By Sid Pranke
“You have to say ‘Good afternoon’ wherever you go. Even if you have to go to the hospital for an emergency or something like that. It’s expected,” my brother advised me via phone while I prepared and purged my belongings in advance of my trip to the Caribbean island of Nevis.
“Great,” I had said. “Good afternoon. I’m sick!” I replied, trying to conjure up the way I might feel at such a time. My brother just laughed. My friend, Elizabeth, said something similar is done in France. Bon jours flying all over the place. I would later discover that I admired this custom – there was both dignity and affirmation to it.
I accepted the job as Nevis bureau editor in early February 2014. At the time I was in preproduction with Patrick Coyle on his film, The Public Domain, which was set to begin shooting in early March. It was decided that since I couldn’t stay long enough for the whole shoot, my duties would go to others.
I felt almost like I had found my new Happily Ever After. Living within a mile of both the ocean AND a mountain on an island known for its green energy and friendly people. I would have a good job, a nice house & a car to get around. A dream come true.
I had heard about the island of Nevis through my brother, who had been employed on the adjoining island, St. Kitts, as a dean of students at Ross Veterinary College. Ross has an excellent relocation program and its security for its students is considered good. After spotting a journalist opening on Nevis while surfing online, I applied and actually wasn’t that surprised when I got the call about an offer.
I discovered that my new company had no official relocation program, just a guy named Tony that I could email questions to. I wasn’t overly concerned about that.
Also, I noticed when I emailed questions to the publisher, Mr. Williams, sometimes a name – Jorge Lamilia – popped up in my inbox. I just assumed that “Jorge” sometimes answered Mr. William’s email requests. (Later, I discovered quite by accident that Mr. William’s email account had been hacked & the unknown hacker, otherwise known as Jorge, sometimes answered my queries. Wow.) All this Jorge business was unbeknownst to me as I prepared for my Nevis move.
After accepting the job offer, I gave notice to my landlord, Peter, and methodically started to inform everyone I thought needed to know about my upcoming relocation. I went to many medical appointments – vaccines for Hepatitis A & B, typhoid, screenings for tuberculosis & gonorrhea/syphilis (required by the St. Kitts-Nevis government), eye exam, dental work. I made the most of the last month of my Minnesota health insurance.
For the work permit for the Federation of St. Kitts-Nevis, I had to jump through a few hoops. Some were easier to fulfill than others. When I first heard I would need a clearance letter from the local authorities, I didn’t foresee any problems.
The media group that hired me told me I would be getting a house and a car plus salary. I had gone to great lengths selling most of my larger possessions, including my car, which coincidentally was going to be fully paid off the exact month I was making the move.
Figure 1 — my house & car in Nevis
I sold my couch, love seat, vanity table, hutch, bicycle through Craigslist. I love Craigslist. When I next need to buy furniture again, I will start with Craigslist.
I sold my Subaru Forester for $7,000 back to the same dealer I had bought it from in 2008. The fellow who handled the sale was Landon, a sales agent for Luther Auto, whose recent claim to fame was his television appearance on The Voice a few years back. No star turned their chair for him, but they encouraged to keep working and come back.
To Hope Chest, a local company that helps fight breast cancer, I had donated my dining room table, chair, chandelier and miscellaneous items.
My neighbors at the apartment complex bought my air conditioner, my bed, my house plants, some paintings, etc.
I gave away tons of clothes and household items to Goodwill, a few friends and neighbors.
There were some items I couldn’t bear to sell or give away. They included: a four-foot-tall bronzed wood Hindu goddess statue, a newer Casio keyboard with stands plus a huge tote of family photos and memorabilia – those I left with friends of my brother Keith, for him to retrieve on his first visit from Chicago. I’m getting those items back tomorrow (April 19).
Another eight totes were being kept by my daughter for some long unforeseeable time in the future, as I imagined it. At this moment, I cannot even remember but for a few items that are in those totes, except for all of my bedding (four pillows & two comforters), a few paintings and a few family portraits. What else? I have no idea what’s in those eight large totes.
After I sold my car on Feb. 25, I knew I would have to be taking the bus around the Twin Cities until I flew off to Nevis in mid-March. I enjoyed “roughing it” on public transportation; I used the time in transit saying goodbye to the local landscape, the dreary end-winter weather. I purchased my airline tickets in early March and was pleased with my itinerary:
Minneapolis to St. Maarten on Sun Country Airlines
Arriving in St. Maarten about 3:30 p.m.
