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Diary of a Caribbean Cruise – Part Five

St. Kitts: a chance for some closure...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Today I returned home to St. Kitts.

I had left in 1973 – hurriedly, in a state of confusion and sorrow, my marriage of almost ten years having fallen apart.  With the impetuousness of youth (I was only 31), I resigned my job, bundled up my kids, and went back to Canada.

Welcome to StKitts on terminal signs
Welcome to St. Kitts
– a return, after thirty-eight years

My life since then has been wonderfully blessed.  I met and married Heather, we raised four kids together, and the parishes where I have served taught me as much as I taught them.  But, was it right for me to leave St. Kitts so precipitately?  That is hard to say

True, it would have been awkward going through a marriage breakdown among a people whose clergy had almost exclusively been celibate Englishmen.  As well, my position in the region had always been short term.  Today, thirty-eight years later, I cannot remember a single programme or activity that I left in the lurch by resigning when I did.  However, there were dozens of people with whom I had begun a deeply affectionate relationship that I basically walked out on, and I regret that.

When I departed in 1973, I had lived and worked in St. Kitts for eighteen months, and – despite the undercurrent of failure in my personal life – I had loved being there.  But what would St. Kitts be like today, after the passage of so many years?  Would there be anyone who remembers “Father Tony,” the priest from Canada?

Actually, I had no expectation of connecting with any people who had known me.  All I wanted, all that I hoped for, was to see some of the places where I had lived and worked, and to take Heather and my friends around the island, particularly to the astonishing fortress known as Brimstone Hill.

My biggest worry was Heather.  Walking has given her so much difficulty, and Brimstone Hill in particular has at least fifty stairs.

I had another worry: would I be able to recognize anything?  For example, when I lived there so many years ago, cruise ships could not come into shore.  They anchored far out in the harbour, and their guests were ferried to the docks on tenders.  But according to our Winnipeg travel agent, this cruise ship – this utterly gargantuan vessel – would be docking right at some sort of onshore terminal!  What sort of changes must have been required to make that happen?  My first home in St. Kitts had been in the oldest part of Basseterre, the island’s capital and its only seaport.  Would the house have been bulldozed over to facilitate some of these changes?  Indeed, would I recognize anything at all???

My fears seemed to be confirmed as, early in the morning, the ship approached Basseterre.  I could see a road where none had been before, and huge breakwater rocks where there had been sandy beach.  There were industrial installations that I didn’t recognize, and homes on a hill where I thought there should only be grassland and shrub.

Well, there was nothing for it but to find a cab driver willing to take us on a nostalgic errand, looking for places that may no longer exist.

Well, we found Nigel, and he was perfect.

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Nigel Browne
Werner tells me that I was fun to watch as I approached the line of cabbies looking for someone who would take us on a custom tour.  I explained what I wanted, and was met at first with skepticism, then (Werner says) he could see the cab dispatchers and other organizers begin to recognize that this old white man really had once lived here, and really did have a plan.  Finally one of them made a decision, and called out, “Nigel!”  A large black man with a tinge of grey in his short beard came over, and I was urged to tell him what we wanted.  He looked thoughtful, and nodded.  Encouraged, I said, “And what would something like that cost us?”  “Thirty dollars an hour.”  “Each?”  I asked.  “No sir.  Thirty dollars an hour for all of you.”  This was, we assumed, a quote in U.S. dollars, but all the same it was extremely reasonable.  Nigel supposed that such a trip might take four hours.  He and I studied a detailed map of Basseterre to see where we should start looking, while the others piled into his van.

Tony studying a map with Nigel Browne
“...he and I studied a detailed map of Basterre...”
“George Street!” I said, “that’s the name of the street where I first lived when I came here!  But why does the map show another road between George Street and the sea?  I don’t remember that at all!”  “Bay Road be new,” said Nigel, “de breakwater, and Bay Road behin’ it, be put in when de terminal was build.  De deepwater pier done change de current of de sea and de town [this was pronounced ‘tong’] was like to be wash away.”

In this one statement – not reproduced here in complete accuracy, but I’m close – I knew we had a winner.  Nigel Browne knows the way things were before they became the way things are.  And he was to prove this again and again.

