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.

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