Depart St. Maarten around 6 p.m. and arrive at Nevis airport around 7 p.m. via Windward Air.
I had whittled my life down to four suitcases and two carry-ons, but I knew it would still be a challenge to manage all that luggage for air travel and switching planes. I hoped that airport carts would be readily available when I desperately needed them.
I have since decided that after trying to manage so much luggage is something I never ever ever want to do again – so wherever I may travel by air in the future, I will be limiting myself to two carry-ons with wheels. My experience at U.S. customs in San Juan was enough in itself to never ever check luggage again. They were jerks.
It took me almost two months to plan and execute my move in March. In the last few days, I couldn’t have accomplished much without the help of my daughter, who brought over her car several times to load it up with totes for safekeeping, and then on the last day, she came over for one last hurrah in the Twin Cities – heading over to MOA for dinner & a manicure before I checked into an airport hotel with a shuttle to the airport at 5 a.m.
Sun Country Airlines used to be my favorite – not so much lately. Mechanical difficulties delayed my 9 a.m. flight for four hours, so I missed my St. Maarten connection, and had to navigate with six pieces of luggage in a country I’d never been to – and had to find a hotel to stay at near the airport at 8 p.m. at night. I was told there would be a Sun Country rep by baggage claim to answer any questions, but I could not find this person. I am still going to call them about my expenses for the hotel, maybe today (April 15). (I did call them & they said because my delay was only for 3 hours & 18 minutes, not the required four hours, I would not be receiving either a travel voucher or any other compensation.)
Delayed in St. Maarten – so tired
I arrived in St. Maarten & of course had missed my connection. Luckily I had called ahead & at no cost WinAir changed my reservation for the next day. Nice. But I still had to find a place to stay for the night. A nice young fellow at the Thrifty Rent A Car found me a porter, called a hotel for me called Travel Inn, where I got a $119 a night room. The fellow gave me his card with his phone number – “in case I wanted to call” him later to have a few drinks. Surprising offer and nice sentiment, but I was way exhausted.
Arrival in Nevis via Winair – I met a nice lady from Toronto named Anne on the small plane from St. Maarten to Nevis. She was going to spend a month in Nevis at the Hermitage Plantation Inn. “If you’re in the area, give me a call and we’ll go out for breakfast. Just ask for Anne in the white house.” Anne had recently spent three months in Mexico, went home to Toronto “to do my laundry,” she said, laughing, and now on to Nevis.
Another fellow on the plane was named June (like the month). He wore his very long dreds all bundled up on top of his head. June was seated behind me in the plane. At one point, he tapped my shoulder and said I should be wearing my hair off my neck, like his. I asked why (I had my hair in a pony tail at the time). He said that the climate and humidity control on the small aircraft was partially determined by the body heat generated by everyone on the plane. And because it was rather hot and humid that day, I should be wearing my hair completely off my neck. I was SO tired, and the comment amused me, so I just played along, and thanked him for the information.
Later, on the ground, June carried my carry-on bags to immigration for me. He told me he lived at Hamilton Estate on Nevis – the same neighborhood I was told I would be living at. I had had to fill out paperwork prior to my flight for the St. Kitt-Nevis Federation government – one of the questions asked where I would be living in Nevis. Mr. Williams told me to answer “Hamilton Estate.” There are no house numbers or zip codes in Nevis, so this answer would suffice, I was told.
I later discovered my house was not in Hamilton Estate, it was in the Ramsbury Site neighborhood. I wondered why I was given the wrong information – my office was only about one-quarter mile away from the house, and the island is small, so obviously my boss must know the right name of my neighborhood? That is a question I never had time to pose, but I decided it was because there was serious political strife on the two islands, allegations of corruption, arson, neglect. Perhaps my publisher didn’t want to give the authorities my correct neighborhood address on purpose, for my safety?
It was already dark out when I arrived in Nevis. The workers at the airport were very nice – was there someone coming to pick me up? I answered yes, Julio was coming to pick me up – the general manager of where I would be working. Where will you be working? I answered “The Observer.” A curious, somewhat alarmed look passed briefly across the immigration lady’s face. I dismissed it and went to retrieve my luggage, now neatly placed on the footprint in front of the small airport.
