Archives For Caribbean

I am not a beach bunny – even stretching way, way back to my bikini days. I love the ocean – being in, under or on it. But sitting on the sand, even with a book and a beer, palls very quickly. Walking along the beach though is a different matter. There is always something to gather.

My latest collections come from the beaches of St Croix. From one, the delicate little shells of palest pink to the deepest blush. Under candlelight on my dining table they take on a translucent beauty reminiscent of a Gainsborough portrait. From another beach, I gather sea glass, or as my granddaughter calls them, gems, tumbled and tossed ashore by tides and waves beginning their journey from who knows where. What start as bottles discarded by careless souls from boats, end up recycled as smooth fragments of opaque glass often used for island jewelry. Or, as in my home, placed in glass bowls to glimmer in quiet simplicity.

I still kick myself for throwing out a cache of elegant little black and white shells. Classic shell shapes – each striation a marvel of nature’s preciseness. I can’t remember where I harvested them, perhaps Australia, perhaps Thailand, but I liked them enough to carry around the world for about fifteen years. And then in a fit of throwing out, probably before another relocation, I tossed them.

That is the trouble with, or perhaps the benefit of, frequent moves. Each item must be judged worthy of container space. We have a problem with books but I think have, on the whole, reached an amicable arrangement. My husband’s collection of Folio Society books, and those left him by my father, always get a free ride. Reference, history and travel books too. Some novels I refuse to be parted from, Pride and Prejudice or Tess of the D’Urbervilles for example, or those which have struck enough of a chord to warrant a second, or third, reading also get a pass.

But beach novels get the heave ho – no ifs, no buts. Which, considering I am a writer attempting to break into the novel arena and know the agonies of bringing 90,000 words to publication readiness, is very hard to do. I feel I am letting the writerhood down but comfort myself with the thought at least the books will be available for others to enjoy, even if the author gets no royalties from the resale.

A truckload of fabric bought from markets around the world – saris, ikat, batik and so on – has also been a constant, with pieces showing up as curtains, tablecloths and cushion covers in other parts of the world.

And then there is a large box of Mexican tiles. Now they have been an ongoing bone of contention – with each relocation my justification getting thinner. Until St Croix.
Those tiles, lovingly collected over the years, now have a permanent home and there has been a certain amount of “see, I told you I’d use them somewhere!”

Our home in St Croix is in Christiansted. One day we will have a wonderful terrace and garden, but at the moment it is a quarry. We have enough stone to build our very own fort – never mind the one guarding the town and Gallows Bay. But it’s what is between the stones that delights me.

Chaney. Lots and lots of chaney.

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Now to people not acquainted with the islands these little bits of pottery and china might just look like, well, little bits of pottery and china. But they’re not! Chaney was currency. Broken shards of table and kitchenware scavenged by children who would then file down the edges, probably on a rock, and use it as money. “I’ll swap you two chaney for a stick of sugarcane” kind of transaction. Early day bitcoins! The term ‘chaney’ is said to be the words – china and money – conflated. Or perhaps, and I have absolutely no evidence of this, chaney came from the word ‘change’. “You owe me two chaney,” sort of thing.

In 2017, chaney is still valuable. This time wrapped in gold or silver and sold as jewelry to tourists and residents alike. Currency of a different kind. These little pieces of china, nearly always blue and white, have though a multitude of uses – all of them artistic. They embellish lintels, become tabletops, or cover vases.

There are four distinct types of chaney: shell edge, a slightly fluted design from mid 1700s England; mochaware, off-white sturdy kitchenware with linear designs from a similar period; flow blue, from mid 1500s Germany when during the glazing process cobalt oxide blurred the design; and lastly the ubiquitous blue willow design, imported from China in the 1700s, and adapted by Thomas Minton for Thomas Turner of Caughley, Shropshire. The willow design depicts the forbidden love between a Chinese Mandarin’s daughter and his secretary. Upon the lovers untimely death, the gods immortalised them as two doves, forever flying together.

And as St Croix once flew under the Dutch flag, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the blue and white fragments are Delftware.

As I wash each piece of chaney, I wonder about its story. These little shards of china and pottery – history found in our garden. History which will stay in our garden, to one day be incorporated into paving stones and risers. One collection which will not be moving on.

Rise Up This Morning….

January 10, 2017 — 2 Comments

My father was a Gemini. As well as being a polyglot, he had an eclectic taste in music and the sounds from scratchy 45s and LPs was anything from Schubert to jazz, Bing Crosby to gamelan, Sousa to bierkeller oomp pah pahs and everything in between.

