Archives For St Croix USVI

At the End of the Day

April 23, 2017 — 2 Comments

Clouds drifted through the sinking rays shimmering through palm fronds and across the bay. A magical end to an interesting day. I was sitting at the corner of a long bar at a pink hotel, my elbows resting on the brass rail held to the counter by ornate elephant heads. It was crowded and from the murmur around me I gleaned a plane load of tourists had recently arrived.

We like visitors on St Croix. Mostly. If they enjoy and respect this beguiling island which has so much to offer. We like them to help prop up the economy. Buy rum. Buy the famous hook bracelet, or the many variations thereof. Revel in the ever-changing colours of the sea as it filters through aquamarine, turquoise, lapis lazuli and occasionally grey when a storm scurries in from Africa. Hike the rain forest or down to the tide pools. Ride the beaches. Immerse themselves in the history of what was the Danish West Indies a hundred years ago.

People are friendly here. No conversation starts without a good morning, a good afternoon, and once the sun goes down – even if it has only just dipped – a good night.
And that was why I was so surprised. I have sat at many bars around the world. When traveling alone it is by far the most interesting place for conversations and the barman, if experienced, keeps an eye out for his solo female patrons.

It was busy but barmen are used to that. If they are good they acknowledge the person waiting – it is the polite thing to do and defuses any possible irritation. Not a nod came my way. I continued to wait and watched, piqued, the two white men dance around each other like mating praying mantis. Arms reaching and cocktails shaking. I listened to the patter of one, an aging Lothario, as he placed a chocolatey concoction in front of an older woman – a grandmother sitting with her granddaughters.

“A Bushwhacker, dear. It’s an adult MacDonald’s shake!”

His manner was unctuous and I expected him to wring his hands any moment, Uriah Heep style. Friends know how much I loathe being called ‘dear’ by anyone, particularly in a restaurant or bar, and even more so by those much younger. Familiarity really does breed contempt for me, though it did not appear to irk the customer. Fortunately I was served by the other barman, harried and not being particularly helped by his older cohort, he did apologise for the delay and promptly poured my wine.

My acquaintances arrived – we met at the VI Literary Festival and I had agreed to join them for a sundowner at their hotel. To some we may have appeared a motley crew: a white woman with an English accent – me; an African American writer from the mainland with numerous books and accolades to her name; a black man from Antigua known throughout the Caribbean for his calypsos; and a swarthy, though attractive, young man originally from Leamington Spa, England but sounding American, and who is a respected editor and publisher from New York.

I turned my barstool as more drinks were ordered and we formed a tight group. Banter and laughter were interrupted as a hotel guest, a white man of retirement age, pushed past us. With not a word of apology to our young companion whose rum he split, not once but twice, the tourist leant against me and signaled the barman.

Edging away, and about to admonish this rudeness, I caught the eye of my Middle Eastern-looking companion with an Arabic name, who shook his head. I learnt later that there had been a similar incident with the same man at the breakfast bar that morning, where words had been exchanged. I also learnt this erudite professional was regularly hauled out of lines and subjected to unpleasant grillings in airless little rooms at airports around the world.

The jostling of an ignorant man led to a discussion about the assumptions we all make. My writer acquaintance, invited to St Croix to be a speaker by the VI Literary Festival, commented on the whiteness of the pink establishment in which she was a guest. The Antiguan shrugged it off with a flashing, toothy laugh and the words, “Tourists are like that everywhere.” Perhaps lyrics will be borne from our conversation.

I wonder, as I sit at my desk and these new friends fly back to their homes, what sort of impression they have of this island I love. I hope it is positive because the pink hotel and its guests, were not a good indication of the friendliness of St Croix.

And I wonder why some people travel if they are unable to be polite and pleasant to fellow travellers, and I can only presume their hosts. But, at the end of the day, maybe I’m the one now making assumptions.

It was a good day. An easterly breeze ruffled whitecaps offshore and flowery hats onshore as men, women and a smattering of children watched marching bands and majorettes parade past the bedecked dais filled with local and international worthies.

Expectation hovered. Said dignitaries made their way to a large marquee under which islanders, long-time residents, newbies like me, tourists and a contingent of Danish visitors wafted programs back and forth moving air along the rows.

Would Denmark apologise for past indignities? For the human tragedy of the transatlantic slave trade? Would the mainland listen to entreaties by islanders for full US citizenship allowed a vote in presidential elections?

