Bedposts, chewing gum and Singapore
Archives For Caribbean
Prunus avium are those delicious sweet cherries that show up in our grocery stores in about July. There are many varieties of which the leader is Bing, so named over a 100 years ago by an Oregon grower for one of his Chinese workmen. Prunus cerasus, is the name given to the tart or sour cherry, the most widely known being the Montmorency.
Now this might surprise you but cherries do not grow in the US Virgin Islands. Whatever the type, they prefer the northern climes of continental USA, Turkey, Chile and the southern states of Australia.
But we do have on our lovely island of St Croix a cadre of tart and sour individuals who seem to think that human rights can be divided into different categories and that one is able to cherry pick which to support and which to denigrate.
June is Gay Pride month. Sadly homophobia is alive and kicking in many parts of the Caribbean though hope is on the horizon when places like Cuba, closed so long to modernity, is proud to have held for the last four years a Day Against Homophobia, spearheaded by Mariela Castro, the daughter of former President Raúl Castro. Puerto Rico and Curaçao are also proud to hold parades supporting Gay Pride.
Yesterday it was St Croix’s turn to be rainbow proud. A first for this island which, on the whole, tends to delight in its diversity. But the Pride Parade could easily have been soured by the vitriol emitted, anonymously of course, across social media. I am not going to give print space to the crassness of comments, though a couple were almost humorous in their stupidity. But there was one circulating on the ubiquitous FaceBook calling for violence against any and all taking part or supporting the Parade.
It was serious enough to involve the FBI, with the St Croix Police Chief, Winsbut McFarlande being heard on various radio shows in the days leading up to the Pride Parade, assuring listeners that the organizers had the requisite permits and that, “The police department will do all within its resources to monitor and attempt to minimize the threat.”
And they did. There was a strong, polite and friendly police presence. There had been an attempt to block the parade route with debris, probably left over from the hurricanes which did their best to destroy the island last year, but all was cleared by the time the marchers made their colourful way along the seafront at Frederiksted to Dorsch Beach. Rainbow flags were vivid against the cerulean waters and all that was needed to complete the postcard was a rainbow in the sky.
There was a mingling of signs. Repent of your Sins and you will be Forgiven waved next to Love is Love! One has to wonder what is sinful about loving someone, anyone. There was though an upbeat and friendly mood with little actual engagement from those picketing. I wondered whether indeed they were becoming bemused at the mingling of gay and straight. Perhaps the tee-shirt proclaiming, I Can’t Even Think Straight added to their Cruzan confusion.
I am not gay but count amongst my friends from around the world, some who are. By the same token I have never had to face the dreadful dilemma about whether to proceed with an abortion. I have friends who have. I have never been racially profiled despite having spent much of my life in Africa and Asia, unless you count comments called from market vendors along the lines of “Hola, Blanca….” or a shakedown from a policeman who hasn’t been paid for months. I consider myself fortunate to have friends of all colours and creeds – not because they are all colours and creeds but because they are good company and have proven their friendship over years and continents, as I hope I have to them.
Because ‘human rights’ should be across the board. If they are not, the early work of suffragettes has been in vain. If they are not, then the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa and desegregation in the United States has been in vain. Or the death of Harvey Milk and the Stonewall riots. If they are not, then the work of people like Maryan Abdulle Hassan, a 26-old-Somalian woman fighting female genital mutilation is irrelevant.
Or people like Audre Lorde – who championed the rights of gay, black women and who spent her last years on St Croix and helped found, along with Gloria I Joseph, The St Croix Women’s Coalition.
So when I read a post written by someone, without even the courage to use his or her own name, urging others to wield AK-47s and shoot those holding rainbow flags and marching peacefully, and joyfully, it really pisses me off. It makes me go out in the hot sun and proudly join the parade.
LGBTQ rights, women’s right, every variation of colour rights – they all matter because they are human rights. 100 years ago that Oregon farmer named a sweet cherry after his Chinese cherry picker. Let’s lessen the prunus cerasus variety on St Croix and remember human rights are not up for cherry picking.
