01 May 2016
“Did a car just pull up?” I looked around. The roads were empty, just a couple of bars, their light spilling out onto the beach, illuminating small waves, lapping lacklustre on the white sand. No cars. “We’re right next to the customs office”. I looked around. How many ferry terminals could there be in St John? I doubt the population in Cruz Bay was more than 16 people and perhaps 27 chickens. There was certainly no customs building in sight. “Are you definitely in St John?” Liz said down the line. I thought for a second. Was there a possibility we were in the wrong country? It was plausible; this was the first day of the trip I’d remained sober right through to the evening. But geography was my strong suit. “I’m sure,” I said. She sounded surprised.
Dave was getting anxious. He liked things well-planned, and this was a bad start. He’d gone off looking for Liz and Liam in the bars. Or maybe he was having a surreptitious beer whilst I waited with the bags. He was suffering with the cold-turkey. Not even a beer since San Juan. No wonder he was anxious. We both had the cold sweats. I pulled out a cigarette, lit up and sat on my bag. I was in no rush, I had almost three weeks to spend mincing around these islands, countless bottles of rum to strain through my liver, and soft city hands that needed putting to work.
Dave reappeared. Had he just necked a beer? I didn’t ask. We sat in silence. We were burned out. Our last night in Puerto Rico had sucked it out of us. Literally in Dave’s case.
“There’s two bloody ferry terminals here.” Liz and Liam were walking towards us. No shit, I thought. They looked healthy, brown, glowing. You could see that they didn’t carry the worries of normal nine-to-fivers any more. They’d both put on a little weight since I last saw them four months ago. Life was treating them well.
We took a cab to the bay over the hill and unlocked the dingy from a tree on the beach. “No sand in the boat,”said Liam. I chucked in my ridiculous wheelie suitcase. Why did I have a wheelie case? I’d always hated them. Here it seemed like a remnant of the London city life that I was leaving behind. I washed my feet in the delightfully warm water and hopped aboard. The sound of the out-board spluttering to life shattered the silence of the bay. The shapes of white yachts hung like ghosts in the distance. Anchor lights on. We weaved our way to “Odyssey.” A 38ft yacht Liz and Liam had sailed all the way from Portsmouth.
The boat was small, and build for purpose. It could cross oceans. It wasn’t designed for a land-lubber like me to lounge around drinking Pina Coladas, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. It had an honest charm to it, the odd spot of rust and a bust fridge. Liam, was an Irish merchant ship’s captain. He was used to driving 100 metre tankers round the world, with engines the size of buses. Liz was an accountant back in London. A profession that suited her matter of fact, say what-you-think personality. She didn’t suffer fools lightly. God knows why she invited me and Dave to join her and her boyfriend sailing round the Caribbean. She was asking for trouble. A Welsh, Chinese sky-diver, and now round-the –world sailor, she wasn’t your typical pencil-pusher.
Climbing aboard it wasn’t long before the beers were cracked open. “They won’t stay cold long” said Liam. Dave and I didn’t need an excuse.
The day dawned clear and warm with blue skies and a gentle breeze. This was just what the doctor ordered. We left the bay and motored round the headland, past ridiculous houses, islands of refuge for people with more money than taste. We set sail to the North. Pelicans and brown boobies flew past us, their wings almost touching the water. “Bird! Jack, bird!” Each one was pointed out as though it was the first ever seen by human eyes. I tried to explain what we were looking at. “Bird!” Yep, it was another pelican. “That one’s a boobie”. “Another pelican”. “Boobie.” This was going to get tiresome.
Waterlemon Bay was the first stop. We took a mooring-buoy and settled in. The bottom was 10 metres down, but clear as crystal. The sky was deep-blue. I felt my worries seeping away, slowly but surely, like a slow-puncture. A bucket of snorkelling gear was brought up from below decks. I tried to find a mask that fitted, but in the water they fogged-up and leaked with a vengeance. I put in a bit of fairy liquid, which did the trick for a while as I explored the reefs and sea-grass. Time seemed of no importance. I’d taken off my watch. I’d forgotten what day of the week it was. My phone was off, or had a flat battery and I didn’t care. This was the way to live.