It is he who introduced me to calypso. Not, as you might think, sung by the Trinidadian greats of the day, the Mighty Sparrow or Lord Kitchener or even the American calypsonian Harry Belafonte, but rather the unlikely Danish – Dutch husband and wife duo, Nina and Frederik. I’m sure I never asked why a white couple sang calypso so convincingly. I learnt later calypso entered Frederik van Pallandt’s life when his father was the Dutch ambassador to Trinidad. The Danish connection came, not as I had thought, through historical links to the US Virgin Islands which were the Danish West Indies until 1917, but when Dutch Frederik fell in love with Danish Nina.

It is one of life’s ironies that my daughter now lives in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The country to which I swore I would not return after a year spent in the south, in San Fernando, in the mid 1980s. There is much beauty in the country but, for me, way back then it was a time of strange isolation. A difficult time politically with tensions between black and East Indian contingents. As tradition would have it, political commentary came through calypso and blared from speakers before, during and after Carnival.

When Kate extols the virtues of soca and ska, I remind her it was her parents who exposed her at an early age to the rhythms of the Caribbean. To Edwin Ayoung, aka Crazy, who won the 1985 Road March with Suck Meh Soucouyant and which we heard without cease when we lived there. For those unsure of the term, a soucouyant is a shape-changing character – by day a wrinkled old woman living in a shack surrounded by tall trees and by night, reverting to her true self and her pact with the devil, flies through the sky as a fireball searching for victims.

Trinidad and Tobago also lays claim to Calypso Rose. Born Linda McCartha Monica Sandy-Lewis in 1940, she started writing songs at 15, turned professional at 24, and at 76 and about 800 songs later claims, as the lyrics in Calypso Queen say, “my constitution is strong”.

St Croix has just celebrated Three Kings Day. Part of the Carnival activities include competing for the Festival Calypso Monarch. Won again this year by Temisha ‘Caribbean Queen’ Libert. Her entry, as others, took the opportunity to highlight flaws in local politics – a time-honoured calypso tradition no doubt a little uncomfortable for any politicians present. One of her songs, written by Carol Hodge, asked the question, “How could we smile? No way, no way”.

Another competitor, Campbell ‘King Kan Ru Plen Tae’ Barnes went so far as to say politicians were worse than Satan, suggesting some get elected by invoking obeah – sorcery, of the bad kind – perhaps similar to the type of interference reported in the presidential election!

It would seem, having heard Meryl Streep’s powerful speech at the Golden Globe Awards about the president-elect and his unvetted family and cohorts, that we need entertainers of every stripe to remind the rest of us to hold our politician’s toes to the fire. To not let them ride roughshod over We the People.

Though not a polyglot, I too am a Gemini with an eclectic taste in music. My father died a number of years ago but just maybe, one day, on a giant turntable in the sky, he will listen to a tragic (or perhaps comic) opera describing the events of the Trump presidency. Until that opera or calypso is written, I take comfort, as inauguration day looms, from the music of that other great Caribbean singer, Bob Marley. Because I have to believe “every little thing gonna be alright” and that, as Calypso Rose assures us, the “constitution is strong”!

Beauty and the Beast

January 3, 2017 — 4 Comments

I am fortunate to spend time on St Croix – the largest of America’s surprisingly unknown Caribbean islands. The raw beauty of her beaches and the capriciousness of the sea as it cycles from emerald to aquamarine to turquoise to steel, depending on the clouds sent scudding by the constant Trade Winds, never fail to delight.

History emanates off the foot thick walls of the forts – yellow in Christiansted and rust coloured in Frederiksted – telling of the seven flags under which St Croix has flown. Originally known as Ay Ay, the island has been colonized, captured, lost, recaptured and bought, by the Dutch, British, French, Spanish, the Knights of Malta, and finally in 1917 sold by the Danish government for 25 million dollars to the US, fearful of German expansion during the First World War.

With the benefits of US laws and banking regulations, strong African roots from the days of slavery, a European heritage, and a lingering Caribbean charm, St Croix has much to offer both residents and visitors alike.

Green, hawksbill and occasionally leatherback turtles lumber up many of the beaches to lay their eggs, year after year. 50 to 70 days later, seabirds circle the skies watching with predatory interest as the tiny hatchlings surface through the sand and scuttle down to the ocean to start their journey north.

Cacti and scrub populate the eastern end of the island, with mahogany and genip trees towering high in the rainforest to the west. Bougainvillea, hibiscus, ixora and the island flower, Ginger Thomas, splash colour along the roadsides and hide both million-dollar mansions and less palatial homes from prying eyes. Papayas, pomegranates, pineapples and figs – the delicious little bananas – grow with easy abundance. Mangos and avocados grace many local dishes, and the sea offers lobster and mahi mahi and snapper.

Tranquility and beauty.

