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!?!?

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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.

I made a really bad water colour painting of a palm tree today. So I’m wondering – am I an artist who needs my ‘edge’? What happens to your work if you find yourself living somewhere with too much pleasure and you get too mellow and soft…all your rough edges smoothed down. You find yourself painting something pleasurable instead of angst-ridden…or is that just a dreadful cliche, am I usually just digging myself out of the ‘hole’, seeking some sanity, in the madness of Modern Existence? This is a problem for an artist who situates themselves in a contemporary context. Where’s the edge? What’s the concept? Does any of that stuff even matter now I’m so relaxed?

You’re getting so relaxed your mind’s slowly turning to marshmallow, and I’m wondering if that’s an entirely good sensation. The whole notion of relaxing…’unwinding’ is an interesting one. I can avoid mass media immersion here. Sure, you can check out slices of news on the Net, big stories you really should know about…but really don’t need to know about. The drip drip drip of stress that works its darkness upon you until you find you’re carrying the weight of the world’s troubles on your back, your shoulders, your neck…

I try to imagine living here year round…if you slow down to island time, where does your motivation come from? A kind of fuzziness takes hold in the sun in the sea…slip into easeful sleep, a pleasant numbness. The crashing waves create a backing rhythm for life on the island. It might be a small land mass but the ocean, the world is out there, surrounded by wide horizons wherever you go on the island. So you have this sense of being ‘away from it all’, being unreachable, out of reach that is of the strangling tentacles of modern urban life.

‘Man is embedded in nature…not as removed as we think.’ (Lewis Thomas ‘Life of a Cell’) Nature immersion. The consolation of nature. Restorative nature. A hermit crab slowly struts sideways across the patio in its borrowed conical shell. They’re also called soldier crabs because on certain moons these crabs all gather together in ‘armies’ down on the beach and swop shells they’ve outgrown. They’ve been known to ‘borrow’ other vessels too – empty black plastic film canisters for example.

When I was first here in 1990 I stayed for 4 or 5 months up in the bush in a yellow and white wooden shack. There were 7 of us squashed in there at one time. Six (male) surfers and me. It was…interesting and intense. It was also very basic. No cooker, so we slow cooked on coal pots every evening. Dinner would take about three hours. We could only take two minute ‘boat showers’ as the water supply was reliant on rainfall. Bush rats ran along the rafters. The toilet was down the hill, a raised box over a stinking hole with a particularly lethal ‘Jack Spanial’ wasps nest above your head. But it had fantastic views…

Anyway, there wasn’t much to do of an evening apart from watch our sweet potatoes and plantains slow-cook so we made our own giant chess set. The board was a painted concrete slab and all the pieces were various sized and shaped shells, from Pawn to Queen, a set of each painted black and white. Problem was the hermit crabs would come up during the night and steal the shells…next morning an ongoing chess game had radically re-arranged itself and there would be jet black or gleaming white painted shells scuttling around the ground and away into the bush. It was a brilliant example of nature’s chaos…and order.

It was also mosquito heaven up there, as we were surrounded by salt ponds. The first two weeks were a baptism of fire – absolute misery. I couldn’t see my skin for the livid red lumps that itched like hell. Aloe vera cactus grew everywhere, that magical ingredient in every commercial skin care product, so we ‘d slice open the tough prickly skin to get to the jelly inside and smear it all over our bites. I even tried it on my hair as a sticky conditioner, I remember it was very hard to wash out. When they package aloe vera for the beauty industry they must put it through a major purifying process because the stuff stinks. If people experienced it in its raw state, a stinking green jelly, it would not be quite so desirable as those pretty illustrations of green fingered aloe on white plastic shampoo bottles.

