Many years ago my mother volunteered to help troubled youngsters at a summer work camp in Spanish Harlem. When the project was over, she and a colleague who was Native American went down into Manhattan for a farewell lunch. They stood on a busy corner waiting for the light to change and she saw him looking around his feet. She asked what he was doing. He said he was looking for the cricket. Puzzled, she looked around too and they saw a cricket on top of a bundled stack of newspapers next to the newsstand. She asked how in the world he could hear the cricket in all of the hubbub.
“In life,” he said, “the most important thing is what you are listening for.”
Our vacations on St. Barths began in 1983. We took seven years off when Susan started her business some 27 years ago, but we made up for it later by going twice a year for a number of years. We have stayed in a variety of excellent WIMCO villas. Now we go for two weeks every spring.
We have fallen in love with the spirit of the island. A certain joyous and wild spirit that survives: the reverence in the people for their environment; the love for their history and the Caribbean Sea. All this is more easily seen as the tourist traffic dwindles. The Caribbean spring is a gentle time of year, too. The heavy Christmas winds are gone and the hurricane season is yet a few months away. The trade winds are steady and cool. The waters are calmer. When the heaviest influx of visitors is over, the restaurants and retail establishments become a more relaxed experience as the pace slows. We found that great gifts come with this slowing. A waitress becomes a friend, a merchant becomes a candid information source on all things St. Barths. The visitors at the next table are breathing in the mellow atmosphere and they are open to good conversation and new friendship. An owner of a wonderful first class shop, after a warm welcome, whispers tips on the sale prices for next week. (Don’t buy today!)
At the villa (WV CCM), in the first few days, Susan finds big turtles wandering about looking for a spring blossom to eat. The humming birds are active too, and we have stayed in villas where hermit crabs gather to exchange shells. It is iguana country. We watch them warily. I am never sure if Susan finds these wonderful creatures or if they find her.
Then there is the spring agenda of the St. Barths residents: an agenda which has always brought us closer to the true spirit of St. Barths. Each of the three major events leads us beyond the bling, beyond the fabulous food, beyond the high level of service and beyond the excellence of the villa life that we enjoy.
Every year this festival, organized by Ellen Greaux, is presented while we are there. The films, drawn from islands and countries throughout the Caribbean basin, are shown in a variety of fun venues around the island, most notably in the AJOE schoolyard in L’Orient. Plastic chairs are placed all over the tennis court. The film is projected onto the side of a building. If it rains, stand up and hold the chair over your head to keep dry. The show must go on. There are residents, visiting film directors, actors, tourists, aspiring filmmakers, sailors, children and always a few good old dogs wandering through the rows looking for each other.
On the customs dock in Gustavia, Quai de General de Gaulle, under the stars, the last film of the festival is shown. This year it was HAVANA MOON, the documentary about the Rolling Stones concert in Havana in 2016. Wow! Gustavia was rocking that night! What a great experience. It was a night of sheer joy in Havana which spilled over into Gustavia like a tidal wave. I have never seen a happier crowd. Admission is free and if you looked down one of the rows you would see elegant shoes with four inch heels, sandals, beat up boat shoes, bare feet, impossibly tattered sneakers, crocs, flip flops, every variation of footwear you might expect to find in this free and very French celebration. The fun reaches happily across racial, ethnic, economic and political differences. No feet were still. Mick Jagger and Keith have still got their stuff. On this dock is the Caribbean family at its best.
The West Indies Regatta
Three extraordinary men. Alexis Andrews, a yacht photographer and film maker from Antigua; Aragorn Dick-Read, a gifted entrepreneur and accomplished artist from Trellis Bay in the British Virgin Islands; and Loulou Magras, a marvelous marine photographer and avid life-long sailor whose steady hand guides many things related to sailing in St. Barths, have combined their love of traditional Caribbean sailing craft to create this annual regatta. Beach-built boats, sloops and schooners, sail into Gustavia for two days of racing and celebration of the indigenous boat building prevalent in the Caribbean in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. That skill has been slowly dying out. And the story of one family, the Enoe family of Carriacou, who for generations have been building such marvelous boats, was told in a fine film by Alexis Andrews called Vanishing Sail. It premiered at the 2016 Caribbean film festival right here on the Quai de General De Gaulle during the West Indies Regatta. It has won numerous awards at small film festivals in the Caribbean, the USA and Europe. Many of the old fashioned beach-built boats seen in the film sail into Gustavia from Antigua, the BVIs, Dominica, Carriacou, Union Island and more, to compete in the Regatta.
The boats are lined up at rest along the dock and the families that arrived on them are enjoying reunion with their fellow sailors, some of whom they saw at the Annual Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta just a few days before. Other boats are arriving from communities throughout the Caribbean. The boats are colorful, sturdy and swift. Built for trade (and maybe some smuggling). You can stroll into this festival and chat with the sailing families from these boats. Sometimes there is a craft fair offered by the arriving sailors. Two years ago I bought a beautiful carving of a Caribbean sea eagle on a coconut shell from a shy young man who had sailed with his family to the regatta from Dominica. It had been carved by his elderly uncle who could not make the trip. It is a wonderful rendition.
There is no pretension here. It is a polyglot of differing accents, dialects, colors and nationalities all mingled in celebration. There are children all over the place. We feel very welcome. And then for two days we are treated to the sight of all these traditional boats under sail for the races. Fast. Graceful. Sailed with great skill. Always a sight not soon forgotten.
The Transatlantic Race
This race leaves Concarneau in France and sails across the Atlantic to finish in Gustavia Harbor in St. Barths every other year. We missed it this year because it was a bit earlier than usual. The boats are 33′ Figaro Class Beneteaus, each with a skipper and one mate. Typically, the race takes 19 days and it is not unusual for the first and second place boats to finish less than 30 minutes apart. It is a tough competition, full of rough adventure consistent with the maritime tradition of St Barths. Sometimes there is a boat sailed by St. Barth residents. It all makes for another great party on the Quai de General de Gaulle. Music, dancing, a bar set up. The rum flows freely. The grizzled and bleary-eyed skippers and first mates pop the champagne corks and celebrate the finish. Hundreds of islanders come out to see their heroes swagger and smile and tell some tales. They are exhausted, but you can see them beginning to recover as happiness rains upon them carried by waves of cheering from the crowd.
These vacations nourish something in us. They give us something we need. They bring us closer to the deep beating heart of the Caribbean soul. And in that soul is love and respect and kindness and joy. It is as though St. Barths is singing a love song to the many Caribbean cultures. The song is like the cricket’s song in my mother’s story. These are people from many cultures who have learned how, in their own busy lives, to listen to the crickets. We come here to add our own heartbeats to such a wonderful celebration of life.
We listen, Mom.
We are replenished.
We come back.
By Bob Brecht
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