About.


Last day in Dominica, I was waiting by Brenda’s for a passing bus when a smart car with tinted windows pulled up, Roots music, Rasta man leans over and asks if I want a lift – Brenda says ‘it’s ok it’s my brother’…he gets out of the car, to give her a big hug and smiles broadly at me, a fat spliff in his mouth. He’s bare chested, toned like Action Man, a black rubber ring round his neck, dreadlocks piled up on his head bound in a saffron scarf, he’s wearing an African sarong and a golden yellow scarf tied round his hips.  He looks like a Shaman. A Guru. A Love Guru.

We start slowly down the hill, the car’s full of sweet fumes. He’s laughing ‘what if you missed your flight? One Life !’ Then he’s mumbling something about having to ‘stop for a friend, need to pick him up, he doesn’t like the heat in the town…’ He slows up and stops, gets out, and gently tries to coax a lizard off from the bonnet. So this is his ‘friend’…I think we’re on for an adventure of kinds. The lizard scuttles down into the engine. ‘His choice’ he says ‘One Life’. Erhm. Yeah. Even for a lizard I guess. Things are getting a little surreal for sure.

Turns out this is ‘Screw’ who runs the spa in the village. The guy where I’d been staying was keen to tell me how this guy Screw spreads bad vibes in the village, that he’s a bad guy. Now I understand. It’s the charisma. The guy’s a rockstar rasta. When we reach Roseau he slips on a skin tight orange vest which only serves to accentuate his torso. He smiles: ‘they like you to wear clothes in town’. We wander round the market and everyone hails him. Everyone. It’s like walking round with Lenny Kravitz. I have plenty of time before my taxi to the airport. Plenty of time. I buy some vanilla pods for Aragorn. He buys bags of oranges and limes for carnival. And plenty of beer. Looks like I’m going to miss quite a party. He says again, what if I miss my plane?? No. That’s not going to happen. Regretfully. That’s not going to happen…

Goodbye Dominica. Goodbye Screw. It’s been…amazing.

I return to Tortola with ‘Dominican eyes’  – too many overweight ‘whiteys’ stressed at the airport when three planes landed at once and caused congestion in the tiny Immigration hall. A English woman behind me hisses at her husband:

‘We’ll be on the boat soon for a good night’s sleep and then we’re going to enjoy this holiday if it kills us’

A quiet last few days compounded with 24 hours of illness when I had to stay in bed wrapped in a blanket running a temperature, with the ocean still lapping beneath me. The exuberance of the Dominicans badly missed, the Tortolan community seemed subdued, repressed even. So much scrub and dry bush covers Tortola, even the ubiquitous view of green hump-backed hills and shimmering blue ocean seem somehow monotonous now. The lushness of Dominica can be found in pockets around the island, specifically on Good Moon Farm, where Aragorn has grown many species of plant sourced from there. As his brother Alex drove me to the ferry port for the first leg of my journey home, he described the change in the island’s fauna since his childhood growing up there in the 60’s/70’s, he remembers the smell of charcoal burning for fuel  in the hills, in the days before mass tourism. As we looked back up at the hillsides from the port he said

‘When you think about it, these might be the biggest trees this island has seen for 300 years, I mean since subsistence farming ended. Maybe all the islands were once like Dominica, lush rainforest, rivers – maybe they’ll return to that state if left alone.’

A marvelously optimistic way of thinking of the island, but I coudn’t help thinking about all those new plots of land being freed up and sold off, 60 more plots on their estate, all those big houses with their pools greedily sucking up precious resources. I’d noticed there were no solar panels or wind turbines on the island, a place with 11 hours of hot sun a day and constant Trade Winds blowing…Alex wryly informs me the government had brought about legislation that ensured no one was able to be ‘off the grid’, because of their investment in a new power station. Alternative sources of energy are illegal. This astounding piece of information places the British Virgin Islands so far out of step with the rest of the world, so backward in their grasp of ecological realities, it puts a whole new spin on their tourism promotional campaign:

‘Nature’s Little Secrets’

Interestingly, when I finally got to St Thomas airport, on the American Virgin Islands, flat blue solar panels lined the entire length of the perimeter fence alongside the main runway.

I had a couple of hours to kill in St Thomas, it was relentlessly hot and five cruise ships were in that day. I experienced the full force of the ‘Disney-fication’ of the Caribbean and tourism-as-shopping-experience. Columbian diamond shops seem to be all the rage. I battled my way through to the quiet old streets of battered wooden houses with their sun bleached, sea salted, wind lashed, once brightly painted surfaces, the beautiful patina of age. Up above the main drag there I stumbled upon the ‘oldest continuously used surviving Synagogue in the Western World’ – it was a quiet reflective retreat from the consumer madness below. The stone floor was covered in soft clean white sand which was unexpectedly beautiful and served to muffle all footsteps. I sat there awhile and thought about the rich mix of people and passage through this part of the world, so much more complex and interesting than the brochures would have us believe, with their gloss, gleam and veneer.

St Thomas Airport, gateway to the USA, full security in order, surly staff.

YOUR SECURITY IS OUR PRORITY

As they remove open weave silver sandals from a woman in a wheelchair leaving her barefoot and even more vulnerable.

AMERICA ON GUARD

TODAY’S THREAT ADVISORY: ELEVATED.  ELEVATED RISK OF TERRORIST ATTACK

the threats are listed on a scale:

SEVERE  HIGH ELEVATED REDUCED LOW

on a large poster depicting the White House against the Stars and Stripes and a large eagle’s head with vicious eyes.

My journey unravels, rewinds, back through San Juan Peurto Rico, landing late evening at JFK, exit doors to the cold, a yellow cab, Sikh driver, sweeps me smoothly to Williamsburg, Kent Avenue, big old iron door to rusty elevator, 9th floor, labyrinthine corridor, old orange airline seats standing in the corner, then inside to the warm cocoon of M’s loft apartment. A cup of tea then out to a bar, Martinis till 4am, a stoned guy on the decks playing British ‘New Wave’ circa 1979, appreciated by earnest young ‘retro’ guys with beards and Asian girlfriends, and us, who are old enough to be there the first time around…

It’s very cold but all the New Yorkers are telling me how mild it’s been this winter. No big freeze. Having been in the Tropics for 6 weeks, my body’s feeling constricted by layers of clothing, heavy coat hanging off my back, worst of all, tanned relaxed toes that have known nothing more than Birkenstocks but mostly bare feet, feel unbearably cramped now they’re back in my urban Australian workboots pounding the concrete. I feel like an innocent abroad. Back inside, the apartment is so insulated and overheated you have no idea of the temperature outside, you can walk around in a vest, which means I keep making the mistake of not wearing enough layers to go out and huddle shivering inside my coat, head down against the wind. The heating is so dry my nasal tissue starts bleeding, my eyes smart, my are lips chapped and my tanned skin, that before glowed golden in the light of the islands, begins to go reptilian within a couple of days.

The streets are quiet in this neighbourhood. Cars are parked down the middle of the road. You must move your car to the other side of the road every day for street cleaning. If you forget the routine you’ll get a $600 tow-away fine. We’re right by Williamsburg Bridge, it’s so high. Three times higher than bridges in London and multi-laned. The Brooklyn Bridge has its underside clad in metal sheeting right now, the vast canopy sweeps over your head and the reflective surface is like a massive hovering space ship, 2001 Space Odyssey. When you look up you get vertigo and the strange sensation of looking down, until the traffic booms and screams you back to reality.

We make it over to Manhatten, only 3 stops but another world from the neighbourhood, it’s a rich ghetto these days, everyone else lives elsewhere and avoids spending time there unless they really have to. The Manhattenites are coming to Williamsburg these days instead. We do MOMA, it’s good to get out of the driving cold rain, the skyscrapers are steel grey and then evaporate entirely in the low cloud, but it’s crowded and cramped inside the galleries and I’m exhausted in no time.

We see ‘Sweet Violence’ that see-saws between the personal and political in Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1970’s, it’s a strong hard-hitting show. There are crumpled red balls of paper discarded throughout the galleries. Everyone ignores them. Then we stop ignoring them and pick them up and unfurl them to read that the USA is one of the few countries, along with Iran, Syria etc that refuses to ratify a Universal Bill of Womens’ Rights. Easy to ignore stuff, even when they’re red and there are lots of them and they’re staring you in the face.

We spin round the Cindy Sherman retrospective, where elderly New York women in garish clothes and jewelley, wearing too much make-up, mingle in front of large scale photographs of Cindy Sherman dressed as elderly New York women in garish clothes and jewellery, wearing too much make-up. Life imitates Art imitates Life.

One evening we enter an anonymous door from the street and we appear to be in someone’s front room but it’s a hidden Jazz club, you buy a ticket for a drink and there’s an intimate engaged crowd sitting at a long trestle table digging the groove. Most of them wear heavy black rimmed glasses and all of them have iphones on the table in front of them.

iphone ipod ipad iphone ipod ipad iphone ipod ipad iphone ipod ipad

‘I and I’. ‘Eye and Eye’. 

New York. The World. It’s just one big Apple with a big bite taken out of it. We all want some.

Munch munch munch

I feel hungover all the time here.

This is a building full of lofts full of artists. It used to be a pasta factory. Now it’s a fantasy factory of vast studio spaces looking out across the river to the Manhatten skyline. Its big empty rooftop looks straight over to Ground Zero where the new ‘Freedom Tower’ is rapidly making its mark. There’s a graffitti-ed wall of a young boy with his hand over his mouth and a few plastic chairs tipped over.

When we emerge from the elevator there’s an artist doing a photoshoot on the landing of a ‘nun’ with someflowers looking out through the grimy windows, a grey urban light on her face. The artist leases the whole of the 10th floor. Her partner leases the 11th. They are successful international artists who make video and show in Miami and London and Berlin and Basle. They invite us to dinner. The work/live space seems to stretch for ever, I cannot imagine having this much space to work. What would I do with all that space? There are perspex sheets suspended from the ceiling with chains casting reflections on the concrete floor and a rusty iron flat ‘chair’ sculpture on the floor that I trip over as I enter, with its ‘dopelganger’ rusty relief print on thick handmade paper, framed on the wall opposite. Photos of nothing all over the walls. We eat grilled fat king prawns with chilli flakes and lime, asparagus, stroganoff and baked potatoes and hand made coconut and chocolate ice-cream. The prawns and asparagus are almost raw and I can’t eat the meat but there’s plenty of red wine. M says they always undercook everything here. A vintage whisky in a corked bottle comes out and is drunk in shot glasses. Most of the people are the artists’ ‘people’, their team who manage their operation, there’s also an actor who appears in their films, just returned from a shoot in Kazhakstan. It’s an interesting evening.

