St. John Notebook: Paradise Lost?

17 Dec

My time on St. John has come to an end and it’s time to return to the sunless, beachless, roosterless, rum-deficient, frigid north.

Artist Capt. Pat and Guest at Bizarre Bazaar, Coral Bay

Artist Capt. Pat and Guest at Bizarre Bazaar, Coral Bay

Here is my departing thought: Many on St. John call this place paradise. I’m not sure it is, actually, because Jesus isn’t in charge. You may recall the Savior’s comment to the thief on the neighboring cross who recognized his divinity.  The Lord promised him “Today you will be with me in paradise.” I found the thief on St. John, but Jesus did not win the election for Governor, even after two re-counts and a second election.

Most people think paradise is a place of peace and perfection where the souls there are free of worries, infirmities, old age, no-see-ums and sins and are reunited with loved ones and ancestors through the ages while being blissfully bathed in the

Cheap livin' on a derelict boat

Cheap livin’ on a derelict boat

loving light of God.  I am hoping there is a place in this paradise for the wacky, the tattooed, the profane, the leather-skinned sailors, the people who “actively ignore progress,” who “are here because we’re not all there,” the “people who took the road less traveled and are now totally lost,” and the people to whom “Dog is my Co-Pirate.” Because I think we’ll find a lot of St. Johnians there.

Toyland Express in 4WD

Toyland Express in Four-Wheel Drive

Paradise on earth is a matter of perspective.  To some, New York City is paradise with its innate chaos, overstimulation, odder-by-the-minute streetscape, melting-pot of world cultures and a hyper-driven hotbed of opportunity. To others, a quiet 50 acres of ripening corn are simply heaven. On the other hand,  to many others, the discontent of living wherever they are forges a perspective that lying on a powdered sugar beach on an island, roasting in a tropical sun, being lapped by the crystalline ocean with a distant reggae in the air and a beer in the cooler – sounds pretty paradisical.

Step into the Imperfection of Paradise

Step into the Imperfection of Paradise

In truth, wherever there is intentional love, a sense of purpose, a caring-for-each-other community and lots of laughter, paradise is found.  And Jesus is there.  And I am here just in time to celebrate His birthday.

So my wish for us all in this Season of Miracles is that we each find our own Heaven on Earth, our own Paradise wherever we are.  And we actively work to include others in it, every day until that moment when we are admitted to the real Paradise and are pleasantly surprised by what we find there. Watch this space for blog posts beyond St. John.  I’ll be back to you after New Year’s Day. Cheers

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St. John Notebook: Cooper Island Inspiration for Love Story

12 Dec

Just across the sound, not too far from St. John in the British Virgins is a little speck of volcanic beach called Cooper Island. There’s not much there – a bar, a couple of houses, some beaches – but it is a favorite getaway for sailors from near and far.

Beach Bar, Cooper Island

Beach Bar, Cooper Island

Cooper is the launch pad for my novella Marooned, an unlikely love story.   The text below is how it all starts. You can read the whole thing by downloading it from Smashwords. CLICK HERE FOR LINK. Enjoy.

She burst through the bar’s palm frond door with a canvas bag over one shoulder and a pink suitcase in her hand, looking pissed as a cat just out of the bath. Once inside, she dropped the suitcase and yelled, “I’ve been fucking MAROONED!” as if anyone should care. It was only Betsy, the thirtyish, muumuu-clad, sunburned-to-a-ripe-rosy-red, frizzy-haired, overweight, loudmouthed harpy who’d been asked to leave the premises not too politely only an hour and a half before. Tarn, the bartender, winced. It was times like this he wished there was one other drinking establishment on Cooper Island or even a nearby reef in the British Virgins so he could ship her over to the competition. The few others in the room attempting to finish drinks, conversations or seductions turned their backs, willing her to vanish. Instead, she ambled over to the nearest barstool, resting her arms and unfettered bosoms on the counter. She slapped a wallet and some papers down and grumped, “Gimme a beer.”

“Last call, love,” Tarn said cheerfully, setting a wet Heineken on the bar.

“Last call, my ass,” she muttered.

I couldn’t stand it. She was such a sad case and such an incredible counterpoint to the perfect weather, the ideal beaches, the succulent star-clad nights, the beautiful, frisky people enjoying each other, the laughter, the music, the ever-present proximity to a cold beer. I know it’s futile to have a conversation with a drunk, but I had to hear her story. I slid off my bar stool, picked up my margarita glass and soggy coaster and settled onto the seat next to hers. “Marooned?” I said….

