tagExhibitionist & VoyeurNatural Beauty Pt. 01

Natural Beauty Pt. 01

bysarobah©

Welcome to Palmira


The flight had taken just under three hours. It was uneventful; but as our plane began its final approach in a wide arc high above the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean, a buzz of excitement filled the cabin.

From the air Palmira looks like any other tropical island paradise, with sky-blue coral reefs, black and silver and beaches, verdant hillsides and green-skirted rocky ridges, all bathed in golden sunlight. The broad bay over which we were descending teemed with yachts and skiffs and fishing boats. In the middle, a cruise ship lay at anchor. I could easily make out from their gleaming wakes etched upon the surface a fleet of small ferries delivering passengers to the shore. Following the curve of the coastline, neat rows of buildings gleamed brilliant white and vivid pink, climbing the forest-covered slopes that enclosed the town of Régate in a vast, viridian amphitheatre.

The atmosphere on a plane full of holidaymakers is generally the same wherever the destination. There's euphoria as you take off, settling into quiet languor as time passes, perking again as the end of the journey nears, turning into mild apprehension during the descent and landing, surging to elation when you come to a halt. But even as we touched down, the mood changed again. The female passengers, including myself, while outwardly cheerful became quieter and more introspective as the flight attendants opened the doors and a gust of warm, humid air swirled through the cabin.

Seated next to me were a couple who, I judged by their lovey-dovey expressions, were honeymooners. The young man had gone silent and was tightly clenching his fists. His face had a greenish pallor; and, when we'd stopped on the runway I heard an audible sigh of relief. He turned to me and allowed himself a sheepish grin. The girl was frowning and fidgety; but hers were not in-flight nerves. She was wearing a canary yellow sundress, and as she stood up she tugged downwards on the hem.

The flight attendant's announcement reinforced the feeling of trepidation and exhilaration.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Palmira. The local time is one o'clock, the temperature is twenty-nine degrees Celsius, eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit, and the weather is fine." There followed the usual instructions and advice. "On behalf of Palmair and the crew, I'd like to thank you for flying with us today, and we look forward to seeing you again in the near future. We wish you a very enjoyable stay. As you leave the aeroplane, please have your passports and customs declarations at hand for inspection; and ladies, be ready to undress."

Palmira's is smaller than most international airports, but the protocols and formalities are the same. Ours and a charter plane were the only aircraft on the tarmac, and the terminal appeared deserted, so I and my fellow passengers could expect a quick and easy process. But as we headed towards the baggage collection area we saw the first nude women. Beyond the glass partition, airport staff could be seen going about their jobs. The females were without exception stunning to look at, their bare skin glistening a variety of hues from ivory to ebony. Most were moving briskly and busily, but underneath a sign announcing "ARRIVALS" a dozen young women were standing, carrying boards inscribed with the names of hotels and tour operators. Each held her placard above her head or out to one side, so as not to obscure any portion of her torso.

As I absorbed this fascinating scene, the girl in the yellow dress squeezed her husband's arm. She was wide-eyed and open-mouthed. I looked around at the other women in our group. Those of us who were first-time visitors were staring, none uttering a sound (except for a few gasps and giggles). The attention of the males was equally riveted. We were entranced by this opening encounter with the raw, unadorned, full-frontal reality of Palmira.

***


I had learned about Palmira when I was a little girl because my grandmother was born there. I'd heard romantic tales and fabulous legends of bold buccaneers, intrepid mariners and their hardy womenfolk. But I knew little about the contemporary life, until I chanced upon an old travel magazine. It was one of those glossy-format publications with pretensions to cultural significance, full of "gee whiz!" prose and pretty pictures. The July 1970 edition featured a faux-documentary article, "My Journey to the Caribbean's Exotic Island of Naked Women."

For a teenager still coming to terms with her own sexuality, I found the story and the (tasteful) images both provocative and intriguing. Grandma never spoke much about her experiences, but she did reveal something of her background. Her Palmirene lineage purportedly goes back three centuries. There is a tradition that my great-great-etcetera-grandmother had been taken there as a captive. She wed one of the pirates, raised many children and became a local matriarch. That may be a myth; but her family are one of the island's wealthiest, descendants of a merchant aristocracy who once ruled Palmira.