Like a cameo in a play, a turtle appeared out of nowhere. Just a small one, the size of a car-tire. I followed him around. He looked back at me with a beady eye. “Poor bastard” he said, or at least that’s what I imagine he was thinking. “Working your ass off just to tread water”. I touched him on the back. He didn’t seem to care. I dived, hanging beside him in the water. The fan corals were swaying in the current like washing on the line, angel and parrotfish blundered around the reef. Long skinny fish with pointy snouts skimmed under the surface ahead of me, looking back mistrustfully. I was an imposter from another planet amongst these denizens of paradise.My mask was half full of water. One last look at the turtle. I left him to carry on his business. He had things to do. I didn’t.
Back at the boat Liz had whipped up a meal of rice, spam and cabbage with jerk seasoning. Everything was better with Jerk. “This is incredible” I said. I probably sounded facetious, but I meant it. Swimming makes food taste that much better.
As the sun dipped, and the air got cooler, we put our precious things into a dry bag and went ashore. I left my phone behind, as usual. Who was I going to call? There was a ruined rum distillery in the bay. Dave and I walked down to it, whilst Liz and Liam returned to the boat. The ruined distillery wasn’t in good shape. None of the roofs remained, only the walls, and the copper lined tanks which once held the boiling molasses. They didn’t tend to preserve slave-trade era buildings here, and who could blame them? A mongoose scuttled past, and looked at me with bright pink-eyes. Another import from Africa, brought without volition by the white man. His ancestors had enjoyed an easier ride. Released onto an island with no natural ground-predators; it was a pretty sweet deal for mongooses.
A couple of days passed at Waterlemon Bay. Was it two, or three? I wasn’t counting. We saw turtles each day, and the stars at night. My eyes gradually adjusted to looking at things in the distance, instead of a computer monitor infront of my face. Eyes weren’t designed for screens. My skin browed, my hair got blonder, and my worries faded, like an old colour photograph sitting on a windowsill. If I stayed here long enough, maybe I could be a turtle.
We steadily ate our food stocks, all imported from Godknows where at monstrous prices. A pack of pistachios cost $11. Food became the only real event in the day, and I enjoyed every mouthful with primal relish, like a castaway. Lacking the option to nip down to Sainsbury’s for a meal deal meant that I finished every mouthful, scraping each last grain of rice from the bowl. “Anyone for seconds?” Hell yeah. I ate everything I could get my hands on.
Time to move to the next bay. It was a hard life. Liam took it upon himself to teach us how to sail. He got out a piece of paper and a pencil and drew some diagrams. I nodded sincerely as he explained the art of tacking and gybing. It sounded straightforward enough. “Jack, what do we do now?”. Shit. I’d think and make a guess. “Ease the Genoa, with the blue line, and haul the jib with this green one?” Sometimes I got it right, but it was surprisingly difficult to grasp. Something about the tropical air turned my mind to sponge. I was deep in holiday mode. The most challenging thing I’d done in days was fetching my book from the saloon. Learning how to sail in these conditions was like being hit over the head with a lead pipe whilst taking a nap. Liam was so patient, with his soft Irish accent, I felt bad to be so inept. My soft hands began to blister. I had to start wearing gloves, much to Liz’s amusement. She was a soft-handed accountant not so long ago, but now it seemed ludicrous to her. How I wanted to forget my inexorable return to keyboard tapping as the days drifted by.
We circumnavigated the island at a snails pace. We had nowhere to be, so we took our time. Every day we saw turtles. We swam with huge eagle rays the size of bed-sheets. We shone torches at squid scuttling around the surface at night. Liam pointed out consolations in the sky. Stars that our ancestors would have known by heart, now obscured to most by the light-pollution of a hundred thousand cities.
