Archives For Caribbean

The Littlest Bookstore

March 2, 2022 — 6 Comments

I am not a shopper. Unless you count stationery shops and bookstores. But in my lexicon they don’t count as shops – they’re necessities.

One of the tragedies of our digital life is the disappearance of those wonderful bookshops tucked into a high street – you know the one, down the road from the butcher and wedged between the greengrocer and ironmonger. I, like most, have been known to use that convenient monolith that sends consumer products anywhere, anytime. However, each time I do a twinge of guilt shivers down my back for the bookseller who knows not only books but his or her customer. It is an art, a calling, and so much more pleasant than a nameless, faceless transaction or click.

That wonderful sense of new worlds and new words lining the shelves is missing. Hours spent browsing, then the excitement of finding the perfect book, or books.

Like most readers I have a pile next to the bed of ‘to be reads’ – it might take me a few months to get to them but get to them I do. Sometimes one just has to be in the right frame of mind for a book. During COVID I have strayed from books that would make me yearn to travel again – so stories from places never visited have been kept at bay. It made me sad.

Now the world, well most of it, is learning to live with the scourge of COVID and countries are starting to lift barriers, my curiosity is resurfacing. I want to read about Bhutan, about Poland, about Mali, as well as learn more about places I have been fortunate enough to visit.

I was in Trinidad last week – a place I once lived – but this time staying with my daughter, Kate, and her family. One Sunday we drove to places old and new to me.

From the capital, Port of Spain we headed east to where Trinidad’s coast stops the Atlantic Ocean in a thunder of waves, and the beach is lined with miles and miles of coconut trees. More than a thousand one of my granddaughters assured me. Mayaro, back in 1984, was my first foray away from San Fernando where we lived, and the first time Kate wriggled her toes in sand. Back then there was an occasional hut selling watermelon or pineapples. Now along the Manzanilla / Mayaro road there are many more, and nestled between them is the littlest bookshop in the country, perhaps in the Caribbean.

Started by Mr Ishmael Samad, The Book Junkie is one of those wonderful whimsical surprises that we come across every now and then. Philosophy and fiction jostle for space on rickety shelves. Literature and beach reads reach precariously for the corrugated roof. Leaning against each other on a low shelf are Enid Blyton and Carolyn Keene, the pseudonym used by the collective authors of the Nancy Drew detective stories, and which tempt younger readers, including my granddaughters.

On the outside shelf under Graham Greene and Clive Cussler, in somewhat faded glory, was Bruce Chatwin’s Photographs and Notebooks, published after his death in 1989. A wonderful reminder of the joy of travel, of curiosity for new customs and cultures and, for a Nowherian like me – a phrase coined by the St Lucian poet, Derek Walcott – a reminder of Chatwin’s telling essay, Anatomy of Restlessness. A feeling to which most global nomads fall prey.

That restlessness is what stopped me reading about far-flung places these last couple of years. Why research into my next historical novel has floundered. The knowledge I could not travel to unknown places to experience different smells, sounds, sights and tastes. To feel the fabrics, not just made in a country but of the society itself.

Back at The Book Junkie, the young woman presiding over the shelves, maybe one of Mr Samad’s granddaughters, suggested titles and showed us where, in the welter of books, we could find Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Paulo Coelho and then smilingly waved us on our way.

On the drive home, a granddaughter leaning against me sound asleep, I began to think about books with the word bookshop in the title. Books like The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George and
The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer drifted into my thoughts, then The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles. All stories about allowing words to teach, to arouse curiosity, to entertain.

The power of the written word, and reading, has over time been feared by dictators and anarchists alike – think of Hitler’s Kristallnacht in 1938, and more recently in 2013 the Islamist rebels of Ansar Dine who torched the library in Timbuktu.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this week brought to mind Geraldine Brooks’ sweeping novel, People of the Book based on real events which tells of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah – one of the earliest Jewish books to be illuminated with images – being saved from Serb shelling during the Bosnian war. Brooks follows the book’s journey back to its creation and tells a story of how people regardless of faith have risked their lives to save a book.

Lives come and go. But the written word must never be lost.

That’s why The Book Junkie on the wild side of Trinidad’s coast is so important.