We occasionally visited Grandpa's home, in England, but never Grandma's. They had met when he was on the island as part of a hydrological survey team. They married and eventually settled in Australia; and when my mother was born they stopped going back to Palmira. The magazine article was written a decade after their departure and the place had changed a lot, in the wake of a big influx of tourists during the 1960s. But one thing remained constant, and has to this day — the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) nude law.

"To celebrate the natural beauty of the female body, women are forbidden to wear clothing."

Though I did not anticipate ever going there, I hadn't lost my interest in Palmira. Nudity never bothered me. I'm pleased with my body which I keep trim with daily exercise and don't mind showing off in a barely-there bikini. When I was a university student my girlfriends and I often went topless, sometimes bottomless, on a beach near the campus. So I'm not shy. On the other hand, I am not conventionally sexy or girlie-girl feminine. This is partly on account of my profession. I'm a cultural anthropologist who spends much of her year on archaeological diggings where there's not much call for frocks, heels and lipstick. And because of my commitments, while I have a boyfriend it's often a long-distance relationship.

In fact, it was my career which would take me to Palmira. In recent times, a lot of interest has been aroused in the island's archaeological heritage. Once neglected, the study of pre-Columbian settlement in this part of the Caribbean has taken off. These remains are evidence of ancient cultural links between the islands of the Greater and Lesser Antilles, long before the arrival of the (peaceful) Arawaks and later the (warlike) Caribs. The Palmirene government has sponsored excavations on the island as a prestige project, and some remarkable finds have been made.

I had been working for nearly five years in the Australian outback, at well-known locations such as Lake Mungo where the continent's oldest human fossils have been unearthed, Box Gully and Kow Swamp. I love the fieldwork but had been contemplating a change of scenery and focus. So when I heard that a postdoctoral research fellowship was being offered by Palmira College, I considered my options. The remuneration was nothing special, more of an allowance really, but my airfares and accommodation would be paid for. More importantly, the modest scale of the excavations would provide an opportunity for me to be a key player on the dig and not just a glorified dogsbody (what Americans call a gofer). Even so, I didn't exactly jump at the chance; but I somehow felt it was my destiny to spend a year in the fabled homeland of some of my ancestors (and living relatives).

I received word that my application had been successful shortly before Christmas and a week after my 28th birthday. I'm not averse to admitting that my family connection, though tenuous, may have been a factor. The starting date was still six months away, but there were a number of orientation sessions via video conferencing. These concentrated on technical and professional issues, and not so much the local lifestyle. During them I got acquainted with my future colleagues. It's a multinational enterprise, mainly British and North American. (Palmirene historians are more interested in the "proto-colonial" times, by which they mean the notorious pirate state of the eighteenth century.) The director is an American ethno-archaeologist, Professor Rebecca Hayden. I also spoke with her deputy and other associates; and as this was during Palmira's wet season, they were back in their home bases.

However, the fact that Palmira would be different from any of the places I'd worked at so far became obvious during one of our online meetings. I had been joined by Daniel, who was halfway through his Master's program and was looking to convert to a PhD. As his academic adviser, I convinced him that a season working on Palmira would be good for his résumé. We were watching, on a split screen, Rebecca, her deputy Mike, and the curator of the Palmira Museum, Marcia Robbins. And we were both startled when the latter's image appeared live from Palmira. She's an elegant, attractive woman aged in her early forties, dark-eyed, mahogany-skinned and raven-haired. She was visible from the waist up, bare-breasted. Neither Rebecca nor Mike seemed at all fazed by her appearance; and once Daniel and I had overcome our initial shock the discussion went on as normal.

