Archives For St Croix USVI

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!

Hee-haw – Who’s the Ass?

December 19, 2018 — 7 Comments

I was meant to be wrapping presents, washing windows, winnowing waste and generally preparing for an influx of much-loved visitors over the festive season. But I decided my time would be far better spent going to the races. Not to the dogs, of course.

Music blaring across the grassy expanse guided me to the entrance where I handed over $5 and was welcomed by a gentleman in white tails and top hat. This rather natty attire was somewhat marred by the white shorts but I gave full points for his well-turned calves – wasn’t that how men were judged back in the days of doublets and hose?

It was my first time at donkey races though I consider myself a keen supporter of mutton busting – that popular event at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo wherein small children straddle a sheep and cling to the surprisingly greasy wool in the hopes of staying aboard until the finish line. But I digress, and I am not in Houston.

I am on St Croix, the delightful, beautiful and verdant ‘big’ sister of the US Virgin Islands. 

Donkey racing I have learned was introduced in the 1960s, perhaps to pay homage to the simple ass who was once a common mode of transport. Like most stories from this wonderful island it is rather a convoluted one – we thrive on story telling here so, to copy a rather hideous phrase much in use at the moment, please bear with me a moment while I explain.

Donkey racing was started by a group of gentlemen whose habit it was to mass at a local shop to discuss matters of low, or high, importance of any given day. Politics and politicians are always good fodder for a gossip because we all know we could do better if only they would listen to the people they are meant to represent. Here I go again, off on a tangent – Crucian eloquence must be rubbing off on me. In any event, and I’m not sure of the date, one of aforementioned gentleman, a chap named Minard Jones, decided to open a bar at which his pals could lubricate their vocal chords. This group of snappy dressers marched in a parade – we do love parades here – sometime in the 1950s in top hats and tails, and forever after have been known as Gentlemen of Jones, no doubt in honour of their pal Minard. Over the years these gentlemen have become active in various community events on St Croix, which brings us rather neatly back to the donkey races.

We run at our own special pace on this island – Crucian Time and anyway it was Sunday afternoon, and no one hurries on a Sunday, least of all donkeys. They, the donkeys, were corralled in pens at the base of a gentle slope – surprisingly not a bray amongst them. Clustered around were various people carrying bridles though saddles were not to be seen. My interest perked up. This would be entertaining, and no doubt authentic to their beginnings as a means of getting around back in the day.

First up were the children, six of them in a range of heights with one youngster’s legs dangling almost to the ground. A donkey, unimpressed, reared up sending his rider ignominiously to the turf before the red flag had even dropped but the boy ruled the day and mounted once again. The children were led around the track by volunteer runners, or haulers, depending on the donkeys’ willingness to budge. Some of those astride grabbed the reins, others grabbed the mane, with one tiny tike in a sundress and boots who, once lifted aboard, inched her way over the withers and clung to the bridle itself. Smart move, and as they pelted past, her curls streaming behind her, I could see she was a regular on the donkey circuit. Others were not as graceful on their steeds, slipping around bare bellies until the fortunately soft grass became an inevitable and inelegant end.

Watching lightweights on the backs of animals known for their recalcitrant nature was amusing, if a little nerve-wracking for the mothers I’m sure. Next up though were the men. Six stalwarts prepared to make an ass of themselves. Men ranging in size from slim to not-so-slim provoked a different sentiment. Pity for the donkeys and a sincere hope they found the energy to buck, or at least shake their riders off. The men, being manly, were meant to race holding their own reins but some, after a number of false starts, or no starts at all, were also assisted by the hard-working volunteers. 

It is difficult, I’m sure, to stay atop a donkey uninterested in its rider’s well-being but there is nothing quite like anothers self-imposed discomfort to bring out the best in spectators. So we laughed. It was gratifying when the men slid and slithered to the ground despite iron grips and gritty determination and the crowd had no compunction in cheering the asses on, although I wasn’t entirely sure which set.