We go on a hike to see an old ruined plantation house in the woods – vines and creepers hung in shreds from the treetops to the ground like fine electric cables in old buildings spilling their guts. ‘Monkey Don’t Climb’ trees, their slender trunks covered in vicious barbs. Almond shells littered the ground.  So still and quiet, hushed like a long forgotten theatre set, our voices echoing. Great lumps of coral embedded in the brick and stone walls, all covered in sludgy green mould. A rusty cannon embedded in the sand at the edge, where beach meets bush.One of the very few relics of the slave era –  ghosts of the past, hidden away behind the beach and away from the light of day – a secret, beautiful but troubling place. It keeps its secrets close.

We go off on an adventure to Brewers Bay (a givewaway reference to the former slave-rum industry here) on a mission to collect a special curved vine for basket weaving. Shilo, the guy who lives on the land, had invited Aragorn to bring Drake and George, a Rasta basket weaver from St Vincent, to collect the vines. We veer away from the bay and inland to a fertile piece of land deep in the bush, it has one of the few running rivers on the island – a trickle of a stream but a welcome sight. So we follow a badly deteriorated track, the truck virtually cutting through the undergrowth, foliage whipped across my face through the open window. When we finally arrive in the clearing it’s apparent something’s wrong – the place is covered in garbage and no one’s home. We check out Shilo’s living quarters – a derelict ruin of an old rum distillery complete with the original huge cast iron ‘copper’ once used to melt the sugar. The sugar cane was once all hauled down from above, old stone walls demarked the former industrial buildings.

Where Shilo used to sleep was now a garbage pile of white polystyrene food containers – they are everywhere – a horrible sight in the midst of lush green palms and mature fruit trees of pineapple, citrus and passion fruit. The place is completely abandoned, been left to rot – an old mattress, mildewy clothes piled up on the ground, discarded. Looks like he hasn’t stayed here for a long long time. Or rather, nature here swallows up everything so fast, if you stop hacking away at it and clearing the bush, it will consume all remnants of human endeavour. It is a sad sight. The guy is obviously in a state of dreadful decline – alcohol and drugs fueling his despair, his fruit trees choking under the vines.

While the other guys go in search of their vines and get to work with machetes, we climb the hill to rescue what fruit we can find and fill a big basket with knobbly, thick skinned but wonderfully fragrant green and yellow lemons. One of the guys climbs the tree and shakes it free from the strangling vines, the heavy fruit falls to the ground, soft landing, and we scoop them all up in our T.shirts. We fill half a sackful of tangerines, the springy branches have to be pressed right down to pluck the small fruits from the tree, we find a couple of grapefruit and then a dozen passionfruit, large hard yellow ovoids, like mythical golden eggs, already fallen from their vines.

Just as we were walk back to the truck, Shilo arrives with the roaring of engine and screeching of brakes. He is off his face, yelling and cussing out of the window, then goes to ram our truck out of the way. It’s a really hairy situation – I get down behind the truck as the other guys tried to calm him – as far as I know he could have a gun. I know there’s a crack problem here that can cause this out of control aggression, there are the occasional shootings, no more than anywhere else proportionate to a population this size, but, again, on an island everything’s magnified, the only way out is across the sea – the repercussions are directly felt.

It takes a good twenty minutes for Shilo’s rage to begin to dissipate. I know instinctively what this is about, it not about us being on his land without permission – or even taking his fruit – he’s so far gone he probably wasn’t aware of even having a lemon tree…the fruit would have rotted on the vine or the ground. It’s his humiliation at our having witnessed his degradation. Shilo and Aragorn had been good friends for many years, he’d even been Best Man at their wedding in Dominica. Now in his late 50’s he’d succumbed to alcohol and crack – he was on the way down and prospects didn’t look good. Maybe it was loneliness – up here in this remote spot all alone for years. Maybe it was the dark shadow of living with the ghosts of slaves toiling in the rum distillery that drove him to madness. Nothing made any sense.

After some futile placatory words, we made our way out of there quickly, picking up the other guys on the way through, machetes still in hand by their sides, with a whole truckload of thick curly vines for the baskets. We had a lot of bounty but it left a bitter taste in the mouth. Trouble in paradise indeed.

