Random musings in the aftermath of hurricane Irma

Now that I have a set of wheels I can, for the first time, travel the island and see the devastation wrought by hurricane Irma and find it’s on an epic scale. Few buildings escaped damage, some simply no longer exist. The shock factor of the early days, when we woke to a changed world, has been replaced by one of creeping sadness. Not one person, one family, went untouched.

Life amidst the wreckage goes on. Last Sunday dawned cool and fresh, and at 6.30 the waning Harvest Moon was high in an azure sky. I still see the beauty in these things though sadly they’re diminished when your gaze falls back to earth and you take in the smell, the millions of flies, the mosquitoes, the uneasy feeling of a population facing a bleak future of mass unemployment. We try to stay positive, to spin events so that they don’t invade our subconscious, but there are days, perhaps like today, when it is difficult.

For the first few weeks following the storm people oozed confidence. “We are strong, we will rebuild,” was the rallying cry and a feeling of optimism prevailed. Now, reality is beginning to sink in and with it the knowledge that thousands face an uncertain future with the locals taking the brunt.

The authorities on both sides of the island are working diligently to return things to normal, whatever normal will mean in the months ahead.

Hundreds of tons of scrap and debris have been removed, trucked to temporary sites and piled five stories high. Around our own apartment block, teams of workers have scoured the debris from the gardens, hauled zinc from the bottom of the swimming pool and carved up the trunks of once magnificent trees that lay dead along the ground.

We have water 12 hours a day, the electricity supply is stable, some supermarkets are open and there’s plenty of food for those with funds to buy it. On the French side families in need are still receiving aid, something that is vital if authorities are to avoid civil unrest.

The island has been knocked on its ass and, like a punch drunk boxer, is staggering to its feet. As we become yesterday’s news and the expat community considers fight or flight, those most severely affected have it within their power to make or break the recovery.

We live in hope.

— French St. Martin, October 8 2017

 

 

 

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Scooters, Hooters and Hurricanes

I have wheels but it meant having to move to the dark side—Quadraphenia and Pinball Wizard, Noddy Holder and The Who. The long hair will have to go, as will the Crocs, now its Bovver Boots, long woolen scarves, parkas and plaid pants.

Yes, I have bought a scooter.

It’s just another indignity forced on me by hurricane Irma, the Wicked Witch of the East. We were desperate for transport, having lost the Jeep and my beloved motorbike in the tidal surge. A neighbor was leaving the island and his 125cc scooter was for sale.

The scooter is the ‘Agility City’ model and I think they misspelled City and it lacks a P as its first letter. And Agility is a bit too close to Mobility … Mobility scooter. Ouch!

The thing is automatic, no gear shifting, it does it for you. Riding the motorbike, I always felt like part of the machine. The acceleration, the quick rev between gears when you’re chopping down through the box … Born to be Wild running through my head (well, sometimes).

Riding the scooter is like riding a child’s miniature train around in circles. There’s nothing to do but sit on it and twist the end of the handlebar and a way it goes with the sound of a wet fart. You can’t make it roar because there’s no clutch. You can’t drag your knee close to the road in a tight corner like the Isle of Man TT racers do because your knees are up by your ears. All it’s short of is armrests and somewhere to put your pipe and slippers.

There is a center stand, but you need to be Man Mountain to use it. The daftest thing of all is the horn, which would do credit to 16-wheeler truck. The first time I pressed the button it almost gave me a heart attack. One blast cleared Marigot Main Street and had the gendarmes drawing their guns and diving for cover.

The guy who sold it to me swears it does 75 miles on one liter of gas and I think most of that goes through the horn, which sure as hell doesn’t run on electricity.

So, there you have it, I have joined the local loonies, the back wheel riders, the buzz brigade, the in-and-out traffic zippers whose total aim in life is to piss everyone off. Give me a wave as I go by, I’m the guy with the paper bag over his head …

 

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HURRICANE IRMA

Midnight, September 17th 2017

Thank you.

Jan and I are overwhelmed by the thoughts and prayers you sent our way during our tussle with hurricane Irma.  Religion has never been my thing but oddly enough I do believe that prayer is powerful. Perhaps it’s a throwback to my hippy days when things had good vibes and dreamers were out to change the world. And how does change come about if not by dreams.