Saturday afternoon we stroll around Chelsea dipping in and out of galleries, seeing random stuff. There’s a queue right round the block for the last day of a light installation. I admire their commitment.

We see:

a pile of red wooden apples on the floor with bites taken out of them, crucified Christs without the cross sculpted from razor wire, 10 foot tall perspex microphone stands, a giant man made from aluminium taking a pee, his stream of urine a wire that spans a wide arc to the floor, a half-inch tiny figure of a man on a patch of green ‘lawn’ flies an impossibly high kite, so fragile that it’s overseen by a uniformed security guard, big expressive drawings of woodland animals with sticks of dynamite strapped to their backs, they look unalarmed by this, trolleys made from plastic multi-coloured bottle tops, sticks of driftwood with oblong windows cut through, a relief map of Europe repeated in various colours with some countries blanked out: Sweden, Albania…

Some of it looks like artschool projects, some of it’s exceptionally poor, a few things are great, none of it’s brilliant. Modern Art will eat itself. Modern Art always seems to look like ‘An Idea for Modern Art’.

Then we go to a small independent cinema round the corner from The Building where there’s an independent movie having its debut that was filmed inside The Building over 5 consecutive nights. They had five parties five nights running. Its distinguishing feature is that it was made in one take each time. I don’t know why. It was very low budget. So we have the very odd experience of seeing a film of The Building with an audience made up of people who live in The Building and were extras in the film just up the road from The Building and then there’s an after-party in the apartment where the party was in the film in The Building. Brilliant. Except the film was shit. Banal. Earnest. Cliche. Lacking in all humour and self-awareness. Which was disappointing but not unsurprising. We are in America after all.

Thing is, The Building is full of all these cool and interesting mostly Europeans. So it doesn’t go down well. But we go to the party anyway. In the film everyone says

‘The Russians are having a party’ (the ‘in-crowd’ laugh sarcacstically in the auditorium)

and people in the film reply

‘Oh, I can’t handle The Russians right now’

Turns out they really are Russian and they really do have amazing parties, much better than the one on the film. But not tonight. But it’s amazing anyway because the place is vast. I mean, ag-ro-pho-bic-all-y vast concrete empty space, like living on a tennis court that faces a big window that gives on to an incredible view of Manhatten.

The young Russians are Vladimir and Micha. They are dry, sharply intelligent, enigmatic and very funny. Just how you want your Russians to be. No one knows what they do in this Building of Artists. When asked, they say they plough snow but it has been a bad winter fro them. They also say they use shovels. I think this may be a reference to A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. There’s a rumour they are big time computer hackers. Whatever, they would have to shovel a lot of snow to pay the $3000 a month rent this place costs. And anyway, there’s been no snow this winter.

When a bunch of Americans pile in, The Russians start playing ‘fake Russians’ and everyone admires their ability to speak with a Russian accent. There’s a frisson of palpable excitement with the Americans meeting real/fake Russians. It’s all a bit James Bond.

Back in the apartment, though we only have a few hours before my flight we start watching ‘Sex n Drugs n Rock n Roll’, the Ian Dury film, by way of a antidote to being around too many Americans. I don’t mean New Yorkers. I mean Americans. Great to hear an East London/Essex accent and loads of swearing. Just to prepare me for ‘home’. What the hell most Americans would have made of old Ian I don’t know, with his obnoxious, unhinged, bawdy persona. Then I think of Tom Waits.

I’ve been in rainforest jungle to concrete jungle in just a few days. The common factor has been the good old friends I’ve stayed with, people I met in my early twenties who’ve become the bedrock of my life ever since.

I’ve written up this last post on the plane over the Atlantic. I also watched an inflight movie: Almadovar’s ‘The Skin I live In’. I don’t have a great sense of going ‘home’ as Heathrow gets closer, more just a sense of, the more I travel, the more I feel ‘at home’ in the skin I live in and wherever that may take me.

Thanks for reading.

This village has many secrets. People are inter-related in complex ways, everybody is someone’s cousin. Some refuse to acknowledge their relation due to long standing family feuds. Brenda the Venda so tender is actually Tia’s sister who runs the place I’m staying in, but she didn’t tell me because there’s been a big fall-out. I went to say goodbye to her today, concerned that her shop hadn’t been open yesterday. Turns out she only opens up fully on Cruise ship days, Wednesday and Saturday this week. But none of those tourists came in anyway. Her shack is so shabby and dirty looking, of course the cruise ship people are not going to venture in easily.

I’ve been trying to locate ripe bananas since I got here; there are banana trees everywhere loaded with clumps of green atop the now familiar purple ‘pod’ that hangs like a faintly obscene pendulum but no yellow ready to eat bananas to be found. A couple of decades ago Dominica along with the other Windward Isles was one of the biggest exporter of bananas to the UK. We honoured a loyalty trade with our ex-colonies that ensured the banana industry was lucrative for Dominica. They were small, sweet, delicious bananas. Then the EEC clamped down on individual countries trade relationships and the market in Britain was flooded with big long uniformly shaped poor tasting, go soggy quickly bananas industrially produced in Costa Rica and other latin American countries. Costa Rica was known (and still is as far as I know) for its exploitative ‘Finca’ system where men live on reservations for months, years at a time, leaving their own land and families. They’re encouraged to spend their earnings on alcohol, indeed they can be part paid in hard liquor. Keeps them in debt and keeps them from leaving. Ever since I knew this story I  always ensure I’m buying Windward Isle bananas, usually this entails Fairtrade. If only we knew the true stories of our consumer choices. In this screwed up world where most political voice seems powerless, what we choose to do with our money really can be the most powerful choice we make that has direct effect on peoples lives. Still wish I could find ripe bananas here on ‘Banana Island’ though…

People are reluctant to give you any clear information about where to go, what to see here…they just wave their hand absently when you ask directions, it’s always ‘up the road’ or ‘down the road’, I think they keep the special places to themselves. I have no guide book and have avoided checking stuff on the net, just wanted to ‘follow my nose’ and see what turned up really. All day and particularly in the evening, when the heat has cooled, plumes of steam rise here and there, up through the trees, it gives the place a mystical feel, and brings back memories of Manikaran in the Kulu Valley, Northern India, where I spent some ‘lost’ time many years ago. ‘Lost’ because I was smoking particularly strong chillums and couldn’t leave the place, though I had barely any money left, in the days when I’d travel rough on a tiny budget, challenging myself as to how long I could last out. It was cold and wet in Manikaran so we’d spend much of our time in the Sikh temple wrapped in Kulu shawls, where there were hot ‘caves’ fed by sulphur springs and where you could eat for a few Rupees if you took part in prayers and chanting every evening, which we did, willingly, very stoned. The smell of sulphur, and its deep yellow stain, permeated everything in that magical, spiritual place and I am transported back there whenever I smell it, as I do here, and it leaves me happily spaced out.

It was in Manikaran I decided I needed to extend my plane ticket after a year away from home, and in those days before email or mobile phones that meant an 18 hour journey all the way down to Delhi, in a bus so cramped, my knees were squashed to my chin, and then 18 hours all the way straight back to the foothills of the Himilaya. Luckily, I was only 24 years old and such self-enforced hardship is possible at that age. Not now though. I’m discovering very fast that I’m no longer the traveller I was, I need security and comforts, I need to know where I’m sleeping each night and that I’ll be able to sleep on a decent bed when I get there in a bit of quiet. Plus ca change!

So today I discovered ‘Shangri-La’. It started with curiosity about some particularly beautiful dry stone walling along the road, a lot of love and money had evidently been put into it, atop was a big old ‘iron’ that the old rum trade used to use to distill the sugar, and a huge iron wheel that I assume was the old water wheel used in production. There was a large gap, an unbuilt entrance way, with a couple of bamboos lying casually across it. I could see steam rising beyond so was compelled to investigate further and followed a way through the forest to a glade with a half built ‘viewing platform’ and bar area, all lovingly crafted from local stone but unfinished and appeared to have been left that way for a long time. There infront of me was a large spring bubbling away sending jets and puffs of steam up into the greenery above: ferns and banana. The minerals have painted the rocks in rich colours: dried blood red, plum, seaweed green, saffron and gold. I watched it for ages, aware of how lucky I was to have it all to myself. There’s something so powerful, elemental, about seeing the ‘workings’ of the Earth, experiencing this much abused entity as a living breathing life force. It’s like a gurgle and a spit, then a puke, a vomit of revulsion perhaps at what we’ve done. But also a sense of its eternity and renewal, the smallness and short-term-ness of human nature.

Eventually I picked my way out and back on to the road where further round I came upon ‘Shangri-La Rainforest Retreat’. I’d seen the hand carved signs for this place before, it looked very exclusive but as I wandered in through the open entrance it was immediately apparent that the place was empty, forlorn. Hushed and quiet, no one around. A small sign at ground level said ‘Residents and Tour Groups only beyond this point’ which I ignored. It was a lovely space made out of the forest, bamboo cabins were scattered here and there, each within their own hidden bamboo ‘copse’, which is a gentle, elegant plant and instantly relaxes you as its long dry leaves flutter like paper.  I took a closer look at the cabins, empty. Nobody. I looked inside, beds upturned, furniture in disarray. Good wicker and wood furniture, the cabins well designed and made. Confusing because the place was not destitute, just empty and neglected.

I walked on into the forest, there was a track and timber steps down, taking me past a couple of hot springs where I lingered to take in their strange beauty. I could hear the river below and then I was suddenly upon it, through a clearing and there before me were a series of hot pools carved from rock sitting directly over small waterfalls gushing over boulders. It was stunning. Washing himself in one of the pools was a young guy from the village who called out to me to join him. Not having my swimsuit with me, I played shy, sat on the edge and took in the gorgeous surroundings: rainforest all around us. We had a short conversation, shouted over the noise of the river, he said ‘I want to go and have a new life in London!’ when he found out where I was from. I laughed. Here he was soaking himself in clean natural hot pools on a fast flowing river in the rainforest. And he wants to be in London. I thought of London and what it would do to this sweet natural boy. Then he told me he’d just had a confrontation with two big snakes, ‘only five minutes ago!’ with one, unusually, rearing up at him as if to attack. He’d taken a stick to scare it away. He assured me they’d be gone now as the sun was going down. Then he came over and told me all about the place. He’d helped build it, he made the stone walls. I complemented him on how well crafted they were, he was pleased. I asked him what happened here, why is this beautiful place totally deserted and unkempt? He answered that a guy from Tenessee had it built but that he’d ‘fallen and hit his head and died’ the year before. So now ‘there’s a Rasta that lives here’. It was unclear if the Rasta was there to take care of the place or had just taken advantage of a free place to live. Who can blame him. Having seen the poverty a lot of these people are living in I don’t know why others haven’t moved into these nice cabins in the forest. I guess ‘squatting’ is not the Dominican way.