Redemption

July 4, 2019 — 4 Comments

I woke up this morning with Bob. Those immortal words written in 1979 by Bob Marley, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery”. The lyrics of Redemption Song danced in my mind as I walked Clyde. Perhaps as counterpoint to the rhetoric I heard yesterday.

The 3rd of July is arguably a more relevant day in the former Danish West Indies – now the US Virgin Islands – than the 4th July. Independence Day commemorates the day in 1766 that the thirteen American colonies no longer answered to the British monarchy, and were relieved to no longer have taxation without representation. 

The British as occupiers were long gone from St Croix by then – their first attempt to settle here being in the early 17th century. They did though loiter around the island throughout the occupations / ownerships of both the Dutch and the Danish, mainly as merchants, sailors and privateers. That’s what happens when ‘owned’ by so many countries – St Croix has flown under seven flags – descendants tend to stick around.

“None but ourselves can free our minds”. And yet yesterday afternoon, as words swirled up to our gallery from the Bandstand in Christiansted, one could be forgiven for thinking emancipation had only just occurred, rather than in 1848 – rather than 171 years ago. From one particular group of orators there was no single positive message. There is no denying the atrocious and barbaric Atlantic Slave Trade, or indeed the Domestic Slave Trade that flourished on the US mainland after the abolition of slavery in 1865. But a barrage of condemnation for a country banished from these shores in 1917, when America paid Denmark 25 million dollars for the islands, seemed a rather pointless exercise.  

Rather than harangue the, admittedly, very small audience, perhaps people yesterday should have been encouraged to walk the walk, to honour those men and women who demanded and fought for their freedom by actually taking part in the fort-to-fort trek. 

The drums signalled the march on Frederiksted in 2019 as they did in 1848. At 5am on July 3rd, for the last nineteen years, former Senator Terrence ‘Positive’ Nelson, now Commissioner of Agriculture, has sounded the conch, given an invocation and rattled the chains at Fort Christiansvaern before leading Crucians, and a smattering of imports, on a pilgrimage of remembrance for those enslaved who demanded their freedom. He has lead people, who cared enough to get up early, to trudge those hills and valleys that make up Queen Mary Highway and to rattle the chains at Fort Frederiksted. Paying tribute to the bravery, and rigours, of those men and women who fought for freedom. It is a walk of reflection, and a celebration of what has been achieved, and a walk of hope for the future.

Moses ‘Buddhoe’ Gottlieb, a sugar boiler and a free man, is commemorated as being the leader of the uprising for freedom, yet cautioned restraint to the approximately 8,000 enslaved who converged on Frederiksted on July 2nd, 1848. It was he who gave Governor Peter von Scholten the 4pm deadline to emancipate the enslaved, which lead to the famous proclamation, “All unfree in the Danish West Indies are from today free.”

Surely a more enlightened approach today would be to salute those Virgin Islanders who have succeeded and gone on to achieve so very much, whether here or abroad. People like Hubert Harrison, who became “one of the most brilliant and dynamic Negro intellectuals ever to emerge on the American scene” and touted, if he had not died so young at the age of 44, as being a possible candidate to serve in President Roosevelt’s administration. Or David Hamilton Jackson, the labour leader, legislator and founder of The Herald, the first black newspaper on St Croix. Or Miss Enid Baa, who among many accolades, represented the Virgin Islands in 1960 at the 3rd UNESCO conference in Mexico City on Latin American and Caribbean Bibliography. Or Alton Adams, the first black bandmaster in the US Navy and who wrote the Virgin Islands anthem. Or Ullmont James, not bahn’ here but born of Crucian parents and who was educated in the first graduating class of the Christiansted Senior High School, who went on to be an outstanding administrator and diplomat to various missions in Africa. 

The list is long for the relative size of these three Virgin Islands. Sportsmen like Elrod Hendricks, and that proud son of St Croix, Tim Duncan, who has proved his commitment to his home island by his continual support, particularly after the 2017 Hurricanes of Irma and Maria. Or those who represent the Virgin Islands at the Olympic Games, only once a medallist but always present. Musicians, Jamesie and the All-Stars, or Stanley and Ten Sleepless Knights, who have taken the sounds of the Virgin Islands around the Caribbean and to Europe.

There was pride to be seen yesterday in the quelbe dancing later at the Christiansted Bandstand. Quelbe, recognised as the traditional music of the Virgin Islands and a graceful fusion of bamboula and cariso that tells the story of these islands. That’s keeping history alive in a positive manner.