I did not stay for the remaining races – the time between each event stretching even my willingness to avoid housework – but a loud hee-haw to the Gentlemen of Jones for donkey races well run!

Tropical Depression

September 7, 2018 — 7 Comments

It’s that time of year. Waves are building. Cabo Verde off the west coast of Africa is often where we start hearing of them forming, but really these potential storms start their trek well before they hit the Atlantic Ocean. Innocuously named ‘invests’ until they garner enough strength to become a tropical storm or a hurricane.

This time last year Hurricane Irma pummeled St Thomas and St John in the US Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands, before continuing on to wreak havoc further along the island chain. People on St Croix, the southernmost of the Virgins, set about sending help to their sister islands. Supplies of tarpaulins, water, foods, baby products, clothes were sent 40 nautical miles north on cabin cruisers and dive boats. Then fourteen days later St Croix was slammed by Hurricane Maria before it too continued on its devastating path to Puerto Rico.

When I am not on St Croix, I am in Houston, Texas. 

Last year Houston was at the mercy of Hurricane Harvey. We were fortunate. Our property, a sturdy Downtown warehouse conversion atop a three foot slab, brushed off the winds with rising waters stopping about eight inches short of the top of said slab. Our cars and those of our neighbours floated on the waters spewing down White Oak Bayou. Rendered useless we were reimbursed promptly by our insurers.

On St Croix we were also fortunate. Our house lost some shingles. A gate was torn from its posts and palms trees denuded of most of their fronds. Power of course was lost. For us, until early November. For much of the island it was a great deal longer. 

But many, almost twelve months later, are still struggling to regain a level of equilibrium following the battering. Power is fully restored to the island and has been for some time, but blue tarps are still visible – and not just from the air. Many are still awaiting monies from insurers, some of whom have been shameful in their reluctance to pay up. Hoops have been jumped through, then jumped through again, and again. Frustration has been high. Tensions brittle.

Through all of it, a strong sense of community has been the saving element in a traumatic event. Neighbours helping neighbours. Strangers helping strangers. There have been thefts and some vandalism from people lacking empathy, and getting through life by making the most others misery. But that kind of person is found around the world, and needs little incentive to do bad. Much has been made of the linemen who came in droves of trucks from the mainland to help restore power. They worked long hours alongside those from the island. Some lived on a cruise ship leased and moored at Frederiksted. Some lived in semi-demolished hotels. Some are still here, though the cruise ship has long gone. They worked hard, in relentless heat with no shade from trees denuded by rude winds, but were also well reimbursed. 

Physically the island is recovering though vistas have opened up because of trees torn from their roots, or houses ripped from their foundations. Schools lost their roofs. Books became sodden piles. Mould proliferated. Hospitals sustained wind damage and were flooded. Historic walls stood yet another battering though some lost their roofs.

It takes time to restore life to normal, a new normal in some cases. Teachers have been under enormous strain to present a semblance of normality to their students through dual session days. Even now all schools are not up and running, and those open face a shortage of desks and chairs. Valid questions are being asked. What has taken so long? Why are we still waiting? 

Questions have arisen also about the lack of hospital facilities. As they should. Elected officials are always ready with an answer – often trite. Money is coming from the federal government. Monies that would have come whoever was in power, which is something to be remembered in the gubernatorial election in November.

Tropical depression though is not just a weather phenomena. It is also human ailment. It has affected many who still hear, as they try to sleep, the roaring of the winds as it peeled back roofs. The slightest rainfall sends glances skyward to check a recently repaired roof is not leaking, or a home is not being lifted from shaky foundations. A sudden thud can have a man, woman, child or animal jumping in anticipation of a tree landing on the roof, or scything a wall. A sudden blackout can have those traumatized by IrMaria breaking out in a sweat at the thought of months with no power. 