The pools, though, have become a ‘free for all’ for those who know, the villagers, rather than an exclusive retreat. There’s some kind of redemption in that sad tale I suppose, I mean, the air of an unrealised grand project, a dream, hangs over the place, but people are enjoying it still. Those people are probably some of the poorest because when the guy directed a way back up, across the river at its shallowest point, I arrived at the back end of the village, an area of small,  shabby shacks of corrugated iron that I hadn’t come across before, hidden away behind banana plantation. So these people come to the river to wash everyday and to the hot ‘exclusive’ pools to soak in the warmth of healing waters, to soak away the toil of their day.

After my young friend left I did of course get into those pools, in my underwear and it was absolute bliss. I plan to return and spend the morning there (this time with swimsuit) before I have to make the long road trip back to the airport.

How can I tear myself away from here? I have found my very own ‘Shangri-La’.


There’s a rubber tree across from my balcony that’s so tall I can barely glimpse the top of it. I walked round to have a look at its trunk, it seems to have many trunks, all clamped together, a beautiful russet brown. Its leaves are thick, fresh and glossy, great clusters of them end with a long pointed red stalk and there are millions of them. I think of the ubiquitous office pot plant, the rubber plant, so easy to look after and so bland. We’re so ‘fobbed off’ in the West. That sad bland plant in a terracotta plant in your aunt’s living room is just a tiny fragment of a huge, ginormous, majestic tree that grows in the rainforest. We take bits of nature, other people’s nature, stolen bits of nature, and use them to give our homes and offices a bit of ‘life’ as they gather dust in the corner.

Let me tell you, there are so many greens here, greens and greens and greens, layers of green. So much beauty I can hardly stand it. Leaves of every shape and size – massive leaves that sweep the floor, tiny clusters of heart shaped leaves, great dangly ferns, long almond shaped leaves, leaves like fingers and toes…every tree has many other plant species sprouting from its branches and trunks, generously supporting so much other life. These trees have massive exposed roots that spread way down river banks and form an exact mirror of the branch structure above which can give you vertigo when you try and ‘frame’ the tree, try and see it in its entirety, you can’t, it’s impossible, you cannot see all of it all at once, it’s too tall, too wide, too deep in its roots. The roots and branches are like elephant skin, wrinkled and calloused in places but smooth and green with moss.

I spent the morning with an artist, Ras David they call him here. He has an impromptu gallery of paintings on the bright green outside walls of his house. He also grows flowers, exotic lillies, the ones that with a rude protrusion in glossy red, pink, white and mauve. They’re growing amidst upturned coconut husks that protect them from the heavy downpours. The coconuts come from his plantation up in the hills where he likes to spend a lot of his time. When I politely thank him for his time he said ‘Time? I always have time, time has no meaning for me!’ When I invite him to come to Tortola for the arts festival he said ‘Oh I don’t travel, I like to stay right here’. Yet his six grown-up children are living in all parts of the world. He has a large fish pond next to the lilly garden, where he likes to sit and pass the day watching the golden Japanese fish. I join him, and as I watch the fish swimming and rising to the surface it’s as if the whole world’s in slow motion.

The ‘bachelor in a bandana’ (‘I need a wife!’ I need a wife!) is swinging a machete menacingly outside on the road. He has loose thin limbs and sways every time he takes a nonchalant swipe at the undergrowth. He’s been at the same spot all day but no none seems to care, no one hassles him to get the job done. He’s infinitely distracted by any passerby or vehicle, stops and calls out, cusses the world a bit, then carries on with his ‘work’.

The ‘Snakeman’ never speaks. Ras David speaks so kindly of him. He says he’s a young guy, not long out of school, he’s known him since he was ‘this high’ and holds his flat palm just off the ground. He says he’s watched him handle the snake, that he’s cool with the snake, as he washes the snake’s bag (but never his own clothes), the Boa Constrictor slithers around his legs as if with affection. I find it a touching picture, this silent, filthy, ragged guy, who’s apparently lost his mind, finding communion with a large snake. But has he lost his mind? He certainly knows when the cruise ships are in – Wednesday he’s always there with his snake to pocket some tourist dollars.

Brenda the Venda so Tender’s shop was all closed up today, I missed her and her cheery ‘Love is all you need’ chat. So I went down to her brother’s place, ‘Screws’, I was going get a drink or something and hang out with the Roots vibe but a fierce rattling at a small corrugated iron box, the size of a small cupboard, its door padlocked and chained, made me start. Through the gap in the door, alarmingly sharp teeth and a nose desperately trying to smell the air and every now and then the creature threw itself hard against the metal with frightening force. I imagined it a hyena or something equally wild and terrifying. When I asked,  they said it’s a Pitbull Terrier, that they keep it locked up in there because ‘some people don’t like dogs’. They’re running a ‘relaxing spa’ for tourists. The poor dog is slammed up all day long in that filthy box, no room even for it to turn round, he barks and howls hoarsely all day and half the night. Something about that metal box, the cruelty, the fear of what would happen if that ‘thing’ escaped, was too much, I didn’t stay around. All the Roots Reggae vibes in the world are not going to ease my mind away from that wretched animal.

As I write dozens of pretty little yellow Banana Quits are picking off the remnants of breakfast. They’re Dominica’s ‘sparrows’ really, common little birds, cheeky, nervous birds, if you turn away from your food, even for a minute, they’re on it.

Over breakfast the local radio was going haywire with a big drama going on in town at the High School. A couple of days ago a young teacher was stabbed in the head with a plank of wood with a nail in it by a teenage student. Apparently no action was taken by the school so today the students have occupied the school and demanded that the student be excluded, that something happens. It takes a lot to rile these people, they are so incredibly laid back but this is intense.

There are all these places I know I should be seeing: The Emerald Pool, The Boiling Pool, the Valley of Desolation (the place that interests me most actually)…but I haven’t ‘done’ any of them. Because I know what will happen, they’ll be full of tourists, oh I know they’ll be spectacular, and I know I’m being obstinate, obtuse, in not going. Truth is I’m just really loving being in the village, chatting to these lovely people, getting to know a tiny bit of their lives and in that way trying to understand just a little about Dominica. I’ve done so many of the ‘sights’ around the world, yeah, they’re in the travel guides because they’re amazing…but what do you do there? Take photos as evidence you were there, alongside a load of other visitors. It’s so hard to have your own ‘experience’. But just stopping awhile, taking the time to hang out with people a little, that’s what I love to do, particularly when you’re traveling alone, a way to ‘get connected’, otherwise it can all pass you by like snapshots, you find yourself sliding off the surface of things, nothing ‘taking hold’.

When I was last here, 22 years ago, I did the same, in another village, and thought: well, I’ll come back another time and do the hikes, the sights…and I came back and still didn’t do any of it.

If I think of ‘Paradise’ I think more of ‘Paradise Lost’. Being here, you can’t help but think of what we’ve lost. Close community, living in harmony with nature, appreciating the good, simple things in life, like plucking a ripe fruit from a tree…it’s a poor place and I know it’s a well worn cliche – but they have so much, so very much, that we in the West have lost.

The village is truly alive this evening: the Baptists are in a revelry – singing loud and clear, then babbling in tongues as if possessed, raging their devotion to The Lord. There’s another kind of loud music playing from people’s yards and houses, people congregate and hang out together, young and old. Boys kick footballs, girls dance. There’s a growing carnival vibe, ‘Jump Up’ Soca music is pumping up the adrenaline, then a bit of quiet and the frogs and crickets start up…at the weekend these gentle people are going to let rip in a riotous expression of lust for life. I know, I was there last time I came – it was intense, crazy, a blur of bodies, colour, sweat and pulsing rhythm.

A one time experience that I’m relieved I don’t feel the need to repeat…

Dominica is the greenest most ‘unspoilt’ of the Caribbean islands because of its rocky unforgiving coastline; its lack of sandy beaches and natural harbours meant the early settlers found it too demanding to fully colonise, the high mountainous interior also kept them away. So it escaped the ‘stripped bare’ and mass planting of sugar cane most of the other islands had to submit to. It also, for this reason, became a ‘safe haven’ for the Carib people, what was left of them, after European disease and greed wiped out most them. The Spanish labelled them ‘Cannibals’ because of certain ritualistic practices that may or may not have involved some form of human sacrifice. It was a great piece of propaganda as it gave them the ‘God given’ right to massacre them as ‘sub-human’. When the Carib Canoe project, Gli Gli, originating from the Carib Territory here in Dominica, successfully ‘connected up’ isolated pockets of Carib communities by sailing island to island in 1996, new awareness of Carib culture developed.

This culminated in something of a cultural ‘coup’ – they convinced the Oxford English Dictionary to change its definitions of ‘Carib’ and ‘Cannibal’. Up until that time it had read: ‘Carib – see Cannibal’ and ‘Cannibal – see Carib’. Which was a blatant colonial untruth, a meaningless stereotype and much out of place in today’s revisionist ways of understanding the world’s peoples. To actually force change on negative, destructive language, that was integral to an early form of ‘ethnic cleansing’ , in the world’s most authoritative dictionary of the English language seems to me a great achievement.

I’m holed up in Wotten Waven, a tiny village on a winding road up into the hills, just before the road runs out and in you’re in rain forest. Which means when it rains it’s torrential, hammering on the corrugated iron roof, until next morning the heat soaks up the wet, the rivers roar (all 365 of them), everything glistens green lushness and gorgeousness. When you find yourself in an overabundance of nature like this, and most of the plants are entirely unfamiliar, it’s overwhelming, your senses reel, joyfulness!

Every morning I plunge into a hot sulphur pool, specks of gold float on the surface of the water, a river rushes below, mango, grapefruit, bamboo, cocoa and coffee trees above. You emerge totally relaxed with soft skin and clean lungs from breathing in the steamy air. When I go walking I can pick grapefruit from the trees, big, fat, sweet grapefruits, not the mean, bitter thin-skinned ones at home, these have thick, soft, easy to peel skin that reveals pink-yellow flesh that’s heavy with juice.

This is an area of natural hot springs, volcanic activity, which is why I’m here because since discovering Iceland I’ve become a bit addicted to soaking in hot pools. People here just connect pipes from the natural bubbling springs and create their own pools from rocks in their backyard. Very irie.

