16 July 2005

Arriving on the island of Tortola

At the dawn of the millennium, a brief time after Hurricane George struck the region, I arrived in the British Virgin Islands. My destination was Road Town, the major ‘city’ and capital of the archipelago. A small town by off-island standards with a mere 4000 inhabitants, Road Town sits at the apex of a picturesque ‘U’ shaped harbour held in place landward by dramatic hillsides. My residence lies to the north just up from town centre along a lovely scenic lane known as Horse Path Road.

When I first arrived the damage strewn about from the aftermath of Hurricane George was still visible almost everywhere in Road Town. In fact, the home in which I now live was, at that time, still lacking a roof, though now, thankfully, it has acquired a fine 'new' one. The architectural style of my residence consists merely of the 'locally' quaint whitewashed cinder-block arranged to form a cottage barely larger than a cloister cell. This 'keep' is covered by a wonderfully rusted corrugated sheet iron roof. Architecture aside, what I most enjoy about my island mansions are the breath-taking views it affords of the Road Bay.

I lease it from a local who farms on Tortola and offers it with reasonable rent as well as a troublesome goat, whose diet seems to consist of a mixture of Hibiscus garnished with portions of my unguarded efforts in watercolour. Though I’ve never actually seen the terms of my lease, I’m certain it lists the miserable creature as part of the chattel so I imagine I shall never be rid of it.

As no local on Tortola is far from any other, I don’t feel the need to retain an car, though I do have the use from time of a rather old fashioned motorbike of BSA manufacture that's in a constant state of repair. But it's serviceable enough once successfully started meeting all my needs for land travel about the island of Tortola. 'Started' being the key word here, a process in mystery and complexity akin to the preparation of Eucharist for an Anglican High-Mass. Petrol is extremely expensive on Tortola, closely priced in fact by volume to inferior rum, though sharing little of rum's utility. Personally I can't begin to imagine how anyone who isn’t in government service can possibly afford to maintain car or lorry on the island.

Why I decide to emigrate to Tortola

Why indeed did I ever imagine I wanted to be marooned on such a remote island in the Caribbean? A reasonable answer may be a desire for change of work and life. Of course the 'incident' played its role as well, though perhaps my eventual departure from London had been inevitable.

At the time I began to take the leap of personal imagination to emigrate, I had been employed as a programme manager with the marketing department of a 'Very Big American Corporation' based in California. I don't feel the need to identify which 'VBAC' but it is known well enough throughout the world, leastwise for it's laptop and printer devices. Thourgh the corporate environment could become a bit tribal at times, my work was interesting enough and salary more than commensurate with the level of stress encountered, so I stayed that course for the better part of a decade.

Then quite suddenly came a very cold change in the prevailing corporate winds. In an effort to ‘shake’ things up a bit within the organisation, the board of directors of the 'VBAC', determined some fresh female blood was required at the top position. 'Keep the best and reinvent the rest', was the mantra offered up by our spunky new CEO and spiritual leader. In retrospect, such a slogan was effective in engaging the hearts and minds of the organisation's employees just as 'arbacht macht frei' would lift the aspirations of the inmates at a prison.

From this as well as other such nonsense voiced at the time, I guessed correctly there would soon be no further need for a functional, experienced, and serious person such as myself within the organisation. That realisation was soon reinforced when I discovered I had been reassigned to work as a subordinate to a woman, who until then I had taken merely to be a silly and ineffective 'accidental' colleague. That, upon promotion she also began to fantasize I had also somehow fallen hopelessly in love with her, did not add to my personal self image of the time. It was thus I leaped from the job as that 'VBAC' sailed off into a thick fog of red ink and mental rubbish.

Following in rapid succession I experienced 'the incident' and my inevitable rebirth on the island of Tortola.

Living on Tortola

There is plenty to keep one occupied, idle hands and all, whist living on Tortola. One form of inexpensive entertainment I enjoy partaking in from time to time, is found by attending St. George’s Church just off the Main Street, in what I jokingly refer to as 'Greater Metro Road Town'. St. George's congregation consists for the most part of beautiful locals with a smattering of various expatriates and displaced Anglicans on holiday. I’m not by nature an overly religious person, but I value them for the many wonderful friendships I’ve been fortunate enough to have made. I promise myself, and God too perhaps, to stay the course, whatever that course may entail.

The French, Dutch, German, and of course Japanese tourists, visit the church only occasionally and then merely to pose for the odd holiday photos. This is most unfortunate as they’re missing a wonderful spiritual experience as well as a first rate liturgical show. At certain times of the year the visiting pilgrims out numbers the local congregation three to one. At such times I'm almost moved to hawk some sort of 'special price holiday souvenir program' filled with colour photos and hints at understanding details of the service. Once, I recall once being asked by an overly friendly Japanese gentleman if rum was being served in the Eucharistic chalice during the mass. When I assured him it was merely a blessed fruity wine he seemed honestly put off and immediately strode out to complete his photographic documentation of the island. I imagine I lost the Anglican Community a convert that day. Alas, St. Elisha the Proselytiser does not seem to be in the works.