Chatter along the lines was hopeful. Cheerful. Who doesn’t like a parade, the promise of promises – even if they are later unfulfilled, the anticipation of revelry, jazz and fireworks? Meanwhile steel pans from a local elementary school and the Copenhagen Brass Ensemble took turns in keeping the masses entertained.

A wreath was floated off the Boardwalk in memory of ancestors and, in particular, Alberta Viola Roberts, a girl taken from her family and transported to Copenhagen at the age of four to be displayed in the Tivoli Gardens – an oddity to be ogled. As fate would have it, she was buried in that cold and distant land on 31st March, 1917 – the day Denmark sold the Danish West Indies to the United States of America for 25 million dollars in gold.

The brass band struck up Der er et Yndigtland and voices from the Danish contingent proudly sang their national anthem as the dannebrog slid down Fort Christiansvaern’s flagpole to be replaced by the fluttering Stars and Stripes. Then came the Star Spangled Banner, followed by the Virgin Islands March, written by Alton Adams in 1920. The lyrics, All hail the Virgin Islands, Em’ralds of the sea, filtering around the tent in a swirl of pride, and hope.

An invocation, then opening remarks by Sonia Jacobs Dow who commented that islanders were citizens of nowhere from 1917 – 1927 when the newly-acquired islands were under naval administration. We were exhorted to remember “blood, sweat and tears are inextricably mixed in this soil” and that, “this celebration is more than a moment”.

Each year, on Transfer Day, the proceedings are interspersed with a naturalization ceremony when new citizens swear allegiance to their new country. This year 20 men and women from eight countries became Americans to the sound of children’s laughter as they rolled down the slope from the fort – their frivolity lending an air of joyful abandon to the occasion. Further proof the US is founded on the willingness of foreigners to renounce their birth countries and apply their skills to enriching their new country.

After the temporary court was adjourned, politicians returned to the lectern. The Honorable Stacey E Plaskett carried on the theme of disenfranchisement, commenting that whilst the purchase of the Danish West Indies was the most costly land purchase in US history, no providence was made for the islanders in the document – ensuring they became essentially “a marooned people”.

Then came the speech of the day – spoken eloquently in a language not his own – by the Danish Prime Minister, The Honorable Lars Løkke Rasmussen. He began by saying a special bond of friendship existed between the Virgin Islands and Denmark, “a touch of common destiny that time cannot erase.”

While not apologizing for bygone atrocities, Prime Minister Rasmussen did acknowledge them saying, “There is no justification for the exploitation of men, women and children under the Danish flag.” He said the term ‘dreamer’ as David Hamilton Jackson was called by a Danish governor was in all likelihood meant as an insult, but that in today’s world it would considered an honour. We were reminded, “We must acknowledge what happened in the past but we can’t undo the past – what we can do is look to the future.”

It was a smooth transition to the announcement of a 5-year scholarship program to be given at the University of the Virgin Islands. It is students who “must take destiny into their own hands,” Rasmussen said.

The Prime Ministers’s words were in stark contrast, both in content and delivery, to those uttered by the senior US representative, Secretary of The Interior Ryan Zinke. His vacuous introduction to a letter from President Trump was a disgrace, made even worse by platitudes in the letter from the head of the free world. One got the impression the letter was a cut-and-paste job – you know the type, insert state and date, and sign here please, Mr President. No credence was given to the concerns of Virgin Islanders – that of full-voting rights for citizens. An unctuous attempt to appease the USVI, America’s Caribbean, without offering even a modicum of hope for improvement.

Kenneth E Mapp, Governor of the Virgin Islands, rounded out the official celebrations by commenting that, “Living in the past has little value on our future. But knowing our past is important to our future.”

Black limousines drove dignitaries away – the program to be repeated on St Thomas at 2pm. Meanwhile on St Croix the crowds dispersed along the Boardwalk, back to cars parked haphazardly on our street, or to local watering holes. To reconvene as the sun set in a tickle of pink and mauve over masts bobbing in Christiansted harbour, and the sounds of Eddie Russell and his jazz band.

And then the boom, the hiss, the thrill of the sky dissolving in a shower of sparkling colours as fireworks saluted 100 years of being American!

