Heights of the heart
Our twin-engine propeller-powered Dash 8 was about to land at the E.T. Joshua Airport and looking out of the window there was little to see apart from the flickering lights of Kingstown, the capital of St. Vincent. It was well into the evening and all the three of us Daily Prothom Alo's Utpal Shuvro, Channel I's Mahmudul Hassan Shameem and yours truly, could think of at that stage was scampering to the nearest possible bed and dozing off.
In a way we were breaking grounds. We were the first Bangladeshi sports journalists ever to set foot in St. Vincent and we had no idea about what to expect or where to go. Once past the immigration the first thought was to find a hotel. The Bangladesh cricket team had reached the tiny island of 90,000 inhabitants before us, that we knew, but it wasn't the time to inquire about their whereabouts. For two days we had been flying almost non-stop and the exhaustion was taking its toll. Fortunately, I had done some homework on suitable and affordable accommodations on the internet before leaving Dhaka and one name in particular had appealed to me more than many other supposedly comfy retreats. The ad said that Crystal Heights guest house was just a few minutes drive to the airport, a stone throw's distance from the beach (wow!) and most importantly, the Arnos Vale cricket ground. Bangladesh's first official tour of the West Indies kicked off here with two ODIs before they move on to Grenada, St. Lucia and Jamaica.
We boarded a taxi (microbuses are normally referred to as taxi or bus in this part of the world), uttered “Crystal Heights” and it started climbing a hilly route before entering a desperately narrow lane downhill through a sleepy neighbourhood which did nothing to lift the confidence. However, on reaching the Victorian styled guesthouse we were greeted by its owner Virginia Phillips and something about her instantly made us feel good. It was almost like you are at Grandma's, safe and assured. She understood our need for rest but made sure that we didn't go to bed hungry. The cook had left before we arrived and we also did not do the normal booking in advance. So there was no dinner but Virginia's tuna sandwiches more than made up for it. There is a lot of humidity in the Caribbean air so when we discovered that our neat pinkish rooms were without air-conditioning or even ceiling fans, we became a little skeptic about passing the night in comfort. Virginia heard our conversation, smiled and just said: “You won't need them here.” Then she opened the window and a cool, pleasant sea breeze blew the curtains away.
I was too tired to remember when I actually fell asleep that night but my dreams were interrupted by a shrilling sound and sprinkling water on the face. I lifted my head and saw the first lights of dawn. There was slight drizzle outside. As I adjusted the window the view outside left me speechless. I literally ran out to the balcony where we had eaten the sandwiches the night before while staring into the darkness knowing that there was a sea somewhere near. Now I could see paradise. Crystal Heights sits on the top edge of a hill and is a prominent structure. But the best feature of this two-storeyed structure is its u-shaped balcony, especially the part that faces the Caribbean Sea. The blue waves appear as close as near your footsteps and you can see the whole shape of Bequia, another small picturesque island, at a distance. Look right and there's the E.T. Joshua Airport and adjacent to the runway the Arnos Vale ground. While we were speaking in the exclamatory language of 'oohs', 'aahs' and 'wows', a tiny Cessna flew right across our nose level and landed at the airport. We later found out that you could hear and almost feel the pulsating and sensual rhythm that blows out of the Guinness Posse Stand at the Arnos Vale ground during cricket matches while sitting on Crystal Height's balcony. Young Island, a favorite for yachting aristocrats, is also within the range of your eyes. Shuvro has something of a poet inside of him but even he struggled for phrases, words to express the breathtaking views while Shameem and I decided that it was simply too awesome for mere mortals like us to describe and just soaked in the beauty.
