Archives For US Virgin Islands

Why Here?

April 28, 2018 — 3 Comments

‘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.

Why here? 

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.

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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”.

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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!
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VI Strong!

October 6, 2017 — Leave a comment

Once upon a time – long, long ago – I lived on a beautiful little volcanic island, covered in jungles of ceiba, mahogany, palms and giant stands of bamboo like rows of drill pipe that lie in neat piles in oil service company yards. Bioko, in the Gulf of Guinea. For those who may not be familiar with West Africa, Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, is on that island though President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo would dearly love it to be in his home town of Mongomo, well away from the threat of a coup d’etat, perhaps staged from the sea. Think of Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War and you’ll get the picture.

Living there for nearly three years was arguably the most challenging experience of my life – not least because of the lack of culinary supplies though boatloads of San Miguel beer were regularly unloaded at the docks. A ‘keep the man on the street drunk and he won’t worry about basic human rights’ sort of ethos. And what I couldn’t do with an aubergine was nobody’s business.

Cement and sand were also in short supply. Both, as the most inexperienced builder will attest, are fundamental to construction of any kind. One might struggle with the concept of sand being unavailable on an island, but believe me when I say you do not want your home built with black sand. It might take a month for streaks of black and a purplish grey to leach through any number of layers of paint – rather like varicose veins creeping uninvited up aging legs.

Cement was in fact the tipping point for signing a contract on our home. The tawdry monetary details had been settled, but still, but still, the landlord – a crafty and not entirely reliable banker – held out. In the round about way of African negotiations it became known that a bag of cement would seal the deal. Not the size of one from say, Home Depot, or B&Q. No, no, the bag in question needed a forklift and a crane to maneuver it into place.

Why this fixation on building materials?

Well, on our walk along Buffalo Bayou this morning, Clyde and I noticed one such bag of cement. It was large enough to cause a certain amount of consternation, and a lot of barking for my companion. It is being used in the construction of a much-anticipated cycle and walking path around the University of Houston Downtown. It will allow a pleasant circulatory ride, or amble, and negate the need to back track to one’s starting point. Across the banks of the bayou, by Allen’s Landing, which as any Houstonian will tell you, is the birth place of Houston, are mountains (I exaggerate only a little) of soft yellow sediment sand. Deposited by the swirling wrath of Harvey as rain pelted into already soggy land and overflowed already swollen waterways, the sand left the banks of the bayou looking like naked dunes. It has now been scooped up by dinky little red backhoes and piled underneath the bridge, presumably to be used elsewhere.

Now I have a home on another island, this one in the Caribbean. St Croix is also in need of building materials. Not because of poor governance as in our West African home, but because she has been ravaged by nature. Hurricane Maria, a Category 5, ripped roofs, stripped trees, tumbled power lines and crumbled walls as she blew in all her rage across the edge of the island. Remember a fury of her magnitude can stretch 150 miles with hurricane force winds and another 150 miles of lesser winds. For an island of just under 83 square miles that is enough to wreak catastrophic damage – which Maria did.

And so sand and cement, or lack thereof, again take on an importance not necessarily commensurate with their normal value, in one of the places I call home. These seemingly simple commodities delivered promptly to our Virgin Islands, will help rebuild the infrastructure. So too will jungles of ceiba, mahogany and palm regrow to once again entrance and shelter the resilient inhabitants who, despite Irma and Maria’s ill-temper, have remained VI Strong!

It’s bad news week. Actually it’s been a bad news month, particularly in the two places I currently have the privilege of calling home – Houston, Texas and St Croix, US Virgin Islands.

Houston felt Harvey’s wrath as swathes of rain pounded streets turning city and suburbs into rushing waterways. Some areas are prone to flooding and the sagacity of building homes on old rice fields and flood plains will be debated for a long time, particularly as government buyouts are sought. I imagine one word will be repeated often – greed. Of both those selling the land initially and those developing it. So too the decision of when and by how much the dams and reservoirs were opened to release pressure on old infrastructure. But it’s easy to criticize after the fall, or in this case, the flood.

Then Irma barreled through another place I hold dear – Tortola – the main island of the British Virgin Islands, and a place I have been visiting since 1967. I was last there in April this year to visit my family, who thankfully are safe though not unscathed. The Dick-Reads have been an integral part of the BVI since the early 1960s; there before tourism took off and the financial institutions set up shop; before the Purple Palace took on the more sophisticated moniker of The Bougainvillea Clinic. #thatbitchIrma has devastated those Virgins, reducing homes and businesses to piles of matchstick rubble. Roofs ripped off, rooms rudely exposed. Lives destroyed.

Irma also had her way with St John and St Thomas, two of the US Virgin Islands. Irma skimmed St Croix, forty nautical miles south, and grateful inhabitants have rallied and sent supplies and succour to her sister islands.

And now she is under threat.

Hurricane Maria is intent on venting her Category 5 rage on St Croix and as I sit here, safe in Houston, my heart is squeezed. For our neighbours, for our friends, for the historic richness and beauty of the lesser known Virgin Island. And for our West Indian home which we have lovingly restored.

As I wonder what I can do to help in the aftermath of this hurricane’s projected fury I am reminded St Croix has withstood nature’s caprice many times. Alexander Hamilton wrote of the 1772 hurricane in a letter to his father saying, “I take up my pen just to give you an imperfect account of the most dreadful hurricane that memory or any records whatever can trace, which happened here on the 31st ultimo at night….. Good God! what horror and destruction—it’s impossible for me to describe—or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place.”

The Danish West Indies were again slammed by a vicious hurricane in 1867, with the subsequent tidal wave driving the USS Monongahela ashore at Frederiksted. The hurricane, unnamed in those days, was instrumental in bringing about the end of the plantation system as well as discouraging the US from purchasing the islands from Denmark.

The modern benchmark for hurricanes on St Croix is Hugo, which wracked and wrapped the island in total destruction in 1989. Then came Marilyn in 1995 which killed 10, and Omar in 2008 which sank 40 boats spewing oil onto pristine beaches.

The island though is resilient, and the inhabitants resolute. Whatever terror Maria throws at St Croix, she will not win. She might dampen the spirits for a while, tamp down her exuberance and charm, but St Croix, with assistance, with rebound.

There is horror and destruction, degradation and disaster in many parts of the world but I will be doing my best to keep St Croix in the public eye. Particularly that of the US mainland, some of whose newsreaders seem unable to grasp the fact that the US Virgin Islands are the responsibility of the US. They paid 25 million dollars in gold coin for them in 1917. They should not let this centennial year be the year America’s Caribbean is forgotten.

So as others gather tarpaulins and water, medical supplies and baby formula, I will be trying to keep St Croix in the public conscience. I will still launch my debut novel, Fireburn, based in 1870s St Croix, on October 1st, 2017. It catalogues a fictitious hurricane, as well as the historical rebellion of ‘fireburn’ on October 1st, 1878.

St Croix has withstood much. It can and will withstand more. It must – it is dear to me.