gall and gumption

Thursday, January 26, 2006

This one is for Quentin

Yet another reason to go to Tobago.

Every year, on the Tuesday after Easter, the Buccoo village prepares for the exciting sporting event and renovates itself into a sporting arena. Complete with a 100-yard track and a growing number of spectators who come from all over the world, the Buccoo Goat Race Festival combines excitement, entertainment and sportsmanship from an out of the ordinary sporting event.

A cousin to the sport of horse racing, goat racing started in 1925 as a working class alternative to horse racing. While it possesses many similarities such as the presence of stables, owners, trainers, jockeys and steeds, the races differ because the jockeys run barefoot behind the animals, holding them by leashes, rather than riding them and goat jockeys use twigs instead of whips to make their animal go faster and stay on course.

I was in St. Kitts for the revival of donkey racing and went to a donkey race. It was at Warner Park, the stadium in Basseterre. The jockeys were these totally wild-looking rasta-looking guys from the country. Sitting astride the donkey their toes were just sort of lightly scraping the ground. Instead of whips to urge the donkeys on, they used the flat blade of a machete, so the visual impression was awesome, all these men holding their machetes aloft, visions of Caribbean fearfulness. Before guns came, people got chopped up with machetes. So for people it was sort of a thrilling and alarming sight, but it made, as far as I could make out, no impression on the donkeys who regarded the whole thing as an annoyance. A race would start and the donkeys would set off at a trot around the track, well, OK, maybe about 50 yards up the track and then decide that they had had enough of the maniac with the machete. They would then concentrate their efforts on trying to get rid of the maniac, rubbing him off on the rails, bucking, stopping dead and lowering their heads, or turning around and trotting back to the gate, just generally showing a non-sporting attitude. It was impossible not to cheer wildly for the donkeys.

I think it must take some ingenuity to stay on a donkey.

When I was in St. Kitts a man got fined EC$300 for calling an off-duty policeman a donkey.

There are wild donkeys throughout the Eastern Caribbean. I remember people who used donkeys for work -- they traveled on them to town, or carried produce to market on them. But as cars became more ubiquitous people just let their donkeys wander off and they bred like crazy. So a lot of the islands have wild donkeys, herds of them. For some reason, they are more active at night. When I lived in Nevis - which has killed off most of the donkeys that at one time overran the island - at night in Gingerland the noise that would wake me up would be donkeys in the meadows below my house, those gradual slopes going to the sea. Driving home late at night I would see donkeys in odd places, you had to watch out for them when you were driving. Probably they were nocturnal because it was safer than being out when people were about.

At the paper where I worked, there was one family of them, a male and several females and a couple of babies, that would come and drink water out of a big oil drum out in the yard. One night Sweetie heard them and rushed down the stairs and barked at them. The daddy donkey, who was big and of a dark brown, not the usual gray, looked up from whatever he was doing and then charged at her braying in the most horrible fashion. He was splendid, really a beautiful creature. Sweetie turned around and ran right back up the stairs. After that she was very nice to the donkeys. I wanted a donkey so so so bad, and if I could have been certain that I was going to stay there for at least 20 years I would have got myself one. There was an expat couple in St. Kitts who had befriended one and it was like a pet, it wanderd at will in and out of their yard and even came into the house.

They need looking after. Something is owed to them, I truly believe. You know, when Caribbean society integrates care for the welfare of animals into its habits and culture, those islands will be a paradise. Right now, it's a paradise that can suddenly make you sick.


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