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The car was a lemon but it sweetened my vacation

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

She says on the phone that the car is a Honda Civic; just one thing, the air conditioning doesn't work. It also takes two keys to start because the original ignition is worn out. The first key you turn in the defective ignition; the second goes into an added secondary switch.

It turns out the car is an 18-year-old Honda Vigor.

"I want another car."

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"We don't have any other cars," the pretty rental agent tells me. I know from this morning's phone calls that no one else has cars on the whole Island of St. Vincent and I really want to see the north end, where my Scottish ancestors grew sugar 200 years ago.

We walk around the Vigor to record its other defects.

The front bumper is dented on both sides and grazed in the middle. One headlight is broken. The outside mirror hangs from the door post. Both wipers are rusted and have caused deep scores across the windshield. One wheel has no hubcap; the others are trashed from meeting too many curbs. The rear bumper hangs partly detached. Once-dark paint is sun bleached to whitish grey. All four tires are smoothly bald.

"Look, if necessary I'll pay more for a different car."

"We have no other cars."

The radio doesn't work either. The centre armrest falls off onto the floor before I reach the Leeward Highway. The "check engine" light is on all the time. There is no manual to identify the reason.

If the car is dangerous, the road up the Leeward side of the island matches it. It is as if concrete was simply poured over the natural contours of the land, straight up the sides of mountains. Then, teetering at their tops, the road careens down the other side to a switchback corner, over a one-lane bridge, then doubles back on itself to repeat the adventure once again. It seems fitting that every few kilometres there is an Anglican church to provide prayer and/or burial.

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Finally, at the end of the Leeward Highway, there is Richmond, the former 500-acre estate of my ancestor Patrick Cruikshank, Esq., who in 1829 had 347 slaves and produced 723,167 pounds of sugar and 18,142 gallons of rum. Today, it is shanty collection of tin and cardboard shacks outside the former estate entrance - a wagon-wide arch through a lichen-sprouting two-metre-thick stone wall. Beyond that, the plantation is today a few apathetically tended fields, growing some bananas, some bits of cotton and probably marijuana.

I would spend more time here, but concerns over the Vigor put me back on the road. I want to be back in Kingston before nightfall; the headlights don't work. I have gone barely five kilometres when coming down one hair-raising hill - thunk-thunk-thunk. The bald left front tire is flat.

Luckily, there is a silly, bright-orange undersized spare wheel. Also luckily, there is a jack. But there is no lug wrench and no jack handle. So, here is the very white descendent of slave masters alone on a semi-deserted road of this mostly black island.

But then a good sign - a Suzuki pickup comes down the hill behind me. I wave it down and I ask its two rough-looking occupants if they'll give me a hand.

"No problem, mon!"

They brace a back wheel with a rock. They speak rapidly between themselves in the indecipherable local tongue that I have heard all over St. Vincent. When I ask what language they are speaking, they look mutually nonplussed and think that is a great joke.

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"We speakin' English, mon. We just speakin' fast.

"We speak more polite, more slow to you."

So, Basil Daniel, known as "Coconut Man" ("Because, I sells de coconut milk at Arnos Vale"), and Godfred Fraser, known as "Country Man" ("Because I lives in de country"), set to work for the slave master's descendant and don't appear to mind doing it at all.

"Cruikshank, that be a well-known name in these islands," Basil tells me.

"My ancestors once owned plantations here."

"Ya, they be big landowners."

"What do you think about that?"

"Oh, mon, nobody worry about that kind of thing no more."

Before I know it, the spare wheel is on, the flat is in the trunk and we do the gentle fist hit that takes the place of a handshake. I give them each five bucks for a beer.

So, what could have been a lousy experience, walking miles to a phone sweating in the sun, has brought me a pleasant meeting with two of my generous, easygoing island cousins and small forgiveness of my ancestral past.

The Vigor isn't a bad car after all.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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