There are websites galore devoted to the expatriate life and how to make the most of it. How to choose the right school. How to recreate oneself as an accompanying spouse. How to make friends in a foreign land. How to have a baby overseas – that one always makes smile. I believe the answer is the same anywhere in the world – you push.
Living a life abroad is not difficult. And as the world shrinks with the ease of travel and the omnipresence of the internet it has without doubt become easier. In some ways though the very ease of communication and the ability to see films and TV shows from any country, has created a belief that we are one giant homogenous world with little separating us – a sort of Bollywood comes to Hollywood. And that can lead to unrealistic expectations, to a lack of cultural awareness, a lack of willingness to accept and, mostly, embrace our differences.
It is a privilege to be invited to share in someone else’s customs and traditions. To travel, and to spend significant time in another country encourages us to become more compassionate, more open to inevitable differences, to understand that there is no single way to do many things. It is also too easy to forget issues that may arise whilst living in a foreign country might well have arisen when living in the village of one’s birth, surrounded by family. It is easy to blame external factors for internal problems though like everything there are exceptions.
I think a global perspective helps make us more accepting and in some ways kinder.
What travel most certainly does is introduce new words and phrases into our lexicon that are used without thought in our daily speech, without remembering those to whom we are speaking might be utterly confused.
My 60th birthday was shared with seven girlfriends with whom I have celebrated for over ten years and who, last week, flew in to St Croix from mainland USA and Britain. Sitting on the gallery one evening I looked at these wonderful women who I had met around the world and wondered how many countries had been lived in. A quick tally was 24 countries, and that wasn’t counting overlaps where some of us had lived in the same country. Had we included those the total would have been 42.
Not surprisingly those multiple countries and languages have spawned many phrases in our personal dictionaries. Growing up in Malaysia the word cukup and tidak were daily admonitions from, it sometimes seemed, most adults in my life. Meaning “enough” and “no”. Makan siap called us to the table – the bahasa melayu equivalent of “grub’s up”. Papua New Guinea added em tasol and means “that’s all”. Genoeg and tot ziens came from Holland, another “enough”, and “see you later”. My children, raised initially in Thailand, were quick to learn mai pen rai – “it doesn’t matter”.
But the phrase I had completely forgotten from my childhood was huggery buggery!
I had left the house early to go and prepare the table at Cafe Christine’s for 14 lovely ladies joining me for lunch. Unbeknownst to me, those staying with me had plans to decorate the house in my absence. (I later understood why everyone kept asking me “when are you going?”, or “what time do you want us there?” I had also been mildly surprised to note my Cruzan friends, who often work to a Caribbean clock, arrived on time and my houseguests all late.)
But back to huggery buggery.
Apparently whilst hustling to decorate the house with all manner of glitzy banners, streamers and balloons proclaiming my advanced age, my multi-lingual pals were searching for sellotape.
“Well she must have a huggery-buggery drawer somewhere!” said Trish, continuing to pull open cupboard doors and tug recalcitrant drawers swollen by humidity.
“What?” The query came from five women.
“The huggery buggery drawer. You know, bits and bobs, odds and ends. Everyone has one.”
Relating this to me later over yet more bubbles, I laughed. It was a phrase used by my paternal grandmother and my father, learned from their days in India. Sometimes it is best not look too deeply into the etymology of a word but goodness it is descriptive. And whilst Trish has never lived in India, she learnt it from an Indian ayah whilst living in Dubai.
Writing this blog brought to mind the teenage glee with which a friend and I, then living in Papua New Guinea, would call her dog to heel. Her travel history included South Africa and her amusingly non-pc parents had named the mutt who appeared one day at their door, Voetsek. Voetsek in Afrikaans is a not terribly polite way of saying, “get lost”.
And so along with kindness comes humour. Two things necessary wherever we live but which is sometimes needed in larger doses when living a global life. Some of the things we build into big events or issues are really very unimportant in the greater scheme of life, and we need a take a kecil out of the huggery-buggery drawer and learn to realize that for most things, mai pen rai!
