ST. GEORGE'S, Grenada — "I'm sorry," said the jovial counter agent at the Barbados airport. "Your plane is late."
Then again, the LIAT plane to Grenada is almost always late.
"May I suggest an earlier flight?"
An earlier one?
"Yes. It arrives later. But I think you should take it, because the later flight will probably be very late. Don't worry," he said with a smile. "You'll get there. It's worth the wait."
As it turned out, he was right on all counts.
If you're going to Grenada to find a Caribbean fantasy of discos, casinos or singles clubs, you're out of luck. You go to Grenada to find yourself.
Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and quiet countries in the Caribbean, Grenada is graced with large expanses of untouched beaches and unpolluted waters. And it is a place where tourists need not worry about robbery, violence or invasion by hostile foreign troops.
"Americans still want to know if Grenada is safe," says one U.S. Embassy official about the small island country that the United States invaded in 1983. "It couldn't be safer. And tourism is still in its infancy, which contributes greatly to the island's beauty. Grenada is the way the Caribbean used to be. No high-rises, no condos."
Indeed, the country was quiet, beautiful and slow before Oct. 25, 1983.
At that time, the tiny isle of spice was a bizarre combination of palm trees and paranoia.
Its prime minister, a protege of Cuba's Fidel Castro, had just been overthrown in a military coup and the island's fate seemed to hang between political moderates and hard-line Marxists. About 1,000 U.S. citizens were residing on the island, including students at St. George's University School of Medicine.
Former President Ronald Reagan, at the request of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, sent 1,900 U.S. troops in an air "rescue" invasion of the island, which is situated 100 miles off the coast of Venezuela and 12 degrees north of the Equator.
The fighting lasted only a few days. Some American medical students were brought out. By Dec. 24, the troops had left and parliamentary elections were held the following year.
But what about tourism?
Today, most visitors are pleasantly surprised when they arrive in this southernmost of the Windward Islands.
"They go about asking 'What happened?' " says one Grenadian.
They can't believe there are no soldiers and no fast-food restaurants.
In a departure from the norm, the U.S. invasion was not immediately followed by a huge influx of dollars, tourists and American industry.
There were some attempts. A little more than two months after the invasion, the Reagan Administration tried to assemble an economic aid program for Grenada funded by the private sector.
The President's Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives muscled U.S. companies to contribute to the cause of rebuilding Grenada. On the first relief flight into Grenada, there were 15 cases of first-aid and hygiene items.
The cargo also included 48,000 pounds of Mounds and Almond Joy candy bars, 2,000 pairs of blue jeans and 344 cases of Life Savers.
But the United States can be credited with completing the Cuban-built airport. And America has invested more than $100 million in 300 miles of new road construction and repair, in helping rebuild decaying phone lines and electrical services. Even some nature trails have been built by Peace Corps volunteers.
There's a new power plant, a new phone system and a new water system--all of importance to tourists, not to mention Grenadians.
Slowly--some say too slowly--the roads are being repaved. St. George's medical school is now quiet, and the only bodies being discovered are inside the anatomy department.
"First time here?" asked the taxi driver. "Want to see the bullet holes? I can take you there. How about the medical school? I can show you where it all happened."
About the only reminder that a small war was once fought in this independent British Commonwealth nation can be found on a small hill in the village of Tempe near the Coca-Cola bottling plant.
Grenadians call it the Wall of Thanks: 40 feet of painted cinder-block that proclaims "Thank God for U.S.", "Thank You U.S.A. for Liberating Us." Below it is a warning, "KGB Behave!" The wall was hand-painted shortly after the invasion as a message to the United States.
Besides its history, one of the great things about Grenada is that it's last on my list of shoppers' paradises.
If you want to buy a tacky souvenir or, for that matter, anything else, there's not much to choose from. You're forced to endure the beauty of any one of 45 beaches that surround an island that's only 12 miles wide and 21 miles long.
"One of the problems here," says one counselor for economic affairs at the U.S. Embassy, "is that Americans love to shop and there's so little to buy here." Still, tourism is the No. 2 industry in the country, right behind the production of nutmeg, cocoa and bananas.