The Virgin Islands economy, from as far back as I can recall, has been blessed to receive tourists from the four corners of the world, any of these tourists visited the Virgin Islands consistently for the past 41 years? Can any of them truly call the Virgin Islands their home away from home? Have any of them gotten the opportunity to experience love, family, community life and above all community involvement to the point where they are considered ‘one ah we’?
Truth be told, VI Life&Style magazine doesn’t know of anyone other than Jane Waller, who knows almost everyone by name. But if you do, please give us their contact details and we will be more than happy to have a chat with them as we have done with Jane, our community tourist, in this interview.
L&S: WHERE ARE YOU FROM AND DO YOU STILL LIVE THERE?
JANE: I am from Chicago, and yes, I still live there.
L&S: WHEN WAS THE FIRST TIME YOU VISITED THE VIRGIN ISLANDS?
JANE: In 1979, and have been coming here for 41 years.
L&S: HOW OLD WERE YOU THEN?
JANE: I was 32 years old.
L&S: WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO VISIT THE VI?
JANE: I was in New Orleans taking care of my friend’s 3 children who was on a skiing trip, and while I was there, a letter came for me (in Chicago) from a woman I met the year before in Jamaica and we’d been writing to each other all year. I love writing letters! The letter said, “Jane if you are in the neighbourhood stop by. Chris and I are at Sebastian’s on the Beach, on Tortola.”
My boyfriend at the time, was staying at my house (in Chicago) and read the letter to me. I didn’t even know where Tortola was at the time, I had never heard of it.
So I went to the travel agent the next day and there was a big map of the world on the wall and I said to the agent, “Can you tell me where Tortola is on the map?” And she pointed to this little dot. I asked, “How hard is it to get from where we are to Tortola?” And she said, “First, you fly to Miami, then to San Juan, Puerto Rico and then Beef Island.” I asked, “Can you reroute my ticket from Chicago to Tortola and back to Chicago?” and she said, “Sure.”
I waited for my friend to return from her skiing trip and then I started my journey to Tortola. I arrived at Beef Island, walked out of the airport, got into this taxi and said, “take me to Sebastian’s on the Beach”. I was travelling very light; I had my guitar, camera and a small hand bag with lovely patch work which had in a few clothes in it.
It was night when I arrived, and I was in awe with the sights and the way the moonlight was shimmering on the water. We got to Sebastian’s and there was sand in there and picnic tables. I hoped my friend was still there because she sent me a letter and there were no cell phones, email or WhatsApp at the time…the time the letter took to get to Chicago and for me to get to Tortola must have been weeks.
As it turns out, she, her twin sister and their boyfriends, who were surfers, were sitting at a picnic table, and I walked over to them and tapped my friend on her shoulder and said, “Hi Mary.” She turned around in total shock and asked, “Jane, what are you doing here?” I said, “Well you invited me, and I was in the neighbourhood, so I stopped by.”
L&S: HOW WAS YOUR STAY AT SEBASTIAN’S?
JANE: It was short. I stayed with them, curled up on a little cot on the floor since I wasn’t expected, and then we all managed to find a house in Carrot Bay, which was Mr. George Donovan’s house. It was eight of us there, and it was kind-a-like a commune – we all ate together, the boys would just surf, while the women swam and wandered around.
L&S: HOW WAS IT BACK THEN?
JANE: It was awesome. There weren’t a lot of tourists at the time, and Bomba had his first Pig Roast. It was there that I met Cubby and Wahkumba and they were playing in a band called ‘Romeo and the Injectors’. I had my guitar with me so they asked me to play something and I did. It must have been good enough, because they invited me to come sing and play with them in the band and I said, “Sure.” Their next gig was at Peter Island and I went with them. Most of the songs they sang had a three chord progression, so it was relatively easy to catch on after a few bars.
During this time, I met a guy who asked me to come rent a house with him on Zion Hill which was owned by Austin Cameron, so I left the commune. During the day, he would fish and surf and I would water colour on the beach and play my guitar. Every day, I walked up to Carrot Bay. First, I would go to the Post Office to see Mr. Herman Donovan and mail my cards back to the States; and then I would go to Clem’s and get a Coconut Tart from his mother, Ms. Zeff, who was always there. I was very happy.