The church structure, or rather small sections of it, dates back to the late 17th Century, though St. George seems to have suffered regularly from natural disaster every century since. Nevertheless, it has somehow retained its character. This fact leads me to believe that the true benefit of such a place is to create a link, not so much for man to heaven, as from life to life. I often wish I could bring that stick-to-itiveness to assist me through my own life's disasters.

As I’m self-retired and don’t presently enjoy a proper job, I divide my time between writing, painting (mostly watercolours), sailing, and beach combing. I pride myself on the fact that since my arrival on the island no examples of local flotsam and jetsam have escaped my personal scrutiny. I have become the Ministry of F&J by default but know I enjoy beach combing far too much. Then again, I’ve become my worst critic on so many aspects of life since my departing London.

Through an acquaintance, I've managed to arrange for the personal use from time to time of a small, open sailing skiff, white with red at the water-line and about seven meters in length. Though I don’t take it out into deep water very often, it’s been a Godsend for lifting my spirits. And being so insignificant it had never been given a proper name, so I decided to christen it, 'St. Ursula', after the Patron Saint of the archipelago. I often set out in Ursula for quick day-trips to nearby islands in the group. Though there are many commercial ferries one may take to almost any destination in the region, the fee for passage can become quite dear especially if one is on a limited budget as I certainly am. And then there's the issue of boarder customs. As in most things, I prefer to make my won way when possible.

Ursula and I have made landfall on many of the islands in the chain, but my favourite destination off Tortola is quite nearby. St. John Island which lies just across the line to the south and west in the territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands. I understand it once served as winter home to the Rockefeller family. They essentially owned the greater part of the island for many years until deciding to donate it to the U.S. Park Service undoubtedly in exchange, I imagine, for a multigenerational tax dodge. It is my opinion that they ended up with the 'short end' of that 'stick'.

I think it's interesting to note that the late American physicist, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer (of ‘Atomic Bomb’ fame) maintained a small beach shack there during his final years. How I should have loved walking an empty beach beside that 'shaker' (if not 'mover') of the 20th century. What ‘angst’ might he revealed as we strolled together amongst sand, shell, and wave. I can’t but imagine there is something in the white sand of the Islands that elicits the gracious release of hidden demons. Though I shudder to imagine what would have been the result if more of Oppie's demons had managed to see the light of day.

On my various crossings with Ursula I often bring my smaller more transportable works of art for sale to the upscale shops and galleries to be found on St. Thomas. The profits they fetch play an essential role in the maintenance of the life-style I presently 'enjoy' in my island world. A few pundits of the local art scene have even gone so far as to anoint me the ‘Georgia O’Keefe of the Caribbean’, having forsaking Santa Fe for Road Town I imagine. Other’s see something in my work's style reminiscent of the 19th Century American watercolourist, Winslow Homer particularly in shore scenes. There may be something in this, as an article in a local magazine featuring images of my work has remarked, "Moor is beginning to be seen locally as a powerful force bringing new and substantial views of our beautiful islands to the world."

My greater fortune has been my not having been successfully ‘apprehended’ by the various coast guards whilst transporting my illicit cargos of paintings to market. It’s my personal belief that Ursula’s luck as a blockade runner shall hold if supported by constant vigilance, intermittent prayer, and my staying unobtrusive. Now that’s a problem I’m sure Georgia O’Keefe never had to contend with in her New Mexico home.

Once, on a memorable day run in my Ursula to St. John, my luck almost ran out, when an extremely large and impressively armed American naval vessel took me completely by surprise in the strait. It appeared as if out of nowhere and immediately pulled up a short distance across the my course to challenge us. Although it is true that the American Coast Guard and military have become increasingly wary since the events of 'nine-eleven', I never for a moment imagined Ursula and I would be worth anyone’s bother. I seems I was wrong.

As it maintained position, the command and crew of the American warship attempted to hail me and have me come along side. Using various flashes from signal lamps, blasts from air horns and unintelligible shouts via an electric bull horn, they continued for a time but to no avail. And I’ve no doubt somewhere on-board electronic communication teams were busy assessing Ursula's intentions via an entire spectrum of electromagnetic frequencies. But in truth, my pocket phone never rang up once during the entire incident - not even a text message. So much for American naval technology and intelligence.

