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Dejected and rejected strays have always found us. And so it was on the 29th December 2016 that Bonnie appeared. A harried waiter shooed a bundle of matted fur from an establishment on the Boardwalk in St Croix and as his booted foot moved I shouted, “Leave it, I’ll take it.” The ‘it’ concerned was a black kitten, so emaciated we couldn’t tell its sex. Carrying it home was like holding a bag of chewed chicken bones. Closer inspection found it’s gums and tongue to be white, it’s last vestige of energy gone in a final scurry from terror and pain.
A night spent with it sleeping on my chest was a night of sad shuddering breaths. But as morning tickled the hills pink and mauve it rallied and a frantic rush to the vet, an immediate blood transfusion and a number of nights in the clinic found it beginning to thrive.
Bonnie is deaf. Now, I don’t know if you’ve tried but training a deaf cat is tricky. She does not hear the crash and tinkle of broken glass or crockery. She does not hear the panicked shouts of “don’t” as she crouches ready to pounce on some imagined intruder flitting across her line of vision – a shadow maybe traversing a coffee table laden with glasses. But the purrs and kneading make up for the mounting breakages.
We joked that a dog would be a good companion – something to look out for her.
Then along came Clyde – our Trinidadian pot hound – though he almost didn’t make the flight. All entirely my fault. A miscommunication, a missed email and a near total fiasco. It was 2:30pm on a Friday afternoon, the day before I was due to travel to America – a day sandwiched between a public holiday on Thursday and another on Monday. Fortunately that island nation at the bottom of the Caribbean chain pulled out the stops – helped by the unwavering fortitude of my daughter behind the wheel of a car in Port of Spain’s notorious traffic.
In despair at gridlocked vehicles ahead I leapt from the car and made my jagged way along two city blocks, down a side street and burst into the Department of Agriculture. My breathing akin to bagpipes being primed, my hair plastered in grey and purple streaks to my neck and with sweat pouring down my face, I waved TT$5 in the receptionists face – words were hard to come by. To her credit she did not shy away from the mad woman babbling at her about a chop needed from Trinidad’s chief vet in order to get an export licence for a puppy from a trash heap in Cedros.
In remarkable short order the stamp was obtained and with groveling thanks I ran out to Kate and my granddaughters waiting in the car. There followed a mad dash down the freeway to the next government office where the actual licence could be obtained, normally in two to three days.
A stern, uniformed woman of East Indian descent looked me up and down from her perch behind a desk guarding entrance to the inner sanctum, and shook her head.
“Your shoulders are bare. You cannot enter a government building dressed in this way.”
Said shoulders slumped.
“And your feet. You do not have enclosed shoes.”
Begging, and I think with a glimmer of tears, I garbled an explanation, assuring her I meant no disrespect and that everything that could be my fault, was my fault. Her features softened and breaking into a crooked tooth grin and taking my hand, she said,
“Come. I will take you.”
Apologising profusely for my lack of correct attire to the disinterested young man tugging idly at his wispy beard, I felt my heart sink. And then he too smiled.
“You have the chop?” He asked, taking the papers from my damp hand. “Sit. It will take time.”
Twenty minutes later I was out the door. 24 hours later Clyde and I were on the plane with a glass of wine. Well, me anyway.
Global Entry allows a saunter through immigration with barely a missed step. At Customs I was told to wait for my suitcase to be delivered, when baggage, canine and I would be escorted to animal control.
I waited. And some more. Two cats and a dog, a yappy little thing, who came after us were ushered away with their owners and luggage. And then the dreaded words. Your suitcase does not seem to be here. Go through, then report it to the airline. Clyde and I were by this time eager to find some grass, and we scurried along to a woman standing sentry, her tan uniform bursting at the seams.
“Medical papers. Rabies certificate.”
After wishing her a good morning – it was 5am – I explained the latter was not needed as the animal in question was under three months and Trinidad and Tobago was a rabies free country.
“Every dog coming to the US must have a rabies certificate. It is on the CDC website.”
In the politest possible manner I disagreed, feeling beholden to point out Trinidad had been rabies free since 1917, which was more than could be said for Texas.
Her pink talons jabbing the air near my face, her voice strident, I was informed the puppy could not enter the US and would be returned from whence he came, on the next flight.