There were very few cars, no phones and that year, I met Mrs. Melcena Smith, who lived next to Sebastian’s. She would bake delicious breads in an outdoor oven and I got bread from her. I am now adopted as her thirteenth child.
At that time, there was a Fish Fry in the Village every Friday night. The women would clean the fish and cooked them in the night, and you just stood in line and chose your fish with Johnny cake. There was fungi music by Romeo and the Injectors and I joined them sometimes. Awww maaan, that was the place to be! You would see everybody and you meet new people. I met everybody in the village and was accepted. The people were so warm and friendly and invited me into their homes and I felt part of everything…and I loved that.
I was completely enchanted with the Island. I felt so safe, and I left here thinking, “How would I get back here?”
L&S: HOW LONG DID YOU STAY?
JANE: I stayed for two months.
L&S: SO OBVIOUSLY YOU FOUND YOUR WAY BACK.
JANE: I had to. The next time I came back, I brought my son, Joshua, who was 15 months old and my dad. We rented a house in Little Apple Bay that belonged to Lionel Smith, Conrad’s brother. The next time we came back, we stayed in one of the cliff houses which weren’t built up like they are now. My father immediately fell in love with the place, and my son too, so I started coming back every year and meeting more people and always keeping in touch with Melcina and all those people in the Bottom. I would still come over to Carrot Bay for my coconut tarts, and over the years I have photographed everybody. Some of the older women in Cappoon’s Bay didn’t want to be photographed and I respected that, but almost everyone in Carrot Bay didn’t mind.
L&S: WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE VIRGIN ISLANDS THAT KEPT YOU RETURNING?
JANE: Back then, it felt like the place that time forgot. I would see Mr. Willie Ronan selling goat meat off his donkey back. He would go through the village with his donkey and a scale, and I would ask myself, “What year is this?” The men would come in at Apple Bay with their fishing boats and catch-of-the-day and blow their conch shells, and everyone would gather and buy fresh fish right off the boat.
In 1987, I started renting this house from Mrs. Christalia Leonard, which coincidentally is next to George Donovan’s house. That’s the year I met Wassie. I went to the Post Office as usual and when I was about to leave it started raining. We stayed there talking for the whole afternoon waiting for the rain to stop, and we started seeing each other for the next 25 years.
I love the pace of island life, the rhythm of life, the physical beauty of the islands and the warmth of the people and the welcoming I receive. I like that when you see someone you say good morning or good afternoon whether you know them or not. I do that now, even in Town, and people sometimes just look at me all shocked. And I like La Dolce Vita Italian Gelato. I have tried almost all the flavours.
L&S: YOU HAVE MADE A LOT OF FINE MEMORIES, WHAT WOULD BE YOUR TOP FIVE?
JANE: Oh my, top five?
I would say the very first time: when I was invited here and time spent with my friends, soaking up an island which I had never heard of, which to me is the best place on God’s green earth.
Singing with ‘Romeo and the Injectors’ is pretty up there too. People would be shocked to see this white woman with six black men singing fungi music and Harry Belafonte – Yellow Bird and Day O. It was so unlike anything that I had known. I grew up in Chicago and went to art and music camps, operas and symphonies, theatres, etc.
Wassie used to take Josh fishing and I didn’t like fishing – especially sitting in the boat while it stayed there rocking. It made me sick, so they would drop me on Little Thatch and go fishing. I would have my journal and a book, and go in and out of the water. Being on an island with a set of wild donkeys made me feel like I was on a movie set. I would be like – how great is this? Then one time, this guy came and said I can’t be there because it’s a private island. I said well that’s going to be difficult because I was dropped here by my friends who are out fishing and I can’t leave until they come and get me. So I said, “I did hear that the island was sold, but who owns it now?” And he said he couldn’t tell me, but it was someone from Suffolk in England. I said, “It’s funny, I teach art at a summer camp in north Minnesota and a lot of the counselors are from England, and I happen to be friends with Sarah Cole and her twin brother Sam Cole, who are from Suffock and they sell fish.” He was like, “You know Sarah and Sam? I just had a drink with their father at his bar called The Swan, right before I came down here. Oh well, then in that case you can stay here.” I was like, “Wow! I am on a deserted island with wild donkeys, and the one person I meet knows the one family I know in England. I am definitely on a movie set.”
