Monday, 7 October 2013

My Caribbean: The Path of True Love Never Runs Smooth

Building a house anyplace is a challenge, but building a house on a small, off the beaten path island in the Caribbean, forty years ago – that was more than simply challenging. To all the friends who said, “Are you out of your minds?” the answer in hindsight is clearly “Yes”.
St. Eustatius property
View of the bay from our property
But to me, at that time, standing on my boulder, looking at the sweep of the bay, at the incredible blue of the sea, at the acre of scrub that was MINE, anything seemed possible. So what if the island only had electricity from six pm to midnight, and that only in the town? So what if the only source of supplies was the ship Antillia that visited the island once every six weeks?
The local people all had houses. That meant it was possible to build a house on St. Eustatius. We just had to find a builder.
Our first mistake was to choose a builder who wasn’t a local. He was a Texan who had come to the island to help build a pier and stayed on when the project finished.  We figured he’d know all about concrete construction. He assured us he could build the house of our dreams within our budget amount of $22,000, and in only a few short months.
Trustingly we gave him a sizable deposit which in the next few months, he then repeatedly asked us to top up. We were still in the States. He sent us encouraging reports and photographs.
St. Eusatius house
Main cistern being poured
I have to explain at this point about our water supply—our cistern. In the old days the Caribbean cistern was a partially above ground holding tank that looked a bit like an Etruscan tomb. It was made of hand cut stone and often had a face carved in one end to keep away the Jumbies. There are a number of these old cisterns still on the island. But by the time we built our house, the cistern was where a basement would be in northern home construction. It was a big hole in the ground lined with cement, over which the house was constructed. All water for drinking, bathing, doing the dishes, washing clothes, had to come from rainwater. This was collected from a system of downspouts from the roof into the cistern and from there it was pumped through a filter system up into the house—either by hand pump, or if we were lucky, by electricity.
Our 80,000 gallon cistern holds enough water for a prolonged drought.  It was supposed to have been a 40,000 gallon cistern, but according to one of the men who worked on it, the builder left them digging and went into town for a short beer. When he returned there was an 80,000 gallon hole in the ground. He shrugged and decided just to use it.
Of course it took many more bags of cement, and many more hours of labor, than the original estimate, but no matter. Suffice it to say that a year later, with all our money spent and a house just at ring beam stage, our builder disappeared.
We’ve never had cause though to regret our larger cistern, or our over-built frame. It has seen us through decades of drought, through hurricanes and, once, it even withstood an earthquake. I suppose there was something to be said for having had a civil engineer build the basic initial structure.
St. Eustatius house
House up to ring beam
But the fact remained that our builder pulled up stakes and left the island without so much as a “Good-bye and good luck!” and we were left with a house finished only up to ring beam. A ring beam is a wide band of cement embedded with lots of reinforcing steel sticking up out of it onto which the roof beams are tied. Houses in the north don’t have ring beams but they are an essential in the hurricane prone Caribbean.
We had a great ring beam, but we had no roof, no doors, no windows. All we had was the skeleton of rough block, unfinished either inside or out. There was no plumbing, no wiring. We had just the shell of a house and no money.
That’s when we did what we should have done in the first place. We turned to the local people, to Statians, to complete our house. Darryl Duggins, the owner of a grocery store and the only building supply store on the island at that time, and Alan Blair, a man with years of building experience, agreed to complete our house for a very modest sum. I had been wily enough not to leave the purchase or storage of our roofing, our doors and windows, in the hands of the former builder. I had ordered them myself and had them stored under lock and key, so we had much of the building material we needed to complete the house. Even so, I feel certain to this day, that finishing our house was an act of at least kindness and perhaps even of charity on the part of Duggins and Blair. They were good and kind men who took pity on two outsiders who were green as grass.
Of course we still had no power to the house and no hope of getting power anytime soon so we ordered and paid for a generator from St. Thomas, to be shipped as soon as possible.
Duggins and Blair finished the house in a matter of months and we were delighted with their work. Meanwhile we had shipped our furniture down.
The day the Antillia arrived with all our household belongings was cause for celebration. We
The Antilla in St. Eustatius harbour
Furnishings arriving on raft; Antilla in background