Yet it was hard not to feel some embarrassment, sitting with Daniel and seeing this woman so unabashedly exposed. I later reviewed her curriculum vitae on the museum's website. Although a native of Palmira, she spends much of the year in Toronto, where she's a professor of anthropology. A century after their forebears began to settle down from their peripatetic ways, many Palmirenes still maintain an itinerant way of life. For the women in particular, coming home must be a bracing experience.

***


I discussed my decision with my family, especially Grandma. They were supportive, though perhaps a little perplexed. My boyfriend Matthew, who was used to our long periods of separation, accepted this latest one with equanimity; but I noted that he seemed keener about visiting me on Palmira than he did when I was working in the wilderness.

During my twelve months on the island, I would be dividing my time between excavations in the field and educational duties at Palmira College. That a relatively small community can boast such an institution is a tribute to the far-sightedness of successive governments, who have promoted tertiary education in order to prevent a "brain drain" by keeping and attracting educated young people. It used to be affiliated with the University of the West Indies but is now fully autonomous, with two campuses. I would be based at the postgraduate school in the capital, Régate. The undergraduate campus and Palmira Museum are located in the nearby community of Grandin. This is a "special administrative district" which has its own by-laws. Most of Palmira's families live there, although many of the adults work outside. Within Grandin's boundaries the nude law is not enforced.

I travelled alone; Daniel would not be joining me for another few weeks. The flight from Australia did not proceed directly to Palmira because the island's airport cannot handle the big jets. Instead, I stayed overnight in Kingston, Jamaica, and flew on a smaller plane the next day. The check-in area was located at one end of the terminal, and a queue had already begun to form when we arrived. It was a little disquieting to be standing under the destination sign as passers-by en route to other, less exotic places, turned to look. They must have noticed that we carried less luggage than most tourists.

There were about fifty people on board our aircraft. Most were in couples, and generally of about my age. There was an all-girl group in their early twenties, about half a dozen solo women but no single men. Seated directly in front of me were two girls whose sartorial style was a kind of punk-goth fusion and who spent most of the three-hour trip cuddling and giggling. Most of the females were dressed in skimpy fashion, although really no less than if we'd been on our way to any tropical island resort.

At the rear of the cabin were a woman and two younger males in spruce dark suits, hunched over open attaché cases and laptops. The woman, who seemed in charge, looked familiar — some sort of showbiz celebrity, a sports star or perhaps a politician. I couldn't immediately put a name to the face. She and her companions had not been in the queue, and when they passed my seat I heard them speaking in the Palmirene dialect. (This is a Creole English. I have studied languages as part of my ethnographic research, and Palmirene speech reminds me of Bermudian. It retains an old-fashioned quality but has been strongly influenced by immigration from Europe and the Americas, including other parts of the West Indies.)

Our aircrew were smartly attired in spick-and-span uniforms. The flight attendants wore short sea-green dresses. The captain, who came back to say hello, was an attractive woman with emerald eyes and close-cropped, copper-red hair. She had the friendly, no-nonsense manner of a veteran and spoke with a faint Canadian accent mellowed by several years of living and working in the West Indies. She had on a snugly fitting white blouse and a black miniskirt, without stockings. It was a more revealing outfit than you might expect on an airline pilot, but by no means risqué. But when we were inside the terminal awaiting the arrival of our bags, they overtook us, towing their trolley-cases, and they all turned to wave good-bye. The women had taken off their uniforms and underwear. The captain's skirt and blouse were folded over one arm, her panties and bra draped neatly on top. Her co-pilot, who was the only male in the group, scrutinized the bodies of all the women he passed, but he seemed completely oblivious to the unclad forms of his fellow crew members. Despite my having primed myself for this experience, the scene was still breathtaking.

Nearby, another scene caught my attention. While the rest of us gathered to retrieve our luggage, the three people from the rear of the plane were ushered directly into the customs inspection area. We watched as they were greeted by two officials, a male in uniform and a female au naturel. The two young men discarded their jackets and ties, while the woman just as quickly and easily stripped off all her clothing. She folded each item before handing it to one of the young men. She even removed her shoes and earrings and wristwatch. Her undressing revealed a gracefully athletic figure. Her brown skin glistened. And oddly enough, this is when I recognized her (from a photo in the online guidebook) — Palmira's Minister for Tourism. Between giving instructions to her assistants, she was nodding silent, friendly greetings to the customs and immigration officials. I was as impressed by the lack of pomp and ceremony which attended the arrival of a VIP as by her casual, comfortable nudity.