There are plenty of churches here if people are looking to be ‘saved’ from the evils of addiction, around 52 of them, of every denomination. They compete fiercely for their congregations. On Sundays there are traffic jams of people in their Sunday Best trying to get to church all over the island.

On the local radio, after the weather and dollar rates, a deep sombre voice speaks the obituaries over funereal organ music, each one a long long list of all those who have ‘survived’ The Deceased. For an old man with children and many grandchildren this can last for five long morbid minutes, including all the cousins, in-laws even godparents/godchildren, plus their current locations – St Thomas, Puerto Rico, St Croix, and all over The States…even more bizarre when inter-cut with jaunty adverts for local business with cheesy straplines, like this one for tyres:

‘Remember – everything’s riding on it…’

When I first came to this island in 1990, Roadtown was one road and a few buildings – to call it a town was stretching it a bit. Now they have traffic lights, roundabouts, even the odd traffic cop. And traffic jams. There are vibrantly coloured Caribbean style houses dotted around with corrugated roofs and carved verandas called things like ‘Sunny Caribbee’. And there are banks. Lots of banks.

There’s another island far away where the name ‘Roadtown’ suddenly became a place everyone wanted to know about. That island is Iceland and Roadtown, so they say, is where all the ‘Icesave’ money ended up when their currency crashed a few years ago. I had the surreal experience of being one of the very few (only?) people in Reykjavik who could describe ‘Roadtown’ when it appeared on the front page of the national newspaper. That day in Reykjavik the snow was falling thick and fast, it was still dark at 11am. And their money was in the ‘Sunny Caribbee’…

Anyway, back to Roadtown. We were on a mission to check out the local gift shops for original crafts for the Caribbean Craft Festival in March. They’re all open because a cruise ship had come to town. A ship that from certain angles seems bigger than the whole of Roadtown, and carrying over 4000 passengers increases the town’s population by about half again. It’s enormous. Like Manhatten pulling up for the day.

But business is very very slow. No one’s buying. I eye what’s on offer. Ah yes. Bags from Equador. Juggling balls from Guatemala. All kinds of Rasta stuff in red, yellow and green. The Rasta ‘brand’ is worldwide, I’ve seen Rasta stuff all over India, Nepal, The Philippines, Morrocco… Everyone adopts it as their own, but here in the Caribbean, Rastafarians themselves often had a very uncomfortable relationship with the authorities and immigration here used to take a stern approach to ‘dreadlock soldiers’.

There are also plenty of shell boxes from China. Those small heart shaped shell boxes – they sell them on Southend seafront! All the stuff you see anywhere in the world. The stuff that’s flooded the ‘artisan’ markets in every tourist zone on the planet. There’s no such thing as ‘local’ anymore.

Or is there? Yes. If you look closely, through all the kitsch tourist crap, you’ll see gorgeous rag-rugs in myriad colours, children’s linen dresses painstakingly hand embroidered, characterful brown cloth dolls wearing African prints, beautiful hand-woven softest of straw hats, all made by elderly ladies in the east end of the island. They say they’re the best straw hats in the Caribbean. But no one wants to buy them. For two reasons: no one appreciates the work and unique quality of a truly skilled hand-crafted item, and even if they did they’d be unwilling to pay a fair price for it. Aragorn stays and chats for a while, they’ve all known him since he was a boy. He’s trying to get them involved in the Crafts Festival but they’re tired, they’re resigned. These ladies, strong matriarchs all, are the last of their kind, these fine honed skills will die with them. It’s a depressing scenario.

