Several years ago, while lounging in a condo in Fremont, Seattle, my mom looked up from the kitchen table with a nostalgic look in her eye. I was reading Carrie, engrossed by the tormented psyche of a tortured soul, while my brothers John and Mark freestyled absurd rap lyrics. Margaret, who’s younger than me but acts infinitely wiser, was fiercely debating the history of Indian film with Emmaline, the baby of the family, who acts infinitely wiser than us all. My mom gazed at her nearly-all-grown children and announced to her husband, “Well Jay, this will probably be our last family vacation with all the kids.”
All commotion stopped. My siblings and I looked with abject horror at each other and assailed my parents with desperate pleas/accusations. “What, you’re going to leave us all behind?”
“You’re just going to take Emmaline with you next time?”
“Where are you planning on going?!”—without pausing for reply—“I want to come!”
Each of us imagined our parents riding elephants in India, scaling mountains in New Zealand, and laughing gaily with only our youngest sister there to analyze and dispute every meal choice.
Finally my mom relented, delicately tabling the issue with a diplomat’s candor. “How sweet that you all still want to travel together! Well, I guess we’ll just have to see when the time comes. Who knows where you guys will be living, if you’ll be able to get off work. . .”
Fast forward five years, and after brief stints in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, and France, all siblings were living and working back in our hometown of Milwaukee. Threats of our last big family vacation thus postponed, we planned a ten day vacation to St. Martin for the whole Mueller clan. I had just put in my resignation at a nonprofit I’d worked at for two years and was looking forward to moving out of state with my new boyfriend. Changes were crisp on the horizon and I felt utterly relaxed and ready for the future.
When the plane rounded the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean Sea, I was trying to hide my tears at the last few pages of Looking for Alaska, knowing little more about St. Martin than that which I’d gleaned from a Three Sheets episode Margaret had shown me some months before. As the wheels dropped and the engines slowed along the tiny beachside strip at Princess Juliana Airport, I had no idea that above the rocky bays sprinkled with black sea urchins, far inside the rich green canopies that erupt from the mountains, grows a berry.
It’s a small thing, about the size of a blueberry, and surrounded by countless other new bright green baby berries in their wild tree on the hilltop. As the days go by, the salty breezes and hot sun sweat maturity into them, until half develop a warm golden hue and half reach a deep crimson, almost purple. Delicate pink and white flowers flutter along the branches and rose-colored clouds float lazily by overhead.
For generations the people of the island of St. Martin have made pilgrimage to the guavaberry trees, an intuitive, laborious quest. The plants range from small inconspicuous shrubs to sixty-foot masses, the berries ripen at unexpected intervals, and sometimes the trees don’t bear any fruit at all. It’s a difficult plant to cultivate, and the large stone embedded in the berry makes the juicy insides just as hard to harvest.
Most people don’t even bother with it. Guavaberry trees pop up throughout Southern and Central America and various islands in the Caribbean. Folks leave them be and go on with their lives. But St. Martin is different. Here the guavaberry is a cherished and celebrated delicacy, and for many years islanders have ventured into the forest in pursuit of the plant, picked the berries by hand, and carried the laden baskets back to their homes to make sweet and tangy tarts, jams, and pies.
The real magnificence lies, however, not in the baked goods but when the guavaberry is mixed with cane sugar, spices, and aged rum, creating the rare and legendary guavaberry liqueur.
Tangy, sweet, bitter, spicy—my sisters and I sipped straight guavaberry while we took turns reading a tattered copy of The Princess Bride, and my brothers and I chugged mixed guavaberry drinks while we roughhoused and played drinking games at night. To a foreigner the guavaberry drink tastes like nothing else, a delicious and refreshing novelty. But for most St. Martiners it’s more than that. Like coffee for Seattleites or beer for Milwaukeeans, the taste reminds them of one thing—sweet nostalgia, home.
For St. Martiners, guavaberry holds deep cultural significance, linking the people to the land, their families, and the past. In addition to being St. Martin’s national drink, it’s also a traditional Christmas drink. As early as the 1950’s, friends and neighbors have gathered together and caroled from one house to the next, singing the traditional Christmas song; “Good morning, good morning, I come for me guavaberry! Good morning, good morning, to you and all your family!” Each family would grab their bottle of homebrewed guavaberry drink and share a taste with the carolers, wishing each other happy holidays until the group hit the streets to sing and groove to the next house.
The spirit of guavaberry is often translated into music by local quelbe folk artists and musicians from the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands. A pivotal Christmas soundtrack for many Caribbean families is the St. Croix scratch band the Ten Sleepless Knights, who combine conga drums, squash, banjo uke, and steel triangle with flute, keyboard, and electric bass. Their holiday classic “Mama Bake Your Johnny Cake” rains nostalgia over islanders who sing along, “Christmas coming, New Year’s coming, If you want to be merry, drink guavaberry, if you getting the jitters, drink Cruzan bitters.”
How can such a tiny berry inspire such great energy and significance? Perhaps one reason the guavaberry is so important in St. Martin’s culture is that it is one thing that remains wild and constant in an island of nearly constant upheaval.
The inhabitants and governance of St. Martin have changed hands countless times from nations all over the world, leaving behind the smallest island in the world to be governed by two separate countries—the Dutch and the French—and an ethnic mosaic of people with roots spreading across the globe.