St. John Notebook: You Gotta Regatta

10 Dec

I’ve discovered that if you hang around enough bars on St. John, eventually you’ll be invited to go sailing.   It just so happened Capt. Tom Rowlinson was shorthanded for his boat Terra Nova which was entered in the annual Thanksgiving Weekend Regatta off of Coral Bay and, for the faith offering of a couple of Heinekens, I was signed on as crew. Also aboard were Tom’s good friends Jeff and Laurie.

Capt. Tom making his genoa behave on Terra Nova

Capt. Tom making his genoa behave on Terra Nova

The day was crisp and bright, the winds light. Tom’s 40-foot Sparkman and Stephens cut through the water like a warm knife through butter. “We always start late,” he said, “because the boat is so fast it catches and passes everybody anyway.” As the sails went up and we jockeyed for the starting line I was relieved to see Capt. Tom is a calm fellow, a far cry from my racing experiences in the Great Lakes where jolly weekend skippers turn into manic Capt. Blighs barking orders and berating the crew.   But then, this is St. John where the committee boat at the starting line is a floating bar.

The 25 racers were made up of a strange conglomeration of craft from a sailing kayak piloted by captain and dog, to Elliot Hooper’s steel schooner Silver Cloud with five sails and all flags flying. The race took about three and a half hours to unfold. We did indeed pass most of the smaller boats but were smoked at the end by one of only two other boats in our class. Never mind. Kids swimming off the committee boat and a toast from the balcony of the bar barge were a fitting end to the race.

The Virgin Islands, both British and U.S. are ideal sailing grounds with constant breezes, few obstacles to navigation and lots of beaches and harbors. Charter skippers come here from around the world . It was good to get back on the water, to handle some lines and feel the movement of a living ship beneath my feet. Thanks, Tom, for a magnificent day.

The Committee Boat at Starting Line and Finish.  Cheers!

The Committee Boat

St. John Notebook: For Every Thing There is a Season

7 Dec

We have heard we must act now to save the planet. In truth, the planet Earth will be here long after mankind is gone and will repair itself from whatever damage the human era has wrought. What the activists are really saying is: “We must adjust our living habits so we can maintain the comfortable quality of life we’ve attained.”

Estate Sussanaberg circa  1838. Image SJHS Archives

Estate Sussanaberg circa 1838. Image SJHS Archives

I’m sure the Danish and British plantation owners of St. John two or three hundred years ago sang the same lament as their land was losing its ability to produce. Through decades of sheer labor, mostly by slaves, they cleared the hills and valleys of old growth forests. They terraced the land with rock walls to create farms. In the process they changed the ecosystem. Over more than a hundred years, the water table dropped. Runoff killed the reefs. The thin layer of soil became depleted of minerals. The land ultimately became worthless for sugar cane and was opened to cattle for grazing. In time, the enterprises were abandoned and the island began to reclaim the plantations and estate houses. The miles of rock walls built to retain the land are now mostly rubble.

The Jungle Inside and Outside

The Jungle Inside and Outside

Today, from various lookout points, it is very pleasant to see the panorama of fuzzy, steep hills covered with dense green. It looks like pristeen jungle but when you hike through it, with few exceptions, you realize it’s all secondary growth. The land is rejuvenating. The season of the planter that ended a hundred years ago has turned into a season of rebirth.

A Caribbean Angkor Wat

A Caribbean Angkor Wat

I’ve written about the ruins of St. John before but it was a tramp over to Brown Bay recently hat unleashed a revelation. The ruins there are not easy to find because the earth is reclaiming them. Tree roots now pry stones loose from the walls of a former estate house. Creepers drop through the space where roofs used to be, filling old interiors with a thousand spooky strands. Walls and doorways are covered in jungle growth forming a kind of Caribbean Angkor Wat. This bygone plantation empire, I realized, was no different here than in the myriad empires that have gone before – the Assyrians, the Ottoman, the Maya, the Inca, the Carib. The planters are all dead. The slaves are all dead. The earth has swallowed their bones.

Standing there amongst the ruins I realized in geologic time it won’t be long before my season is over. And yours. And those of our grandchildren and their grandchildren. And all that time, the earth will continue to evolve, to heal. No matter what we do, good or bad, no matter how long it takes, the earth will survive.

St. John Notebook: This is Downtown?

5 Dec

As island commercial centers go, Cruz Bay has one superlative going for it. This is the prettiest downtown anywhere. The ferry dock is there with all of the hustle and bustle and comings and goings. There are water sports operations with kayaks and powerboats for rent. The city park is there along Wharfside Village, a conglomerate of stores and restaurants. By all rights, the place should be trash. But it’s not.