Finding the IRS

February 14, 2017 — 5 Comments

As an inveterate browser of all things decorative, I was thrilled to find an ornately carved teak door, partially hidden by statuettes of worthy Asian deities. I am particularly drawn to all things Oriental, having spent a large part of my life in South East Asia. Including the frame, the door measured ten feet high and five feet wide. This I know because an arsenal of facts would be required if I were to persuade my long-suffering husband these doors were indeed entirely necessary to our future.

I was rebuffed with the words, “But, love, we don’t even know what country we will retire to, and we are not going to buy a house to fit around some doors.” I have never forgotten those doors and, more importantly, the questions they raised. His words were the start of an intense search. Finding the IRS…. the Ideal Retirement Spot.

My life has been nomadic since birth – countries as diverse as Papua New Guinea and the Netherlands have been home. My husband started his global wanderings when 23 and, whilst enjoying returning to England to visit family and friends, did not envisage returning to that green and pleasant land. Pubs, cricket and rugby notwithstanding.

Contrary to popular belief, a peripatetic life does not make the search for the IRS easier.

After spending holidays as a teenager with my parents in Provence, on the outskirts of villages with names like Draguignan and Mougins, I had romantic notions of finally mastering French and spending our leisure years sipping rosé by day and cognac by night. But the area had become expensive and not quite as inviting as my childhood memories.

An intense affair with most things Italian, including grappa, sent me scurrying to the Tuscan and Umbrian hills. Palominos gave an equine serenity as they merged into sizzling summer landscapes, reminiscent of an Impressionist painting. Hungry hogs, foraging in the undergrowth as fireflies came out to play, added an element of danger. Remote villas as old as time. Villages perched on hilltops, narrow doorways tempting us into darkened interiors offering culinary delights – pecorino, salami and vino; cafés spilling onto Fiat-wide streets with the ever-lyrical sound of Italian – what more could we want? Less laments! Utterances, from those expatriates already living la dolce vita, about the lack of a favoured cereal or the slowness of service – so different to home.

Living for a time in a small, despotic, sub-Saharan West African country honed our Spanish. How about Spain? High up in the hills behind Malaga, away from beer-bellied Brits thronging the malecons along the Costa Brava. A vineyard, perhaps? An olive farm? The idea of producing our own appealed to my taste buds. Following garbled instructions along remote lanes, ditches on either side ready to swallow the unwary driver, we viewed several – both grape and olive groves.

And then it hit us. What would we do once we’d trodden those grapes or picked those olives? Did we want to spend our retirement working the land – something neither of us had every done. We appreciate the countryside but really we are water people. A babbling brook would not be enough. Who would we socialise with? Driving half an hour along rutted roads for the daily paper, a cafe con leche or a glass of wine in the local hosteleria, and driving back, held little appeal and would not allow for easy integration.

Our focus changed. Perhaps we needed to consider towns. Barcelona and Tarragona appealed, but prices didn’t. And then we lost our way again. How about living on the beach? Grenada? Beautiful, friendly, too difficult to navigate, too far. Belize? Barrier islands seemed risky when considering the possibility of hurricanes. Let’s try on the mainland. How about Corozal? Jaguars and jacaranda ticked environmental boxes, but difficulty in obtaining basic necessities – fresh produce, cheese, good bread, wine – put us off.

Baja California was next. Not the more usual Cabo san Lucas, but what about the capital of the province, La Paz? A charming old town with a Friday night parade of cars driven by love-lorn Lotharios, looking for the girl-of-their-dreams tossing coquettish smiles as they sauntered along the palm-fringed malecon. Affordable. A good produce market. Interesting history. The sea on our doorstep. But. That intangible but. It didn’t feel right. We were forcing the issue.

Subdued, I returned to Houston to pout and ponder. For a number of years. I gave up house hunting around the world, and concentrated on writing. Until one rainy Sunday afternoon, a golf tournament on the television keeping my husband engrossed and me less than, I restarted the search for the IRS. Trolling through websites in lesser known Caribbean islands, I came across a West Indian house in dire need of love.

“Look,” I said, blocking my husband’s view of the 16th hole. “What about this? It’s in town. We loved the island. Easy to get to. And it’s American, so our investment would be safe.”

“We haven’t been there for thirty years,” he reminded me. “There’s a reason for not showing photos of the bathrooms. And the kitchen looks as if its made of balsa wood.”

“Look at the views. Ignore the clutter, the bones are good. It just needs attention.”