The cruise ship tourists, the walking dead, wander around in a passive daze, they only get animated when a chicken arrives with her brood of 5 chicks, everybody stops to watch and are aghast when the cock stamps on one of the chicks who gets in the way of its food..one of the Tortola ladies shushes it away with her broom and cusses it ‘wicked ‘ol man’ to much hilarity. Tourists love chickens. We’re all reminded of how something ‘live’ has to happen to stimulate response and curiosity – this passive waiting to sell and passive looking reduces everyone involved. If there were demonstrations of craft going on people may well get curious enough to buy. But the Culture Department are clueless and seem happy for the sad situation to continue – there’s no funding or support or even encouragement for these crafts skills..

We have to go to Duff’s Bottom Department Store to get some basics. It’s essentially a large warehouse full of cheap goods. Expensive cheap goods. It sells similar stuff to the Pound store or Factory shop back home. Over the entrance is a large sign that reads:

LOOK WHAT THE LORD HAS DONE

Which is about as ambiguous as it gets.

Then, when you’re inside, a load of other loud red signs greet you:

NO EATING

NO DRINKING

NO SMOKING

NO PLAYING

and then

KEEP CHILDREN

UNDER CONTROL

 AT ALL TIMES

Finally, at the checkout:

ALL SALES ARE FINAL

NO RETURNS

NO REFUNDS

NO EXCHANGE 

The store is run on hard line lines, evidently. I’m not surprised to see the place is empty. No music, only the pulsing roar and rattle of the air-conditioning unit.

You can tell a lot about a place by the basic products it stocks. There are two whole aisles devoted to fake flowers, in a variety of shocking colours. There are large resin pineapples in dirty yellow and brown, arranged in clusters that sound more attractive than they actually are. China swans in pairs. China angels with glitter and more fake flowers. Rows and rows of thick brightly coloured quilts and sleeping bags in clear plastic . On an island where the temperature never falls below 70 degrees. But most confusing of all – small bags of shells from China for $2.95. The exact same shells that can be found on the beaches just minutes from here. Transported thousands of miles from China. Maybe they were exported from here to there and back again. That’s globalisation for you. Utter madness. Its the same everywhere, I know, it’s just a small island is such a microcosm of  ‘the way it is’ and you notice it all the more because its repercussions are so immediately felt. Like ripples in a saucer.

I buy a tube of toothpaste. This purchase is processed at one counter, then passed along to a booth where another lady takes my money from behind a wire mesh screen and writes out a receipt. It’s a serious transaction and it takes time. We’re on ‘island time’, there’s no hurry.

As we drive back up the hill I see a bunch of young guys hanging around on ‘jobless corner’, they wait there to be picked up for construction work, but they look like they’re just hanging out, totally chilled, no one looked in work mode…it was nearly 4pm in the afternoon after all.

Whenever we drive round the island you have to allow for all the unscheduled stops to hail people. Everyone has to be hailed, greeted, the time of day passed. With Aragorn this is usually about the state of their gardens, what they’re growing, if they want to exchange any crops or seeds or cuttings. If anyone has any fish or lobster to sell. Or breadfruit. He lapses into patois as the conversation demands, it’s pure theatre.

Back up in the hills we drop in on various people from time to time, most of whom are engaged in grand building projects – dream houses for some. One place looks like a stark modern art gallery, all polished concrete floors and tall white rectangles. They have cowhide rugs and an antique metal bath that stands in a large almost-empty room next to a floor to ceiling window with stunning views out to the ocean. It’s all a bit rock n roll. Others go for Spanish hacienda style, some for the traditional Caribbean tall triangular corrugated steel roof on a square wooden villa. ‘The Downturn’ doesn’t seem to have hit here very hard…yet.

We’re planning a live drawing event in Trellis bay where the shop/studio/gallery  is – they have an outdoor stage on the beach  which is perfect for some ‘live models’. We’ve put an advert in the local paper using one of my drawings, a strong woman in a bikini flying diagonally off a trapeze. It causes a (slightly hysterical) laugh at the newspaper’s small office when we drop by, they love it and say it will definitely cause quite a stir…I’m leading the series of workshops, as the advert says: ‘Led by visiting London artist’  – which makes me sound a bit of a star and is all very exciting.