Never forgetting, and honouring, the trials of our forefathers is important. Knowing our history helps make sense of today and prepares us for tomorrow. But to frame today against a litany of sins from long ago is neither productive nor constructive if, as Bob sang, “We forward in this generation, Triumphantly”!

Pride is a sin, or so I’m told. But like most things, it’s moderation that really counts. And I’m not talking about pride in other people’s accomplishments – our children, our spouse and so on. No, I mean pride in ‘weself’.  Although a little pride is what gets us out of our pajamas each morning. And as a writer, if I didn’t have an element of pride in my work, I’d never pluck up the courage to send it out and risk the plethora of rejections that inevitably come back. 

I do confess to also being proud of my sense of direction and, on the whole, my ability to take directions. Do please note I wrote ‘directions’ and not ‘direction’ – I’m not so good at the latter. I am also a good map reader, which is why I despise Google Maps. Something to which I will not resort unless in dire circumstances – like I’m running very, very late… because I got lost!

But that’s all changed now I am spending more time on St Croix. I am now regularly totally and utterly directionally challenged. And that is on an island roughly 84 square miles in area, with the highest point being Mount Eagle at 1,165 feet. Roads numbers do not always tally with actual roads. Island maps show roads that once may have been passable but are no longer – you know those little dash-dash-dash lines that promise entry and egress but in reality peter out.

Like Houston, St Croix is afflicted with pot holes. Neither the powers-that-be in Houston nor on St Croix have not actually figured out the sense of ‘do it properly, one time’. But we have a sense of humour about it. My favourite bumper sticker here is also most comforting. It reads, “Not drunk, dodging potholes!” I almost drove off the road laughing.

I wasn’t laughing though a couple of weeks ago. We had visitors from Australia. Long-standing friends who are used to the vagaries of life – be it unplanned adventures, inclement weather or crazy hosts. Rorie is the epitome of a laconic Aussie farmer. Mary’s sense of humour has been, I’m sure, tested greatly throughout their long marriage, as has his. Be that as it may, they are great chums both to each other and us. We had decided on a driving day, and so our aptly named truck, Otto (Over The Top Off-roader), was geared up and taken for a spin.

I thought we were heading along Scenic Route East – a misnomer really, apart from the east bit. The tan-tan is as tall as an elephant’s eye and the glistening Caribbean Sea is merely a pencil mark through the scrub scrabbling up the hillside covered with creepers. Mainly Bride’s Tears, spaghetti vine and some kind of pea, all attempting to turn the bush into a palette of pink, yellow and purple. Pretty but invasive plants intent on strangling local flora. In any event, after the nails-on-a-chalkboard scratching of thorns along Otto, Mount Eagle seemed to be where we were heading. I wasn’t quite sure how we got there, but there was no turning back until we reached the summit.

I think I told you Rorie was a cool-cat, unfazed by the peculiarities of life in the left lane – oh, let me explain. The Virgin Islands, for some inexplicable reason, manouvre left-hand steering-wheeled vehicles on the left side of the road. It can at times produce, for those sitting in line of oncoming traffic, a dashboard-clutching drive. Anyway, Rorie was doing very well.

Until he wasn’t.

Mary was trying to catch glimpses of the ocean, or anything other than more tan-tan – and was rewarded with a flash of grey mongoose on the dusty red trail ahead. There was no left lane here. But she could afford some element of sang-froid. She and my husband, our driver, were on the hill side of the rapidly narrowing track, and her gaze skimmed over the bushes and through the trees, not down the hill where remnants of rusted vehicles peeked from under vines, giving testament to an ill-advised spin of the wheel. 

“Steer left a bit, mate.” Rorie’s words were calm. I had lost the power of speech as I leaned out the window and saw an inch of rubbly road then nothing but a tangle of scrub waiting to claim us in the ravine below. Okay, maybe not a ravine exactly, but a steep gully that would not make any of us feel good should we flip into it.

“I’m in 4 wheel-drive,” John said, his voice soothing.

“Not much use if there’s only air under the wheels!” Rorie commented.

The view from the top was worth the drive and, taking the right fork, the road more travelled, on the way down the hill, we eventually found our way to where I had thought we were going….. It turns out my pride has been misplaced all these years. I am directionally challenged. 