Beautiful to see the steam rising through the banana trees and shafts of sunlight in the mornings. The whole place smells of that characteristic ‘bad egg’ sulphur smell you grow to love in natural volcanic spring areas…it’s a tropical Iceland, all of nature flourishing, transforming, reminding you it’s alive at every moment with its bubbling, gushing and burping from deep underground.

I decided to stay in one place for a few days, rather than attempt traveling around, get to know faces and names. People here are open and love to chat so I’ve met most of the ‘characters’  here already. ‘Brenda the Venda so Tender’ runs the shackshop on the junction. She sells delicious coconut cake and plantain chips and everyone comes to her for a chat, she wears a big red T shirt proclaiming the greatness of God. Her brother has a hot spa called ‘Screws’, there are big hand-painted wooden signs saying ‘Screw’ and ‘Irie Man Screw’ in rasta colours, all the way up the hill. I haven’t tried his place yet.

Christopher the musician lost his leg in a car accident and now hops  on crutches, painfully, slowly, up the hill, waits at the entrance to the waterfalls all day to try and sell his bamboo flutes that he plays so expertly. Trouble is, who can master a bamboo flute? Bob the Snake Man is a young guy who stands at the bend at the bottom of the village dressed in stinking rags with dreadlocks piled up high on his head like an Indian Sadhu. He has a 6ft long thick snake wrapped round his shoulders and a glazed expression on his lovely face, he waits for the tourist minibuses to stop for a photo opportunity and a few dollars. When I ask about him, I’m told he lives with his mother, smokes a lot of weed, people give him clothes but he likes to wear the same old filthy ones. The guy who sweeps the terrace with a swathe of branches, bent right over, one jeans leg rolled up to the side he’s sweeping, a stripy metallic pencil behind one ear, a cocktail stick in his mouth, he always straightens up and calls out when I pass:

‘Hey – you single? I need a wife! I’m a bachelor! I need a wife and kids!’

Tia runs the Bamboo Cottages I’m staying in. A handsome dreadlocked guy (actually, all the Dominican guys are very handsome, the women too, they’re just a beautiful people, clear skinned, bright eyed, must be the air and the fruit) who looks permanently anxious and when he speaks, slowly, everything is very ser-i-ous and he repeats things a lot in case I don’t get it the first time. He lies in a hammock watching crap TV in the afternoons. I would say he’s a heavy ganga smoker. Tia may have his name on the business card as being ‘Manager and Proprietor’, he may have built these brilliantly simple, rustic bamboo structures, but it’s two formidable women that run the place, his wife and sister, and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have got this place up and running without them. They run tings. 

When I first came to Dominica I was told it’s a matriarchal society, ie the property and land pass down through the female line. With the emigration of young guys from these islands this makes perfect sense to me – the women stay put and hold things together while the guys are wandering the States or West London or wherever.

They say you shouldn’t go back, and I rarely re-visit special places again because you know they’ll have changed and wipe your memories from before. But today I went back to Trafalgar Falls after 22 years to find most of the village of unrecognisable. When I was there all the talk was of the plans for a big hydroelectric station to be built there, to harness the power of the water, there was massive local protest because the waterfalls are incredibly special, geologically speaking, and to the national cultural identity. The reason being they are really high ‘twin’ waterfalls: one cold, one hot as it’s fed by a hot underground spring – they’re referred to as ‘Mother and Daughter’, they are mythical.

Ras Eddy John, the artist we stayed with all that time ago, painted the waterfalls again and again as if he could ‘fix’ them in time – I suppose that’s what all artist do really. When we there, all those years ago, the village was a free, natural place, kids played and swam in the clean gushing river below the falls, we joined them everyday, there was so much laughter, everyone felt a part of the place. There weren’t so many tourists then, but the local young guys all acted as impromptu guides to show people the hidden ways behind the falls and through the boulders to crystal clear deep pools – they weren’t hustling for dollars, you could give them a donation or not, a rare thing, everyone was just hanging out there.

Now. The village that just had a dirt track has a smooth tarmac road that leads all the way to…a hydroelectric power station that hides the waterfalls. Mother and Daughter are invisible. You climb up behind the station until you come to a big wooden structure. The ‘entrance’ to the falls. You have to pay now. There are tourist buses, and rows of drinks fridges and a bar and a souvenir shop. Of course there are. I’m so bitter at what they’ve done I refuse to pay and just fall in with a tour group to get through the gate, we’re led along a well-marked, stepped forest trail until we finally reach a viewing platform. OK none of this is a surprise really, I know how it works, I’m just so lucky to have experienced this truly magical place before Corporate intervention. It’s what happens. Beyond the platform, a sign warning you continue at your own risk, which most people do, and clamber around the slippery rocks and pools with their wobbly white bodies and swim in the water and photograph each other with the falls behind them. The boulders were the same, the pools were the same, the falls, as far as I could remember, were the same, though locals say they don’t run with the same fierceness as they did. I suppose they’re just grateful that their worst fears were not realised: the falls drying up completely.

As for the vibe, as for the locals, there are none. No village children playing in the pools, no one hanging out, Dominicans worship their Nature Island but now it’s just tourists, who’ve paid for the privilege. Sickening.

These falls no longer belong to the people, that’s clear.

‘I goin’ off-island for a lil’ lime…’

LIAT is the Caribbean airline and it typifies the region – the locals refer to it as: L.eave I.sland A.ny T.ime. Love that. They leave late, they leave early, they leave your baggage on the wrong island…it arrives a few days later, if you’re lucky. It reminds me of ‘Coconut Airlines’ from that old 70’s song:

‘whoah we’re going to Barbados’

with the ‘pilot’ telling his passengers about the ‘sunny Caribbean Sea’…The reason that song’s always been lodged in my brain is because in 1974 my parents decided to drive to Spain with three kids in a silver blue Corsair..without stopping and we only had one cassette for the battery operated portable cassette player – and that song was on a loop for two days and two nights. A few years later, ‘Dreadlock Holiday’  put The Caribbean into our mindmaps again. We used to sing it quietly but menacingly in RE lessons at school, then build into a crescendo, en masse, reducing our poor teacher to sweating palpitations:

‘I don’t like cricket -ah. oh no. I love it-ah. oh yeah. Don’t like Jamaica, ah. no, I love it…’ wha???

Complete nonsense. But maybe I was always destined to be in the Caribbean, the stereotype being lodged in (my) popular culture.

Re-reading the above I must be experiencing a bit of  ‘island madness’. Like the life or death moment in the film of the book ‘Touching the Void’ when our protagonist is dragging himself across mountains barely alive with, inexplicably, Boney M’s ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’ on repeat in his head.

So I’m taking a break from Tortola, just as a certain ennui has taken hold…I know I can check in on Facebook, whatever, but you feel cut off from the world in a very physical sense if you stay ‘on island’ too long. The raw sewage stench is really getting to me…funny how you don’t notice such things the first few weeks then..it sits in the back of your nose and throat and stomach. We sat out on the roof terrace of a bar-restaurant in town last night, it’s known to be the best food in town (if you’re white) and over the daquiries and mojitos we sat and steeped in revolting sewage from the open drains below. Now I notice it everywhere and it’s starting to get to me. The garbage is everywhere too, open skips by the roadside, a mecca for rats. Even the Bay has grungy sunken plastic dinghys emerging from the surface wherever you look and old fibreglass boats with broken motors and gaping holes sit lopsided where bush meets sea.

Strange nature. Hot and still days now, when the wind drops out come the ‘no see ‘ums’ (sandflies)…frigate birds circle ominously over head like teradactyls…my friend has a frozen Cuban frog in a plastic bag in his freezer as it’s the best way to kill them, and they MUST be killed before they kill off the entire population of indigenous Cookie frogs. Meanwhile, I see it’s below freezing in Europe…My last workshop threatened to cancel in torrential downpours but I was determined that the show should to go on,so we ‘went with the flow’ and I improvised massively. A bunch of local kids joined in..I helped along as best I could, ‘me canna draw she foot’ one little boy said, so I showed him how to draw her foot and he was happy. Cats and tourists prowled around the group to have a closer look…not the easiest of circumstances I’ve worked in but memorable.

That bar the other night was whiter than white. Guys in Polo shirts and smart haircuts: bankers, lawyers and such like. They’ve all done good out here. It’s pretty troublesome to be in the Caribbean and find yourself in an all-white bar. Only 10% of the population are white, they run the charter boat companies and resorts and the blacks clean ’em. It’s so endemic even the schools seem segregated with all the whites at the private ‘International School’. It’s the ‘island magnification’ process at work again, …it’s a microcosm of everything that happens everywhere, I know.

That morning I found myself at the BVI Agricultural Show in the grounds of the college. The displays of prize-winning fruit and vegetables were pretty sparse. But in full-attendance were all the island’s school children (except the white private school) in immaculate uniform and the pensioners, bussed in for the occasion, plus the disabled in wheelchairs for a captive audience. They were forced to endure, in the kind of heat where you dare not move and still the sweat trickles down your back, more than an hour of posturing propaganda from Government officials (Freemasons all), spouting the party line in monotone voices with not a shred of empathy for their audience. It was like North Korea. Best moment was when the high school steel band played

‘Get up, Stand up, Stand up for your Rights’

in a joyful rhythm of steel pulse as a kind of riposte to all their empty platitudes.

I did a round island tour – discovered up West there’s some Rasta reality going on – ‘Nature Boy’ beach and ‘Bomba Shack’, a fantastic colourful mishmash of recycled bits of wood and flotsam and jetsom, digestible rasta culture for the tourists. Then there’s the ‘Shell Museum’, more of a madman’s cell, housed in a grey concrete half-built house, hand-painted signage on old bits of wood, cover every available wall space. They’re mostly bitter messages to his ex-wife and biblical prophecies, a Caribbean ‘Bob and Roberta Smith’, someone should recreate it in every detail as a Tate Modern installation and need to be read aloud with West Indian intonation for best effect:

Shell Man is in the Place now

Miss Joan was a rude woman. what do you think a man love more than food. sex.

British Love Man

Columbus lie. he try to fool the people. that he did not see anyone. but he had to run like hell.

the man with the golden gun in his hand jump with joy to see how much he never have in his hand. but o God he never share. I have so much but my soul is lost

a man can run but he cannot hide

if he have a lovely lady do not get her mad

Jice asked her husband when you die where go. down. shame.

Betty say she want a man. Joe give her she

o dear little boy. no one want to be my friend. you play like a hog

o no said the old man. life is so hard

So I’m at tiny Tortola airport… where you can walk out to the beach in two minutes. We have a 19 seater plane, people are casually boarding in shorts and flip flops. (You still have to take off your flip flops at Security though. What could you possible hide ‘in’ a flip flop??) I recognise the pilot from a drunken bar the week before, he leaves the terminal and strides purposefully towards the aircraft. The plane is so small that I am in a single seat right at the front and the the cockpit door is open – I can see the pilot’s hands operating the controls. Unnerving, seeing the actual hands that your life is in…and to be able to greet him with ‘Hi Luke!’