Trellis Bay is a great little spot just beyond the airstrip on Beef Island, joined to Tortola by a bridge. It’s grown ‘organically’ over the years I’ve been coming here and now incorporates a collection of more or less ‘raggamuffin’ shacks a couple of  thatched roof shops, a cyber cafe, a bar, ceramics workshop and gallery. Plus any number of hammocks, sculptures, a giant fishing net strung between the palm trees which serves as an impromptu trampoline of sorts, fantastical metal structures and all manner of random flotsam and jetsom. Washed up people too. The place does attract an international variety of waifs and strays. Just the other day, a Chinese girl turned up saying she was on her last dollar, she’s heard she could get work and a place to stay. Aragorn’s altruistic reputation precedes him but it’s a tricky line to tread. However, right now he does have an American Ukranian couple living in his sail loft with two small ‘fairy’ children. It’s unclear exactly what they’re offering in return but it’s always good to have extra hands around to mind the shop, beat metal sculptures and deliver the vegetable orders.

The star attraction in the bay is the Carib dug out canoe ‘Gli Gli’ built in Dominica in 1995, an Anglo-Carib collaboration. The Caribs being the indigenous people of this region, descended from the very few left after the Spanish massacres. The boat’s built from a single tree using, as far as possible, ancient Carib techniques, it’s 35 foot long and very very heavy. It has a bamboo boom and a hand-painted canvas sail. They sailed it down island all the way to Guyana, an epic journey, making links with other ‘lost’ Carib communities as they went. There’s even a BBC documentary about it.

Last time I was out here, 12 years ago, I helped re-paint its spiral design and then we took it out on Christmas Day which was slightly terrifying but exhilarating. It got a bit stormy…my small son Leo, 5 years old at the time, had to be strongly persuaded to come on board, the thing looked so cumbersome and unstable, but there he was, swamped by his too-large yellow life jacket, long blonde hair whipping in the wind, face a mixture of pure joy and blind terror. Then we saw a double rainbow up ahead and he looked up at me, eyes shining, and yelled

‘This is the best day of my life!’

This island is 12 miles long, 5 miles wide, and rises to 1700 ft in its interior. I’m staying in Aragorn’s house on Good Moon Farm. Aragorn, by his own description, is a sculptor, potter, designer, farmer, fisherman…and a good friend I’ve known for 25 years. We met in Norwich all that time ago – the anecdote is worth telling:

I was idly making drawings on paper all over the floor in my front room – I saw someone walk by the bay window out of the corner of my eye…then a moment later, come back again. Next thing, the doorbell goes. I open the door to a pretty young guy with black ringlets in a Charge of the Light Brigade jacket. He says:

‘uhm, can I come in and see your drawings?’

He puts me in mind of the Little Prince in the famous St Exupery story when he asks the pilot to ‘draw me a sheep’. Something absurdly naive about him. I’m pretty taken aback but he looks harmless enough and I’ve still got my travel head on, having recently returned from a year in Asia, so I’m ‘open to the new’. So he comes in and spends the afternoon and tells me all about his ‘partner in crime’ Aragorn, who’s from the Caribbean. So I’m imagining a gay black guy…when I finally get to meet the mythical Aragorn he’s a small impish white guy with long unkempt blonde hair. Caribbean born and bred. But not gay. The guy at the door, DN, disappeared to a Buddhist monastery in Lockerbie for years but Aragorn and I and the rest of our ex-Norwich ‘tribe’ have always stayed in touch.