Now I wonder if there’s an expat website for that!
Note: I’ve just been told that huggery-muggery is listed in a 1700 Scottish dictionary so it seems India borrowed and adapted from the Scots!
‘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!
The generator rumbles, day and night, across the street from the Department of Education – even yesterday on that most sacred of American days – Thanksgiving. I recognise how lucky I am to have the luxury of electricity, and I recognise how truly fortunate I am not to have to deal with a roofless house and all that entails – a life blown or washed away.
And so I “mustn’t grumble”.
That is arguably one of the most British of British understatements. Our world may be caving in but really there’s nothing about which to complain. A quick search brought up Chas and Dave, Eric Idle in The Life of Brian, and Terry Wogan’s autobiography. I can’t help feeling it’s a phrase that’s been around a lot longer than either Chas, Dave, Eric or Terry.
But those are the words which aptly describe many on St Croix. They have been devastated by a category five hurricane, Mad Maria, skimming the south shore two months ago and the majority of people when asked how they fared, respond with variations of “mustn’t grumble”. Dig a little deeper and you will find some living under a blue tarpaulin – signifying FEMA have stepped in and provided covering against the capricious elements. Or windows were sucked out, or blown in, in a terrifying eddy of angry winds – either from the hurricane itself or a tornado it spawned. Or “dat big ole tree, it jus’ felled down” – enquire further and you are liable to find it landed across a home, or the track leading to a home, or maybe it came to rest on a car.
But hey, Jemima or Cyril or Sarah, well they had it worse, so mustn’t grumble.
I bumped into a professor I know – we were both looking for anti-mould remedies or batteries or any of the myriad items shelved in The ‘ome De, that well known d-i-y store where employees where orange pinnies and which also took a battering, and whilst the roof might have been repaired the signage has not – anyway, she, the professor, proudly told me when I enquired about the state of the University of the Virgin Islands, that they were up and running two weeks after the storm. She added it might have been a bit chaotic – but mustn’t grumble.
A number of schools have been deemed unsafe and so the Complex, one of the high schools on the island, has juggled its timetable to accommodate not one but two other schools – an elementary and a junior high. The high schoolers are released from academic bondage at midday and the younger students stream in for the afternoon session. It must have been an educational nightmare to reorganize three schools into one, but mustn’t grumble, others have it worse.
Not only was hurricane debris strewn across roads – huge old mahogany trees rudely uprooted, galvanized tin flung from roofs, siding cartwheeling across fields and through gardens – but electricity poles tumbled too. Power lines whipped around in the wind before subsiding into tangled coils or snaked across buildings and roads, making the latter impassable for fear of a jolt. Some poles were felled to splinter in jagged abandon against a branch, or landed in a trampoline parody on a strand of cable still hanging. Adding insult to injury a sink hole appeared on the road linking Christiansted along the north shore to the East End of the island. The road on the south side was impassable in most places because of the aforementioned power lines.
A combination of no power for over two months – some lost it when that bitch Hurricane Irma sped north of St Croix the week before Maria hit – no water because, as you know, power is needed to pump water unless you have a handy ass or ox nearby to walk around and around in circles to draw it up from a well, no means of transport in some cases because a car has been damaged or because there is nowhere safe to go and, immediately after the storm, a curfew only lifted for four hours each day, not to mention a hospital badly damaged with many medi-vaced to the mainland, and I think most would agree there is a hell of a lot to grumble about.
But Crucians, and imports, are hardy folk. They focus on what can be done. They praise and celebrate the arrival of linemen (I’m sure some of them are from Wichita) who are valiantly assisting local crews with power restoration. They have elevated Tim Duncan, a local boy, and latterly of San Antonio Spurs fame (basketball for those not from the US) to near sainthood for his immeasurable help in raising funds, and then having the grace to actually come home numerous times to help distribute water, care packages, batteries and so on, rather than tossing a kitchen roll as our president was filmed doing.
