Friday, September 30, 2011

Risk Management, St. Elsewhere Style

Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

“Dogs! Reef! Roxie! C’mon!” we yell as the four of us tumble into the owner’s bedroom. Rick’s spotted a bee cloud racing across the fields toward the house, and we run for the closest room with glassed-in doors and screens. We sit in the dark, me peeking out from behind the blinds, as if letting them see us  would pull the hive in our direction.

I try to remember the rule about wild animals and eye-contact; is it don’t look, so you don’t appear to be challenging their alpha-maleness? Or look, so they know you’re as tough as they are? Or is that only with orangutans, but not with bears? And is there a rule for bees?

Or cows? Like the other day, when I instinctively ducked my head, turned on my heel, and walked quickly away when a large brown cow charged the dogs – though not retreating so quickly as to signal fear, or to cause her (or him) to want to chase me. I knew the minute I spotted her (or him) that this was no ordinary, road-wandering cow like you see here every so often (that is, every time you leave the house, since a dozen cows, along with a small family of donkeys and a mangy flock of chickens have claimed our side yard as their own).

This was a cow (or bull) who clearly felt she (or he) owned the entire English Quarter, a windswept bluff of open fields backed by thorny acacia trees  where we had taken the dogs for a walk, and where – apparently – cows like to hide.

As the dogs trotted out, happy to be among new smells and tastes, the cow (or bull – we never got quite the right angle on that) stepped out of a thicket. She was a good 15 feet away, so no worries, I thought. She’s just a cow. But this bovine fixed her gaze on Reef and Roxie - who, for their part, were skipping ahead, following their noses - and gave them a look that clearly said, “Stop. Frolicking. Now.”

I’m not sure exactly what happened next, because once I saw her move in our direction, I did my pirouette, dropped my gaze (or is that for moose? mountain lions? Think!), and headed back in Rick’s direction. I think I abandoned the dogs – I definitely didn’t invite them to follow me. I could hear the cow pick up steam, heavy hooves pounding across the grass. I thought of all those Western movies I’d seen as a kid, where the feisty dogs run like mercury on cattle round-ups, and I assumed instinct would kick in and they’d run that cow in circles, yipping and yapping like their forebears.

Reef and Roxie are, however, labradoodles, not border collies, and their instinct tells them to chase tennis balls and lie on your feet, looking elegant. Nipping at the heels of charging cattle is not in their DNA.

“Confused” is how Rick described their response to the cow attack. “They just seemed confused.”

Safe, after the attack
But they moved out smartly on the bee drill today. They knew who’d win that battle. And they looked darned good in retreat.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The B&B Trial...and Error

The helpmate, working off his B&B chores

Many of us wonder what it would be like to run a B&B. To live in a Caribbean villa and welcome guests who pay good money to marvel over our (temporary) home, our fabulous breakfasts, our TripAdvisor-five-star hospitality.

We know B&Bs are a lot of work; any owner will tell you that, with a big, tired smile. But we figure they just don’t have a good system. With a good system in place, how hard could it be? A little shopping, a little cooking, a little bed-making.

Many of us think that becoming a fill-in B&B manager would be a great way to see the world, for free! If you just manage your time well – if you have a good system – you could whip up your gourmet breakfast in the morning, dash out to see the sights for a bit, then return to the inn to welcome your charming, punctual guests with a little wine and cheese before heading out for a fabulous dinner a deux with your spouse/helpmate.  It’s a full life, but a satisfying one, we tell ourselves.

Many of us are delusional. Many of us learn about our dark side when an unregistered guest shows up at 6:30, with a suitcase and a demand for the room with the big, private patio (and the sleigh bed that takes twenty minutes to make up). In the morning, we are secretly gleeful when we realize we have somehow locked this guest into the house when we hurried out to take our husband to the dive shop.