The islands – St Croix, St Thomas and St John – like most places have community issues, with elements of society not content to follow the rules. There is domestic abuse, too many guns in the hands of the wrong people, drug, alcohol and gambling addictions and larcenies of various kinds. All man made.

There is though a natural beast which lurks with vicious impunity along some of the shorelines. Known by the Spanish conquistadors as the ‘little apple of death’, the hippo mane mancinella, more commonly known as the ‘manchineel’, provides a natural windbreak and fights beach erosion, ever a problem for areas facing Atlantic hurricanes. The tree, sometimes growing to 50 feet, can be deadly to most birds and animals though, for some unexplained reason, iguana seem impervious to its toxicity.

To mere mortals its small green fruit resemble crab apples and lie temptingly on the sands. Don’t be enticed. If ingested, savage abdominal pain can be expected, followed by vomiting, bleeding and damage to the digestive tract. Deaths have been reported. Don’t even pick that apple up. The leaves and bark produce a milky sap which cause blindness, mostly temporary, and scorching blisters. If scratched by branches not only do the wounds hurt but pulsating pustules emerge over the coming few hours adding to the misery. I have seen the pain.

If Juan Ponce de Leon, the conquistador intent on colonizing Florida in 1513, and later parts of the Caribbean, had survived a manchineel-tipped arrow piercing his thigh, he might have been able to attest to its ferocity. Some though accept the temptations. Carpenters covet the hard timber for furniture and a few risk the dangers, drying the wood naturally to neutralize the sap.

Most manchineel shrubs and trees are marked with red crosses and warnings, but signs can get overgrown. Beachgoers have been burned just by standing underneath the tree during one of the many squalls washing the islands and coasts of South America and Florida. The caustic sap can even burn the paint off cars parked under its branches. And, if burned, the air is filled with toxins causing respiratory problems.

Accepted as the most dangerous tree in the world, the manchineel is relatively rare and is considered endangered – remember, it does have some positive benefits. But really, the best thing to do, should you come upon a manchineel is to give it a wide berth.

Beauty and the beast – part of the allure of the Caribbean.

And, should your kite get entangled in the manchineel’s embracing arms, just cut the strings.

Christmas Winds!

December 21, 2016 — 11 Comments

The Christmas winds, barreling east from Africa, are bringing squalls and as I dodge great splodges of rain I hope for calmer weather when Jake’s Place fills with visitors in a few days. Christmas in the Caribbean sounds exotic, and much of it is, but whilst we don’t have to worry about hurricanes, or polar vortexes, at this time of year, we do want sunshine for friends who have chosen to share the festivities with us.

The last few days have been spent gussying the house up, making the tree and reminiscing as I hang ornaments reminding me of past Christmases. Camels, monkeys and elephants share branch space with more traditional baubles.

Not having children present this year, I have not put out the elf on whose blackboard the days are marked down until Santa magically appears. Not down the chimney but instead, as I explained to my grandchildren last year, on top of the gallery where he ties the reindeer to the defunct satellite dish so they don’t blow away in the aforementioned winds. That jolly fellow in the red suit then shimmies down and clambers in the open window to deposits his goodies. Spending just enough time to swig the rum, this is the Caribbean afterall, munch a mince pie, of course remembering to take the carrots aloft for the patiently waiting Rudolph and his cohorts.

As I listen to carols and sip sherry – another family tradition – I think that Christmas can be a strangely complicated time for many of us. Whether home or abroad. A nostalgic time. A time when thoughts drift back to childhood, either our own or our children’s. And when those children are grown and not sharing the season with us, whether due to distance, work or commitments to others, it is easy to fall into a malaise longing for things past.

A sentimental time – perhaps especially for those not spending it in their home country for the first time. The unfamiliar jostling the familiar. Perhaps the first warm Christmas, or conversely the first laden with snow – finally one that fits cards showing winterscapes with Breughel-like scenes.

Nostalgia though can be confused with homesickness. I think the trick to Christmas either spent abroad or away from home for the first time, for whatever reason, is to start new traditions. – whether we are the ones away or the ones still at home. Create new norms to each new situation. It doesn’t mean turning our backs on the old forever, it just requires a little adaptability. A different take on a familiar event. Watching, sometimes from afar, grown children with their own family merging traditions as well as forging new ones, gives me real joy.

More often than not, I ‘dress’ the house alone now, so when my husband or guests arrive on island all is ready, and as I listen to my favourite carolers I feel a sense of freedom. I have no one to answer too, to cajole into helping me. No eye-rolling teenager, or spouse grumpy because the lights wont work.

Nonetheless, there is a poignancy to the preparations. We relocated internationally a number of times when our children were young, with each place requiring slight adaptations, and of course assurances Santa would find them in their new abode – whether he had to row along a klong, find us in a high-rise or squeeze down a chimney. Memories pop up with each ornament. The elephant decorations came from Thailand, the monkeys from West Africa. The slightly wonky Santa face was the first decoration my son made, oh so many years ago. It has travelled many miles.