There are stories of local generosity too. A local veterinarian, Kasey Canton, shipped and distributed generators from the mainland. A brother and sister duo, the Ridgeways, have raised money in a GoFundMe campaign and dispensed needed supplies through their new organization VI-R3 (Relief, Recover, Rebuild), and there are countless other tales of magnanimous deeds.
And so as I grind my teeth at the incessant rumble of the generator I remind myself, and reflect that whilst the phrase may be British those on St Croix have earned the right to use it, I really mustn’t grumble and in the immortal words of Eric Idle, ‘always look on the bright side of life’!
Here we are in St Croix! The sea is an ever-changing panoply of brilliant blues and glorious greens and is a ready distraction as I glance from my study window. I’ve just watched the ferry depart – it’s rather odd four-hulled shape making smooth headway across the channel to St Thomas. It is a constant on an island that has few constants at the moment after first Hurricane Irma skipped to the north, followed a week later by Hurricane Maria who skimmed the southern shores creating merry hell.
Power being the least constant of them all. Most of St Croix is still powerless though the hordes of beefy-looking linemen from the mainland, and our own crews, are steadily making their way across the island installing new poles and lines. March, or at the latest April, is the month being touted by Governor Mapp – I think that’s called “hedging one’s bets”!
Arriving on Wednesday after relatively stress-free flights considering we travelled with Bonnie, the cat and her partner-in-crime, Clyde, the dog, we were astounded to find we are part of that small percentage who do have light and therefore water. Along with the delight was a momentary pang of guilt – assuaged by offering ‘power and shower’ to people we know who are in need of a top up.
Hurricane Maria stripped the island of vegetation. Stately mahoganies tumbled. Elegant palms may be upright but their waving fronds have fallen or dangle impotently, providing little or no shelter. The genip tree across from our sturdy West Indian home is showing signs of life but until a few days ago was naked – it’s branches skeletal against the ocean backdrop.
But life is to be found. In our house it is in the crevices of old brick walls, or sending tendrils across walls and furniture, or in the fridge.
Moths emerge on a minute-by-minute basis. They had taken up residence in the pantry, managing to invade tightly sealed packaging to leave mounds of sawdust on the shelves. Bleaching and repainting have helped but still they flutter out to be met by a barrage of Raid.
Mould is an unsightly web of varicose veins across walls covered with anti-fungal paint, and wood furniture polished with wax. Diluted vinegar has been sluiced over every surface, left to dry, rinsed and then sprayed with eucalyptus anti-mould magic. We’ll see.
And maggots inhabit every nook and cranny of the fridge and freezer. The saving grace. Power came on the day before our arrival and so instead of a seething mass of blancmange-like grubs there is a bucketful of dried oat-like particles coating every surface and deep within the fridge’s innards. I will never look at muesli the same way again.
Drawers, rails, the ice-maker, and various screws, bolts and important parts line the gallery catching every skerrick of sunshine as vinegar and lemon do their part in eliminating odours. I have a minor concern that there will be one vital part missing when the fridge is reassembled, and I believe it is an unacknowledged concern of the man who will be putting it back together. It has been a back-breaking endeavour and why, I have been told, my husband never went into the plumbing business. A tall man in a confined space is not a pleasant work environment. We have spritzed, we have poured, we have scrubbed, we have dug into every possible fissure with toothpicks in order to rid our cooling device of it’s unwelcome, though thankfully dead, visitors. Baking soda and a constantly rotating fan are now doing their job and one day, soon, we will have a functioning fridge.
There are many small jobs which need attention. Shingles have been rudely cast aside by Maria’s wrath exposing the inner structure of our home. A few shutters now swing forlornly on broken hinges in the intermittent trade winds but the windows held true as did the roof, hurricane clipped at every conceivable point. An enterprise I, at one time, considered excessive but for which I am now grateful.