Within a half hour, Julio had arrived to pick me up, along with his wife, his son, and Tony, the fellow assigned to answer my questions via email. It was nice. Julio stopped at a grocery store so I could pick up a few things & then we drove on to my new home. It was dark already so I couldn’t see much of the neighborhood. That would have to wait until the next day.
In the morning, I went outside to check out my new surroundings. I could see the Caribbean Sea behind my house and Mount Nevis from the front of my house. A family of goats paraded on the road right outside my gate. I’d never seen a male goat that reminded me of “Billy Goat Gruff” but there he was, looking and acting exactly like that goat from the old children’s book. I’m in paradise, I thought.
I decided to walk down the foothills to downtown Charlestown, the main city in Nevis. I needed to set up cable and phone service. Also didn’t know the best route to get to the beach, so thought maybe I’d run into it eventually – it was an island.
I loved the walk downtown. It would rain for a minute, then stop for 10 minutes and then rain again. I noticed a woman halfway down the hill had a umbrella handy for every time it rained. Her umbrella didn’t look like the kind available in the U.S., except maybe at vintage shops — I wanted one.
The shops downtown were something I imagined in an 1800s seaside village, except there were places to buy cell phones, to ship packages overnight and to hail a taxi. The streets were narrow, lots of cobblestone, perches for every storefront, everything seemed mysterious and wonderful.
When I walked into the LIME store to see about getting phone service, I saw the female security guard and said, “Good afternoon.” She returned the greeting.
Turns out I needed a code from AT&T in the States in order to swap out the chip in my cell phone for Caribbean use. I later called AT&T and they informed me that my final bill would not be available until mid-April. I needed phone service before then so I went back to LIME again to order phone service. It would not be available until the following week. I had to pay $500 Eastern Caribbean Dollars as a deposit.
Figure 2 Downtown Charlestown, Nevis, West Indies
Walk to the office the next day
I worked at a large pink warehouse-looking building that doubled as a print shop, serving clients across the Caribbean. Julio called it “the printshee (sp?)” I assumed that was the Caribbean way to say it, but I don’t know for sure. The building was only about one-quarter mile from my house, up the hillside, on Pump Road, which eventually led to the Caribbean Sea & Pinnay’s Beach about mile and one half away.
My office had Magic Jack to call the U.S. and equally important, air conditioning. Before I started work, I would often come to the office just to check my email and enjoy respite from the 85+ degree temperatures. (That’s Fahrenheit, I don’t know what that is in Celsius). I tried to explain to Tony & Julio how cold it had been in Minnesota. “What is minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit in Celsius?” They had looked at me like that temperature was not even possible on this earth.
My Landlord, Mr. Dore
Mr. Dore was a very nice man, about 75 years old, who had spent most of his career in the UK, he had told me. His old artwork was displayed throughout the house I stayed in. One was of a young Muhammad Ali, another was of a French coat of arms that displayed the Dore family name.
My first trip to the beach was a little disappointing. I had no idea that the surf on the Caribbean Sea side was much milder than the Atlantic. I decided I prefer oceans over seas, and thought that it was a good thing to know about myself, for future reference. I did meet some interesting people: one fellow named Ganzi worked at the beach, checking out beach chairs and large motorized beach toys (that’s as technical as I get regarding what those machines are called).
I forgot to mention how blissfully I slept my first night in my new house. I was so tired, I opened up my bedroom windows and let the Caribbean breezes flow in. There were metal grates solidly secured over the windows, but the screens behind the grates let the wind through. Much later, though, I imagined that the grates might stop someone from physically entering the windows, but it wouldn’t prevent anyone from cutting the screens open and navigating tools (or weapons) through the window – directly at me asleep in my bed adjacent to the window. I didn’t get so paranoid until a few days after my third night in the house.
The third night, at about 2:30 in the morning, my windows were open and I heard the jiggling of the lock of the door to my bedroom. (There were four doors leading into the house – the front door, the back door, the side door and my bedroom door.)
For some strange reason, I wasn’t scared, just alarmed – and pissed off. I jumped out of bed and ran to the door and pounded loudly on it. Whoever it was, I seemed to scare them away. To be sure, I went to look out the bathroom window, and could see that there was no one at my bedroom door any longer. Amazingly, I just went back to sleep and I wasn’t all that scared. I think I thought it was a fluke.