The reason it has taken so long to thank everyone is that for over ten days we have lived without power and only now has it returned along with access to internet although the connection isn’t mine, I am taking it from the apartment below.

My date with Irma wasn’t what I expected, she was more woman than I could handle.

Jan and I have lived in the Caribbean for over 20 years and have survived all the storms and hurricanes including Luis, which I rode out on the boat. Previous to living in the Caribbean we survived a Bay of Biscay storm that twice rolled our boat and left us adrift for seven days, so I guess you could say we know a little about storms. A message I received today from a friend said: “Gary, you are going to live forever,” by which she meant I am not destined to die in a storm.

Irma, the strongest hurricane to hit the Caribbean since 1926, was powerful beyond belief, a living, breathing malignant bitch that left parts of the northern Caribbean looking like Trump had finally lost his mind and unleashed nuclear Armageddon. I hope he saw the videos coming out of the islands because that is just a taste of what the world will look like if the button is pushed … Cold, stark reality, not false news.

In Nettle Bay, French St. Martin, where we live, an eight foot tidal surge breached the main road and the ocean poured into the lagoon. The sea entered beachside homes sluicing them clean leaving nothing behind but crumbling breezeblocks and buckled roofs. The torrent smashed the roadside wall, cascaded down the grassy bank into our parking lot sweeping cars and trucks before it. We lost our Jeep, our motorbike and our friend’s car. As the water receded with the passing of the eye, peoples’ lives were laid bare, personal possessions, appliances, clothes, children’s toys, paperwork, food, furniture, personalities …

In our second floor apartment the roof was holding but straining to maintain its grip. Metal window frames bulged and cracks stippled the walls. In the calm of the eye, we took stock. We had some water damage but across the way, as far as I could see, homes were roofless, giant palms were down and the parking lot resembled a madman’s chess board of piled up cars and trucks.

Then it got really bad.

With the passing of the eye, the wind came from the opposite direction and what little protection offered by the building opposite was lost. The first wind gust was powerful; the second came with Irma’s full fury. Our roof began to moan and wail; the death throes of a creature in agony. It trembled and shook and plaster from the walls fell to the floor.  The ceiling fan swung from side to side, doors rattled and the world, our home; our heads were filled with a million screaming banshees.

We jammed ourselves into the tiny bathroom – myself, Jan, our friend’s Goldendoodle, Jesse, and our old cat Moggie. That’s when we realized our young cat Buster wasn’t with us but still cowering under the bed upstairs. The groans from the roof intensified and the bulging windows were on the edge of letting go. Should they collapse then Irma would be amongst us and no amount of concrete, wood and friction could stop her, the roof would lift and everything in the funnel of our open rooms would go with it including the bed and Buster.

Dragging a crazed cat from under the narrow opening beneath a bed at the height of a 185mph storm isn’t something I recommend. First I had him by the front paw, then the back paw, then by his neck until finally I had him out. I made it to the safety of the bathroom just has he raked me with his back claws and sent blood dripping from my finger tips. That’s twice we have saved that cat’s life, you’d think he’d be more grateful.

Jan sat on a duvet squashed in the corner next to the sink with Moggie and Buster pressed into her side and Jessie against her legs. She wrapped her arms around the three of them and whispered to keep them calm.  I sat with my back pressed against the door as Irma fought to get in. Nothing I could do would stop the incessant machinegun rattle of Irma clawing her way in. Time had little meaning beyond the awful bang, bang, banging against the door … and then the pressure eased, the period between hammer blows grew shorter until finally, defeated, Irma hoisted her malignant skirts and went off to plunder the Virgin Islands.

The aftermath of hurricane Irma has shocked me as much as the storm. Mass looting, gunfire, and lawlessness stripped away the thin veneer that separates civilized behavior from total every-man for-himself anarchy. Not everyone turned into a scumbag, many rose to the occasion doing everything they could to help those less fortunate at great risk to themselves. In a crisis you always get the angels. The authorities need to hold the looters to account but hey, it’s the islands, mon, and I’ll believe it when I see it. If it was down to me, I’d rip off their heads and spit down the hole. They are above contempt.

