Thursday, 12 September 2013

My Caribbean, A Love Story

All that winter I struggled after a serious bout of pneumonia. The doctor had pronounced my lungs clear, but I had lost weight and was in a constant state of fatigue.  On a cold, windy day in March my husband came home from work with an envelope in his hands—two tickets to Martinique in the French Caribbean Islands. Originally from the tropics himself, he decided what I needed was the hot sun and clean salt air of a tropical island. I had never been farther south than North Carolina. I had to look on a map to see where Martinique was. 

When we left New York it was snowing. There was slush on the sidewalks. My feet were wet and cold and by the time we got into the terminal I was shivering uncontrollably.

Blair McDowell, Caribbean, Delighting In Your Company
St. Pierre, Martinique
Seven hours and two changes of plane later, we arrived in Martinique. It was well after sunset and the darkness was total even at the airport, where, in those pre-paranoia days, not one official was in sight to greet our very late arrival. I stepped out of the plane and the soft tropical air hit me, a warm moist scent of lush vegetation and the sea. For the first time in months it didn’t hurt to breathe. I turned to my husband and said, “Go home, send money.”

He laughed. What he failed to realize was, at that precise moment, I decided we would live here or someplace very like here, and it would be sooner rather than later.

At the end of our ten day holiday in the sun, we went home, back to our jobs and to the early signs of spring in the States. My husband was relieved that I was feeling better. That is, until I started dragging home library books on “Retiring to the Caribbean”, “Buying property in the Caribbean”, and “Building your home in the Caribbean.” At the time we were young, deeply immersed in our careers. We had little time and no money for luxuries.

For the next three years, every time we had two weeks free, I made sure we spent them in the Caribbean. We worked our way through French, American, English and Dutch islands. And on every island, I looked at what was for sale, both houses and bare land. It was always far beyond our budget, but I kept looking.

Blair McDowell, Delighting In Your Company, Caribbean
St. Eustatius - 'Statia'
Then one day, sitting at the beach bar of a charming small inn on the Dutch side of St. Maarten, I noticed the intriguing silhouette of an island on the horizon.  It beckoned to me. I knew even then it would be the one. When we asked about it, we were told that it was St. Eustatius, locally called “Statia”, and that nobody ever went there. It held nothing of interest to tourists.

 Perfect, I thought. We tried to book a flight that very day, but discovered that the plane only went there twice a week. We would have to wait for two days before we could go.

When, that Saturday, we went to St. Maarten Airport to board our flight, the pilot who was to fly us to Statia greeted us by name and led us across the tarmac to his plane. It was a four seater. My husband and dog occupied the two back seats. I got to fly co-pilot. 

As we came closer and the island loomed larger, I could see that, aside from a small town on the leeward side, there appeared to be only a few scattered houses. The forested crater of a massive volcano towered on one side of the island. “Extinct” the pilot told me.  Rolling hills covered the other side.  Between the volcano and the hills, the habitable part of the island sat like a saddle. 

I assumed the pilot was landing when he descended toward the short grass landing strip, but he flew along just above the field, then banked, pulled up sharply and circled around again. I looked at him questioningly.

“Have to buzz the field to get the goats and chickens off it before I land,” he said.

I turned to my husband. “This is it. This is where I want to build my house.”
“In God’s name why?” 

“Because there will never be a Holiday Inn or a Hilton Hotel here.”

My words proved to be prophetic. 

Blair McDowell, Delighting In Your Company, St. Eustatius
Government Guest House
We stayed in the only accommodation available on the island, the Government Guest House. One of the oldest structures on the island, it existed primarily to house officials there on business. It was a large frame house, dating from the seventeen hundreds, a faded yellow color, with green trim and wide stairs leading to a set of French doors at the entrance. Our room was on the upper floor. It contained an old fashioned dresser and a mahogany four poster bed draped in mosquito netting. We found out that night the netting had just enough holes in it to allow the mosquitoes in, but they couldn’t find their way out. At two a.m. the roosters started crowing. They still do that on Statia. I’ve never figured out why Statia roosters don’t understand when dawn is. 

The next morning, somewhat sleep-deprived we set about exploring the island. The first thing we discovered was that everyone spoke to us. Not just “Good day,” but “How you keeping?” and “How you like Statia?”  “We is happy to see you likes we island.” Some handed us small gifts of fruit off their trees. 

The second important (to us) thing we observed was that all the people we spoke to seemed to be, not just racially tolerant,  but actually unconscious of race or color as a distinction. There was probably good reason for this, as most families appeared to be very racially mixed.  This was a change from our experiences on both British and American islands, where the local population was frequently looked down on by the white population and the native, predominantly black or Hispanic, population was often sullen and angry. In subsequent years racial violence exploded on some of those islands, while Statia plodded peacefully along.

We spent the next ten days tromping over Statia. We climbed through bush, over rocks, up the side of the volcano, and down Whitewall Road, where no local would build because it was haunted. We went wherever anyone said land was available. Quite a bit of Statia was for sale, both by the local people  and by an enterprising retired American army officer who’d had the foresight to use his pension to buy up several old plantations and take them through the steps necessary to obtain clear title. I knew how important that was in the Caribbean. Several of the books I read when in my research phase recounted horror stories of people who built houses only to discover they didn’t have legal title to their land. This seemed to have been a particular problem in the French and English islands. I had read that the Dutch had a very clear process for guaranteeing title.

We’d been there about a week when I found it. That day I struggled by thorny cassia trees and through underbrush as high as my head in some places, my husband muttering in annoyance behind me. “It’s all looks the same to me,” he said. What are you looking for?” 

Sugar Mill on St. Eustatius
Sugar Mill ruins on St. Eustatius
There it was in front of me. A large boulder. I clambered up it and stood on its cap. Below me there was a long sweep down to the wide curve of a bay on the windward side of the island. I could see the surf crashing on rocks at the point where the beach reached steep cliffs. The crumbling stone of a four hundred year old sugar mill in the distance was the only other building in my view. We might have been at the end of the earth.

“On this rock I shall build my house!” I said, misquoting St. Peter.

It was then that I began to realize that the Caribbean often attracts people who for some reason or other, don’t fit.  While many of the local people have ties dating back four hundred years, and very much belong to the island, the ex-pats like us were a strange and wonderful mix of misfits. We were, most of us, both running away from something, and running to something we hoped would be better. 

When I wrote Delighting In Your Company, it was those early experiences I drew on to create my fictional St. Clement’s Island.


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