“Happy are those who dream dreams and are ready to pay the price to make them come true.”
Leon Joseph Cardinal Suenen
In August of 1980 I fled Iowa – having found the people warm, winter uninhabitable, and the summers one long debate about whether it was the heat or the humidity. Two years of domestic violence work had taken their toll and now I had my sights set on the Caribbean. I needed to go to Saint Somewhere and drink beer by the sea.
I planned to live in Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas in the American Virgin Islands because it was a magnet for cruise ships, and rumor had it that there were plenty of jobs for people like me.
And it was true that there were always plenty jobs for young, good looking, white Americans and Europeans because several cruise ships arrived in Charlotte Amalie each day and the tourists liked to deal with people who looked like them. I was traveling with Debbie Ozga, a lovely woman from Washington DC who made the adventure fun, calm and peaceful because we both loved to read and write and we could enjoy long stretches of silent scribbling. Debbie had experience as a waitress and was very pretty; I was trained as a bartender, and as a woman at a rodeo Iowa had recently noted, I wasn’t hard on the eyes, so it should be easy for us to get jobs.
Charlotte Amalie was crawling with tourists, which required the services of people like Debbie and me. As we were checking out the labor situation we saw that all the good jobs were filled with expats in their 20s, happy to be spending their days working in the shops, restaurants and hotels, and their nights drinking and dancing in the bars along the sea.
But in chatting with the local blacks, there was an undercurrent of anger and resentment that they had been left out of the tourist boom. I knew in my heart that taking a job that should have belonged to a local did not seem right, but after a week my moral high ground was crumbling as our finances dwindled because we were spending $30 a night to stay in a campground.
There is a point in every adventure where the wind goes out of your sails. You embark in high spirits, brimming with enthusiasm because there is nothing but possibilities on the horizon. Then once you arrive at your dream destination, endless possibilities are narrowed down by hard reality and you begin to wonder if this was such a good idea after all. Having done many adventures since this one, I have learned to expect to spend time in the doldrums, and I have found that eventually something will work out. You just need to patiently hang on. And hope.
While being served coffee in a café by a waitress with a French accent I was looking through a local paper and saw an ad for Maya Cove Cottages in the British Virgin Islands.
“Imagine stepping outside your own cottage directly onto a pristine Caribbean beach. Imagine seaside spectacular sunsets from the privacy of your deck. Maya Cove Cottage is a small, unique hotel located on Tortola, British Virgin Islands, family owned & operated since 1961. It has long been synonymous with barefoot luxury. All our accommodations have living room, kitchen, master bedroom, full bathroom and more. Interiors are composed of crisp, clean lines, layers of texture, organic forms and natural materials such as wood and stone. Views are unmatched and completely unobstructed, right on the calm, Caribbean side of Tortola. On site is our highly trained professional staff. There is an in-house, private restaurant serving breakfast and dinner daily. Affordably priced, long term rates available to suitable parties.”
Well, this sounded just like just what the doctor ordered, so we took the ferry from Charlotte Amalie to Roadtown on Tortola, BVI.
Roadtown is the only municipality on the island of Tortola and it was tantalizingly unfamiliar.
After walking the town, we hailed a taxi, actually a Moke, a vehicle which looked like something you would climb into at Disneyland’s Indiana Jones ride. Steering on the right, driving on the left, spinning through roundabouts, our first ride was a white knuckle adventure.
The Moke did a rollercoaster-like drive up and down steep hills as we left Roadtown and headed out to Maya Cove and the first view of the Caribbean from on high confirmed for me that, no matter how this turned out, coming to the Caribbean was the right choice.
We were dropped off at the base of a steep driveway leading uphill through flowering flame trees.
The long climb up the driveway was my first clue that when the advertisement said, “Imagine stepping outside your own cottage directly onto a pristine Caribbean beach,” the key word was “Imagine.”
At the top of the hill we followed arrows, “Bar, Restaurant, Registration” and when we arrived, we were greeted by, again to quote the ad, “our highly trained professional staff.” Her name was Marcie, she was 20, born on Tortola, she lived down the hill, and was casually moving dust around in front of the long bar with a broom. “Mr. Harry, there be people here.”
“I’ll be down in two ticks.”
We wandered to the edge of the patio bar and were stunned by the view.
“Greetings and salutations,” Harry called as he descended the stairs from above the bar. He appeared ancient, perhaps in his late 70’s, snow-white disheveled hair, black rimmed glasses, and so skinny his clothes hung on him like a scarecrow, but his face lit up when he saw Debbie. “Just the tonic I need first thing in the morning!” We sat down at his beautifully carved desk across from the bar. “What’s your name?”
“Oh, I doubt that. What does your mother call you?”
“Bobby it is, then. And you?”
“Debbie or Deborah.”
And so began a friendship which still warms my heart.
Harry explained that he had ten cottages which he preferred to rent out on a long-term basis, but only to people he liked.
“One can’t be too careful, from time to time I have made the mistake of letting a cottage to the type of guest that will have me running around like the Head Bat Snatcher in Buckingham Palace. No more. With one foot in the grave and my finances where I am rolling in it, I choose to be picky. But you two look sensible enough. How long do you contemplate staying?”
”A year. We would both like to write.”
Harry’s smile lit up “I myself am a poet, a bit of a master with the old pen and ink if I say so myself. How much money do you have?”
“Oh my. You do realize that only Tortola locals and down island blacks are permitted to work on this island? But not to worry, I am certain we can cobble something together. How about one hundred?”
“A month. As I said, in my dotage I choose to surround myself with people who interest me, and the guestbook is embarrassingly short of writers at the moment. Do you need time to think on it?”
Debbie and I looked at each other. “Not at all.”
“Wonderful. Marcia, can you show these two youngsters the Frangipani cottage please.”
“Okay, Mr. Harry. I finished sweeping.”
“Excellent timing. I will mention your exception stamina under fire in my next dispatch to Army Headquarters. Off with you two to your new home, Frangipani!”
We followed Marcie along a pathway of cracked concrete which cautioned against the ad’s suggestion of “barefoot luxury.”
From a distance “Frangipani” looked bleak.
The wording of the ad came back to me as we stepped inside.
“All our accommodations have a living room, kitchen, master bedroom, full bathroom and more.” It was all true, and all contained in a single room inside.
“Interiors are composed of crisp, clean lines, layers of texture, organic forms and natural materials such as wood and stone.” The walls were raw concrete block, with a roof of bare, unpeeled wooden beams upon which rested ancient corrugated cement roof panels. Lizards scrambled upside down on the ceiling creating a steady drizzle of fine dust which, I learned later, was mostly asbestos.
In other words, we had found the perfect place to begin our yearlong adventure in the Caribbean.