‘Here’ is St Croix, the largest and, to my biased view, the best of the US Virgin Islands. We have for five years been restoring an old West Indian home up a steep hill in Christiansted. It has been a labour of love and which, as most love affairs, has had moments of great joy and moments of deep despair.
A web, not of lies, but of wires criss-crossing the walls, with appliances daisy-chained into the front of the fuse box. A gas pipe suspended below a low ceiling. Fans that would decapitate anyone over 5’6”. Termite eggs sounding like sand trickling into a pail whenever furniture was moved. Shutters which creaked in un-oiled anger with each gust of the Trade Winds that make this island such a cool place to live. A dishwasher which had been home to small furry critters with long tails. An oven that belched gas at the threat of a flame. And baths upon which no bottom should ever sit. The list was longer.
But the views! Ribbons of blue as the Caribbean filters through azure, to aquamarine to emerald, and back to kingfisher navy glisten in iridescent invitation. Yachts dot the bays in bobbing abandon. And the one thing that makes any place a pleasure to be. The people.
No conversation, no matter how short, starts without ‘good mahnin’ or a pleasantry about whatever the time of day. If the acquaintance is more than a passing hello, then inquiry after the health of the family, or a comment about the day, or maybe an upcoming event is the norm before diving into the purpose of the meeting. It is the most delightful way in which to conduct one’s life and a reminder that courtesy is still alive in certain parts of this great land, despite the lack of civility in the political sphere.
St Croix might be an American territory but she most definitely has a West Indian vibe. The hustle of the mainland is missing. “When will you be here?” is answered by “Soon come.” People are warm and welcoming, and like to laugh. The market is full of fresh produce and stall holders eager to impart their knowledge of how to cook that strange looking leaf.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not Utopia. There are social issues, as there are anywhere. Gun violence has taken a nasty upturn – fueled by drugs and unemployment. Domestic abuse, probably for the same reasons, runs like a fetid stream through society. Last year’s hurricanes rudely destroyed homes, schools and the hospital – the aftermath of which is still being felt by many, though power has been restored islandwide.
For someone like me, who has lived and worked in many places – 12 countries, as diverse as Papua New Guinea and the Netherlands – there is a charm to St Croix that appealed from the outset. I couldn’t care less about the possible health hazards of sparrows flying around the supermarket. And whilst religion is taken seriously, no matter what the denomination, there is still space for humour – the sign, since blown away, affixed to the gates of the Presbyterian Church, admonished, “Thou Shalt Not Park Here”.
Or another propped up in a window offering three directions – the lab, the morgue or the X-ray – take your pick.
Where I sit and write, often on our gallery looking out at the aforementioned view, I am privy to many amusing discussions taking place in the street below, though I am not part of them. I was though part of a conversation last night. Let me set the scene.
The plough was glistening in an ebony sky. The channel lights were blinking red and green to guide cruisers into safe harbour should they be so foolish as to attempt a night-time arrival through the narrow channel. The breeze rustled coconut fronds and clac-clacked tan-tan pods as cicadas harmonised in accompaniment. The roosters were blessedly silent – no doubt preparing for their pre-dawn chorus of ‘funky blackbird’! Jazz in the Park and a glass of Bourbon had left me mellow.
The idyll was broken by the violent gunning of an engine followed by a desperate screech of brakes, the rattling of pebbles on our galvanized roof, and a flurry of curses. I rushed out to see what was going on.
“Good night,” I said, showing remarkable sang-froid in the face of a long-base ute very close to tipping down onto our roof. “Everything okay?” Which in the face of it was rather a silly question, but very British.
“Good night.” A man, with large glasses and trousers slipping below his butt, responded politely before shouting further instructions to the driver. “Wappen de road? De road it go where?” He asked, turning back to me.
This was a fair question. There is no warning that the road behind our house leads not downhill in tar macadamed smoothness but into a series of steep and very rutted steps. If urban legend is to be believed, a number of vehicles have taken the plunge over the years. A little disconcerting to know as such an event would surely disturb my slumber.
“It’s been like this for many years. Certainly since before you were born,” I replied.
“How old you think I be?”
“Younger than these steps.” I told him. “Have the brakes failed?”
The driver, his lips firmly pursed around a cigarette, bade me good night and replied in the younger man’s stead. The brakes were fine. It was turning around in a confined area and the steepness of the gravel road causing the problem. That and no power in the engine. It took another five or six attempts before, with sparks and stones flying, the pick-up made it’s wailing way up the hill. Brake lights flashed on – amazingly both worked – and a cheer went up from the flatbed filled with three young, and perhaps a little inebriated, men before they went on their way – the driver waving goodbye.
And that’s ‘why here’ – it’s fun!