Calmly I told her he was already in the country – don’t play semantics with a writer – and that I would like to speak to her supervisor. A muted conversation took place between the taloned one and a pleasant-looking woman, presumably her superior, and we were waved through with the words, “I misspoke. You can go.”
The lost luggage ground staff were equally unhelpful, refusing to believe my explanation given over Clyde’s keening, that Customs had my baggage tags. About to lose my final shred of civility, we were all saved by an apologetic skycap hauling my case.
At least he had a smile. And Clyde was welcomed to America.
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.
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 IRS
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!”
I am not a beach bunny – even stretching way, way back to my bikini days. I love the ocean – being in, under or on it. But sitting on the sand, even with a book and a beer, palls very quickly. Walking along the beach though is a different matter. There is always something to gather.
My latest collections come from the beaches of St Croix. From one, the delicate little shells of palest pink to the deepest blush. Under candlelight on my dining table they take on a translucent beauty reminiscent of a Gainsborough portrait. From another beach, I gather sea glass, or as my granddaughter calls them, gems, tumbled and tossed ashore by tides and waves beginning their journey from who knows where. What start as bottles discarded by careless souls from boats, end up recycled as smooth fragments of opaque glass often used for island jewelry. Or, as in my home, placed in glass bowls to glimmer in quiet simplicity.
I still kick myself for throwing out a cache of elegant little black and white shells. Classic shell shapes – each striation a marvel of nature’s preciseness. I can’t remember where I harvested them, perhaps Australia, perhaps Thailand, but I liked them enough to carry around the world for about fifteen years. And then in a fit of throwing out, probably before another relocation, I tossed them.
That is the trouble with, or perhaps the benefit of, frequent moves. Each item must be judged worthy of container space. We have a problem with books but I think have, on the whole, reached an amicable arrangement. My husband’s collection of Folio Society books, and those left him by my father, always get a free ride. Reference, history and travel books too. Some novels I refuse to be parted from, Pride and Prejudice or Tess of the D’Urbervilles for example, or those which have struck enough of a chord to warrant a second, or third, reading also get a pass.
But beach novels get the heave ho – no ifs, no buts. Which, considering I am a writer attempting to break into the novel arena and know the agonies of bringing 90,000 words to publication readiness, is very hard to do. I feel I am letting the writerhood down but comfort myself with the thought at least the books will be available for others to enjoy, even if the author gets no royalties from the resale.
A truckload of fabric bought from markets around the world – saris, ikat, batik and so on – has also been a constant, with pieces showing up as curtains, tablecloths and cushion covers in other parts of the world.
And then there is a large box of Mexican tiles. Now they have been an ongoing bone of contention – with each relocation my justification getting thinner. Until St Croix.
Those tiles, lovingly collected over the years, now have a permanent home and there has been a certain amount of “see, I told you I’d use them somewhere!”
Our home in St Croix is in Christiansted. One day we will have a wonderful terrace and garden, but at the moment it is a quarry. We have enough stone to build our very own fort – never mind the one guarding the town and Gallows Bay. But it’s what is between the stones that delights me.
Chaney. Lots and lots of chaney.
Now to people not acquainted with the islands these little bits of pottery and china might just look like, well, little bits of pottery and china. But they’re not! Chaney was currency. Broken shards of table and kitchenware scavenged by children who would then file down the edges, probably on a rock, and use it as money. “I’ll swap you two chaney for a stick of sugarcane” kind of transaction. Early day bitcoins! The term ‘chaney’ is said to be the words – china and money – conflated. Or perhaps, and I have absolutely no evidence of this, chaney came from the word ‘change’. “You owe me two chaney,” sort of thing.
In 2017, chaney is still valuable. This time wrapped in gold or silver and sold as jewelry to tourists and residents alike. Currency of a different kind. These little pieces of china, nearly always blue and white, have though a multitude of uses – all of them artistic. They embellish lintels, become tabletops, or cover vases.
There are four distinct types of chaney: shell edge, a slightly fluted design from mid 1700s England; mochaware, off-white sturdy kitchenware with linear designs from a similar period; flow blue, from mid 1500s Germany when during the glazing process cobalt oxide blurred the design; and lastly the ubiquitous blue willow design, imported from China in the 1700s, and adapted by Thomas Minton for Thomas Turner of Caughley, Shropshire. The willow design depicts the forbidden love between a Chinese Mandarin’s daughter and his secretary. Upon the lovers untimely death, the gods immortalised them as two doves, forever flying together.