The terminal was all new, and the tourist shops that surrounded it were all new.  There were two other giant cruise ships in port today besides the Grand Princess.  St. Kitts had made a choice: it was going to cater to, and thoroughly welcome the tourist trade.  Indeed Nigel told us that in 2008 the government of St. Kitts caused the entire sugar industry on the island to cease doing business.  Although cane still grows in the fields, it is self-seeding and wild.  Sugar terminals at the port are abandoned and will be converted to other uses.  This agri-business that had been the sole livelihood of St. Kitts for three hundred years is now no more.  By government decree.

And by government decree, the island is now devoted to the tourist trade.

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This old house
The further Nigel drove away from the slick and modern shops surrounding the cruise ship terminal, the more I began to recognize where I was.  There: the traffic circle with the clock in it!  And the Royal Bank building!  And there’s George Street, where I first lived!

We began driving along George Street.  Suddenly, I saw it.  That small and very old house with the pointed roof!  It had to be my former home!  There’s the porch as I remember it!  There’s the window through which I had looked when the musicians and all the dancing people came down the street!  That’s where I was when Brenda Jeffers, down in the crowd, spotted me and shouted “Faddah Tony!  Does you want to come down and jump up in de band?” 14  “Okay,” I said, and ran down those stairs, through that gate, to join the crowd of swaying, dancing people.

The word rocketed around the island: “Faddah Tony does jump up in de band!”  For a short time – now so long ago – I was completely immersed in a culture so different from my own.  And it’s one of my happiest memories – ever.

With these memories flooding back I continued to note familiar objects.  There was the wall that surrounded my garden.  But wait!  It had been quite a long wall, and a big garden.  This wall stops short!  There is a large square building where half the wall and the garden once were.  Nigel said (and I won’t try to reproduce his dialect any more) “Yes, I remember when people called that house ‘de pries’ house,’ but the person who bought the property several years ago built the big square home on the portion that you remember as a garden.”

Old wooden house, paint peeling
My old house on George Street, Basseterre
Werner, Mary and Heather were quite astonished that the house was so very small, but I was certain.  This was the place.  I took the photo you can see here, and felt enormous triumph.

Next we went to look for the second home that I had lived in, up on “Taylor’s range.”  Along that road was a place that Nigel said currently houses the Anglican priest, but I said, “Nope.  That’s on the wrong side of the street.”  Slowly he drove up and down, and none of the houses looked quite right to me.  But the street was very much the way I remembered it.  Finally we had to conclude that a vacant lot, where Nigel says a dwelling once stood, but had been torn down, was probably where my second home had stood.  Certainly that vacant space was in the correct place relative to the sight-lines that felt familiar.

I didn’t mind not seeing it.  The house on Taylor’s Range was much more nondescript than the really old and partially dilapidated house in the heart of town that had been my first home.  But I felt certain that we had located the site, and allowed Nigel to move on, and show me things that he thought might interest me.  He would say the names of stores: “Gumb’s store used to be there; and that used to be Ram,” and memories would be stirred, for those certainly were names of shops where I would acquire the stuff of daily life.  “That there is the police station,” he said, and I almost shouted, “Yes!  That is where I had to go to get my driver’s licence!”  “Ahh, but they don’t give out the driver licences there any more; that is done in the modern building over there!” said Nigel.

I was totally happy.  Nigel is old enough to remember stuff that was around in the early 1970s, and kind enough to update me with patience.

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Driving around the island
And so the day progressed: we saw the agricultural market, the cricket grounds, the hospital, and then drove through the country, through little towns whose names came rushing back into my consciousness from the long-ago past.

It was distressing to see the abandoned sugar fields, but the tour was exhilarating for me, and fun for the others as well.  Nigel soon had us at a tourist trap: a place that makes and sells batik fabrics and clothing.  Mary and Heather loved it, and bought several items, while Nigel took Werner and me down along a rainforest path to some very photogenic sugar mill ruins.  There a rather scruffy girl with a pet monkey posed for a picture and asked for a gift of money.  I gave her a US dollar.

With us all back in the van once more, we proceeded to Brimstone Hill.