Liz was in her element. She could snorkel for hours without the slightest sign of tiredness. She’d come in, then disappear into the galley for twenty minutes and return with an incredible meal. I’d bought a book of crosswords with me, which she devoured as ravenously as I ate my jerk curry. She’d call the clues as we lolled about the deck. “38 across.” She’d always say the number, as if it mattered. “Aromatic genus of plant in the olive family.” We were poor to average at best, but it didn’t stop her. Dave pretended to know about music and philosophy, but rarely got a correct answer. My housemate back in Brixton, we met back in first year at university when his hair was shoulder-length and he wore a brown suit, brown beanie and Converse trainers. He was my next-door neighbour at the time. He had a mirror-image coffin-sized room opposite mine in the so-called “new-block” where all the state-school kids had been thrown together to keep them out of the way of the Etonians. We bonded on day one when I heard him playing Pearl Jam across the corridor. Working for a socialist newspaper, he’d taken a two month sabbatical to join Liz and Liam sailing over from Antigua to the Virgin Islands. He’d flow on to Puerto Rico where we’d met up for a week of debauchery. Over the last decade, I could always rely on him to drink with. “Time for a Carib?” He’d pass up four warm beers through the hatch, whilst Liz would ask another crossword question, and Liam would busy himself with a spanner and some electrical tape.
We pulled into Hurricane Hole on the Southern side of the island. A place sheltered from all aspects, and named as such because you could hold up there in a storm and probably not sink. Just as we’d settled in for a quiet evening, what looked like a bungalow chugged into the bay in slow motion. It was a floating bar. The dollars in our wallets had been more-or less untouched since we left Cruz Bay, so we didn’t need any encouragement to ready the dingy. We tied up alongside and hopped aboard. Behind the counter was a man in his fifties, skin thickened by the sun, and sunglasses held on by a lanyard. This was Puerto Rican Pete. We ordered a round of Caribs as he regaled us with tales of his colourful life on the floating-bar that he had built from scratch. He looked like Hunter S. Thompson, and had stories to match. The place was lawless. A few Americans dangled their legs over the side, unaware of the volume of their voices. Like most places we’d been, the patrons were mainly retirees with pensions that would make your eyes water. “Two rum punches. One for my wife and one for my girlfriend.” Another retiree punter. “Make the one for my girlfriend a strong one”. “They’re all strong” replied Pete. “Well, easy on the rum in one of ‘em.’ ” Pete poured two, one with less rum than the usual. He mixed them both in a shaker and put them back on the bar. “Don’t ask me which one’s which.”
Half a dozen beers later, we were on the rum punch too. It was Pete’s own variation on the famous Painkiller, invented in the Virgin Islands. I’ve never liked sweet drinks. Living in Britain it just feels wrong. But in the Caribbean, I could have had a constant, intravenous supply. Liam tipped the remains of the kitty upside down, and a couple of singles fell onto the bar. We were out. Luckily, Dave got us back in action with a handful of twenties. We ordered another round.
By the time we’d finished off all Dave’s money, we were in trouble. There was half a kilometre of water between us and our cabins. Liam readied the dinghy. How we all got in safely, I don’t remember, but we were soon doing uncontrollable doughnuts, laughing like crazies. Somehow we made it back to the boat, and I hopped aboard. Next thing I knew, Liam was butt-naked and in the water, with Dave hanging over the side, his phone in his hand. He was frantically trying to stay above water to get his phone in the rib, but from where he was he couldn't see the futility of the situation. The dingy was 3 inches deep in water inside. With superhuman effort, Dave dropped his phone into the rib. I tried to tell him not to, but it was either that or in the sea. It fell into the puddle in the bottom of with an unceremonious plop. Goodbye phone.
The days drifted by with a pace that crept up on you. Where did the time go? How many crosswords did we not finish? Suddenly, I realised I was finishing my last Carib at a beach bar at Trellis Bay. Who needed a departure lounge, when you could sit on the beach? I waved Liz and Liam goodbye. I was flying the nest. Leaving the cocoon. Plunging into cold water. The real world waited for me on the far-side of the security X-ray machine. I tried to think of something positive…
At least I was going back to Brixton. I could probably buy Carib there.