Bomba used to have his full moon parties and Wassie used to pre-party the party. He would ride his horse named Daisy over to Bomba’s from early afternoon and by the end of the night he would be toasted. One night he was toasted as usual and I told him he couldn’t ride the horse because he would fall off, so he put me on the horse with no saddle, just a sponge and a bridle, and said he could race me to Carrot Bay. First he said, “I can run backwards and beat you!” So he was running backwards, and then he saw that I was really moving, so he turned around. For a while he was sort of keeping up with me, but by the time I rode over Apple Bay Hill, he was nowhere in sight. At that time you could do that because there (weren’t) a lot of cars that would spook the horse. I got to the house and tied the horse and he came trotting down five minutes later and I said, “I won.” And he said “Just barely, just barely.” That was so funny, and still is to me.
Every Saturday morning, I would be awakened by the singing from the Seventh-day Adventist Church which was next door and I would feel like I was in heaven. I loved listening to Salvador (Sal) Callwood in his most distinct accent and unusual, throaty voice as he gave these impassioned sermons, and I would hear the tone of his voice rise and fall. Brendalee with the choir, and the congregation singing with the guitar…it was just heavenly. After church I would come out and see everybody whose tradition it was to stay basically in the road after church. So I would socialize with them and I photographed so many of them over the years.
L&S: WERE YOU HERE IN 2017, THE YEAR OF HURRICANES IRMA AND MARIA?
JANE: I wasn’t here in September when the hurricanes came, but I was here early the following February for two months.
The day before Irma came, Josh and I were watching the weather and tracking our island to make sure that everybody that we love was okay. So I called Melcena and she said’ “Darling, I am okay. We are just putting up hurricane shutters and everything is going to be alright. God is going to watch over us.”
The next day, all communication was out and I was frantically trying to call everyone whose numbers I had, but nobody was picking up. When I started seeing reports of the devastation, it was awful…and a blue car properly parked on my front porch. I said, “That’s rude.” It completely knocked down the front railing and the front steps, the front door was open and I was told that my house is a beach. Everything inside the house was a wreck including the old black and white TV my father brought on one of his visits.
So I thought I had to do something. I started asking all my friends that I know in Chicago for money and they were so generous, including Josh. He was seeing his childhood home upended, and he too was worried about people he grew up with like Tom Pinfold, Edo, Mokel, Ronnie and Neal, and he too asked his friends for money.
So I collected thousands of dollars, and my friends were concerned about me travelling with all this cash and how I would live when I get here. I told them that the people there are living and I am going to do the same.
I came down five months later, February 2018 and I cried to see the state my island was in. I got to my house and had no electricity, no running water to shower and flush, and it made me think of all the things we city dwellers take for granted. I had a battery-operated lantern and candles which I brought with me, and drew water from the cistern to flush, bathe, clean and cook.
People were so touched when I gave them money and I got so many hugs. They told me their stories and how they were going to spend it for their rebuilding and survival. I had to deliver all those hugs to my friends and told them how their money affected so many lives. It was one of the best things I have ever done in my life and I wished I had more money, for more was definitely needed.
L&S: YOU KNEW COVID-19 WAS BECOMING A WORLDWIDE PANDEMIC, WHY DIDN’T YOU LEAVE WHEN YOU HAD THE OPPORTUNITY?
JANE: This COVID-19 experience is different. I got here February 4th with plans to say until April 7th. I could’ve left but I felt like I was abandoning ship.
L&S: YOU HAD NO IDEA THIS WOULD STILL BE GOING ON, HAD YOU KNOWN IT WOULD LAST THIS LONG WOULD YOU HAVE LEFT?
JANE: Nope, probable not. By that time, Josh was giving me updates on the COVID-19 situation back home, which wasn’t good and he advised me to stay.
L&S: HOW HAS THIS COVID-19 EXPERIENCE BEEN?
JANE: The experience was not hard for me at all. I divided up the day into segments, and it made it much easier. In the morning time, I had breakfast, cleaned the dishes, did hand laundry and washed the floors daily. My friend Rose came over and said I have the cleanest floors on Tortola.
Then it was lunch time. I clean up from that, take a bath, get dressed and go for a mini-walk around the block, where I would chat to people over their fences, and then home again.