He lives here with Feddi his Italian wife (who he likes to say he ‘pirated’ off a passing boat many moons ago) and their two boys Zanti and Ceiba. I’m happy to say I’m Ceiba’s god(dess)mother and therefore very definitely have the right to be here…

The house is high up in the hills and looks out over the Caribbean sea through dense vegetation. The large terrace is cut to fit round a big old mango tree. The rest of the house is an eclectic hybrid of Caribbean, Mexican, Ottoman…a concrete dome rises from the top dotted with coloured glass spots that transform sunbeams into a light show. There are carvings, cuttings, prints, reliefs, of ceramic, wood, copper, stone everywhere you look –  an extravagant arts and crafts mix-up. All kinds of anthropological cultural crossovers are at play here.

http://www.goodmoonfarm.com The farm grows bananas, mangos, papaya, passion fruit, lettuce, spinach, peppers, pak choi, tomatoes, pumpkins, beans, potato, sweet potato, plantain, herbs and more, on terraces stretching down towards the sea. The air is fragrant with spicy musk scents, the North shore breeze rushes through the foliage and waves crash far below. Empty blue expanse of sea dotted with pristine white sails making the short crossings between islands. Islands owned by Virgin, Google et al…

Drake, a gentle Carib guy from Dominica, runs things. He brings a wealth of agricultural knowledge that’s hard to come by in these parts as few islanders now grow their own food. A cultural reluctance for what’s considered ‘dirty work’ when the main aspirations here are to get into the finance sector, offshore banking business..or quicker, riskier dealings with ‘dirty money’.

Two ‘Wwoofers’ (if you want to know what a ‘Woofer’ is, and you should, check http://www.wwoof.org.uk), a couple of Young Americans, are camped up on a platform in the bush in return for a few hours weeding a day. Cats prowl around by night keeping the rat population down.

The tranquillity and unfamiliar nature confuses my stress addled mind. Eyes and mind refuse to settle – so much to notice: a tall slender papaya tree carrying its pregnant cluster of pendulous green fruits – skinny ghekkos dart and scatter across the floor, tiny heads raised alert – bright green crickets jump off the walls – walls that bear the mark of midnight mosquito massacres – a humming bird, high speed hovering in mid-air, darting from flower to flower, greedily dipping its tiny curved beak right inside their yellow trumpets – chatter of chickens – far off bleat of wild goats from the bush covered hillsides…

I have a good collection of mosquito bites down my legs and arms..Ceiba (10 years old) tells me to:

‘Chillax – don’t scratch!’ It would make a great T.shirt slogan. I’m ‘chillaxing’ big time…this is Chillax Central.

The boys tell me about lion fish. An American aquarium disastrously let loose some of these fish and they’ve made it down to the Caribbean and are systematically destroying all the reef fish. It’s an ecological disaster -these fish don’t belong here, they’re Pacific fish. They’re training sharks to hunt them down and kill on sight. That last bit may have been a joke at my expense…

Aragorn’s roasting breadfruit on an open fire – dry brown speckled casings reveal fat white flesh inside that indeed has the consistency of doughy bread. It was originally imported as slave food from Tahiti, a cheap source of ‘fuel’. When Captain Bligh was faced with mutiny, the Bounty’s hold was full of breadfruit bound for the Caribbean slave plantations. We fry it up like chips and eat it with respect. One of the cats strides in with a limp rat dangling out of its mouth.

Digital technology has utterly transformed island life. No longer isolated, now networked up to the world. We talk of the relatively recent revival of crafts and the hand-made. Aragorn and Feddi commission and buy traditional Caribbean handicrafts from throughout the region to sell in their beachfront shop/gallery. They have started an annual arts and crafts festival that celebrates historic craft processes, passed down through generations but now fast dying out. They’re well aware of the loaded connotation of ‘hand-made’ however – don’t be fooled, even your ipod nano is ‘hand-made’ by a nimble fingered 14 year old girl in a Chinese factory…

Tortola certainly has an identity confusion. It’s a ‘British Dependancy’ but American’s spoken here, the union flag waves and the currency’s the US dollar.

At day’s end we deliver organic spinach in baskets to the quay. People eye fresh vegetables greedily and ask where they can get hold of such a rare commodity. The moored up boats are a sea of bobbing white plastic…dare I say with white plastic people onboard…? There, I said it.