The earliest known peoples of St. Martin were Arawak Indians, who battled and eventually fell to fierce Carib warriors, whose reputation as brutal, relentless fighters weren’t enough to withstand the disease and artillery of Spanish conquistadors. Christopher Columbus’s arrival opened the floodgates for French, Dutch, English, Portuguese and Flemish adventurers, who flocked to the island now known as Souliga, land of salt, to mine and settle. The colonists brought huge numbers of African slaves with them, as well as Chinese and East Indian workers. European tensions rose, decades of fighting ensued, until peace was eventually established with the 1648 Treaty of Concordia, which established the Northern half of the island as French, the Southern half as Dutch.
To this day the Dutch citizens refer to the island as Sint Maarten, the signage is in Dutch, and the Southern architecture is reminiscent of the Netherlands, with quaint shops and homes nestled together with brightly painted, ornately carved woodwork. The French side refers to itself as Saint Martin, the citizens speak French and get their croque monsieurs and baguettes from a small boulangerie near the nude beach. The rest of the world simply calls the island St. Martin.
Our trip coincided with the 2014 World Cup, and we were down to the final match between Spain and Holland. My brothers, dad, and I were cruising around the island looking for a good place to watch the match. Seemingly every bar and shanty with a cooler had strung orange flags across the yard, and locals dressed in bright neon jerseys stared us down—ready to fight or kick us out if we happened to be Spanish-rooting tourists.
Nowadays tourism is St. Martin’s biggest business, cementing its status as an international island and gathering travelers from all over the globe. Exploitation of the land for sugar and salt production has given way to careful preservation of nature. Families like mine come to soak in the lush verdant mountains and seascape and catch a glimpse of an ambling iguana perched in a tree or sunbathing by the water. Nature thrives at every opportunity, hanging along telephone wires, climbing over fences, and bursting through the pavement. The mountains boast an array of unfathomable shades of green, and the sun reflects off the wide, warm bays, illuminating gradient strips of blue and turquoise.
Locals paint their homes and shops to mirror this rainbow of natural hues. A neon house sits beside a tangerine and lavender church, with columns circling the balcony, allowing the full breeze to waft through. Tourists enjoy outdoor seating everywhere, and come to gape at the supersaturated flowers, limitless palm trees, and clear skies, to feel the sweat drop off them in the afternoon sun.
And to drink guavaberry.
We found the treasure of St. Martin in a back alley shaded by ragged curtains against the bright sun, and peals of laughter and waves. A narrow passageway led to a tiny brick patio with a little table and two fold-up chairs. The space was homey and secluded enough to be someone’s private property, and my brother John and I were about to turn back when a small man appeared and beckoned us into a little bodega. It was the kind of shop that sells cheap pipes, shot glasses, and those timeless, anonymous knick-knacks that gather dust and could name any beach town in the world, yet somehow still remain on the market.
What caught our eye were the free samples. Tiny cups lined up before rows of thin plastic bottles, each decorated with “St. Martin Guavaberry” scrawled in bright acrylic paint against a hand-painted image of a blossoming flower, a sailboat billowing in the wind, and colorful fish puckering blissfully against the scarlet sea. The bottles come in a myriad of flavors, banana, passion fruit, mango, mojito, all of them tasted amazing, but we tried to act discerning for propriety’s sake as we sank into a mellow mid-afternoon tipsiness.
After sampling each flavor and chatting with the owner, we proudly decided to buy a bottle of this liquid gold as an anniversary present for our parents. . . then proceeded to drink every drop. With every meal. And in between meals and virtually any time we remembered its existence. Guavaberry with tequila and lime, guavaberry with cheap champagne, guavaberry with guavaberry. Hell, Dad’s making pasta puttanesca? Throw a dash of guavaberry in that sauce!
For most of our trip my family hung out at the beautiful mountainside condo, swimming in the pool shared by iguanas, driving through the warm winding streets, and playing euchre at night. The locals were kind and polite, but the divide between the tourism industry and the local people was tangible. Giant resorts and casinos along the cobalt shore gave way to half-built shanties as the road twisted inland. Chickens and roosters strutted around front yards and countless stray dogs wandered the streets, miles from any leash or human being. My siblings and I explored the island as best as outsiders could, and our bottle of guavaberry was never far from reach.
Toward the end of our trip we found the official Guavaberry Emporium in the Dutch capitol of Philipsburg, which sells glass bottles with printed labels picturing “Old Man Guavaberry”, as well as a huge selection of BBQ and hot sauce. The women who work there wear traditional Caribbean clothes in bright colors and patterns, and eagerly share stories of the drink’s history as well as samples of the prized liquor.
Travelers like my family are thrilled by the drink and St. Martiners are glad to enjoy the profit, but guavaberry’s true value is symbolic. Guavaberry reminds locals of simpler times in the not-so-distant past, before the arrival of large international hotels, duty-free shops, and gleaming cruise ships. For them, guavaberry will always bring back memories of Christmas, listening to the Ten Sleepless Knights, and dancing through the streets with their loved ones. This tiny berry has bound tradition, strengthened families, and flourished throughout centuries of change. Much like the island, it is untamable, eclectic, and utterly unique.