When both my grown children were with us last year, with their respective partners and our grandchildren, we reverted to their childhood traditions – though with Mimosas instead of OJ. My daughter took her usual position at the tree doling out presents. My son pretended indifference, except when watching his nieces, but actually enjoyed the roles into which we all naturally fell.

This year will be different again. And that, to me, is what makes Christmas such fun. Old and new customs melding to add to the memories – the odd culinary disaster becoming ever enlarged as it is recounted year after year.

So for those having a different kind of Christmas this year, remember wherever you are is home for the time being, and revel in the newness rather than succumbing to saccharine sentimentality. Santa will find you.

And now I must go and rehang the camel – those darn Trade Winds! May your day be filled with warmth of both hearth and heart as you recall old memories and create new ones.

Merry Christmas!

The silence woke Holly. The rhythmic creak of the anchor chain and slap of water hitting the hull had stopped. So too the groaning sheets interspersed with whistling, like Nonna’s kettle, as wind had whipped through the stays and the sea had spumed. Her initial delight on being aboard had lessened with each shriek of the storm buffeting the yacht – despite the cheerful banter over gin rummy and whisky.

Tying a batik sarong Holly tiptoed up on deck. A ribbon of palest pink tickled the horizon and she knew the drenched decks and sails would soon dry in the rapidly rising sun. Hearing no sound from either Simon or Reed’s cabin, she climbed down to the transom and stripping, dived into the sparkling Caribbean. Surfacing, she gasped. She hadn’t expected the chill. It felt more like her childhood dash into the waters off Lyme Regis.

Shards of silver shimmered as her naked body rippled the turquoise sea in ever-widening circles. Tiny fish feathered her legs as they darted first one way and then the other in uncertainty until, as one, they flashed away. Looking down into the clear waters Holly wondered what was chasing them. Barracuda maybe. She shivered. It was cold. Kicking, she swam strongly, relishing the swish of water over her head, and glad she’d had her long hair cut before she’d left London. New life. New style.

Puffing, she floated a while, her hands idling the water. The beach, like snow from this distance, invited her to make sand angels. The white strip lined by palms, the fronds rustling gently after their frenetic movements of the previous evening. She could just make out what looked like ruins at the top of the hill behind the beach. An old sugar mill she guessed. She shouldn’t have been so hasty – she’d like to walk along the beach but doubted her nakedness would be appreciated by those on other yachts anchored nearby, and who might also be early risers.

“Holly!”

She waved. Even from this distance Simon was tall. Beckoning her back, she saw Reed join her brother on deck. Almost the same height but not living up to his name – Reed was a sturdy man. A rugby player to her brother’s cricket. They had met at university and been fast friends ever since. After one marriage and divorce, and one near miss, they’d pooled their resources and, leaving the dank European winters behind, had set sail for warmer climes on their 45’ sloop, Henrietta. The freedom seemed to have had a positive effect on their finances too – freelance marketing and writing brought in more than enough and, whilst Holly knew they had both had flings, the men were happy with their lives. How would they find life with her aboard for the next few months?

Until she could face the Highbury Fields flat again. Until she could face London again. No Malcolm. No Nonna. Holly couldn’t tell whether it was tears or seawater making her eyes smart. Couldn’t tell whether it was the thought of her lover in someone else’s bed or her dead grandmother which made her chest constrict.

“Holly!” Simon’s deep voice skimmed over the shimmering water again. “Breakfast.”

Powering back to the yacht, she remembered her nakedness.

“Go below, both of you!” she called, hearing her brother’s laughter. Clambering up the ladder, she retied the sarong and followed the smell of bacon into the galley.

“Bacon butties on deck,” Reed said, turning from the hob with a grin. “Up you go. You earn your keep from tomorrow.”

The sun dried her corn-coloured hair into loose curls, softening her angular face and grey eyes. She sighed. There were worse places to be. Smiling, she heard Nonna’s favourite carol drifting up from the saloon – Bing Crosby singing The Little Drummer Boy. Turning she saw Simon carrying a tray set with a guavaberry branch in an empty wine bottle, tiny baubles glinting above a miniature reindeer with a red bow and two small parcels wrapped in gold paper. Then Reed with glasses and champagne – both wearing board shorts, fur-trimmed Santa hats and tinseled sunglasses.

“Merry Christmas, Holly!” Simon said, kissing his sister.

“Happy Ho, Ho, Ho.” Reed filled the plastic flutes, bubbles joining the condensation as they spilled over. “Here’s to your first Christmas aboard!”