The roar and vibration of the engines of this small metal container silences us, until, an hour or so later, we have Dominica in our sights and as we draw closer to the lush green land everyone gets very excited, they’re home-comers returning for Carnival, for the ‘Jump Up’. One guy starts shouting: ‘Nature Island!’ and a woman: ‘Paradise ! It’s Paradise!’ – the love and affection for this country is palpable and infectious. We skirt the top of the rainforest canopy, the variety and richness of the trees is gorgeous, the plane turns to face a sudden flat strip, makes an immediate drop and quickly lands before the strip runs out (or the pilot loses his nerve) and we’re in the ocean. Applause. People can’t wait to get out of the plane, making exclamations about the beautiful unpolluted air.

Once out, I ignore the taxis and ask around for a bus, I get very vague answers and gestures to go ‘up the road’…I walk the stretch of ultra modern highway, through a barrier…and then I’m out into a poor country, mangy dog, roadside shacks, hand-painted advertising…and suddenly I realise I’m travelling and I have to work things out. I have no guide book, nothing. I’ve arrived and now I have to be resourceful. It’s what I like to do. I drift around for half an hour but it’s unclear when a bus might come, if ever and it’s getting hot. Then a minibus taxi pulls up and I concede the ride with a bunch of people who I recognise are all from my plane.

We drive diagonally right across the island, which, although only 30 miles long, is so mountainous that the trip takes an hour and a half of meandering twisting road. The riotous guy from the plane gets more excited by the minute and yells an animated conversation across the seats with the driver about all the changes to the island in the 3 years since he was last there. They talk of the Chinese economic takeover and point out Chinese land and construction along the way, about roads that have been washed away by all the rain, about who owns this shack or that corner store…it’s fascinating and exhausting. Then he insists we stop for fresh young green coconuts as we all have to ‘take coconut water’ to be with nature – they’re expertly cut by a young Carib guy with a machete, delicious, sweet and refreshing, the meat inside is like a soft jelly not yet set, you scoop it out with a spoon shaped piece of shell. We’re in the middle of the Carib Territory, the largest community of Carib people in the Caribbean. There are lots of roadside stalls selling beautiful handicrafts, basket-ware, carved calabashes, the stuff that my friend Aragorn sells in Tortola on their behalf. It looks more ‘right’ here though.

The exuberance and love of the Dominicans for their homeland is inspiring. One of the poorest Caribbean countries, they emigrate widely, but the Carnival homecoming brings them back for just a week or two, from all over the world. I think of the more ‘confused’ (oppressed?) black community of Tortola, you rarely experience, what feels like, this true Caribbean vibe. At the back of the taxi is a young guy returning from the States, he’s being teased for his American accent, ‘talk Dominican!’ they all implore, when he breaks into dialect it’s met with shrieks of laughter and affirmation that he’s truly home. We drop him off in town, to a cluster of family all waiting under a yellow awning outside the family business, there are fist to fist greetings from the men, kisses from the women and hugs from the children, he’s sheepish and overwhelmed.

I change money up in the bank  -I’m now on Eastern Caribbean Dollars, they have the Queen’s face beaming regally on them. Then I find a bus up the valley to the hot springs area where I plan to stay, I’m crammed in with all the school kids who’ve just piled out of school at 1pm.  One guy has my rucksack on one knee as there’s nowhere else for it to go and I’m too far into the opposite corner to rescue it, and a small girl on his other knee. It’s unclear if he’s related to her in any way, everyone just takes care of everyone else and I’m reminded of the saying

‘It takes a village to raise a child’

Every time someone needs to get out, pretty much the whole bus has to rearrange itself, but everyone’s extremely goodnatured and laid back about the cramped circumstances. How can you not love this country?

I have been to Dominica before, 22 years ago. We were here for carnival and stayed with an artist we met by chance when his nephew offered us his guide services at the famous Trafalgar waterfalls. The artist was Ras Eddy John and he sadly died a number of years ago. But we stayed in touch for a long time, he painted strange folk/surreal paintings of Jesus as a Rasta. The only time I met him again, after Dominica, was when he came to London for his father’s funeral. His father had died unexpectedly when his best friend stabbed him, reportedly over a hard fought, all night game of dominoes. They were both old men who’d lived in West London for decades. I went to the family wake, I was the only white person there and was made so welcome, I remember it was over by Wormwood Scrubs, I was living in Brixton at the time and the bus home took forever…

So I’ve landed myself a kind of retreat for a few days, in the hills above the capital Roseau, ‘Tia’s Bamboo Cottages’ in Wotten Waven. I am, indeed, in a bamboo house with a balcony that looks through the trees that hover right above, seemingly hundreds of feet high, there are grapefruit trees, coconut, huge ferns, hanging vines and rubber plants, plants that look like the ‘pot plants’ you see in your local garden centre with exotic looking leaves, except these are massive trees with vast canopies of foliage. The smell of sulphur permeates everything, the rocks are stained saffron and it’s raining soft wet rain pretty continually. That’s the rainforest for you. Gorgeousness. Below my forest balcony are a series of hot rock pools fed by the natural hot springs that you can soak in to your heart’s content, with a river running further below and a waterfall above.

I don’t use the word ‘Eden’ lightly but this is as close as it gets.

From the bed in my new house I can look straight out to sea through open doors without moving a limb or craning my neck. I’m on a level with the ocean and I’m watching the sky streak pink and darken as I write. I realise it’s getting dark later, in the month I’ve been here. The Cookie frog’s singing ‘coo-kie. coo-kie’. Just returned from an end of the day stroll on the beach below with the dogs. The beach is called ‘Lava Flow’ and there is indeed a stretch of porous rock that looks just like the black lava fields of Iceland, except this rock has tiny stripy shells embedded in its bubbly holes.

‘Lava Flow’ is just one of the many bays around this 21 square miles of island, they have evocative names that suggest natural phenomena or historical narratives: Trunk Bay (‘Trunk’ is turtle, it’s where they come up and lay their eggs), Shark Bay (speaks for itself) Carrot Bay, Cooten, Josiah’s, Fat Hogs, Paraquita, Fish, Sea Cow, Cane Garden,  Apple Bay, then Smugglers Cove, Soper’s Hole, Frenchman’s Cay and Nanny Cay. Trunk Bay, where I am, is private land that’s been sold off in exclusive pieces. The plan, eventually I’m told, is for a gated community. To me, this smacks of segregation, people living behind walls and intercoms…you build walls to keep people out but walls also keep you in and breed paranoia and mistrust.

Three large black dogs are my newly adopted family that come with the house-sit. There’s Ralph, leader of the pack, top dog, with his swaggering rolling gait and way of leaning right into me for affection and howling at me if he doesn’t get any. A typical Caribbean guy. Then Frankie, his half-brother and partner in crime, rather more handsome but doesn’t have Ralph’s charisma. Gertie’s Ralph’s mother and Frankie’s sister, she hangs back when we’re out walking and is always last at the dinner bowl. Ralph, half as big as her again, an overgrown puppy, expresses his ferocious love for  her by barging into her violently, taking her neck into his jaws and growling at her face. He reminds me of my son. They take themselves to the beach every morning and pretty much spend the day there, frolicking in the surf, you can see them from the headland high above, three black spots on a white beach. They only return home for dinner. What a life. They sleep on the terrace outside my room every night and when I open up the doors and step out into the morning I’m slobbered with wet kisses. I feel very safe with the pack guarding the house which stands open to the elements 24/7.

The house overhangs the bay, the Atlantic Ocean pounds the rocks all night and day. When the bigger waves build up they make big booms and the house shudders and shakes. My heart is racing at a different rate. The pounding waves are in my head, my stomach. Cannot sleep. Like being in a boat at sea, no calm, no respite. Turns out the house is built over a cave, which explains the BOOM. It reminds me of the ‘blowhole’ at Boscastle harbour in Cornwall. My room at Good Moon Farm was incredibly tranquil, this is like being thrown into the Perfect Storm. The waves erode your calm, they keep on coming and batter you into submission. on rough nights I resort to earplugs for a tiny bit of inner peace.

I reckon I could make house-sitting out here a lifestyle. There’s a lot of comings and goings, people need their houses taken care of in their absence. I could ‘sit’ those houses indefinitely. Maybe.

I did another couple of drawing workshops on the beach. We documented the afternoon session with time lapse photography, with really interesting results: a whole time based process is compressed into a minute or so. A drawing emerges from nothing, that’s the magic, the hidden process behind the end product, what you don’t usually get to see. In the frame you see the drawing and the model, and behind, the movements of the beach. Now and again my hand comes into view offering instruction. In other sequences I’m flitting around from student to student, suggesting poses next to the model, managing the group, making demonstrations…I’ve never seen myself ‘teach’ before, fascinating.

People are saying, ‘Oh I hadn’t realised you’re only here for a short time now, that you’ve only got a couple of weeks left’. Please don’t remind me. There comes that point in a trip when you’re over halfway through and your thoughts turn to home after having so successfully ‘switched off’. At the start of a trip endless time seems to stretch before you, then seems to catch up with you until you’re counting the days and each one becomes so very precious. I’ve only a short time left on the island to make an impact. Already I’m ‘famous’…every person I meet says ‘Oh you’re that visiting artist from London doing drawing workshops’ There’s a lot to be said for being a big fish in a small pond…

So to up the anti, I did some live painting on the beach last night at the Full Moon Party. Salvaged some old bits of ‘4 by 2’ plywood, white washed them and set up on upturned chairs for makeshift easels. There were three of us, all women, we planned more of a collaboration but in the event just got so absorbed by our own stuff we ended up with three entirely individual pieces. Actually, Petra, a Berlin based artist I met just a few days ago, and who needed no encouragement to take part, produced 3 dynamic landscapes in broad washes in quick succession, recognisably the pyramid hills with their higgledy piggledy shacks and structures of  Tortola. In fact she has large abstracted paintings of Tortola all over the walls of her Berlin apartment: azure seas and lime palm trees hang over old leather sofas and polished wooden floor and jostle for space with bold line drawings of the Reichstag. Great culture clash.