But we have it easy. Blue tarpaulins dot the landscape in FEMA’s effort to keep the daily squalls out. Many have lost much. Piles of debris litter the road sides – mostly organic but sofas, mattresses and televisions are seen in some areas. There is a recycling centre but it is overwhelmed – it’s dumpsters out and about around the island trying to corral the odiferous detritus left in Maria’s wake.
Frederiksted, on the western end of St Croix, took the brunt of the hurricane as she spumed her way to Puerto Rico where she inflicted even greater damage and hardship. This end of the Caribbean chain has been hard hit this year so we are receiving cruise ships who normally shun us. St Thomas, Tortola and many other regular cruising destinations are unable to host great numbers of tourists and so St Croix is grateful to be able to receive them – albeit offering limited delights but each day is better than the last, and the spirit of resilience is ever present.
These islands need tourism, and to those who have made plans to visit, or are considering a Caribbean adventure, please come. All are welcome. But please be patient if your credit card does not immediately work, or cell phone reception is patchy, or if the power fluctuates – this is what islanders have been managing for many weeks, and in some instances will be coping with for months to come.
Moths, maggots and mould are easily dealt with and do not dampen the warmth and friendliness of the Caribbean, and remember it is always about the people.
This is a story about a woman who lived on a rock in the Caribbean 130 years ago when the US Virgin Islands were under the Danish crown, and the dannebrog flew proudly from the flagpole at Fort Christiansvaern. Her name was Anna Clausen, and she was born on St Croix on a sugar plantation called Anna’s Fancy, so named for her maternal grandmother, the first Anna.
Our Anna, at age sixteen, was taken by her mother to England after the devastating hurricane of 1867, when the tidal surge on the western tip of the island had been so huge, the American warship Monongahela had been thrown ashore at Frederiksted. The storm had been the final straw for Anna’s mother, who was determined her daughter have the opportunity of a ‘good’ marriage, and the benefit of cultural activities that, to her mind, only London could provide.
Anna lived, unhappily, in London for ten years until after the death of her mother she returned to the island she loved. Her father, who had remained on St Croix, was ailing and alone after the death of her brother the previous year. Ivy, a girl from the East End of London accompanied Anna, filling both the role of lady’s maid and chaperone.
The homecoming was not as she had imagined, and the great house of Anna’s childhood was no longer the imposing, air and colour-filled home of her memories. Emiline, a surly woman was now the sole servant and was resentful of the young mistress and, more particularly, her white maid. “Chuh! I tell she, soon as, me not de maid. Me de housekeeper,” she mutters as makes up a bed for Anna.
Fireburn, the name of this story, tells of Anna’s struggle to keep the plantation afloat, with the help of Sampson, the foreman. It tells of a turbulent time on the island, with worker discontent high at the lack of progress in conditions since emancipation 30 years earlier, and which culminates in ‘fireburn’, the event in which Frederiksted was burnt to the ground. The rebellion, also known as The Great Trashing, stoked by women who became known as ‘the queens’, was brutally quashed with ringleaders executed or jailed, and the women sent to prison in Copenhagen.
Our heroine, Anna, faces personal heartache but with the support of servants whose trust she has won, both in the great house and in the fields, she becomes the chatelaine of a prosperous estate. Willing to take chances and challenge the conventions of the day.
At the core of Fireburn, the novel, is the resilience and determination of those who call Anna’s Fancy and St Croix home to weather any and all storms, both natural and man-made. To rebuild. To adapt. To strengthen.
In effect exactly what so much of the Caribbean is doing right now, after the wrath of both Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The islands will recover from the aftermath of these violent storms, they will prosper again. Their natural beauty and the overt friendliness of the islands will draw tourists, and their much-needed money, to choose to recharge on the pristine beaches, swim and dive in the vivid seas which filter through aquamarine to indigo to emerald, to sip rum – the staple upon which many of the islands first found prosperity – and to marvel at the resilient buoyancy of those who call these islands home.
Just as fictional Anna did.
The Caribbean and her people are, despite what is tossed their way, Island Strong!