But then guidance on St Croix is a little vague. Landmarks long gone are still used as reference points. I have since learnt if we had only turned right, where the tall palm blew down in the hurricanes eighteen months ago, and not at the signpost that categorically stated Scenic Drive East, we would have been fine.

That’s another idiosyncrasy of Crucian driving!

Melancholy Confusion

January 5, 2019 — 6 Comments

It is January 5th, Twelfth Night, the eve of epiphany, but here on St Croix, it is known as “Three Kings’ Day” and is marked by the adult carnival parade – a not particularly chaste celebration of the Magi’s first sight of the infant Jesus.

But as with most things Crucian it does have its roots in history when the enslaved were given time off to celebrate Christmas. In the 1700s the streets of Christiansted and Frederiksted would be filled with costumed singing and dancing merrymakers, who would also visit other plantations to spread the holiday cheer. The modern manifestation has been in existence since the early 1950s when Three Kings’ Day marks the end of the month-long celebration with ten days of fun at the Crucian Christmas Carnival. Calypsonians compete for the title of king or queen and this year was won, for the fourth time, by Caribbean Queen aka Temisha Libert for her calypos, Promise and Karma. The first advising the incoming governor, Albert Bryan, to say true to his election campaign promises, and the second perhaps warning of what would happen if he doesn’t! Moko jumbies keep bad spirits at bay, cultural activities and fairs showcasing arts and crafts, food and drinks, keep the revellers happy, fed and lubricated. The final day, “Three Kings’ Day”, sees shimmering scantily clad men and women chasséing down the streets of Frederiksted to the steady beat of music belting out from trucks. It a noisy fun-filled spectacle that sets the crowds up for the coming year.

Twelfth Night, or the beginning of Epiphany, was always a subject of debate in my childhood home. Do the decorations come down on the night of the 5th or 6th of January? According to the Church of England it should be the 5th and so, over the years, I have come to adhere to their ruling. I can only assume the confusion came about due to one parent counting the 12 days from the day after Christmas Day, and the other from Christmas Day. Perhaps having the international date line between their two countries had something to do with it.

Whatever the reason, I find the day a little melancholy. The tinsel is down, the fairy lights are stored away despite knowing a fuse needs changing, the baubles that have survived the cat’s delighted playing are packed away and my favourite tree decorations are wrapped in tissue and bubble wrap and wedged into stout boxes ready for any eventuality. The whole enterprise reminiscent of an international move, which was my initial reason for such careful storage practices. For many years we did indeed move every twelve months and I’d be damned if my Christmas decorations didn’t travel with me.

Perhaps the melancholy comes from knowing my global relocations have spluttered to an end. That is not to say I am unhappy in life or in my current location. How could I be? I am healthy and happy, as are my family. I have the Caribbean glinting in the sunlight and trade winds rustling the coconuts palms outside my study. A new book being released in March adds an element of satisfaction, and the thrill of starting another engages my mind in pages of what ifs and maybes. But the excitement of wondering what country we might call home the following year was intoxicating, and I miss it. 

Or perhaps my melancholy comes from saying goodbye to a houseful of friends who have stayed with us and shared our 12 days of Christmas – a noisy, busy, laughter-filled time of tempting smells from the kitchen and far too much rum and wine on the gallery.

Or perhaps it because this year we did not share our Christmas with our children and grandchildren who are scattered around the world. That, perhaps, a direct reflection of their upbringing in different parts of the globe. We all lead our own lives and only rarely do they truly entwine for a few precious days of shared memories, and when new ones are made to be stored away, like the decorations, and brought out occasionally for delightful reminisces. That is the price we all pay for a nomadic existence. And whilst I might think ruefully, and with a smidgeon of envy, of families who each year gather around the same Christmas tree in the same house in the same town, I know that is not our family.

We are global nomads. Each married to or with a partner from another country. We live in three different countries and as different cultural mores are navigated, with some becoming amalgamated into our own family culture, I reflect on the differences. But more importantly I reflect on the shared values. 

Because as Three Kings’ Day draws to an end, my melancholy vanishes and I have my own epiphany. It doesn’t matter where we live, or who we live with, or what language we speak. What matters is that when we do share time together, whether in reality or the virtual world of FaceTime, we are a family despite the miles between us.

Bedposts!

July 18, 2018 — Leave a comment

Bedposts, chewing gum and Singapore

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