I picked this book up in a second-hand bookshop while browsing in the travel section. I had no idea what ‘tap-taps’* were but I was lured in by the prospect of an escape to the Caribbean.
The book begins with the author’s reluctant departure from London for a holiday in Jamaica. Although very keen to visit the Caribbean, she’s afraid of what she might find there, specifically in terms of the insect and animal life.
Right from the start, things are disquieting. Zenga is afraid of flying and, at the back of her mind, has the notion that she may well be murdered during her holiday. An unsettling theme of never feeling entirely safe carries on throughout the book, but is joyfully countered by a light and comedic style of writing.
Zenga throws herself into every new experience, initially in Jamaica and later in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique and finally Trinidad. In each of these countries she has remarkable encounters with colourful locals, all of which are apparently factual.
The impression I got of her while reading this book was of an unusually outgoing, friendly person who, despite her fears, was prepared to dive head first into new situations. I was surprised to find that she was only in her early to mid-twenties when she had these adventures. Her confidence and independence suggested someone older, but there was an endearing naiveté about her, an almost reckless attitude that, on reflection, signified the carefree outlook of youth.
The dialogue between Zenga and the various characters she meets sets the book apart from other travel stories I’ve read. This is particularly well done in the last chapter which features Aunty Sweets, a formidable Trinidadian Zenga met, and was terrified of, as a child. Aunty Sweets possesses fearsome authority, but has a kindly side and enjoys a joke (when it’s on someone else). The conversations she and Zenga have bring her character brilliantly to life.
The book is full of drama, humour and some almost unbelievable events. At times these seemed too far-fetched to be true but, as Sherlock Holmes once pointed out, “Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.”
*tap-taps are highly decorated buses used in Haiti