The next morning, I went outside and discovered a cement block and a large stick right by my bedroom door, under the little window at the top of the door. Evidence… I decided to walk around the whole house and look for other evidence, as well as the periphery of the property itself.
I saw much evidence of multiple break-in attempts, slashed window screens, sometimes right at the position of the screen door lock, large branches perched on the metal fence adjacent to the vacant lot for sale north of my house. I threw over all the branches I could find, thinking that this would help deter anyone from using those branches to jump over the fence, and, if I found any those same branches perched again, I would know someone had been there.
Did I mention I had no local phone? Service was not going to be available until the following week & I also read a report in the publication of my new employer, The St. Kitts-Nevis Observer, that there were only two squad cars for the whole island, the other officers had to use bicycles. And I’m pretty sure that somehow the criminal element in Nevis knew that by now too.
So though I thought I had bounced back very quickly from the attempted break-in, my mind was slowly pulling in pieces of info from everywhere that started to build and put me more and more on edge as days went by. And there is great political turmoil between St. Kitts and Nevis. Nevisians want its prime minister, Denzil Douglas, to step down, on charges of corruption, neglect. One recent scandal involved an Iranian man who used his St. Kitts-Nevis passport to try to enter Canada. He was denied entry and then the man became very frustrated, saying he had paid the St. Kitts-Nevis government $1 million for his passport.
The Venezuelan embassy in St. Kitts had been burned down recently, as well as the Nevisian Treasury building, both suspected arson cases. And Nevis had the highest murder rate in the Caribbean, according to 2011 stats. Many of the people who lived on my neighborhood, Ramsbury Site, were ex-pats, and I knew ex-pats were often targeted. So when a mysterious sedan pulled up and stopped on the road in front of my house on Sunday evening, five days after the break-in attempt, that was the clincher that took my psyche over the edge.
I was sitting on my porch, taking in the landscape and fresh air just before sunset and then this guy in a sedan drives in front of my house, sees me sitting outside and quickly brakes. He looked at me like a cartoonish villain, all menacingly and exaggerated. I had shades on, so he didn’t see the alarm in my eyes. Then he played this little game: pulled forward five feet, then back 10 feet, forward 15 feet, took my photo with a camera phone, pulled back about 30 feet behind some brush, and then another car came by and he took off. I decided to go inside.
I went to go to bed as normal a few hours later, not really worrying about anything. But I couldn’t sleep. At all. About 2 a.m., still not asleep, and imagining every little noise was an intruder, I decided to get out of bed and pack my six pieces of luggage until the sun came up. So I did. It took my mind off of being terrified. I knew I could not spend another night in that house.
So I made some frantic phone calls from the office the next morning, and soon was getting a ride from Julio to the Nesbitt Plantation resort near the airport. I gave away “presents” to Julio – things that didn’t fit in my bags: Nike shoes, a fan, a few books, a clock radio. On the ride over, Julio mentioned that some people just didn’t have good luck in Nevis – he mentioned U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who was robbed at machete point on Nevis not that long ago. Here’s the news blurb from Feb. 14, 2012 on CNN.com:
Washington (CNN) — Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was robbed last week by an intruder armed with a machete while Breyer was vacationing on the Caribbean island of Nevis, court officials said Monday.
Julio went on to say that a justice from the high court probably had a good security team, yet this had happened. He mentioned that his own family had suffered three break-ins, and yet the police had done nothing to capture who did it. He said he told them, ”Next time I’ll take care of them myself.” He said the police told him he should not do that, that he should call them instead. “But you don’t do anything,” he answered.
I felt I had made a friend in Julio – he wished me well and said to give him a call from time to time. A good man.
While at Nesbitt resort, I took in the beautiful ocean front view and wonderful amenities and tried to decompress. I hadn’t slept for two days, and I still had to make plane reservations. I found a flight from Nevis to San Juan the next day, and San Juan to Orlando after that, where I would stay with my sister and her husband for a while.
Arriving in Orlando, I was really glad to be back on U.S. soil. I’ve been back a few weeks now, and have to start over again finding a new job.
Here’s the link to my online portfolio, in case you’re hiring or know someone who is.
I already miss the warm clime of Nevis, and the wild donkeys, monkeys and goats. I’ll tell you more about some of the great people I met while there in a later post.
Figure 3 Sign on island of Nevis