Downtown from Ferry Terminal

Downtown from Ferry Terminal

Crystal-clear water laps a powdered-sugar beach while palms sway in the trade wind breeze. Boats anchored in the harbor bob at their moorings. There are no junkers or derelicts here. A stone wall and hedge separates the beach from taxi traffic. Ruins of an old fort overlook the bay. Then you see kids playing in the water, their giggles and shouts mixing with the whir of a blender whipping up a Bushwhacker.

Cruz Bay itself is a beehive of activity, moving people, selling to people, feeding people. Within yards of the waterfront is a medical clinic, EMT response center, the Department of Social Services and the Post Office. And a few locals can be found napping on the park benches or playing a noisy game of dominoes.

But amidst the buzz is also the gentle rhythm of the sea, a few tethered dinghies seemingly float on air in the transparent water, herons and egrets stalk the strand. It is the first thing you see when you come to the island and the last thing you see when you step onto the ferry. Maybe people who live here are used to it but for me, Downtown is one of those things that makes me glad to be on island.

St. John Notebook: Love the Love City Mini Mart

3 Dec

If you run short of essential food or beverage items in Coral Bay, chances are you’ll hop on over to the Love City Mini Mart. It’s easy to find. Just drive to the putrid dumpster and turn onto the only side road. The Mart is right there.

The first impression is of a cobbled-together shack with a lot of hand-made signage and stickers on it which endears the place to the laid-back (and wannabe-laidback) funkified clientele. Next to the main

The Love City Mini Mart

The Love City Mini Mart

bright yellow building are a several containers that act as a stock room. So let’s grab the well-worn handle on the screen door and enter what may be the most compact grocery store around.

The aisles are so narrow two people cannot pass without becoming quite familiar with one another. A bit of a maze, first timers can get quite turned around between the yogurt and the bananas. The space may be compact, but that’s only because of the wide variety of merchandise – from personal items to a good variety of wines, a hefty beer cooler and plenty of produce, essential canned goods, sauces and other groceries. Everybody who walks in the door ultimately ends up at the check-out which is by the front door which, if there is a line of two or more people, blocks other shoppers from coming and going. Don’t worry, the fire marshall shops here too.

Now operating in its 17th year, Love City Mini Mart is an enterprise of middle-eastern management… no surprise for Caribbean retail. There is a certain pioneer feel to the place, like somebody landed in this odd corner of St. John, liked it enough to stay, cobbled together a few dollars to buy a piece of land and then started assembling a store a wall and a counter and a cooler and a container at a time.

Today, the store serves the needs of most locals but also transient boaters looking for a place to provision. The only problem for yachties is the mart is a good long walk from the dinghy dock at Skinny’s or it’s a climb through the mangroves next to the putrid dumpsters. The good news is if one takes the long walk, there are several places to get a beer on the way and somebody else shopping at the mart will most likely offer you a ride back to the dock with your groceries.

The Mart is open 7 days a week. And the prices are decent in an island context, some better than the big stores in Cruz Bay. Gotta love the Love City Mini Mart.

St. John Notebook: Jitney Art

1 Dec

The tourist buses, those open-air, multi-seated, awning-covered things that meet people at the dock and then whisk them around the island are pretty much a nuisance for the locals because they hog the parking space in town and crowd the roads when underway. We play dodge ‘em cars all the time, vying for the yellow center line when coming around curves. Hint: The guy coming downhill has the right of way IMG_1287especially if he’s bigger than you are.  As I’m coming uphill with a Jitney bearing down, I cannot help remember the guy who was checking out ahead of me at Pine Peace Market,  a Jitney driver, who bought a pack of cigarettes and a couple of shorties – little bottles of gin – to help him get through the day.

I call them Jitneys but around here they’re known as Safaris. In Swahili a safari is a journey so I guess they are aptly named because they take a tourist a long way from his money.

But I have to acknowledge the Safari operators who have taken the time and expense to decorate their buses. You can see some of the variations here. I love the Little Tan Mermaid. And the self-deprecating humor. And Mr. Wonderful. There is a method to the madness in that these buses are easy to spot which is a good thing for tourists who have taken the risk of hiring this guy IMG_1387to take them to Cinnamon Bay for a day of beach-side  fun; they will worry that he will be there as promised when they are ready to depart. When they see that bright green Mr. Wonderful parked exactly where he said he would be, their faith in humanity is restored and all’s right in the world.

So, thanks for the graphics and hats off to the airbrush artist who creates these things. At least we’ll remember who it is who was hogging the curve on Centerline Road.  I just hope this is not the guy with the gin.IMG_1288