Transatlantic. The animated tracking of the plane’s trajectory on a large screen at the front of the cabin. It charts the growing distance between ‘home’ and ‘away’. Stretched out across four seats, trying to snatch some sleep against the white noise of  jet engines. The black hole of ocean finally gives way to a necklace of lights that maps the land’s edge and I have crossed continents. I am ‘away’.

New York, night, torrential rain, I have an 8 hour ‘layover’ before my next flight. M collects me and we speed towards the city, skirting the harbour, tall container ships/buildings/islands then a glimpse of Liberty white in the distance guarding her rock. There’s a new tower where two used to stand, so big you see it first from the plane.

Ninth floor warehouse Williamsburg. The loft’s industrial piping creates a grid in the high ceiling space over the wall sized windows that give views across the wet city and blur all the lights. All the furniture salvaged from a mental hospital. The stark aesthetic is offset by large ephemeral abstract paintings, transparent bubbles and other microscopic motifs float, trapped behind layers of glassy resin, city lights dance off their surfaces. The rain lashes the glass and drips metallically off the air conditioning unit. The lack of sleep,  the jet lag, the total strangeness of suddenly being here, for just a few hours over night, all accumulate as a pleasant hallucination and I drift off for a couple of hours before the alarm wakes me at 4 and I’m in a cab speeding back to the airport, rewind, rewind…

The planes get smaller as I connect from continent to island to speck in the ocean. 6am flight to Puerto Rico. Turbulence: the seat belt light stays lit the entire flight, so we don’t move, no drinks or food are served as we all stay buckled in with the plane lurching from side to side, you leave your stomach and vital organs somewhere over the East Coast.

I disinterestedly watch the film playing above my head. There’s something instantly familiar about the miserable, resigned looking line of men, half undressed carrying their meagre belongings in grey plastic boxes..it looks just like JFK airport security but it’s a high security prison. The similarity between the two spaces is obvious. We’re all held captive in hermetically sealed environments and forced through processes designed to dehumanize and intimidate.

Full body X rays are now in force. Coats off shoes off belts off scarves off jewellery off. Once you’re in the prison that’s the plane you can’t go anywhere, you’re confined in a tiny space and you guard your personal space jealously and fight for a place for the few possessions you’re allowed to bring with you. You get a basic subsistence meal on a plastic tray with plastic cutlery. Everyone’s compliant and avoids attracting attention to themselves. We’re all hostages. Paying hostages. Subdued, the herding instinct takes over, we’re all so weary. It’s a thing to be endured, this journey, not an experience to be ‘enjoyed’ but all along the way you’re entreated to ‘sit back, relax and enjoy’. After all that security? In this tiny little space? No one expects to enjoy this. Even a complimentary drink is now something to be grateful for.

The Puerto Ricans applaud when we make a safe landing.

I have 4 hours in San Juan. I find a palm tree on the concrete concourse and lie beneath it just for a while, its fronds lift gently in the warm breeze and I catch moments of intense heat and sunlight too bright to bear coming straight from an English winter. There are a couple of vagrants lying in  automatic doorways, baseball caps, American University t.shirts, bare feet, filthy limbs sprawled out like deadmen. They barely stir in the swish of cool air from the forbidden interior as tourists dumbly exit like the undead. I’m head swimmingly tired, I’ve been traveling for 24 hours. Hot air traps the jet fuel outside, it’s choking and I reluctantly return to the air conditioned non-space inside and wait it out.

35 minute flight. Single prop plane. By the time you’re up you’re coming back down again. We pour out on to the tarmac at Tortola airport and squint in the bright light coming straight off the ocean all around us. Someone from the cabin crew holds out a heavy grey overcoat that’s been left in the overhead locker, I claim it as mine and a couple of guys shout out

‘you won’t be needing that here!’

‘no – but I will on the way back…’

‘so don’t go back!’