Then in the afternoon, I would sit in my rental car for about a 30 to 45 minutes, and take in some air-conditioning because it would be so hot by that time, it felt like I was literally drowning in sweat. During that time I would write in my journal and read.
Then it was sunset, and I would watch the sunset from either on my porch or out on the rocks by Deh Coal Pot Restaurant and watch the waves.
Then at nights, I would just read. I have read about five books during this time.
During the lockdown while people were saying they felt like they were in prison, I would sit on the bay and watch the seagulls. I listened to them in a way I never heard. I watched them mate every afternoon. I never knew that the male flaps his wings the whole time and makes this squawking sound consistently while the female stays there and squeals every once in a while. When he was finished, he doesn’t fly off; instead he hangs around next to her like he was having a cigarette. It was amazing to see their mating ritual.
I would go down by Deh Coal Pot and there were these beautiful bird sounds which I really adored. I was truly tuned into nature, to the clouds, to the colours at sunset and the sky. Behind the house, the grass began to grow tall and I loved that, because it welcomed the butterflies and I enjoyed watching them and the variety of plants.
One night during the lockdown, my friend Bobbi made dinner for herself and me. She put mine in a bag and stood out on the roadside below Bananakeet Heritage Villas with hopes of catching a safe ride to deliver the package to me. A police car came by and they asked her why she was not home. She asked them if they would deliver the bag to her friend Jane in Carrot Bay. She told them she is sitting on her porch in the green house next to the Seventh-day Adventist Church watching the sunset and she has long white hair. They took the bag and pulled up in front of my gate and asked, “Are you Jane? This is from Bobbi.” They were so kind and sweet, it was touching.
In the bag was dinner, a bottle of wine and a book. Yum! I posted it on Facebook and people were very touched by the tenderness and generosity of Bobbi and the police officers.
L&S: IS THEIR ANYTHING YOU MISSED DURING THAT TIME?
JANE: As much as I adapted to the new normal, I miss going out dancing at the Elms’ and Quitos. I love live music and both the ‘Elm Tones’ and ‘Quito and the Edge’ are fantastic. Which is one of things I love here.
I also missed socializing with my friends. Every Sunday, I would go up for dinner at Mother (Ms. Dina Brathwaite), Wassie’s mother, and even though Wassie is gone nine years (whom I truly miss) they have really embraced me and accepted me in; and when I don’t come they ask where I was. I missed that so much.
L&S: WHEN DO YOU HOPE TO LEAVE?
JANE: How about never.
L&S: WHAT’S WAITING FOR YOU BACK IN CHICAGO?
JANE: My son Joshua and my cats. I met a young woman years ago when I was managing a programme for people with substance abuse, and I called her and asked her if she would watch my house for me and my cats and she said, “yes”. She bought the cats new toys, feeds them salmon and tuna, and sends me pictures every day. When I go home they are going to totally ignore me and ask me, “If I am going to stay; does this woman has to leave?” They are totally spoiled. My male cat is 20 years old.
Sad to say, there are a lot of riots and marches about ‘Black Lives Matter’, and Corona is still very bad there, even though the numbers are dwindling. Plus, when I go back, I am going to have to be two weeks in quarantine. I don’t want to take the risk of traveling there now, especially at my age. It is safer here than it is there.
L&S: I HATE TO REFER TO YOU AS A TOURIST, BECAUSE YOU ARE ONE OF US. BUT BESIDES YOURSELF, HAVE YOU SEEN OR KNOW OF ANY OTHER TOURIST ON THE ISLAND.
JANE: That’s what Juliet said to me the other day. “You is one ah we.”
I don’t know of any other. Before all of this, everyone I knew were fleeing the plague. They were like we are out of here. But you know, this was the best place to be. The government did an excellent job in shutting the ports and managing the spread and even the lockdown, which I didn’t mind. The people, including you (Elton) looked out for me, (making) sure I wanted for nothing and I can’t thank you all enough.
L&S: IS IT FAIR TO SAY THAT THIS IS YOUR LONGEST STAY OF ANY VISIT?
JANE: Yes it is. I have stayed four months in the past, but this is five going into six months and I love it. Whenever I come here I feel like I’ve come home. People have asked me through the years, “why don’t you move there?”…and I don’t have an easy answer.