Ten days since the storm and on the French side the military have restored some kind of order although nights are still dangerous and patrols few and far between. We have no running water and flush the toilet with water carried from the swimming pool. Aid organizations bring us bottled drinking water and a little food for which we are thankful.  We are better off than many.

A few days ago the aid organization, escorted by French paratroopers, gave those living in our apartment block a huge bag of partially frozen food but without electricity we had no way of cooking it or keeping it cold. The food included piles of half frozen fish and meat, all destined for the dustbin by morning. In order to eat some of it, a group got together and built a fire in a large concrete flower box. They got the fire going with gasoline and fueled it with toxic wood. Jan and I took two massive tuna steaks back to our apartment and by candle light and using a blowtorch on the bottom of the frying pan cooked the fish and opened a warm bottle of wine. Gazing at the beauty of the stars in a blackened sky, we dined like kings overlooking an ancient battlefield which, in a way, we were.

Throughout all this, Jan has been my strength, keeping our little family fed and healthy. The number of storms I have put her through I wonder why she stays with me. Our love is strong.

Buster survived the trauma of the hurricane … just. He is eating, drinking, peeing and pooping and seems to be happy but after ten days we still can’t get him to leave the bathroom. He won’t go further than the door. We hope in time he will heal. The other animals are fine.

Today, for the first time, I was able to view videos of the devastation wrought on the islands and finally emotion took over. I cried. If climate change is responsible for these super storms then each and every one of us bears some responsibility for the death of the baby snatched by Irma from its mother’s arms as she clung to a palm tree and Barbuda disintegrated around her. The destruction is on us and the politicians we voted into power.

What does the future hold for the Caribbean? Well, it will rebuild and become a beautiful playground once more. There will certainly be no shortage of work. As for us, we could have evacuated but we decided to stay, at least for now. We are taking things a day at a time, keeping out of the shadows and walking with a big stick. I have an outboard to fix, which will give us transport, and All At Sea magazine to edit, which will help pay the bills. We are blessed.

So many people helped us get through this; you with your thoughts and prayers, and those of our neighbors who are still camping amongst the rubble. On the island of St. Martin, Martine gets a special hug along with Garth and his crew. JL, we are connected.

A special mention goes to the team at Laser 101; the radio station became the voice of the storm. They did a superb job of broadcasting, keeping the island informed and up to date even though many of the presenters had lost their own homes.  Shortly after the storm I listened to their banter until midnight and they had me in stitches. True professionals, thanks guys … shame about the music, but I tried.

Irma and now Maria. The Caribbean rocks.

Stay safe.

Luv Gary & Jan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SPAY AND NEUTER

(No, not the politicians although I could make a strong case)

Heavy rains over the last 48 hours washed a family of three kittens out of the tree they were living in and they have disappeared.

Although I live in the land of permanent summer, life is renewed in the spring and the local tomcats and their female mates do a sterling job of renewing it. Hence the kittens living in the tree where three thick branches joined making a perfect bowl for a nest.

I first encountered the gang of small furry creatures while taking a late evening stroll around the gardens surrounding our apartment block. First, I saw a ghostly shadow on a low wall and then another and another until the flickering shapes turned into three solid bundles of mischief. Shortly after, more and more strollers came by until the kittens were surrounded by an admiring crowd clucking oohs and aahs in English and French.

It was obvious the kittens had lost their mother. Perhaps she had abandoned them, maybe she had died or a dog had taken her (it happens). They could had been dumped unwanted in the garden by their owners. Whatever the reason, they now had plenty of humans looking out for them.

The tree they chose to live in is almost below our window and we were able to watch their comings and goings and those of the various people who brought them dishes of food, milk and water. My wife and I, and our own two furry head-bangers, also provided support in the form of food. The kittens responded to everyone with joy and, being completely unafraid of people, it strengthened my belief that they had been dumped by someone.