Many of us are surprised at the depth of the passive-aggressive well of monosyllabic outrage we harbor when two guests, who are at least on the register, show up at 9:30 p.m., with nary an apology, but instead a story about working late and etc. when we know they were having dinner with our neighbor. (Small island.)

Many of us are shocked at the primordial ooze of resentment and creative guest punishments that flow from our suburban core: for arriving late in the evening – no small talk for you! For 7:00 a.m. breakfasts  – imperfect scoops of honeydew in your fruit bowl! For asking for eggs – extra-brown toast! For using both hand towels in the bathroom – deceased palmetto under your bed!

Many of us secretly think that, given the chance, we’d cook like Martha Stewart, chat like Oprah, and all the while smile like Rachael Rae. Many of us are sadly mistaken.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Diving In (with American history)

(Rick's view: Divemaster on St. Elsewhere)

I had no idea what to expect when I showed up at the dive shop for my first day of practical PADI divemaster training here on St. Elsewhere. Having been here before, I knew the shop and most of the dive sites. But before I actually got here, nobody could tell me what the new PADI curriculum would require.

The second thing my instructor, Mathias, did was to examine my online training report. The first thing? We went diving (of course). A group wanted to dive in a well-known dive site here on the island; it was a perfect chance for Mat to check me out. The sun was shining, air temperature in the mid-80s (Fahrenheit -- about 26-27C), the water was 80 degrees, and visibility underwater about 60 feet (18 meters). The bottom was white sand, and the spectacular caribbean creatures were all there, just as expected. We saw stingrays, jawfish, blennies, garden eels, and even several mantis shrimp. (The last is found worldwide but not usually seen in the Caribbean; I wouldn't have believed it had I not seen them myself.) The group was well-behaved and the dive, easy.

On day two we started with the "drudgery" -- the tests and demonstration of required skills. Mat, another divemaster candidate and I walked to the end of the pier and jumped into the 80-degree, blue water. The bottom is white sand, bordered by a shallow wall. If this weren't hurricane (rainy) season, the water would have been crystal clear. We swam down the wall, passed the cannon, and quickly found a flat piece of sand where we could practice our skills.

Wait a sec. Cannon? Yes, Virginia, St. Elsewhere has history. This tiny island so few Americans know was critical in supplying the then-revolutionary army during America's war of independence. True to their Dutch heritage, the first settlers here reclaimed land at the shore to make their port and warehouse district; the sea took it back sometime since then. There is so very much history here that new artifacts from the time of the American revolution turn up almost daily; rubble and cannons remain visible and unrecovered underwater. (To be clear: They are protected and must not be removed, but much is still on the bottom where casual divers and snorkelers can easily find it.)


The wall? It's not just a reef; underneath is a colonial stone wall. The cannon leans against it, pointing out toward the deeper sea -- I imagine just as intended when it was put here.

So here we sit -- underwater on the sandy bottom, practicing mundane diving skills; taking off our masks and buddy breathing. Just past the cannon, amid ruins of a port that was part of the American revolution.

How cool is that?

Friday, September 23, 2011

It's a Small World

I grew up in the suburbs. The town was small enough for me and my friend Betty to ride our bikes past all the houses of Belair Junior High’s most interesting boys, but big enough that we could profess ignorance about the geography if we had been spotted. (You live here? Oh, we were just riding around and…got lost.)

Here on St. Elsewhere, with only about 3,000 people on an island that runs about 8 miles from head to toe, and 3 miles from side to side, there’s no hiding. One upside of island living is never losing your keys, because you just leave them in the car; the island’s dozen roads would make for the world’s shortest police chase.

And that’s the downside, too: You’re going to get caught. No matter what indiscretion you’ve perpetrated, someone has seen you do it, and they will tell.

