…FROM THE BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS
By Gordon French
The first day of December 2007, I found myself sitting on the concrete steps of a
colourfully-painted small colonial-style jewellery shop along the sidewalk of a curvy, narrow street in Road Town, the capital of the British Virgin Islands.
It was a Saturday; my very first day on the main island of Tortola, having just arrived from Guyana, in pursuit of new opportunities just like so many other Guyanese before me had done. I had accepted a journalism offer with a weekly newspaper.
The Virgin Islands (the official name) are nestled in the cluster of Leeward Islands, between Puerto Rico and St. Maarten. There are also the United States Virgin Islands which are nearby. I arrived at the British Territory via a small twin-engine aircraft from St. Maarten because, as I discovered, the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport, the main port of entry for aircraft, is similar in size to the Eugene F. Correia International Airport at Ogle.
The Virgin Islands are home to about 2000 Guyanese. They are known as the sailing capital of the world because their scattered cays are submerged in turquoise waters that are a huge draw for tourists seeking untouched natural paradise destinations. Although mostly self-governing, the British still maintain some powers. The main revenue generators are tourism and financial services.
The publisher of the newspaper, Elton Callwood, collected me at the airport, drove through the hills, which should really be classified as mountains, and into Road Town. Our first stop was the shop along Main Street. My suitcase was in the tray of his pickup truck. Despite my pleadings, I was told that the suitcase was safe in the open and I did not have to worry about it being stolen.
An annual event, ‘Christmas on Main Street’ was in full swing. There were stalls set up along the middle of the street, with dozens of buyers searching for festive items. The event ushers in the Christmas season on the island and coincides with the Lions’ Christmas tree lighting, an event that sees performances from children and groups across the main island.
After an ‘island handshake’, Elton introduced me to ‘the boys,’ who appeared to instinctively gather outside the shop. It soon became clear that the shop was an annual meeting point, because chairs were brought onto the street, followed by an assortment of alcoholic beverages.
As the newbie in the midst, the conversation naturally shifted to the best Christmas experience in the Caribbean, specifically, who can boast of having the ‘crème de la crème’ of Christmases. Surprisingly, everyone was familiar with pepper pot and its connection with Guyana. They knew that Guyanese loved to ‘lime’ and the liquor flowed freely at Christmas.
We all agreed that Christmas was about celebrating the birth of Christ, spending time with family and friends. Virgin Islanders would travel home. Similarly, because the BVI is populated by mostly expatriates, Christmas sees many persons returning to their home country to celebrate with loved ones.
Elton wanted me to get as much local experience as possible on my first day. He encouraged me to ensure I tasted some Guavaberry liqueur, the islands’ staple at Christmas, made from the fruit of the Guavaberry Tree, rum, sugar and spices. Luckily for me, Christmas on Main Street showcased a variety of locally made produce, including Guavaberry wine.
The spices and the fruity flavour hit immediately, which drowned out any hint of rum. It was poured by an elderly seller and from a large brown bottle which was used to cure the liquor for several months.
As I walked along the event, I came to learn of Fungi music, once produced from a unique blend of homemade instruments, including a wash pan.
Then a parang song came blaring over the sound system. It struck me immediately as a song I had never heard. The lyrics went something like this;
“Ah want ah piece of pork,
ah want ah piece of pork,
I want a piece of pork for meh Christmas,
I doh want no Manicou,
Yuh could keep the Callaloo
ah want ah piece of pork
for meh Christmas
ah want ah piece of pork,
Ah want ah piece of pork,
ah want ah piece of pork
for meh Christmas,’.
The artist was Trinidad’s Scrunter, whose real name is Irwin Reyes Johnson.
Maybe it was the Guavaberry, but that song has stayed with me ever since. Funny enough, I have never eaten pork, largely because of my Adventist upbringing. That first Christmas in the Virgin Islands, I was alone, away from my family who I had left in The Bahamas and my fiancée at the time, Melissa.
I longed for a Guyanese Christmas, even though I must admit that Christmas has become too commercialised.
Over the next eight years, I spent another seven Christmas Days in the Virgin Islands. Those holidays were merry, because I met some incredible people, including Guyanese. Away from home, we leaned heavily on each other to make the season bright.
Due to our busy schedule, my wife and I often ordered cake from Cheryl Winter, a Guyanese. I looked forward to my Rotary Club of Road Town’s annual roundabout light-up, assisting the elderly and other community projects in December.
There were times when we gathered at friends. Vance Lewis, Nelcia St. Jean, Quincy Woolford, James Harris, Shan Mohamed and Pati Romney, the daughter of former Chief Minister, Cyril Romney, were all integral part of my Christmas experience in the Virgin Islands. My Rotary family was also special to me.
And then came September 2017. Hurricanes Irma and Maria whipped the Virgin Islands into a scene that is best described as a bomb decimating a large swathe of inhabited landmass. I returned to Guyana in August, a month before the ferocious category five Irma struck.
Five persons died, including a Guyanese, as a direct result of the hurricanes. Many more have died since due to health-related complications, including my friend Pati’s mom. We will never know if the post-hurricane stress contributed to these deaths. I believe they did.
I have seen photos and videos of the places I once visited. Buildings toppled and blocked parts of Main Street in the days following the storm. Many who have not rebuilt their homes now live in temporary tents.
Families were separated. Parents were forced to send their children to live with relatives off-island, because the aftermath posed a great risk to the young and elderly.
There was a rush to re-open the tourism sector, recognising that the activity would help jump start the economic recovery. Small private jets and boats customarily bring thousands of tourists to the island for the New Year’s celebrations.
The islands are slowly returning to normalcy. In Tortola, the Main Street event was held on another street and the Lions’ Christmas tree light-up was shifted to another location. My Rotary Club held its annual roundabout light-up.
Christmas in any part of the world is about family. It is also about giving and sharing. I was happy when Guyana assisted the Virgin Islands following the storms. Christmas offers the opportunity to rekindle relationships which may have drifted apart during the year for varying reasons.
This Christmas, whether you plan to enjoy guavaberry wine, ginger beer, a piece of pork or pepperpot, remember to celebrate humanity, because life may take you on a different journey next Christmas.
From my immediate family and the Kaieteur News family, Merry Christmas.
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