"Welcome to Palmira," one of the ladies near me whispered.

As we turned our attention back to the baggage conveyor, a further curious tableau presented itself. The passengers from the charter plane included a family — mother, father and two adolescent boys. I had read that women who are residents of Grandin don't have to strip if heading there directly. Possibly this was one of the few families who live outside the enclave, or maybe they were detouring, perhaps to visit relatives.

The woman was tall and well-built, with silky-sheen, chestnut-brown skin and glossy black, ornamentally woven hair. The man was almost half a head shorter than his statuesque wife, stout and balding; and he bore the harassed, docile expression which you see on the faces of the domestically downtrodden. He wore dapper, neatly pressed white trousers a gaudy, floral pattern shirt and a red neckerchief. Creating a somewhat comical effect, the boys were dressed the same as their father.

The woman had already shed her clothing, including her shoes. She seemed completely at ease with her nudity, like the other women in the terminal making no attempt to conceal anything. Between her thighs, a luxuriant growth proclaimed her marital status. (According to the guidebook, the local custom is that only single women remove their pubic hair.) She held herself erect, her shoulders drawn subtly backwards, accentuating her breasts. One leg was poised just forward of the other, bent slightly at the knee. Her posture was a most intriguing blend of coy, modest and provocative. She seemed in no way self-conscious, standing there stripped and exposed, her fully clothed husband and sons by her side. To each of them, this was totally natural.

The woman's composure contrasted with the agitation of her husband, who was impatient for the arrival of their suitcases, and with the frenetic energy of their sons. When one of the boys was just about to climb onto the carousel, Mama seized him by the collar and hauled him back to her side. He remained there with his brother, surly but obedient, until their bags had been retrieved. Watching them, I was fascinated by this image of a Palmirene family, the matriarchy not at all compromised by the fact that this woman was forbidden by law to conceal any part of her body.

We proceeded to the customs checkpoint and I was one of the last to go through. I had just one piece of luggage. The officer, who greeted us with a terse apology for the inconvenience, was a ruddy-complexioned man in dark trousers, a white shirt and a navy-blue tie. He glanced at my gear and waved me on. At the adjacent counter, attending to the honeymoon couple, was a woman whose only accoutrements were a blue armband and collar. Supervising the proceedings was the woman who'd greeted the Minister. She was small in size but conveyed a distinct air of authority. Blue-and-red ribbons encircled her throat and upper arms. She perused some paperwork and spoke briefly to the man, who offered her an amiable salute. Neither seemed mindful of the eloquent symbolism of this gesture, a man in uniform saluting a completely nude female.

By the time we reached the arrivals lounge, the other people from our flight were already experiencing, at first hand, life on the island of Palmira. The women were undressing. Some appeared relaxed — those who weren't first-time visitors or who were otherwise uninhibited. The rest were showing various degrees of embarrassment. Some giggled nervously, while others displayed tight-lipped bravado. The all-girl group used teasing and playful banter to overcome their bashfulness. The only women in the room who seemed to be reveling in their striptease were the goth-punk pair, laughing and larking as they peeled the clothes off each other's bodies. Some of the men assisted their ladies, but most just stood back and observed, solicitous and sympathetic to any lingering shyness, but loving the show.

None of us would be here if we were scared or unwilling. Few of the bodies had tan lines because most women who visit Palmira acquaint themselves with outdoors nudity before leaving home. So the source of discomfiture was its one-sided nature. As the women stripped naked, the men remained fully clothed. And I'd expected our disrobing debut to be more private. Yet this was probably the best initiation, since we were going to be exposed in public anyway. Nevertheless, to maintain some dignity and decorum there was a sign on the wall which decreed "NO CAMERAS".

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