Sonja from across the street has only been here a couple of weeks, so she’s still getting used to maneuvering the maze of one-way streets in the historic town center, where low stone walls regularly take their pound of paint from careless drivers and SUVs.  Her first rental car incident was minor – she backed when she should have forwarded. She inspected the car, saw there was no damage, decided not to report it, and went on her way.  A few days later, the stone walls took their toll on her bumper, so, like a responsible driver, she called Mrs. White – aka the rental car company – to ‘fess up about scrape.

Mrs. White appreciated the information, but asked her why she hadn’t called to report the first incident, too.

In St. Elsewhere, you can run, but you can’t hide.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Found fruit and hagelslag


I knew that living on St. Elsewhere for a month would offer lots of my favorite kinds of fruit: found and ground. And the island has not disappointed.

We gather mangos from the lawn of the archaeologist and his wife down by the beach, avocados and breadfruit from the trees across the street (the property of a resort manager on a high-end neighboring island), and star fruit from within the confines of the walled yard of McDiver’s absentee neighbor (McDiver is an excellent climber).


McDiver’s own land provides soursop, and our acreage here at House on the Hill features papaya trees dripping with fruit, tiny guava, coconuts, and passion fruit (which, in case you didn’t know, grow on vines not trees). Our overgrown greenhouse also offers up the occasional pepper, and a few spring onions.

McDiver – the most intrepid of eaters and explorers – has also helped me to sample sea grapes, and he lived to tell the tale after snacking on what may or may not have been a lychee that he picked up off the road.

The mangos, in particular, ripen fast, so we eat them daily, and what we don’t finish we put into the blender as the base for our homemade mango ice cream. For a foodie like me, there are few things as satisfying as finding food still connected to its source, not to mention free.


But the real food find since I’ve been here is not the mango ice cream, or the homemade poppy seed bread I make every few days for the guests’ breakfast, or even the $11 plate of goat stew and peas ‘n rice we savored at the local bar/pool hall down by the airport. The happiest surprise was when our across-the-street Dutch neighbor, Sonja, explained hagelslag to me.

Hagelslag (or “sprinkles” as it’s known in the U.S.) has been a mystery since it showed up in our daily breakfast basket at a hotel in Curacao a couple of years ago. Was it meant as a sweetener for the tea? Or to roll up in the ham slices, to compliment the salty flavor? Or maybe just to eat by the spoonful for dessert? We had no idea.

At dinner the other night, Sonja rhapsodized over the glories of a little hagelslag melted onto a warm piece of toast. Ah, so that’s it. It goes on the bread! Sounded plausible, but I was dubious.

A couple of days later, Sonja tracked down a box and gifted it to me. I tried it out, and wow. It’s like Dunkin Donuts in a box, without a trip to the bakery. All you need is a piece of toast, a little butter, and a generous sprinkle of hagelslag.

So now mornings start with a little found fruit, followed by a little found hagelschlag.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Expats


Chloe the coroner and Beverly stopped by to see how I was getting along, and also to take a look at Wagner’s, the house across the street, which they’d heard might be coming available for rent. Chloe loves her little two bedroom rental near the beach, but the owner won’t let her spray for bugs, and earlier this week she was stung by a scorpion while grabbing some shorts out of a cupboard, plus she mentioned something about tarantulas. Mostly, though, there’s no pool, and she and Beverly, her friend from Canada who’s just quit her job to move here on a whim, would really love to have a pool. So now they’re weighing their options: pool (move to Wagner’s) vs. view (stay put).

Chloe pays $1,000 a month plus electric now, and the rent would go up to $1,300 at Wagner’s (not including electric), but she’d have Beverly’s help, and Wagner’s has a little one bedroom cottage – no kitchen, but a nice little deck - that she could sublet to a medical school student for $600 or $700 a month, she figures.

St. Elsewhere isn’t Chloe’s first Caribbean residence; she lived on Grand Cayman for years, and in Belize City, too, where she had a 24-hour police escort. I wasn’t connecting the dots on why a coroner would need a 24-hour police escort until she explained how the occasional body would show up riddled with bullet holes. Interested parties would prefer for the case to be labeled an accident, instead of a homicide. It was her job to apply the label.

