of the island.

Seated in a Mitsubishi Lancer, racing at excessive speeds along the narrow roads of the island's interior, I was all too aware of the risky situation I'd gotten myself into. But mixed in with Jason's proposition the day before was the phrase "with three Swedish girls", and that was a Valentine's Day proposal that I wasn't going to pass up.

The Swedes were very young, boisterous, and the first backpackers I'd seen in the Caribbean. How the three ended up bouncing from Sweden, to the southern tip of South America, to the Mitsubishi with Jason and me I'll never quite understand—although the intricacies of their flight path was the last thing on my mind as we throttled into the unknown that day.

A brief stop at a dilapidated home in Grand Bras saw us rendezvousing with several other local men that would be accompanying us. Jason called them his "soldiers"—likely as a result of listening to too many Tupac Shakur songs.

The coolers of drink and food were reassuring sights, though the machetes were not. It would ultimately take living in a banana plantation for a month in the secluded reaches of St. Vincent for me to be completely comfortable being around strong men carrying sharp blades—like a Caribbean version of the Wild West, with machetes instead of six-shooters.

Loaded into cars, we were driven further into the island. I was on edge, my guard up. I had no way of knowing if the path I was following would lead to the hidden, riverside retreat Jason had promised, or if I was going to become yet another victim of crime. Travel in this way teaches you to trust your instincts, and nothing else—there are too many lies and cons vying for your dollars to do otherwise. To second-guess your instincts would be to cast doubt on the only stable element in a wanderer's life.

Far outside of any town, supplies and people were unloaded at a seemingly arbitrary spot on the side of the road, where we quickly squeezed through the pried opening of a rusted, chain link fence—trespassing, perhaps. The infrequently used trail lead downhill, past trees filled with breadfruit and nutmeg (one of Grenada's cash crops), alongside an emerald green sea of tall grass and sugarcane, before coming to a shaded clearing next to a slowly moving stream.

We'd arrived at their jungle equivalent of Shangri-La.

The girls stripped down to bras and panties as the men started a fire and swung from a dangling rope into the deep, crisp water. The bottom shallowed only a dozen or two meters downstream, forming a series of gentle rapids. It was here that Jason adorned a snorkeling mask and began turning over rocks, skillfully snatching up the occasionally disturbed crayfish idling beneath.

Bathing suit pockets full of these animals were eventually added to an already boiling cauldron of rice, vegetables, fish, and lobster to create a delicious indigenous meal. After cooking, the dish was served up on large, halved chunks of hollow bamboo stalks, plucked from the jungle around the clearing.

Although I've traveled many thousands of kilometers since that day, I'll always remember the sweat on my brow, the chilling bite of the stream, and the warmth of the company. That Valentine's Day I experienced a special glimpse of Grenada that few others ever will, and for that, I am grateful.


The site is simple, and voting only requires a name and an e-mail address. I haven't received any spam from them since my vote was cast.

I'd appreciate a vote for my entry, or you can take a look at the others as well.

If you'd like to see photos from this particular memory, there are quite a few archived in the snapshots gallery.


Note: Comments are open to everyone. To reduce spam and reward regular contributors, only submissions from first-time commenters and/or those containing hyperlinks are moderated, and will appear after approval. Hateful or off-topic remarks are subject to pruning. Your e-mail address will never be publicly disclosed or abused.