On our way Nigel said, “The Caribe petroglyphs are along here, but I don’t want to take you there.  I don’t trust the people.”  Although the petroglyphs were unknown to me during my residence on the island, I had read about them in the tourist literature.  My opinion of Nigel now became even more positive when he told us this.  We would be protected by him.  Both at the batik place, and later at the fort, security guards were definitely in evidence, and Nigel explained that people who “had no business being there” were being carefully and deliberately kept away.  It was all part of the concerted effort by the nation of St. Kitts to protect and enhance the tourist industry.

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Brimstone Hill

Brimstone Hill fortress
Brimstone Hill fortress
Fifty stairs! (could Heather make it up there?)
When I lived in St. Kitts, the Brimstone Hill fortress had been partially restored, but people were seldom there, and it stood open to anyone who cared to climb to it’s extraordinary heights (there was a road that went up much of the way, but the highest citadel is reached by a long flight of stone steps).  I always used to take my visitors from Canada to the place, because it is truly spectacular.

Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  One must pay admission, and it is crawling with tour buses and tourists.  But it is still magnificent.

But, would Heather manage that final flight of 50 stairs?  I had fretted about this from the first signs that her walking has become so painful.  Now the moment was upon us.  We had paid our admission, and we were at the base of the citadel.  Views, even at that point, are very good, but I knew that being on the top level would be unforgettable, if only we could get there.

Well we could, and we did, and while it was tough for Heather, she managed it with determination and dignity.  And did not regret it.  She loves well-developed interpretive museums and often reads every plaque.  There are several restored rooms and lots of graphic displays in the citadel of Brimstone hill.  Heather – after enjoying the amazing panoramic view – went into all of them, and read pretty much everything there was to be read.
photo: Werner Schulz
Tony and Heather coming down the Brimstone Hill stairs together
...making our way down those stairs

Werner took photographs of us finally making our way together down those fifty stairs (we were so fortunate to have a “resident photographer” with us on the tour!).

Meanwhile, Nigel had waited, patiently chatting with tour bus drivers and other cabbies, and when we were once more on board his vehicle, we proceeded the long way around the island back to Basseterre.  I was on the lookout for churches where I had preached or led workshops, and I believe that I did see them.  Werner, Mary and Heather ooohed and aaahhhed in the back seat at the wonderful vistas, and at scenes in the rural villages – villages whose names continued to rush back into my memory from former days: Black Rocks, Saddlers, Mansion, Lodge, Cayon and many more.

There was one more site I had hoped to visit.  On the Southeast side of the island there is a long peninsula, at one point of which the reef-encrusted Atlantic shoreline is only a very few metres away from the white-sand beaches of the Caribbean Sea.  I remember that place well, for it was there that I learned to scuba dive, and had some wonderfully memorable adventures among the Atlantic reefs.

I was not prepared, however, for how much the approaches to that peninsula had been developed.  A huge hotel; massive mansions; time-shares and condos had been built almost wall-to-wall along what I remembered as semi-desert hillsides.

Nigel knew the exact location of the reef that I remember, and from a parking lot on a hillside he pointed it out to me.  Yes.  That was it!  And it is still relatively untouched.  Nigel would not drive down there, however, because the road is suitable only for four-wheel-drive vehicles.  I couldn’t recall how I ever managed to get there myself, so many years ago – surely it wasn’t by walking – and suspect that I got there by a small ATV (called a “Mini-moke”).
North Friar's Bay, St. Kitts
A still-unspoiled Atlantic beach in St. Kitt's
... where I learned to scuba dive in 1972

I regret to say that Nigel thinks the wonderful reef and narrow peninsula is slated for development in the very near future.  I took the above photograph, with considerable nostalgic regret.

We then went to a popular beach where there was food for the now-starving Schulzes, and a chance for Mary to dip herself in the sea, which she simply loves to do.

Back on the boat, I had a short nap.  Later, when Heather asked me how I felt about my day, for some reason that I still don’t fully understand, I burst into tears.  The day had been wonderful.  The trip down memory lane had been totally satisfactory.  I consider St. Kitts to be absolutely the most beautiful and perfect of all Caribbean islands, and I am very very happy to have had it as an important part of my life’s journey.

Going back there today may have provided some deep kind of closure for me.  In fact, I’m sure it did.

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Next: Last Ports of Call


14  “Jump up in de band” means: “dance in a crowd, behind a live band of musicians playing Reggae and/or Calypso music.”  A photo, taken that very day, has been scanned and put into the cruise photo album.
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