‘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.