I invited Chloe and Beverly to join us for a pina colada tonight; I'm guessing they may have a few stories to tell, and I’m taking notes.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

House on the Hill


View from my room

I’m on St. Elsewhere for a month, housesitting, dogsitting, and B&B sitting. The house is spectacular – a six-bedroom villa on several acres, with an open-air design that captures the hilltop breezes and the nonstop Caribbean view. It’s owned by Europeans who visit a few times a year, and managed by an American couple - the former owners of one of the local dive shops - who’ve been on the island for nearly two decades.
Our friends Gigi and McDiver introduced us to the island and the dive shop owners, and like everyone lucky enough to get an invitation to House on the Hill, we were immediately smitten.

On our last visit, I planted the idea of Rick and I as housesitters; and it’s worked out better than I could have imagined. Four weeks for me (three for Rick) to pretend like we own the joint, playing in the pool with Reef and Roxie, tooling around the island in our host’s rugged 4x4, raising a hand in greeting - just like the locals - to those we pass on the hair-raisingly narrow town streets and rutted mountain roads.

It’s not all free mangoes and pina coladas, though. This palace comes with a list of to-do’s as long as my arm. I am cook, baker, laundress, and housekeeper for the B&B guests; dog walker, bather and feeder; gardener, fish feeder, grocery shopper, pool monitor and cleaner, mail and paper collector. I had to draw the line at mowing and emergency preparedness, which is why McDiver joined me here for the week before Rick could break away from work. He’s the mechanic, the lawn jockey, the guy who steps out on ledges to pull down the malfunctioning hurricane shutters and frees jammed keys from locks.

This is 100% different from my life at home, where I spend 100% of my time sitting at my computer as my ass grows ever wider. This is constant slow motion in 90 degree temperatures, where there is always one more chore and where the internet is so slow that signing in to Facebook can take several minutes, or forever.

I wonder if anyone has ever correlated the body fat of Facebook users v. non-Facebook users? Could be interesting, but you'd probably have to take pina coladas out of the equation, and that's just not gonna happen here on St. Elsewhere.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Meet the Family

This is Roxie. She’s a Labradoodle, and way too hairy for life on St. Elsewhere, but here she be. She’s lived here her whole life – about six years. I’ve known her since she was the diva of Dive St. Elsewhere, the scuba shop her owners operated for years. Back then, she’d collect pats and scratches from arriving divers as they assembled in the morning. By mid-afternoon, in the tropical heat, and worn out from the ebb and flow of strangers, she couldn’t be bothered to move her carcass out of the doorway.

These days, now that her owners have sold the shop, she passes the time snoozing at home. Her favorite spot is on the cold tile floor, snuggled in as close to my legs as she can get without becoming an actual extremity. I don’t know much about dogs, but I figure she may have separation anxiety, or she may just be a fickle love-puppy. In the morning, when she greets me at my bedroom door with her partner, Reef, she gives me a huge, scary smile, full of big teeth that she bangs into my hand. Why, I have no idea. But as long as she’s smiling, I guess we’re doing okay.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Fruits of Knowledge: A first real bite

I was all prepared to write this meaningful little piece about how I can’t spot the passion fruits on the big passion fruit trees in the yard; they just show up on the ground, like little passion fruit gifts. Surely that’s a metaphor for something.

But fortunately, before I put that deep thought out there into the blogosphere, my friend McDiver wandered by and told me he’d spotted another one of the yellow fruits on the passion fruit vine growing in the fichus trees in the yard. 

So that, also, is a metaphor: For how little I know about life in the Caribbean.

I’ve had lots of those moments, six days into a 30-day housesit on a tiny island that you’ve almost certainly never heard of.  And I expect know there’ll be lots more. I’d just like to leave this island with a smidgeon more knowledge, about the flora, the fauna, the politics, the people, and myself.

More to come…