“Interesting, I suppose,” he said, his eyes straying back to the 17th hole. “Why don’t you go and have a look?”

Three days later I landed on the island of St Croix, USVI. I came, I saw, I bought. It felt right – the IRSview-of-the-bvi

Marching On….

January 27, 2017 — 2 Comments

Saturday, 21st January 2017 marked the first time I deliberately marched for a cause.

In my facile youth I was known to occasionally tag along behind a group of noisemakers marching – just for the hell of it! I was never in the right place for demonstrations against the bomb, or for women’s lib. I was invariably in some far flung land where concerns were of a more local, more prosaic, nature. Whether school kids had knickers, or shoes, or pencils – or were even able to get to a school, for example.

So I was excited to be involved in a march that pulled many different factions together – women, the LGBT community, racial equality, religious freedom, the disabled and so on – under the umbrella of Women’s Rights are Human Rights. Something that, in America today, is being challenged.

All three islands proudly participated – St Thomas, St John and St Croix – they are after all part of the United States. But it wasn’t just an American movement. Friends marched in Sydney. My sister marched in London. Countless unknown men, women and children marched around the world. It was an incredible global event.

I was on St Croix, the Big Island of the US Virgin Islands. The march was pulled together in two weeks, thanks to the unflagging energy of a few people. Permits were obtained. Government house engaged. A police escort promised. Banners made, posters painted, flyers distributed. Social media running. Radio spots. The press invited. It was a band of hard working women – some of whom fitted the meetings in between grown-up jobs and familial commitments. It was also fun. With banter amidst the serious concerns that prompted the march in the first place.

When I was asked to speak at the rally I had some misgivings, and voiced them. Who was I to talk? A relative newcomer to the island, not yet even full time, and white to boot. I was asked to prepare something for the first meeting I attended. Having heard what I intended to say, it was decided to include me in the program. I was indeed honoured, and humbled. This is a shortened version of what I said:

“I am a fairly new citizen – I swore allegiance to the flag in 2010. I say quite deliberately to the flag because I did not swear allegiance to whoever happened to be living in the White House. I fully accept there will be times, such as now, when I might not be entirely on board with the inhabitant of that rather grand building, and that’s okay. That’s democracy.

But let me tell you a little about how I came to be here, in St Croix. I’m never quite sure – whether it’s in or on. We have searched for many years, in many parts of the world, for somewhere we could call home – permanently. St Croix is our choice – because of her diversity and acceptance of others not bahn here, her natural beauty, and her openness of spirit.

I have been fortunate to live in many countries – 12 of them. As diverse as Papua New Guinea and Holland, or Equatorial Guinea and Malaysia. And many others. It is only natural to like some places more than others but all countries have one powerful thing in common. Us. Women. The often quiet voice.

But we women, when riled and no matter what cultural lens we are viewed through, are a force to be reckoned with. And women supporting women, no matter from which walk of life, are the mainstay of the family and therefore the community. Now don’t get me wrong. I like men. I’ve been married to a chap for nearly 40 years, and I really like him.

No, what I mean is that women are often the best advocates for women. Time and again NGOs, governments, educators have proven that educating girls and getting women involved in community affairs, by offering women low-interest payment loans, by helping them set up home-based industries, women are the ones hauling their families out of poverty.

And let’s be honest, women tend to be the ones shooing their children out the door to get to school on time, to get to church on time, encouraging growth not just through book learning but through the arts and sport, as well as preserving our oral history and handing down age-old traditional skills.

Despite stereo-types portraying us as back-stabbing bitches or strident feminists, most of us are reasonable people who just want what’s best for our families. We are only driven to marches, such as this, by the unreasonableness of people who presume to know our minds, our concerns, our rights, and who show scant regard for our particular issues – both moral and tangible.

Women’s rights are human rights. That’s what the flyers and placards say. Whether the right to make decisions about our bodies, and our children’s welfare – we should be listened to. Because without the support of women, communities will suffer. We the People, men, women and children, will suffer.

Women’s rights are human rights – that’s why we are here today, and that’s why we shall not be silenced!”

As the euphoria of the march dims, and as decisions are made about moving forward, I think it is important to remember why we marched, irrespective of colour, creed, race, ability or disability, or sexual orientation.

I marched, for the first time, because I believe in the power of women’s voices. Let’s not forget, as those from the island I have chosen as my permanent home would say, “All ah we in Solidarity!”

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”!