went down to the beach to watch it off-load our four large crates.
Our hearts on our mouths, we stood transfixed as one by one the crates were moved by crane from the larger boat to a small raft which was then pulled hand over hand by a team of men, some on shore, some waist deep in the sea. When the crates reached the beach they were man-handled end over end, one at a time up onto trucks and driven to our property. There they were again manhandled onto the property, where they were opened with hammers and chisels. I held my breath, wondering if any of my beloved antiques could possibly survive such treatment.
Miraculously, they had. With the exception of one small shaving stand mirror, everything arrived intact.
St. Eustatius house
Offloading from raft to truck on sandy beach
By the time our little blue Volkswagen arrived on the next run of the Antillia, we were old hands. We watched with interest but not all consuming fear as it made its voyage on the raft from ship to shore. We watched with amusement rather than terror as two planks were laid from raft to beach and our little vehicle was driven across them, motor racing to get it quickly through the deep sand to the road.
Many men helped us with both the furniture and the car, but I remember one in particular. His name was “One Dollar”.  I never found out why, but that was his name. I came to learn that all the local men had such names. Not the names they were christened by, but nick names that devolved from some incident in their lives. It was also common for them to have “Jumbie” names, but whether these were one and the same I don’t know. I do know that a young boy who worked on building our house was nicknamed after me, I think because of his light skin and reddish hair. It’s a name he is known by to this day, forty years later.
So we moved in. The generator had not yet arrived so we were reading by kerosene lantern, cooking with propane and dipping water out of the cistern using a bucket. We boiled it for drinking, although I doubt that was necessary. We poured it over each other for showers. Occasionally our good friends John May and Martin Schofield would invite us down to the inn they were building to have a real shower. That was a special treat.
One day Hester Garrett, a former army nurse who had built a retirement home on the slopes of the volcano, came bearing a gift, a jar of water with what looked like guppies swimming around in it.
St. Eustatius house
Location of house looking toward bay (arrow)
“Cistern fish,” she announced. “United Nations World Health Organization distributes them. They’re blind so they don’t mind the dark, and they’ll keep your water clean and pure and drinkable.” So saying she proceeded to empty the container into our cistern.
I was more than a bit skeptical, not to say a tad unhappy at the idea of drinking water in which fish had been swimming, but I did my research, and Hester was absolutely right. To this day there are fish in my cistern, and my housewarming gift to anyone building on the island is cistern fish.
As for the generator? It didn’t come and didn’t come, even in response to repeated phone calls and desperate pleas. “De next boat, mon,” we were told. But it was never on the next boat.
We had been on the island two years when the Dutch decided to take electricity island wide. Our good friend, Mr. Nicholson, at GEBE, the local power authority, told us we’d be among the first on our side of the island. We were ecstatic.
St. Eustatius house
Location of house on hillside (arrow)
The week the power lines were strung down our lane was the week the generator arrived. With power coming, we sold the beast to someone whose house was even more remote than ours.
For once, everything happened as promised. GEBE delivered. We had power. We turned on the water. It came out of the faucets -- and out of every single pipe connection in the entire house. Every joint leaked. Fortunately, pipes in those days of Caribbean construction, were all visible, not buried inside walls. We went racing for the plumber who had done the work.
It seems that when he had installed the (copper) pipes there had been no solder on the island. It hadn’t seemed important to him at the time, since we had no electricity and no generator. The water lines would only be useful at some unspecified time in the future. We told him it was very important indeed to us now and he should get up to our house and finish the job he had started, and for which he had been paid.
It took a further endless seeming four days before we could turn on our spigots and see water running out. We could not have imagined in our former lives that merely having running water and flushing toilets could have been such cause for celebration.
St. Eustatius house
House nearing completion
Our house was almost finished. That is if you didn’t notice that we had no storage places in the kitchen, no cabinets, no railings to keep an errant guest from a six foot fall off our veranda, no bookcases for the twenty boxes of books my husband had decided he couldn’t live without. (And that’s after he donated at least that many to a local university.)
It was at this point that Peter Morrison came into our lives.

Following are my published novels. Go to my Goodreads page, to find more info and reviews.  

To purchase one of these books, just click on the book link below and select the vendor of your choice.

 • The Memory of Roses ~ The story of a secret and how it impacts two generations of the McQuaid family.  It unfolds on the beautiful Greek Island of Corfu and is a tale complete with beautiful and passionate women, handsome and fiery men, and an intriguing mystery.

"The Memory of Roses by Blair McDowell is simply an incredibly lovely story. It’s also a love story, and a story about finding yourself, and about closure. The theme running through the book is “all’s well that ends well.”  --  Marlene, Reading Reality


 • Delighting In Your Company ~ Delighting In Your Company is a paranormal romance set on an exotic Caribbean island, featuring a handsome ghost and an adventurous heroine who travels back in time to solve a mystery!

"Delighting In Your Company is a unique paranormal romance that brings together island folklore, history, and mystery with an unlikely romance between the past and present that had me going through a torrent of emotions and made it impossible to put down." -- The Romance Reviews


 • Sonata ~ Sayuri McAllister has just arrived home to Vancouver to find some shocking situations 
~ A robbery has taken place at her family home, and it is being investigated by her old flame;
~ Alyssa James who she barely knows, is about to become her new stepmother; 
~ and Alyssa’s brother, Hugh James, is a charming Irishman who is intent on bedding and wedding the rich and beautiful Sayuri. 

It’s a confusing and difficult time for Sayuri, especially when dangerous accidents happen to her father and herself – or are they accidents?

“I found Sonata to be a charming novel that left me laughing out loud in parts and gnawing nails in others. It was a delight to read.” – Night Owl Reviews


 Abigail's Christmas (short story) ~ An enchanting tale of love and romance, with a magical touch of fantasy.
Abigail's Christmas is a holiday story about Abigail who goes looking for a tree on Christmas Eve, and ends up with the man of her dreams in a sleigh in the Rockies --- with a wedding in the offing! Is it real?  Is she dreaming?  Or is it just Christmas magic?


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Blair McDowell