Watching from the window was heartwarming. Here comes the big tough guy who hardly ever speaks, he’s cooing and carrying a bowl of food. Next, it’s the lovely lady who sings with more food. A brood of kids, mum in tow, turn up and play with the kittens, and return later with full dishes.

It’s not like these are the only kittens around, there are lots in the area but for some reason these three have captured everyone’s heart.

One young cat that we fed for weeks disappeared only to turn up again six months later. Bandit, the lovely masked kitten, is still around and growing strong.

It’s hard not to want to pick up all the kittens and bring them home.

The rains have now moved on but the little fellows haven’t returned to their nest in the tree.

Sadness and guilt surrounds us like an unseen cloak …

If only …

 

 

SCHOOL’S OUT

The last time I was in England, I went to a school reunion. No old school friends were there, in fact there wasn’t even a school. Only the school yard, the ‘playground’ as we called it, remained. The three story Victorian building was gone, the annex, the old chapel, the gym, all demolished and the land redeveloped. For some reason, they left the old school yard.

I walked between two prefabricated offices when suddenly, spread out before me, was a memorial to four years of my life—a crumbling tarmac square bordered on one side by an old factory wall made of brick. The wall held a faded painted circle from a game I once played but no longer remember.

I walked to the center of the playground, opened my arms, and turned a slow circle. Over there stood the open-fronted playground shed, its dark, dank corner wispy with woodbine smoke. It’s where we explored, our adolescent hands fumbling inside woolly jumpers and white cotton blouses, learning the intricacies of bra straps, clumsily locking lips, our trousers bulging; faces crimson as the whistle called us back to the class room that, for me, was a hated prison.

Having turned a circle, I closed my eyes and listened. Sounds echoed, the shouts, the shrieks, the laughter; the sobs. Loud and real, my eyes flew open and there in the yard were Howard, Mary, Barbara, Ann, Christina, Avril, George, Frank, Leslie, Arthur … And the bullies and the fighters, the fat and the thin, the brainy and the unwashed whose life we made a misery. Here and there a teacher … Pop Walker who in class liked to throw a bunch of keys at his pupils, until he almost blinded one; Mr Field, who threatened to beat me with a rugby boot and hauled me off to the Head when I refused to bend over. Billy Clayton, our RE man, an enigma and one of my favorites; ‘Neb’ Harrison with his awesome nose; Taffy Lund from the science lab who loved to thrash us with a bent cane he called Whiz Bang; and gentle Miss Screven whose pointy breasts drove us mad with lust as they did the whisky-sozzled history teacher at a Christmas party, getting him into all kinds of trouble.

The girls carried their satchels … John, George, Paul and Ringo inked on the leather, all milling around in girly groups keeping away from the football, the game of British bulldogs and human pyramids, while casting sly looks at the lads and ready to cheer and form a ring around a hard-case playground fight.

The mixed crowd wore their house badges—Red for Norman, Green for Dane, Yellow for Saxon, and Blue for Rome—all except the rebels who had thrown theirs away. I was a Dane who desperately wanted to be a Saxon.

A blow on the teacher’s whistle and it all faded away. I took a final look around, watched my school blazer twist into denim, my grey pants become jeans. Brickwork yellowed, grass pushed through the tarmac where so many feet once ran, and the smell of my youth thinned and washed away in a cold shower of rain.

The best school day of my life …

 

DEATH OF A CROC

Last week I went into mourning for two old Crocs. It’s hard to say goodbye to faithful friends, traveling companions that have stuck with you mile after mile, walk after walk, country after country. Mates that guided me as I staggered home at the end of the night and uncomplaining dragged me faithfully through the pouring rain, the bitter cold of a European winter, and countless days of relentless tropical sun. As crew, they sailed like buccaneers through the Caribbean, and rode the highways and byways applying brakes, changing gears and flooring accelerators on motorbikes and cars. By their seventh year, their skin had wrinkle and their color faded from a deep ocean blue to splodged muck. They never complained when splashed with antifouling, kicked a pile of dog shit or suffered the humiliation of being searched, X-rayed, pointed at and mocked by unbelievers. No, they walked on.

Often threatened with death by my wife, they sat quietly, worn and humble outside the door, banished from the room, alone with their memories of how once they socialized, bar-hopped, partied, and gazed up at the world from beneath restaurant tables.