Needless to say, I was frightened quite out of my wits! Should I abandon my contraband watercolours over the side and make a run for open seas - my little open sailboat against a heavily armed U.S. Man-of-War? I was considering doing just that when I decided on another course of action altogether. I began to act as if I couldn’t understand any of their challenges, took off my neck scarf and began to wave back shouting back in my very best French, 'Renvoyer l’ascenseur' which I believe means something like, 'send the elevator back' or some such thing. 'Renvoyer l’ascenseur', I continued to yell all the while waving my small colourfully patterned neck scarf.

This pantomime continued back and forth for what seemed an eternity, when at one point I saw a particularly severe looking group of crew gathering on deck apparently making motions to launch what appeared to be a small potent pursuit craft. My heart sank! Had my ruse been for nought? Had I chosen the wrong French phrase? Didn’t American naval personnel appreciate the nuances of scarf semaphore?

I began to prepare for the worst when suddenly a bright orange helicopter appeared on the scene from nowhere and hovered just above the nautical impasse. It remained motionless directly above Ursula as the backwash from its rotors buffeted the small sailing skiff. I thought for a moment I was about to lose my entire cargo of watercolours and Ursula as well to the hovering gale when it inexplicably turned and shot off over the western horizon. This manoeuvre was followed by the frigate immediately standing down and departing on the same western course at flank speed. In moments I was alone in my Ursula on a gently rolling and empty sea. The incident with U.S. naval forces occurred only the once and fortunately my art smuggling operations haven’t been compromised since.

My life in London

I certainly miss many of the closer friendships I’ve made during my life in London, and of course I miss my very best friend J.J.Wells the most. What to tell of my JJ? I believe she may have actually been distantly related to H.G. Wells, the science fiction writer in some fashion, though she was never able to make out precisely how. JJ still resides quite happily in her London flat just off St. Anne’s Court where she continues to hold her 'court' - almost as if she were an unregistered member of the House of Windsor. Everyone seems to know and enjoy her impromptu parties and get-togethers which she puts on at the drop of a hat. Believe me, nothing quite compares to being invited to one of her evening 'events'. JJ and I still manage to keep in regular contact, though presently primarily through the wonder of e-mail. Even so, I should very much enjoy having her stop by Tortola for a visit one day. Tortola could certainly do with a J.J.Wells from time to time.

I was greatly saddened by recent events of Underground and bus bombings in London. I hope someone can put an end to such horrible tragedies as soon as they are so disheartening, wicked, and utterly pointless. When first I heard the awful news, I was so concerned about JJ’s safety as she’s usually taking the Underground or a bus to someplace in London. That was foolish I know, especially understanding the principles of statistics as I do, but I was still terribly worried until she rang me up and I heard she was safe from her own voice. JJ is such a sweet person.

Life before leaving London

My life has always been something of a work in progress since its very beginnings, and I've acquired so much baggage through my misspent life that sharing all in detail could be taken as being somewhat inconsiderate to others. Though most not being exactly 'toxic' in nature, never the less, is best left unopened in sealed containers safely stored in the dark, and for the most part I've managed to keep my past where its can do no harm to myself or others. Though I've always treasured my privacy, recent efforts of personal writing have begun to bring a change to some of this.

Truthfully, I’m not at all certain I like the idea of divulging too many personal facts, especially in such a public forum! But I guess no harm is done if I elicit just a few details. I usually start by sharing I was born on-board a steam ship voyaging in the middle of the Indian Ocean. When I tell friends this they usually laugh and ask what nationality that makes me. As my mother and father were both British subjects and I was born under a flagged British vessel, it is safe to say that I am indeed British.

All this happened back in October of 1957, so a very real sense, it remains a moot discussion, though I’m not always certain I like the idea of sharing my birth date with strangers. Even so, I still have plenty of things to be grateful for, such as my physical condition for one - I stand five feet and eight inches tall with bare feet, my usual footwear here on Tortola - I’m healthy and don’t smoke tobacco products, though I remain open for all social contingencies - I don’t drink to excess and manage to keep myself somewhat trim (I always weight something less than 9 ST).

As for close personal friends, I’ve noticed that when people ask about close personal friendships, invariably they are concerned about those involving a love interest – and I’ll not disappoint. Yes, I’ve managed in the five years or so I’ve called Tortola my home to have met and gotten to know any number of interesting and evocative people. And not a small number have managed to work their magic on my misanthropic heart as well. What has become of them? Well, most have left, some have remained friends, but none has remained as a lover. How do I account for my continued record of success? In truth, I haven’t given up hope of meeting such a person, though from what I’ve experienced I don’t expect it anytime soon. Remote islands tend to collect two kinds of visitors in abundance - injured and exhausted birds blown off course and their human counterparts. I've encountered and assisted both and have little to show for my efforts save a feeling of 'involvement'.

Such is my life of self-imposed exile.




Anonymous said...

Il semble que vous soyez un expert dans ce domaine, vos remarques sont tres interessantes, merci.

- Daniel

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