I still can't fathom what got into our heads but just after breakfast and our first introduction to the Arnos Vale ground, Shameem somehow managed to convince us that we should check out the Riverside Residential Center & Apartments which was just around the bend from the cricket field. He had learned that it was owned by an Indian couple, the Debnaths, and there was in-house cooking facilities if someone was willing. Now for those who don't know, Shameem is the unofficial deshi chef of the Bangladesh cricket team and travelling journalists and claims that he is a better cook than his wife and most female members of his family. The lure of home-cooked food straight from Shameem's kitchen and the logic (orchestrated by Shuvro) that Crystal Heights was far too beautifully distracting a place to concentrate on the job in hand, tipped the balance in favour of changing locations. Better still, Mrs. Debnath spoke in perfect Bangla after knowing where we came from. It turned out that she was born in Khulna and later migrated to West Bengal. Despite that tingling feeling of separation from Crystal Heights, we were looking forward to spending the rest of our time at the Debnath's.
To get to our rooms, we had to go down two storeys and there was nothing to view except for a couple of perennially angry German shepherds in the back garden which were kept separated from us by the iron grills. Our first night there ended in misadventure as Shuvro refused to sleep alone in his room as he swore he heard a girl crying nearby. Add this to the fright we all got when we returned from a cocktail reception for the Bangladesh team and found the Apartments drowned in darkness. We used our keys to enter and then two sparkling eyes emerged from nowhere and stood there like a statue. It was the gateman who hardly ever spoke and always gave a blank look.
The next morning, we woke up to the irritating noise of dogs barking and engines unwinding. Our supposed peaceful refuge was at one end of the ET Joshua's runway and all the planes that arrive and leave in a day would invariably turn there. So much for a sound sleep! The landlady then rather casually let us in on another piece of info that solved the mystery of the crying woman and the gateman. Riverside Apartments' guests included the mentally handicapped too who were being treated by her husband Dr. Debnath. Patients are kept here alongside guests and one stayed in the next room to Shuvro's. The man at the entrance was also a mental patient undergoing rehabilitation. My mind filtered around the fact that Tonica and Allison, two typically trim and glowing Vincentian young ladies, who I had met at a food joint, wanted to take me to Queen's Park on Saturday night where the week's biggest party and get-together takes place and would be looking for me at Crystal Heights. Would they ever know where I have ended up in? I tried not to feel sorry for myself. What if they got the wrong message after knowing that the twin-sharing petit bedroom at Crystal Heights in which Shameem and I had stayed was actually reserved for honeymooners with only two flimsy curtains providing privacy in the attached shower and toilet. Now that would have taken a lot of explaining!
The next few days our time away from cricket was mostly spent wandering around and cursing the choice we had made. If there was nowhere to go, we hung around the Colours bar & restaurant, a most joyous of spots where everything and everyone is in harmony with the warm, friendly, down to earth, happy, carefree and cool lifestyle of St. Vincent, sipping chilled stout or passion fruit (want to get an idea of what I'm talking about? Just log on to www.thedailystar.net, find the archives section and travel back to May 2004. Catch the Calypso Cocktail series in the Sports section between May 10-20). Riverside Apartments just did not hold any attraction as we wanted to see the blue sea and breathe it, feel it. It was almost like reaching Paris and then having to turn your back on Eiffel Tower. We only went there because otherwise we might have had to spend the night under the mango tree of the friendly Rastafarian next door. The poor soul never discovered who took those succulent mangoes of his late one evening, which was probably the first case of mango theft in the history of St Vincent!
Before the first ODI was out of the way, Shuvro and I made a trip back to Crystal Heights one afternoon. We wanted to pass on a couple of complimentary tickets to the Bangladesh matches to Virginia. Perhaps it was more a case of finding an excuse just to be there. Over a cup of coffee and snacks, we learned about this grand middle-aged lady who had lived all her life in England before returning to her homeland while she got the chance to know about us and Bangladesh. An hour later, we were calling Shameem, who was in the process of preparing our dinner at the Debnaths after sending his evening voice dispatch for Channel I, on his cellphone instructing him to tell Mrs. Debnath that we were checking out. We would be in the island where they shot the Hollywood blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean, for just three more days and we did not wish to spend it anywhere else but at Crystal Heights, feeling as good as Johnny Depp on board his majestic Black Pearl.