The end, when it came was quite swift. The bottom dropped out of the one on my left foot. Heartbroken, teary and virtually barefoot, I dragged its remains around for several days, but it was no use. It was beyond even epoxy and fiberglass. Seeing its faithful friend hanging holed and limp from my foot as we hobbled along, its twin gave up. They walk no more.

Celebrating a life well spent, solemnly, together, my Crocs went to the garbage bin, their heel straps forever entwined.

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Somewhere, on a shelf in an unknown store are my next pair of Crocs … I’m toying with the idea of yellow or red.

PARIS IN ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY MINUTES

I was in Paris recently and what a wonderful city it is. Every time I visit Paris, I swear I will never leave.

The first time my wife and I visited Paris together we spent our nights in a very cheap garret with rooftop windows that opened to reveal magnificent views of the city. A dusty room with an ancient iron bed, warm May nights, passion and romance. Paris is made for such memories.

Back to my recent visit. I was alone and loving the freedom to roam the city like an alley cat. My hotel, booked on line, was located in a labyrinth of backstreets that (at least on Google maps) looked as if they might be in a very dodgy area.

Much against the wishes of my wife, who was in England, I decided to walk to my hotel from the Gare du Nord and within minutes was hopelessly lost. After almost an hour, my legs and wheelie bag screamed in protest at every, lump, bump and curbstone they staggered over.

My hotel room, when I found it, was on the top floor. Not quite a garret, and although it looked out over the rooftops of Paris, which I loved, it could only offer the romance of a cold and empty bed.

For the blog, I wanted to write about the streets of Paris, but not in my usual way. I gave myself an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening and wrote down some of what I saw and experienced in the literary style known as Stream of Consciousness. Or, to be more precise, vomit from my pen sans punctuation.

I wrote quickly and soon realized that what I recorded happened every day in the streets, shops, restaurants and bars of this wonderful city that some call the City of Light and others the City of Love, a place where they out weird and out eccentric their reluctant cousins, the British.

Here are some of the things I saw and experienced in those 120 minutes, and I make no excuses for my thoughts along the way:

Alleyways passageways ginnels here’s a beggar with a beautiful white cat and one with a tired old dog feel that way sometimes breathless in Paris Muslim beggar shoving her kid at me is it for sale there but for the grace of god but whose god that’s the longest outdoor bookshop shelf I’ve ever seen lovely useless books in French lucky I would have been there all day and old toys to collect not to love or push or throw her bra strap is twisted and the color’s all wrong, someone should tell her more swishing skirts short swishing skirts nice legs haute couture under guard he thinks I’m a bad smell tosser handbags for the price of a first class ticket around the world cellphones let you shout and talk to yourself all day could be mad who would know the law says no smoking in the bar so I sit outside and smoke a dozen secondhand Gauloises in two minutes pronounced golwaz wazzock golwazzock life turned on its head liberty fraternity soggy ends the world’s most uncomfortable bar seat another glass of wine from an endless list speak French you numpty laughter shaking heads Les Anglais more laughter monsieur’s vin rouge cheap wonderful party party party what a great Friday night only it’s Tuesday 7.20pm not a table to be had oh no she’s really drunk don’t sit next to me shit eye contact mistake Paris rocks singing glass waving walls rotting under years of nicotine he’s a handsome bastard bet he’s gay madam’s from the French Resistance smiles an ancient smile shrugs a sexy French shrug still pretty someone’s poking a bloody selfie stick through the window  Powerful Pierre’s fallen over Jacques picks him up been there stunning woman on bicycle wearing business suite and Christian Louboutin shoes just peddled by an eyeful of the Eiffel trifle sirens calvados sorbet hustle bustle carved angels and fallen angels smiling hookers where’s all the dog shit gone traffic noise violins vio-fucking-lins lost again seen that before mystery mayhem endless worn streets love ‘em lines of tables chairs lights laughter poverty one for the road barman sighs smears spilt beer too late for food he says never too late to drink shadows doorways pssst pssssst no merci at least her bra’s the right size … time to leave time to live Paris