It was the most fun I’ve had with a paintbrush for a long time. Well, since we painted the beach huts on the South Bank, which was similarly in public, but not at night under the full moon with a ragga band playing and four fire balls alight and spitting sparks into the wind. Not to mention the drunken hoardes. A couple of  ‘Dark and Stormy’ cocktails helped things along and three hours later I’d produced something pseudo Basquiat: cavorting female forms, a bit of Caribbean colour…vaguely reminiscent of my work but through the filter of strong rum and show(wo)manship. I mostly ignored the bizarre feedback I got all night, people asking (very politely): what style of art was I making? and: what was I ‘trying’ to do here? and: what’s the message??

One guy suggested we were all on mushrooms and having a psychedelic experience. Natural highs, I assured him.

Which reminds me of the psychedelic cat story I heard yesterday:

Cats freak out when they eat lizards. Apparently lizards eat some kind of poisonous plant and when they, in turn, are consumed by cats it has a hallucinogenic effect. So you see cats around here all wild eyed, spitting and tensing up. Presumably they enjoy the effect because cats eat lizards regularly.

Loving the random people this island throws up: it’s a transient kind of place, people pass through, you never know who you’re going to meet next and because there’s the Caribbean ‘easy’ vibe people do connect up. The small scale of the place means people are in close proximity, you could be standing next to anyone at the bar, a multi millionaire, Richard Branson’s PA,  an owner of an airline…or a beach bum fugitive, because everyone’s in shorts, Tshirts and flip flops.

One of the coolest person I’ve met yet is a Belgium woman who jumped a boat from St Martin. We saw her at The Last Resort the other night. She sings like a dark angel, Portishead covers, whilst strumming a ukelele held high on her chest…a troubadour. She lives in a caravan in Belgium and has recently made a study of urban fox behaviour in London, our confrontation with The Wild…we promised each other we’d come back for the winter.

The ‘Last Resort’ is a one acre island and restaurant that sits in the middle of Trellis bay. It is legendary for its raucous nights…we decided to uphold the tradition on Friday night with seriously competitive table football (never play an Italian woman – they are unbeatable). After the tourists ‘go home’ ie back to their boats by 11pm (boating people like to make an early morning start) it becomes a ‘after hours lock-in’ with unlimited access to a well stocked bar and music selection. At the end of the night you all pile into a drunken overloaded boat with serious steering problems, veering and teetering back across the bay between moored boats and pray you make it…

I now have the use of a jeep; scary but fun. Big stonky ‘tractor’ wheels on rough tracks, gradients so steep I can hardly see over the bonnet as we go up, up, over the brow of an unexpected hill then down at an impossible angle, riding the brakes to the scent of burning rubber. I just have to get to know the roads now, remember to stay on the left, (even though they’re left hand drive cars so the passenger always has the unnerving experience of facing the oncoming traffic) and the hairpin bends and enormous potholes that threaten to kill the suspension and shake up your vital organs. I can drive myself round the island, queen of the road, local radio jabbering away exuberantly announcing the high of 80 degrees, the wind and surf stats, before deliciously smooth reggae harmonies ease me down to the nearest beach:

‘Strengthen your mind…we’re living in ser-ious times…myst-er-ious times – we’re living in ser-ious times…’

Nice.

Whilst brushing my teeth last night I realised I was being watched. By ET. A little face above the mirror with big round black eyes. It was a creamy yellow colour with the kind of cute baby creature face that stares out from the cover of Richard Attenbrough books and looks very interested in you, the viewer. Startled, I tried to take a closer look at it, then it slowly slunk down behind the frame like a child behind a school desk when they’ve been found out. It was a very large frog. I didn’t feel I could sleep with that thing in my room all night, I wondered if it could be poisonous, the size of it was pretty alarming. So I bravely, (I thought), opened the window wide, lifted the heavy mirror off the wall and holding it horizontally attempted to encourage the thing off the back of it. It had that frog ability to squash itself flat so its body was barely raised from the flat mirror back, it looked like a large flattish stone. I grabbed a glass and gave it a nudge and it leapt off into the night, stretched out to its full length it must have been 6 inches long. Next morning 10 year old Ceiba informs me this is a Cuban frog and that they spit poison..and eat all the native frogs. ET go home…

It’s rats I have a real problem with. Everyone seems to keep cats here to keep the rats at bay – the open style of the houses here warrant that. As my friend rooted around in a skip for wood the other day, rats leapt out from a hole near the base one after another after another, like the proverbial sinking ship. Now I get play back on the image everyday. My stomach heaves every time I see a rat – it’s the way they move, it’s their long tales…(my dad used to say my long hair was like ‘rats tales’ if I didn’t brush it when I was a child) it’s the fact that I know they’re everywhere, slinking around in the dark and the filth – it’s the fact that they live off us. 

My first real encounter was in the night food market though in Bankok. Great fat rats dragging their extended belies slowly around, under your chair, between your feet, around your table while you ate. In Singapore (of all places; the most ‘sterile’ of Asian states) my boyfriend stood on a rat in flipflops (not a rat in flipflops…) which was horrific not comic. Then during months in India I had to confront my fear head on. The rats there were often the size of small cats and fearless, enjoying their noble status as ‘revered beings’. I was being served at a Post Office counter once in Delhi as the biggest rat I’d ever seen slowly made its way along the parcel shelf behind the guy’s head – I was completely transfixed, couldn’t take my eyes off it, it was so incongruous to see a rat in an office setting and no one taking any notice of it. Except me.

When I come into my room at night large brown crickets leap off the floor, bed, chair, strange beetles scuttle around the sink, and giant moths, the size of bats smack into the lights, ghekkos slink up the walls or make decorative shapes motionless. I like ghekkos, they have fat little bodies and there’s something human about their muscular thighs, their tiny toes that cling to every surface like Spiderman, they’re pretty. They have lizards made from copper, on T shirt designs, made of wood and carved on to calabashes in the studio because they’re lovely things to draw, they make curly spiral shapes.

I don’t consider myself too squeamish, having traveled alone through Asia and Central America, I’ve had to deal with a variety of ‘un-named fears’ along the way. But being alone in dark unfamiliar places with creatures of the night has always been my biggest challenge. As an adult it’s hard to admit you’re afraid of the dark. But I am. I only really conquered it when I became a parent and suddenly you have to be fearless, a superhero in every situation. When my son was little he’d wander around the house in the dark like he had cats eyes, I was amazed at his fearlessness. Whereas being plunged into darkness is a fear I’ve always had; movies always play on this, the (female) victim’s always in the dark and you want to scream at them ‘switch the light on for f**ksake!!!’

The reason I’m dwelling on all this is because in a couple of days I’m house-sitting a beautiful little house with its terrace looking right over the ocean and the rocks below, lungfuls of ozone. But I’ll be alone at the end of a long track surrounded by bush. There are often power cuts on the island. I do have three large dogs to keep my company and keep me safe though. And two Siamese cats that apparently bring half-eaten rats into the house and deposit them on the white bath mat on a regular basis. Nice.

I’m also going to have to drive myself around in a big truck, you’re ‘off-road’ much of the time on unmade pot-holed tracks here and negotiating impossibly steep gradients. The other drivers also have no road sense whatsoever, they have a habit of suddenly coming out from side streets right in front of you, or the classic Caribbean style of simply stopping in the middle of the road without warning to pick up/drop off or simply chat. Everyone uses their horn, there’s a range of sounds, a kind of coded vocabulary to say hello, to say goodbye, to warn you’re passing, to let some one through, to offer a ride, to move chickens/cows/goats/cats, to let a woman know you’ve noticed her…Driving around this island is going to be quite an experience. I remind myself I’m an experienced driver, hey, I drove across the USA when I was 22 – 3000 miles coast to coast, but to be in charge of what, to me, seems like a huge truck is something else. I have nightmare visions of stalling and being stuck on one of the steep hills, slowly rolling backwards because I can’t find the brakes, like one of those ‘I’m in the driver’s seat but my life is out of control’ bad dreams.

I led two drawing workshops last weekend – had 25 people turn up, an interesting mix of locals and ex-pats, the full gamut of experience and ability. What was unique about it for me was the outdoors setting, I’ve taught life drawing for over 15 years but never before on a beach. Fantastic. It took place on a semi-circular wooden stage, usually used for bands and dancers for the ‘Full Moon’ party each month. I scrounged as many chairs as I could, many were creaky old wooden woven seats, and a pile of broken fold-up chairs that we used as makeshift easels. I had two models: Jana, a beautiful Ukrainian girl who’s modelled before, and Johnny, the Carib metal worker who insisted on dressing up as a Carib Chieftan. I certainly wouldn’t ever ask anyone to ‘go native’ but it’s what he wanted to do so I ‘went with the flow’ as you do with just about everything out here. They ‘re not unclothed of course because it’s a public setting and actually the island is very conservative about nudity, being a good Christian kind of a place.

When it was his turn, Johnny made a grand theatrical entrance through double doors at the back of the stage to applause from the group. He was dressed in an orange loincloth and matching headband, his hair plaited and strung with feathers and beads, heavy wooden necklaces and various other ‘JuJu’ hung round his neck and he’d daubed markings on to his face. He looked amazing and intimidating. He posed motionless. So I got all these strong character drawings from everyone. As I watched Johnny in the beach setting, iron sculptures around him, thatched roofs of the shacks and shelters on the beach, totems and palm trees, we could have been on a Pacific island not the modern Caribbean. It was, truly, Gauguin-esque.

I have two more Saturdays of workshops – there’s definitely a hunger for cultural activities here, tourism creates a vacuum and people hanker for something ‘meaningful’ and ‘real’. Aragorn’s using the catchphrase ‘Real people doing Real things’ about the studio set-up when he’s trying to entice people over, hilarious as that sounds, he has a point. Even the cruise ships are looking for something different for their passengers these days, these are educated people who do classes and courses back home, so the concept now is an ‘Enrichment Programme’. They want to see artists/artisans at work, they want to take part. It would be nice to think the aimless vacationing, passive tourism, the suspended animation of ‘average temperature of 80 degrees’ is over…but when you see the glazed expressions on tour groups being bussed around the island to ‘viewpoints’ and invited en mass to a ‘photo opportunity’ you do wonder…That’s why I’ve always sketched wherever I’ve traveled – I have to ‘connect’ with a place – I have to try and understand it. Drawing’s a great way of trying to take it in and understand what it is you’re looking at, you’re also seen to be actively doing something which for me is really important in terms of how I’m being perceived. I’m too conscious of the incongruities to just ‘holiday’. It’s unutterably beautiful here. Yes. But. What are ‘Nature’s Little Secrets’?

What about the bleached and dying coral reefs? The mangrove trees destroyed along the coasts – mangrove is nature’s filter between land and sea, a land plant that can live in salt water. Without the mangrove, land erodes and polluting silt seeps straight into the ocean. What happens to all the garbage from this high consuming island? It’s all incinerated straight into the atmosphere and carried away by the trade winds..to pollute other islands I guess. There’s no recycling here, bottles, plastic all gets burnt.