Stability should never be overrated. A tropical depression never underrated. As we approach the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, anxious eyes are turning to those waves starting in West Africa. Invest 92L, forming behind Hurricane Florence, is one such wave. With another behind it. With luck they will bear north west and dissipate in the Atlantic, nowhere near land. And as the end of November approaches we will look forward to celebrating a hurricane-free season.

Those in theses tropics are hoping for no more depressions.

The Conch Calls

July 3, 2018 — 1 Comment

Shadows cavort across the yellow walls of Fort Christiansvaern on St Croix as people mill about waiting for the conch to call them to order. Dawn is a faint glimmer across the hills to the east but all is not quiet. Music, blaring from speakers on a pick-up truck, call for liberation, freedom – Bob Marley is always a popular choice, and blue lights flash like beacons from waiting police vehicles. Then silence. 

Senator Positive Nelson, who has organized this Freedom March for 18 years, is a tall rangy figure in white shorts and a loose African shirt. His dreadlocks swing as his head tips back and he raises the conch to his lips, and blows. The drum beats with a building intensity. It is hard not to be moved.

After a twelve-year gradual freeing of the slaves was announced in 1847, and the order that all babies born from July 28th of that year were to be born free, anger percolated amongst the enslaved. Why not immediate emancipation?

170 years ago on the night of Sunday, July 2nd, in what was then the Danish West Indies and is now the US Virgin Islands, Moses Gottlieb, known to many as General Buddhoe, sounded the conch and led many of those enslaved on a march to Frederiksted demanding their freedom. Gottlieb, a literate and skilled sugar boiler thought possibly to have come to St Croix from Barbados, worked at Estate La Grange but was often borrowed for work on other sugar plantations. It was this freedom of movement, combined with an innate leadership skill, that allowed Gottlieb to secretly organize the march. By morning the crowd had swelled to about 5,000. Later that afternoon, Governor Peter von Scholten, fearing violence and burning, momentously proclaimed, “All unfree in the Danish West Indies are from today Free”. 

Back in the days before cell phones, it took a while for the news of freedom to travel and so an offshoot of the protesters, known as ‘the fleet’ and led by a young man called King, continued to riot, burn and plunder. It was thanks to Gottlieb, who accompanied the Danish fire chief, Major Jacob Gyllich, around the island that the mayhem did not continue and no white lives were lost. 

Order was restored but rumours swirled that the Governor, who had a black mistress, was sympathetic to the cause and knew there was a possibility of an uprising. It was a rumour never confirmed. The sugar plantocracy were enraged with the proclamation, which immediately decimated their workforce, and von Scholten was ordered back to Denmark, where he died a broken man. 

Despite being protected initially from the planter’s wrath by Major Gyllich, Gottlieb was arrested, questioned and shipped off the island aboard the SS Ørnen. He set sail from St Croix as a gentlemen but once out of port was stripped of his clothes and put to work until, in January 1849, he landed on Trinidad. Told he would be executed if he ever returned to the Danish West Indies, Moses Gottlieb aka General Buddhoe is believed to have ended his days in the United States.

Today – July 3rd – is Emancipation Day! 

Celebrated each year with the Freedom March. As I watched the marchers, including my husband, answer the call of the conch, rattle the chains on Fort Christiansvaern and walk along Company Street at the start of their 15 mile march to Frederiksted, dawn trickled over Gallows Bay, pink and orange striations among grey clouds promising much needed rain.

Freedom came to the enslaved of the Danish West Indies 170 years ago and it is easy to think that freedom is global. But it isn’t. Slavery still exists in all its ugly connotations. So whilst we celebrate the bravery of leaders like Gottlieb and the many who marched with him, as well as those who supported their claims for freedom, like von Scholten and Gyllich, and 30 years later the Four Queens who roused the crowd during Fireburn demanding better labour laws, we should remember those still under the mantel of oppression.

Would that the conch call for freedom be heard globally!

Cherry Picking

June 10, 2018 — 3 Comments

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.IMG_6286

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.