Distance Perceived

October 4, 2016 — 1 Comment

Distance has never been an object.

Sharing the back seat of a station wagon with Cottage, a dog of varied parentage, was the norm. None of the occupants wore seat belts, and cigarette smoke curlicued around the interior before finding its way out the open windows. The roads we travelled were mainly dirt and emerging many hours later at either a rest house or our destination, we must often have looked like the Asaro mudmen of the Papua New Guinea highlands. We were though in Nigeria.

My father always took the pre-dawn shift behind the wheel and would last until sun up when my mother, a hardy Australian, would take over and drive the majority of the trip. We sang – I’m pretty sure some songs would not be considered suitable for a little girl – songs from the hill stations of India where my father had been stationed prior to Partition in 1947. One still floats into my head when I’m in the car sometimes. The chorus ends with the stirring words “Queen Victoria very fine man” – which rather dates it. The back seat of that car, and others in my childhood, is where I also learnt Australian ballads – Waltzing Mathilda and The Wild Colonial Boy are two I remember.

Singing passed the time. It was difficult to gauge, even for my parents, just how far we travelled unless close attention was paid to the odometer. Mile signs were non-existent. Instead directions were given by poles. Eighteen poles to the dead tree with a crooked branch. Seven poles to the hut with a broken door. And so on. All very well, but it took a certain amount of concentration to count telegraph poles, spaced randomly, along a dusty road. It was on those interminable journeys to Kano, or Jos, or Enugu that I learnt to count – poles, camels, goats.

The trip would be broken up with coffee, warm juice and sandwich breaks, often on the outskirts of a village so we could refill water bottles from the standpipe. The car would be surrounded by children and I would have new friends to play with for fifteen minutes or so before we piled back into the car and continued on. Distance was no object.

A few years later and on the other side of the world, we relocated from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. Two dogs and a cat were also be transported. We had two cars by then and my father opted to take the cat, a decision he bitterly regretted a couple of miles into the, in those days, seven hour trip. Pusscat yowled the entire time. It was a toss up as to who was more stressed on arrival at our new, temporary, home – I do remember Dad pouring whisky from his hip flask not long after unpacking the cars. Many other road trips followed up and down the Malay peninsula. Dodging vast lorries hauling logs, we drove through lines of regimented rubber trees or jungle so thick the possibility of carving a way through it seemed inconceivable – visiting places my parents had lived during their courting days in the 1950s, during the euphemistically called Malay Emergency.

Then Australia and boarding school. Vast distances travelled for half-terms and holidays when I did not return to whichever country was currently home. We thought nothing of driving a hundred miles for a woolshed party and be home for breakfast. Roos and emus waking those of us slumbering in the back seat.

Papua New Guinea was my next stop. Ahh, youth! My boyfriend and I would leave Lae, on the Huon Gulf on Saturday to drive along the world’s most uncomfortable road – miles and miles of corrugated dirt which rattled the teeth and nerves. Lalang grass threatening the shred any unwary arm hanging out of a window. Air conditioning was not a luxury we had.
Our reward would be breakfast of coffee and egg and bacon sandwiches at the Kassam Pass – if they hadn’t been forgotten on the kitchen counter. Views stretching to the edge of the world before we advanced through Chimbu territory. Many Chimbu are delightful but I would hold my breath hoping we would not break down amongst these stocky, tough men wearing little more than an arse-grass, a penis sheath and carrying a spear. We’d arrive in Mount Hagen or Mendi in time for a party and drive ten hours back the next day in time for work on Monday morning. We were young, and distance was no object.

Based in The Netherlands, we criss-crossed Europe either in a not always reliable, shamrock green VW Variant named Murphy, or by train. A few more countries in between, wherein we continued our road tripping with our own children in the back seat – belted in of course – and we found ourselves in Texas. It takes a long time to get out of a state 900 miles wide but Los Angeles, Baja California, Florida Keys called – places not to be ignored.

All adventures which have formed the backbone of our family memories – the songs sung, the games played, the middle-of-the-night stops in strange places. All have continued our theme of ‘distance, who cares?’ And the wonderful thrill of going somewhere.

So why, now I spend a quarter of each year on a 28 mile long island in the Caribbean, do I quibble about driving 15 miles from my home in Christiansted to Frederiksted, nestled on the western shore?

Distance, it’s a funny thing. I guess we fit our perceptions to our surroundings!