Topic: Tortola: Life Meets Art
Art as a Way of Life in Tortola
by Claudia Belleau
There are several ways to arrive in Tortola, B.V.I., and any way you choose allows you
to breathe the fragrant frangipani blossoms, to uncoil the muscle of your mind in the
You might take a ferry chugging into Road Harbor from another island, her somber striped stack and loud blasts vying for attention with the aqua-shuttered flamingo pink houses and red tin roofs beckoning from Road Town. You might be arriving on your own vessel, or one chartered from one of the many Caribbean companies found here. Or you might be flying in from Puerto Rico to Beef Island, separated from the mainland by a causeway, on Tortola’s east end.
Road Town is the commercial center of Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands with a population of 14,000. The B.V.I. is known as a sailor’s paradise and embarkation point to Tortola’s spectacular sister islands—among them Virgin Gorda, Anegada, Peter Island, Jost Van Dyke. You will likely see all manner of people—backpackers and well-heeled tourists alike—negotiating passage or investments at the club at Village Cay Marina . Although three newspapers are headquartered in small walk-ups in the center of Town, the news happens in the street on the island where offshore deals abound and banks rule.
Waterfront Drive encircles the heart of the place; behemoth cruise ships, dwarfing everything but the enormous harbor, dock here to allow passengers to roam toward town. This bustling thoroughfare is a narrow jam of walkers, parked and moving cars. The Crafts Alive Village, situated at the lower end of Wickham’s Cay near the ferry dock, beckons tourist and residents alike to walk the landscaped lanes of vibrant huts and colorful ‘shacks’ . You can browse the artwork of the elders, purchase unique Caribbean apparel, and visit artists at work in the open-air market.
Joseph Asante Hodge, resident artist-teacher-historian, is one of the the cultural
storytellers. A globally recognized self-taught artist, he records life through folkloric paintings with varied media: acrylics, oils, watercolors, and palette knives. His scenes of islanders at work and play celebrate traditions firmly grounded in the African cultural roots he researches. You might speak with him about politics while he works, meet his friends and relatives as they visit. I had conversations with several people who were once, like Joseph, involved in government and now were doing cultural work via poetry and cable television. Joseph’s sunset view of Cane Garden Bay now hangs in my home, reminding me of his devotion to the island; one of the many palettes hung on his studio door now hangs on mine, his gift of friendship.
You can wend your way to the Main Street area which extends from below the ferry dock up to a round-about. Pusser’s Pub stands out on Waterfront Street, proffering the world-renowned rum. The area of caf?, shops, and stalls is a melee of narrow streets built for donkeys and still narrower, sporadic sidewalks teeming with tourists, resident chickens, cats, and kids. Many congregate at outdoor tables under the tidy sign of the Road Town Bakery. The deliciously sculpted breads and pastries are the creations of H. Lavity Stoutt Community College students, working under tutelage of New England Culinary Institute’s teachers at the 44 acre Paraquita Bay campus a few miles away. The College’s white buildings serve hundreds of students, granting degrees in business, computers, the arts, and marine studies. Culinary trainees receive hands-on training in cooking, hospitality, and catering through placements at the Fort Burt Hotel. It seems as if the complex, built on an historic site which overlooks the harbor, inspires creativity. The restaurant’s distinctive gold roof announces the quality of healthy local and continental cuisine.
You might wonder if the nearby West Indian house aromatic with the herbs and spices of Sunny Caribbee provides some of the zest for this cuisine. The range and strength of sauces bottled in containers with Caribbee straw ‘hats’, the pungent seasonings, and the fruit teas mirror island culinary art. Ready for export, along with West Indian artisanry, they capture the Tortola lifestyle: colorful, flavorful, natural. You might see a small green or brown lizard while you relax in the courtyard with your mango tea and notecards. People pass you, smiling a Mornin’, the typical greeting; darlin’ is a variation for diverse times of day and circumstance. Residents are authentically friendly, trying to involve others in the lifestyle. Those on cruise ships accustomed to dining and entertaining themselves onboard would do well to invest energy exploring the island’s charm first-hand.
Cacti, palm, hibiscus, passion flower, aloe, golden flowers---no, you’re not in the spice shop but at the J.R. O’Neal Botanic Gardens. Although this park is in the middle of Town, near recreation areas and schools, it evokes the tropics. I walked an uphill circuit to it from my balconied condo on Waterfront Drive , beyond the Red Cross administration and thrift shop , past children in blue school uniforms catching a ride in a pickup truck, past legions of kids in wine-colored uniforms rallying for school. I heard the chorus of young singers inside the high school. I kept walking, purchasing a ‘ting’ grapefruit drink at a variety store, and arrived at the police station, a practical landmark across the street from this mystical garden.