What is it they are seeing, the holiday makers? (Funny that the word implies they are ‘making’ their own holiday which couldn’t be further from the truth). I suppose people feel they deserve a holiday because they ‘work so hard’. But they’ve never worked so hard as the people where they find themselves. Don’t give me your Free Market politics, that ‘hard work’ will surpass all – the people who work hardest in this world are the also poorest, we all know that. The people who do the least are also the wealthiest. Paradise? Paradise n’exist pas…People project their fantasies on to the Caribbean ‘Island of their Dreams’…they don’t see the  deep rooted malaise and identity crisis here.

Tourists don’t want the shock of The Real in the picture, they’re here to ‘escape’…just across the water sits St Thomas, it has the second highest guncrime in the world per capita. Here on Tortola there’s increasing gun crime and people are beginning to lock up their houses for the first time. There’s a guy who robs your house naked and oiled up so he can’t be ‘grabbed’ so I’m told. They say he’s called ‘Lightning’. Meanwhile Lucky Dube sings from a bar: ‘They don’t build no schools anymore, all they build are prisons, prisons…I am a prisoner…

This is what they want: Palm trees? check. Bob Marley? check. Rum cocktail beach bar? check. Pastel plantation houses? check. Hammocks? check. Sailing? check. Coconuts and bananas? check. Surf, sun and sand? check. Drifters, beach bums? check. Rastaman vibrations? (in an easily digestible form of course) check. Poverty, unemployment, migration? check. Crackheads with trembling limbs shuffling down Main St? check. Hang on a minute, that wasn’t in the brochure of my dreams!?!?

Time stretches itself like elastic out here…This island sucks you in and sucks up time. Life’s a beach. People come for months and stay for years. There are no real seasons – it might be windier, wetter but the temperature hardly wavers. The sun always shines and the sea’s always the clearest, most beautiful of azure blues.

This island is surrounded by many other islands; mountainous green peaks rise from the blue on every side and seem to multiply, their pyramid forms getting smaller into the distance. Just off Tortola is the second deepest oceanic trench on the planet. It may be a mere ‘speck’ on the map but it has geographical significance both geologically and economically speaking. There are 550,000 companies registered on this 12 mile long island. For ‘legitimate tax reasons’. Each one pays $1000 a year to the BVI government. As they say, ‘do the math’.

If you’ve lived here long enough you can identify at a glance all these many islands from any point on Tortola, to anyone else it’s a bewildering disorientation as they’re all green, more or less developed but change their form completely depending on where you are. The American Virgin Islands are named after the saints: Thomas, John and Croix. The British Virgin Islands have more ‘exotic’, colourful names from the Spanish: Tortola (a dove), Virgin Gorda (fat virgin), Anegada (drowned land, an island at sea level, invisible on the horizon until you get right up to it), Guana (an island white like bird droppings) the Camanoes, Necker (Richard Branson’s island), Saba Rock, Eustatia, then a certain British literalness creeps in, most names depicting each island’s visual appearance or character: Scrub, Mosquito, Salt, Ginger, Prickly Pear, Beef, West Dog, Great Dog and Peter, Norman, Cooper after early family settlers. Then it gets biblical with Fallen Jerusalem and Broken Jerusalem, dramatic piles of boulders that stretch out to sea from the land and do indeed, from a distance, resemble a great fallen civilisation crumbling into the water. Little Thatch, Great Thatch and Jost van Dyke were named after notorious pirates, Dead Chest because it looks like a man’s chest lying down…the original ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, Treasure Island, was written here and thus the pirate’s refrain ‘Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, 15 men on a dead man’s chest’…Maybe they’ll have a ‘Johnny’ or a ‘Depp’ island soon.

Some of the islands are privately owned. There are three things that identify the super-rich of this world: your own plane (a ‘necessity’) a large boat (a ‘toy’) and an island.(The ultimate real estate: the dream.) An island of your very own, with a view. I found myself on such an island on a Sunday afternoon, by invitation. You’re taken across the water in a motor boat, I stood at the back, holding on to a rail with white knuckles, trying to look relaxed with the wind in my hair. As we neared the island, what distinguished it from the others was its absence of development and the big red warning signs on the rocks depicting anchors with a slash through meaning ‘no mooring – or ‘no plebs’. It was all just a little bit James Bond. The kind of island where, at the press of a button located under a rock, the palm trees will part and the hillside slide off to reveal a nuclear power station, vast laboratory, space observatory and rocket, all overseen by a deranged one eyed, one armed bald man in a white ‘Mau’ suit with a persian cat…’welcome Ms. Wigmore/Galore…I have been expecting you…’

We’re taken off the boat and led through the trees on to a palm fringed beach which looked freshly raked, pristine, perfect. The sort of beach where you imagine Ursula Andress to come striding out of the water holding a large pink conch. Our hosts make fresh pizza in a wood burning stove right there on the beach. Only downside is their insistence on playing bad music on a too loud sound system, the insipid sound of Coldplay seeps across the beach. Then after lunch we’re taken in beach buggies up up up a narrow track (black rubberized) to the main house, a ‘Bali’ style round stone house with a massive elevated timber cone roof – the house open to 360 degree views that Stop. Your. Breath. Steps lead down to a stunning pool, sloped like a beach towards the deep end, its edges a sheer drop over the rocks, so you can prop your self up, chin on arms and gaze out across at the islands, drink in the view: America to your left, UK to your right. A pool so perfect that a certain bankers card shot a commercial here (this is what money buys you, look at the lifestyle living on credit will get you) and the BVI use the view from here as their publicity image with the slogan ‘Nature’s Little Secrets’.

So this is what you get for your millions. A place like this would rent out for thousands of dollars a night. (At the bottom of my flight schedule, printed off from the net, I’ve noticed an ad for a room on Scrub Island, an exclusive 5 star resort, would cost £21, 639.57 ‘total price per room inc taxes’. I’ve no idea if that’s per night or per week but it’s only ‘2.1’ miles from the airport I flew into so it’s considerate of ‘ebookers’ discount flight website to let me know where I could reasonably stay with my economy airline ticket).

The island’s owners are not here, they’re back in the UK and it turns out they hail from Leigh on Sea…I checked for any ‘Essex-ness’ about the place but no, it was all pretty understated, no tasteless tack here. I ask how they’d made their money: plastics. They’re responsible for  most of the plastic drinking bottles that pollute our oceans and land. The irony of that money buying this pristine island with its views across clear blue ocean was not lost on me.

Since I was last in the BVI, what were random clusters of buildings dotted around the islands have now become ‘developments’ and ‘resorts’. From the plane the change was immediately visible. Concrete is growing like a virus, the outside world is coming in fast. The biggest ‘blot on the landscape’ from the air were a couple of vast white plastic hydroponic hot houses. Seen up close it’s apparent they’re completely empty, turns out to be a government ‘vanity project’ now abandoned.  These monstrous ‘alien’ structures are surrounded by wonderful small farms, pineapple and banana plantations. A misguided corrupt authority swallowed up a few acres of good land and smothered it in plastic. Such short term destructive folly reminds me of the Olympic site swallowing up all the old allotments in the East End of London. Land that had been farmed for over 100 years by local Londoners. I heard they’d tried to strike a deal with the Olympic Corporation to let them stay and provide organic vegetables to the event, but of course that kind of human reality is meaningless to big business, all the years of nurture and toil through generations were cleared. So much for the ‘Green Olympics’.

Here on the island, there are big plans to extend the airport runway to allow bigger planes and more tourists to come in. The local population have bought into the usual propaganda that more tourism means more money for the people. It almost never works like that. The money stays with the wealthy, mostly white elite, they own most of the resorts and charter boat companies here. And offshore banks and business.

There’s a lot of nostalgia for the days before commercial tourism – images of women in bright print dresses carrying baskets on their heads, men in straw hats and suits, people selling a few tomatoes or yams on blankets on the dock. The sailing heydays of the 50’s and 60’s – women in rouched swimsuits, men in chinos smoking cigarettes. Impossibly glamourous.

These days it’s guys hitching on every corner dressed gangster-style, we pick them up in the back of the truck, they tap the glass when they want to jump off. No buses here and the taxis are extortionate. No job: no welfare. Family support is all important. If these guys are tough enough to make money by ‘other means’ so be it – if they’re ‘soft hearted’ then what to do? What future for a small island community with big identity issues? Having to go into Roadtown for anything is an ordeal. How can there be that many cars on such a small island? And they’re all SUV’s pumping out fumes into the warm humid air. Outside the RIGHT WAY supermarket, guys pull up in black cars, black windows, sound systems on full volume pumping out (pimping out?) hardcore American rap, inside the shops and restaurants they’re playing UB40: Red Red Wine. I always seem to hear that song out here, it takes me back to Dominica 1990, carnival, and being ‘hustled’ on to the dance floor by nubile bodied young guns…

I escape to a small beach and swim whenever the storm clouds retreat. I find myself alone at Well Bay – it’s a kind of lagoon, sheltered and calm where seas rage beyond the reef. My only company an immaculate tall white heron and a scruffy grey pelican. The heron stands immobile, imperious. The pelican dive bombs, hyperactive. The heron raises one leg and preens silently. The pelican swoops, its ridiculously large beak spilling water as it goes. If the pelican is a slapstick movie the heron is French Arthouse. If the heron is David Bowie’s thin white duke then the pelican’s Robert Smith, shuffling around like a drunk puppet with big hair and oversized clothes.

Idle thoughts on heat-haze white beach. In the glare I become The Stranger and have an existential Camu moment.  I’m alive. I’m dead. Whatever I do amounts to the same. Absolutely nothing. I swim across to the reef and back, strong languid strokes in clear water, face down watching the coral and weed float beneath me. Palm trees gently pick up a breeze, skin scorches…silence…then the sand flies start to get me.

If I could see sandflies under the microscope I’m sure they’d be all teeth. They are the size of pen dots but you feel their vicious bite and by the next day you’re clawing at the evil red spots on your skin in a desperate bid to eliminate the raging itch. I imagine them as tiny Tasmanian Devils, like the cartoon one, a whirl of gnashing teeth in a dust storm. At night my crawling skin is intolerable. Sometimes I give into a scratching frenzy until my skin is a hot swollen livid red – the agony and ecstasy! Then I daub teatree oil on them, grit my teeth and try and get through the itch barrier – it’s a matter of iron will. It’s my only real challenge right now, my only test of willpower in this ‘easylife’.

