Handsome, Friendly Place To Live…
And to Visit While Doing Conchly Things Like Hiking and Swimming
This is based upon my column which appeared in The Washington Post September 8, 1995
The five of us keeping on-line logs about our lives and training efforts live here, in the mountainous, affable, lightly peopled world of the British Virgin Islands. About 17,000 residents live here spread over 19 populated islands.
Perched on a rock outcropping 90 feet above the ocean, my house overlooks eight other islands, a lush mountain-rimmed coastline that curves like a cup handle for miles, and, most importantly, the palm-fringed village of Little Apple Bay, population 125. Village life unfolds below my home with a regularity and gentility that is at times quite moving, at times a little unnerving, very often unny, but always instructive.
Some years ago, half a mile away at the edge of a grove of palm trees, I watched a stooped old fisherman stand before a cross-topped white mausoleum in our village cemetery. To get there, the old man hobbled along a narrow path through the lively Lenora Delville Primary School yard, past the new water plant, past the community vegetable garden and the charcoal pit where fine charcoal is made from hard kasha wood. A tough walk for rickety legs.
The fisherman came to pay respect to this territory's first elected chief minister, H. Lavity Stoutt, who died on May 14. These islands have dealt with visionaries (as the vast majority consider Mr. Stoutt), political fools, pirates, thieves, and many men of honor for at least 450 years. In a tiny world, residents feel the unbuffered impact of good and bad people very quickly in everyday life.
That's why even now, seven years after his death, a few islanders each day, many bringing their small children, pay respect at Lavity Stoutt's handsome tomb. A mother said quietly to her children one day, "You must remember this man."
Over the centuries the influences of multiple rulers, religious ideologies and tragedies have washed over these islands -- indelible experiences that to this day seem to have given the survivors an inbred sense of practicality, tolerance (if not acceptance) and stoicism.
In our little village, within walking distance of a small, fancy hotel, one friend makes do on the sale of a few island limes and sweet potatoes each day. Close by, another sells homemade bread and the occasional adult men's magazine. Next door an important church leader greets a passerby as her ax takes off the head of a goat -- the beginning of a favorite soup and fine curried stew.
The locals also define ingenuity. It's normal here to see old metal wheel rims used as sturdy charcoal grills, a stray piece of chicken wire turned into a fish trap, old juice bottles filled with "atomic" pepper sauces and spices, small cottages built from scrap and lumber washed up on the beach, plastic milk cartons hoarded to store precious rainwater. On islands, necessity seems to be the mother of recycling.
This sense of using up everything efficiently applies to the roadside trimming crews, too, or rather to the lack of them. Drive along most any tortuously winding but stunning road on this island and you'll meet donkeys and goats and cows busily trimming up the roadside. At times they roam free. At times, a donkey is tied to a tree perhaps 20 feet farther along than the day before. One howling, rainy night I encountered a donkey, fed up with it all, lumbering down the steep road dragging his palm tree behind him.
It is all a very handsome, oddball, history-steeped and interesting world -- aside from being lots of fun. Life in the British Virgin Islands is a microcosm of life back there in the "real" world. We have AIDS problems. Crime is on the rise, though it is sufficiently rare that some time ago a newspaper still considered the theft of two dozen diapers from Kelly's Bar, Snackette and Superette a feature item.
We've even have traffic jams : seven years ago, I wrote about the bollix caused by a dozen cows ambling through downtown Road Town (the capital) taking a break in front of the Chase Manhattan Bank. One cow even settled down for a snooze with her back against the bank door, imprisoning all inside. The bank patrons took this in stride.
In the B.V.I. there's controversy about growth and too many "off-islanders," and there's fear that the village family structure is falling apart. The drug problem, which hasn't hit yet, is on everyone's mind.
There's great discussion, too, on the quality of life in general here. In the midst of spectacular beauty, and in the midst of carefree vacationers who spend money with abandon, most islanders struggle with great dignity to make their lives work. In 1995 I wrote about an 80-year-old, elegantly dressed woman hitching to church. She has hitched "everywhere" her entire life, and took a folding chair with her to make the hitches easier, she said.
Last year, I saw an equally elegant older woman settled in her chair by the road, waiting for a ride. She was talking on a cell phone.
In 1995, I picked up an immaculate young woman hitching to town with a small baby. The child, she told me, would play in a large cardboard box in the shade of a flamboyant tree "just by the kitchen where I work."
During a particularly dry spell, I picked up a young boy hauling a five-gallon barrel of water up a lonely road. His family's rain cistern was empty.
The reality of island life for most people here is hard work at home and hard work for modest pay on the job. Improving individual livelihoods without harming a delicately balanced and fragile world will be a Herculean chore. These are smart people, however, and they will probably find a way.
Their inventiveness and determination rubs off on everyone. Take the young surfer couple who spent the winter just down the hill from me in a perfect little ocean-front cottage. Trouble was, their bedroom window was less than a foot from three energetic roosters' favorite perch -- and around here, the incessant crowing starts at 3 a.m.
But in small villages, strangers don't complain much; they, too, become inventive. The couple bought the roosters from their neighbors for a premium price ($5 each) and in the dead of night transplanted them into a neighboring village. In the yard of a competing surfer.
Island ingenuity. No problem.