Immediately refreshed by a short rest on a bench by the fountain within the gates , I cruise through the exotic fauna. I’ve only known the calabash as a gourd to hold water. Here I see the hard shell which is transformed into a dipper. One of the educational signs found in each grove informs me that the bell-shaped flowers are pollinated by bats who locate them by echo! The fifty-foot tall mango trees and the smaller papaya plants are burgeoning. The architecture of the park invites contemplation from benches discretely placed throughout the groves. Each time I stop and think I have seen some of everything, I find a new treasure: medicinal plants, breadfruit trees, red-legged tortoises. This is truly paradise in Tortola, “the land of turtle doves”. I anticipate returning to my apartment and telling my neighbor’s green parrots-- with their three-foot wingspan-- about the peach-faced Love Birds I saw frolicking here.
Tortola’s beaches amplify the message of paradise found. I discovered Cane Garden Bay first; it’s close to Road Town, a steep, jeep ride over the mountain to the north shore., to a spectacular soft beach with turquoise waters. If you have no vehicle, catch a ride on a local taxi van which transport throughout the island. There are many lookout points, ridges where you can jump out and shoot fantastic vistas. A word to the wise: the red ants are on the march. Watch for their hills in the sandy turn-offs, or you will suffer biting and acute, burning pain!
Stanley’s Welcome Bar on the beach still is Cane Garden’s hallmark: the towering palm with its rope hanging longingly in memory of the tire which freely swung there by the bay….before Hurricane Georges …commemorated forever in countless photos and artwork.
Myett’s restaurant, with its bar and grill pavilions nestled in lush greenery, is the spot to refuel between treks. Conch chowder and fritters, pepper-pot soup, mahi-mahi, rice and peas—all the local food done right, accompanied by exotic drinks. If you want to metabolize those calories, stroll down the sands to Quito Rhymer’s Gazebo, a jumpin’ place to dance to his band, The Edge, in reggae style. He is also a talented visual artist : you can find island life and characters memorialized in his contribution to the community mural on Ridge Road which cuts through the mountain. This “Wall” celebrates culture, local heroes, and active heritage in myriad forms: a Funjie Band plays local “scratch” music; Bamboshay dancers twirl in native costume; people work cutting cane in the fields, labor in coal pit or mill; there’s crabbing and fishing, relaxing with music at day’s end. The wall also serves a practical purpose; intermittent drainage holes reveal its protective nature as a retention wall. The islanders have once again rendered the natural object beautiful!
If you’ve flown to Tortola, you’ll land at Beef Island airport at Trellis Bay, which leads to an archipelago of tiny islands known for great snorkeling amid extensive reefs. Trellis Bay is the home of another fine studio a minute’s walk from the airport. Aragorn’s is a studio and the local arts center. Aragorn, a native son, makes copper wall sculptures; the patina of his herons, turtles, and vessels are famous icons. He also designs t-shirts from his woodcut prints on canvas. I choose dancing dolphins running ahead of a skiff of sailors “Catching the Breeze”. Carib baskets made from the ‘hoop’ vines and hats made from ‘white palm’ are sold here, along with calabash of these indigenous people. Pottery, painting, basketry , paper-mache, wood carving, and metal work are practiced in an open studio space for lessons and exhibits. Although this windward side of the island was churning, folks were learning boardsailing from instructors adept at this athletic art. Next door (down the beach) Roger Ellis’ prints and maps demonstrate his love of the striations of marine life.
If you want to discover another sort of local flavor, try Smuggler’s Cove at the far west end. A calm, secluded spot at the end of a dirt road ,white sand with visible coral about 100’ offshore, and nearby residency in security-patrolled condos—the private luxury is hard to resist. The contemplative solitude, the meditation on Life, is only softly interrupted here by those brave enough to venture the trek or to sail in.
After a blissful day, you might opt to dine at The Sugar Mill in Little Apple Bay. The romantic, candlelit setting in the restored 370-year old stone mill extends tranquility and culture. The building once was the plantation’s rum distillery; it now moves to the spirit of art on the walls and breezes in the tropical garden.
For more action, move on to Bomba’s Shack beside Apple Bay. Bomba built this roadside attraction in 1976 with driftwood, broken surf boards, and flotsam. The beach shack is decorated with women’s panties, bras, graffiti, and pictures of half-naked women. The Full Moon Party held each month attracts those wanting to cut loose with the Afro-Cuban beat of Bomba dance music and mushroom tea. This event is well attended, so be prepared to park down the road and walk. I had just missed this month’s full moon, but my daylight visit netted me a backpacker who regaled me with his tales of lunacy as we rode back to Town. I dropped him off at Marina Cay, sure he would find a conversation, and more. Maybe he would be at the mimosa brunch buffet the next day for their Sunday service.