‘Easylife’ what a concept. I observe the beach-bum life-stylers..they all look so happy: stupidly so. Vacuous it maybe but who needs ‘meaning’ ALL the time? I do too far much thinking back home. What a relief to ‘switch off’ for a while…and…just…BE. The whole concept of Zen must have come about on a beach. A perfect beach with palm trees, waves, islands, rum…and surfers.

My friend Alex runs the iconic surf magazine ‘The Surfer’s Path’ from here in Tortola. His green roofed house is just above the beach, to check the waves he just glances down from his balcony. The magazine’s original logo was a labyrinth taken directly from the 6,000 year old stone carving in Rocky Valley, North Cornwall, an area we both have lived and still love. His mag is more than a ‘surf magazine’ it’s a philosophy, an attitude, a way of life. You have to have been around surfers (and surf) to ‘get’ this. Personally, I love surfers – they’re in a kind of alternative Nirvana – strange, spaced out, weathered creatures, eyes on the horizon – they’re also fearless. If you’ve ever seen big waves, the sheer elemental force of them, then the idea of ‘riding’ them is just terrifying, insane. You have to be a bit unhinged and a bit Zen to be a surfer.

With this in mind, I’ve just been reading ‘Surf Mama’ by Wilma Johnson ‘an artist and mother of three’ who took up surfing in her mid-forties. The book is lavishly illustrated with her wild paintings/collages of ‘goddess’ figures surfing. She’s certainly one ‘out there’ chick: I’m inspired and irritated in equal measures. The idea of radically changing your life in your ‘middle years’ is one many people aspire to, you suddenly look around you and there’s all this Past. The years have caught up with you and time’s accelerating so fast. A couple of decades ago seem like last week and you have this big realisation that you’ve only got a short time left so what you gonna do with it??? Rght now, the idea of a ‘gap year’ is very appealing. Or rather, at this stage of life, it’s called a ‘sabbatical’ which sounds more serious, ‘well earnt’ and academic but could also involve just becoming a beach bum for a year.

And why not. It’s certainly not a ‘career move’ but if you’ve never had ‘a career’ then what’s stopping you? Usually family, work, mortgage commitments. But Wilma is one of those women who never seems to have needed to work, either she’s been ‘kept’ by the husband or by ‘daddy’. As a result she’s as ‘free-spirited’ and ‘bohemian’ as she likes. Of course she is. She moves from the London artworld to the west coast of Ireland to become an ‘earth mother’ (pl-eeese) then relocates to Biarritz, drops the husband along the way and becomes a surfer in a pink wetsuit. It takes her years of hard physical slog and a lot of courage to surf those waves. Brilliant. Shame her paintings are a bit shit. They look like 80’s fashion plates with some ‘exotic’ ephemera thrown in. They’re also a kind of more colourful, exuberant version of some of my work I have to admit. I can see how your work could go that way…all that pleasure. And Zen.

Outside my room with its mosaic patio, Aragorn’s cutting ‘Bird of Paradise’ flowers for a rich client – they sell for $10 a bloom. They’re the kind of perfect rare exotic flowers you only ever see in expensive London hotel receptions in ostentatiously large vases on pedestals. And here they are, a whole clutch of them in his dirty hands, I snatch a photo.

I’m noticing the absence of stress. Shocking what stress does to your body. You don’t realise how bad until it’s no longer there. All the neck, shoulder and hip pains I had before here have slowly melted away. I’ve had the space and time to do a bit of yoga everyday which has helped, and swim, and… breathe.

I’ve also noticed you can tell by people’s prematurely aged faces how long they’ve been here in this endless summer.

Everyday I check my email to find alerts for jobs in the ‘Creative Industries’. They mean very little to me right now. I don’t understand what most of them are. I suspect they are mostly complicated administrative jobs, ‘creativity’ hardly comes into it. ‘Creative’ is such an abused and mis-understood word. These job ads flatter everyone into imagining their job is ‘creative’ but the environment at the studio/gallery here truly embodies ‘creative’. A typical afternoon would be me painting at a trestle table behind the main studio, the potter painting fired bowls with wax on a slowly rotating wheel in preparation for glazing, Johnny polishing up copper sculptures, Aragorn’s cutting a small metal fireball, while Pan is shaping a boat…

We had a group of school kids come for the day this week, they made clay mugs, hammered designs into copper plate then I took them out sketching. There’s a fabulous tree on the beach with perfect climbing branches, it’s also draped in fishing net and bound with strong old rope – they all climbed, hung and lay within it and made drawings of each other all tangled up.

Now that’s creative.

This island is a Tax haven. People pay very little tax, which is why all these dodgy banks locate themselves here, washing their dirty laundry in private.  As a result, the infrastructure is very poor, pretty much ‘third world’, you really see this during the current stormy wet weather , there have been some torrential downpours this last week. As we drive through ‘Long Look’ East End the ‘ghetto’ looks pretty sorry for itself, houses look suddenly scruffy and unkempt, their poverty revealed. What looks ‘charming’ in the sun looks miserable in the rain. Chickens and cats run for cover. The rain doesn’t suit this place. A veranda that keeps the sun off might not keep the rain out. All the vivid colours get washed out, the pot holes on the road get flooded, tracks turn to mud,  tiled entrances get awash and slippery, rain is deafening on corrugated roofs and finds plenty of holes to leak through.

It’s a different world up in the hills. We watch the storms coming across the ocean from the terrace – like great water spouts, whole islands are swallowed up and seem to evaporate. Trees start rushing in the gusts of squall and the rain’s suddenly upon us. Beautiful to watch fresh rain on a tropical garden – streaming off long shiny banana leaves, bouncing off springy hand-shaped papaya leaves, running down the terraces of green salad leaves…leaving gorgeous fertile earth smells.

My drawing workshops are recruiting well. There’s a lot of interest and word gets round fast on a small island. There’s very little in the way of ‘art’ activities around here. There’s a ladies water colour group in West End that’s been running for around 25 years. There are ‘Sunday painters’. There are painters in the ‘folk-African’ style, gaudy, ‘naive’, that tourists find an ‘authentic’ souvenir. What can be deemed to be ‘authentic’ in a region so multi-layered, so complex? It survived brutal destruction of its original culture, replaced with white Christian zealousness, and ‘stolen from Africa’ culture. Now colonised by homogenous ‘Brand America’ with its Evangelical churches and ‘dollar signs in the eyes’ mentality. Identity confusion abounds.’Culture’ is a loaded word.

At the shop/studio/gallery Aragorn treads a careful ‘political’ line between his rich white ‘patrons’ and championing the cause of the poorer black community by supporting local arts and crafts. His ‘house style’ is a hybrid mix-up of  graffiti-style one liner doodles, kind of Keith Haring meets ‘African’ figures in cut-out silhouette, that make negative shapes in strong contrast. The copper sculptures are 3D drawings: the copper is smoked, darkened, treated with acid and sunlight to achieve the oxidisation process that produces the distinctive ‘verdigree’ turquoise that off-sets the burnished gleaming golden elements. A seductive and irresistible combination.

The metal cut-outs were originally inspired by a craft tradition in Haiti. I think of Haiti, that desperate island not so far across the water from here, for a long time now it’s been the poorest country in the Northern Hemisphere. Thousands are still living in tent cities since the earthquake. Nothing so graphically illustrates the obscene divide between rich and poor as an aerial photo of the large island that is Haiti/Dominican Republic: where the two countries meet the dividing line is drawn literally with Haiti’s arid land stripped bare and Dominican Republic’s green fertile land just over the border. People happily stay for two week luxury vacations on the ‘green’ side blissfully (ignorantly?) unaware of the hell that is life on ‘the other side’. Which is why I’ve never been on a ‘package’ holiday in my life. Well, not since an ’18 to 30′ holiday to Corfu. When I was 18. Best forgotten. Even then, I should have known better…

The metalwork motifs are usually natural forms, underwater sea life, figures working the land and fishing etc. There’s a certain kitsch element, highly decorative, upbeat, the shop is a cornucopia of all kinds of Caribbean crafts – basketware, calabash carving, coconut carving, masks, instruments, steel drums, tiny wooden lizards, turtles and snakes hand carved from twisting tree roots, colourful textured baskets, pots and mirrors ingeniously woven from recycled fishing line and rope, that pollutive scourge of the oceans, plus crimson Chinese paper lamps and Tibetan prayer flags, brought back from other travels. It’s a visual assault and people spend a long time perusing the wares before making their selection.

The studio and surrounding beach is an international hangout, girls from Alaska and Jamaica work the shop, a Ukranian, a German, an Irish potter, a Puerto Rican boat builder, a Dominican welder, a Korean drifter…

There’s little ‘footfall’ however as this is an out of the way ‘final frontier’ kind of a place  (just 10 minutes walk from the airport to a hammock). Boats go to and fro between islands and charter boats moor up here. To ‘catch’ his customers Aragorn makes a ‘hustle’ each morning – he motors out in his small ‘whaler’ laden with baskets of fresh vegetables, Tshirts and crafts. The vegetables lure in potential buyers for Tshirts, then they’re invited to come ashore and visit the shop – where the big bait waits – the large sculptures that sell for up to $15000.

The big project right now though is to realise the dream of an underwater sculpture park off the island. Contacts have been made with an artist who’s made this happen off the coast of Mexico:

http://www.underwatersculpture.com/pages/gallery/latest-works.html

The sculptures take various forms eg a cast of a VW Beetle car etc made of concrete, figures, mines and various ironic modern objects. The material is ‘friendly’ to sea-life, non-toxic and most importantly forms a man-made reef at a time when the coral reefs are in great danger. So, over time, live coral and plant life are attracted to the concrete and grow and transform the sculptures into astonishing organic forms. It would be a fantastic tourist dive destination and close enough to the shore for the local community to also enjoy it. (The islanders are often not swimmers themselves). It’s such a brilliant idea – the BVI Tourist Board need to get on board and sponsorship needs to be found.

So Aragorn continues to sweet talk the Super-rich, sell them fresh organic vegetables whenever he can – deliver them to their private resorts/islands/yachts…yesterday a big order for ‘the richest man in The Czech Republic’. I didn’t ask his name.

Meanwhile I have a commission to pitch for – I have to make some visuals for some private maternity rooms for a London hospital. They want images in water colour of ‘exotic’ (that other loaded word) block-print textiles that will be printed on to wooden panels – I’m not a ‘watercolour artist’ but I’m working them out…and couldn’t imagine a better place to work than a beachfront studio. Early afternoon I stroll down the road past the airstrip to a beautiful little palm-fringed beach for a swim over to the reef and back.

Then back to ‘the grind’…what a life.