And as St Croix once flew under the Dutch flag, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the blue and white fragments are Delftware.
As I wash each piece of chaney, I wonder about its story. These little shards of china and pottery – history found in our garden. History which will stay in our garden, to one day be incorporated into paving stones and risers. One collection which will not be moving on.
I am fortunate to spend time on St Croix – the largest of America’s surprisingly unknown Caribbean islands. The raw beauty of her beaches and the capriciousness of the sea as it cycles from emerald to aquamarine to turquoise to steel, depending on the clouds sent scudding by the constant Trade Winds, never fail to delight.
History emanates off the foot thick walls of the forts – yellow in Christiansted and rust coloured in Frederiksted – telling of the seven flags under which St Croix has flown. Originally known as Ay Ay, the island has been colonized, captured, lost, recaptured and bought, by the Dutch, British, French, Spanish, the Knights of Malta, and finally in 1917 sold by the Danish government for 25 million dollars to the US, fearful of German expansion during the First World War.
With the benefits of US laws and banking regulations, strong African roots from the days of slavery, a European heritage, and a lingering Caribbean charm, St Croix has much to offer both residents and visitors alike.
Green, hawksbill and occasionally leatherback turtles lumber up many of the beaches to lay their eggs, year after year. 50 to 70 days later, seabirds circle the skies watching with predatory interest as the tiny hatchlings surface through the sand and scuttle down to the ocean to start their journey north.
Cacti and scrub populate the eastern end of the island, with mahogany and genip trees towering high in the rainforest to the west. Bougainvillea, hibiscus, ixora and the island flower, Ginger Thomas, splash colour along the roadsides and hide both million-dollar mansions and less palatial homes from prying eyes. Papayas, pomegranates, pineapples and figs – the delicious little bananas – grow with easy abundance. Mangos and avocados grace many local dishes, and the sea offers lobster and mahi mahi and snapper.
Tranquility and beauty.
The islands – St Croix, St Thomas and St John – like most places have community issues, with elements of society not content to follow the rules. There is domestic abuse, too many guns in the hands of the wrong people, drug, alcohol and gambling addictions and larcenies of various kinds. All man made.
There is though a natural beast which lurks with vicious impunity along some of the shorelines. Known by the Spanish conquistadors as the ‘little apple of death’, the hippo mane mancinella, more commonly known as the ‘manchineel’, provides a natural windbreak and fights beach erosion, ever a problem for areas facing Atlantic hurricanes. The tree, sometimes growing to 50 feet, can be deadly to most birds and animals though, for some unexplained reason, iguana seem impervious to its toxicity.
To mere mortals its small green fruit resemble crab apples and lie temptingly on the sands. Don’t be enticed. If ingested, savage abdominal pain can be expected, followed by vomiting, bleeding and damage to the digestive tract. Deaths have been reported. Don’t even pick that apple up. The leaves and bark produce a milky sap which cause blindness, mostly temporary, and scorching blisters. If scratched by branches not only do the wounds hurt but pulsating pustules emerge over the coming few hours adding to the misery. I have seen the pain.
If Juan Ponce de Leon, the conquistador intent on colonizing Florida in 1513, and later parts of the Caribbean, had survived a manchineel-tipped arrow piercing his thigh, he might have been able to attest to its ferocity. Some though accept the temptations. Carpenters covet the hard timber for furniture and a few risk the dangers, drying the wood naturally to neutralize the sap.
Most manchineel shrubs and trees are marked with red crosses and warnings, but signs can get overgrown. Beachgoers have been burned just by standing underneath the tree during one of the many squalls washing the islands and coasts of South America and Florida. The caustic sap can even burn the paint off cars parked under its branches. And, if burned, the air is filled with toxins causing respiratory problems.
Accepted as the most dangerous tree in the world, the manchineel is relatively rare and is considered endangered – remember, it does have some positive benefits. But really, the best thing to do, should you come upon a manchineel is to give it a wide berth.
Beauty and the beast – part of the allure of the Caribbean.
And, should your kite get entangled in the manchineel’s embracing arms, just cut the strings.