In September 1966, I was a 22-year-old American Peace Corps trainee straight out of college, fortunately placed on Tortola for two months of agricultural training in chickens and gardens. My first impression of Tortola as we descended onto Beef Island in a small plane was the beauty of tropical greenery, mountains and sea, together with shipbuilding in backyards and wooden sloops anchored in the blue harbour.
Luther George drove the six of us to our temporary homes with local families in East End and Long Look. The road was narrow, winding around the mountain ridges, shared by pedestrians, donkeys, goats, pigs, chickens and a few vehicles, mostly taxis and jeeps. Along the way were mostly wooden homes, a few concrete buildings and flowering bushes, cactus plants, and well-kept yards with goats and chickens. There were no big stores or tall buildings.
The Methodist church was the most prominent East End building, and, as a Mrs. Penn told me, integral to family and social life. Teens found additional social life in sports (cricket and baseball), dances and card playing. There were little stands for sodas or fruit along our walk to class. Everyone was friendly and helpful. The island attitude seemed to be, as one resident told me, “If you are ever caught in a rain, you can drop in at any house.” Or, as others said, “If you are hungry, we’ll feed you;” and “All foreigners are welcome in any house here; the British islands are like that.”
People looked out for other families’ children and needs, calling out to kids to get home or asking if they needed a lift somewhere.
Employment was difficult, with some men working two jobs and combining jobs on Tortola and nearby islands to cover family needs. Salaries were low and families were quite large. Five to 10 kids per family was common. Jobs centred around fishing, carpentry and government work. People helped each other with home construction and harvesting. Land was often inherited via a few acres given to each child. British Commonwealth association was controversial, with local opposition in 1966 calling for home rule, as some other nearby islands had.
Some of the residents I remember for their help and shared time were the families of Carris Penn, Luther George, Vanterpool, Iverson Smith, Martin Winters, Wheatley, Gordon, O’Neal and Stoutt. These names include current family members vested in Tortola, present and future.
In June 2018, I flew into Beef Island’s Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport on a Seaborne plane and rented an Avis car. What a difference from 1966, with Tortola’s new international terminal contrasted with 1966’s small wooden shed as the airport reception area and a dirt road to connect to the mainland, which now, in 2018, is a well-paved road off a big, paved airport parking area.
Road Town was unrecognisable via my 1966 recall. Main Street was no longer “main.” I would not have found it without my friend guiding me. The primary street today is built on landfill next to the harbour, with many commercial buildings and parking lots. The current yacht harbour off the main road is world-class, strikingly different from the small boat docks in 1966.
Unfortunately, both modernity and hurricanes have made garbage part of the scenery over much of Tortola, from East End to West End, and over to the north side on the Ridge Road. We saw many garbage trucks, both municipal and private, along with barges to move garbage off of the island. Garbage is a huge task for any island, with or without hurricane damage. Also, locating island sites was difficult due to little road signage. Residents were very helpful as we asked directions along the roadways.
In fact, the helpful, friendly nature of the residents is the most common thread I found between my 1966 and 2018 stays. Wonderful people, then and now. On this latest visit this year, a friendly man in a white pickup loaded with ladders and buckets on Ridge Road went four miles out of his way to show us the road to Mount Healthy National Park. With a smile, he waved us on. What special, over-the-top help he offered. A belated thank you, sir.
Initially, I was saddened by the “looks” of 2018 Tortola. Though the bays and ocean views were gorgeous, the green mountains had lost many trees; the hills were covered less with vegetation and more with roads and huge homes and condos; Road Town’s Main Street was no longer the main street of wonderful, colourful family shops (though a wonderful renewal of shops and restaurants is currently happening); and the roads and parking lots were packed with vehicles. This is part of modern progress: Increasing income and tourism mean more roadways, vehicles, sailboat slips, yacht moorings, banks and international business.
I first assumed Hurricane Irma had created all of Tortola’s piles of cement debris, wrecked cars, fallen trees, shattered gravestones, missing road signs, broken windows, missing rooftops and closed businesses. The hurricanes of 2017 were extremely devastating. Yet, after some conversations and readings from the 1970s to 2018, it seems that multiple factors created the current refuse piles. There have been a series of hurricanes since 1966, which could have led to a lack of personal/business resources, along with reduced personal will to keep re-building. Another possibility is that residents’ needs may not have been met for infrastructure re-building or maintenance by either insurance coverage or regional government resources. Criteria for support/reimbursement have been very diverse.
Poignant and pertinent poems published in 1997 by Verna Penn-Moll reflect my thinking on hurricane damage.
In “Old Caribbean,” Ms. Penn Moll writes, “Hurricanes gather to strip and devour, / structures that shatter and splinter.”
And in “After the Storm,” she writes, “After the darkest watch was past and the all-night wake was kept, / the hounding wind gave up its force / to pangs of deep distress / where roofless houses and naked trees / bowed low and wept.”
These poetic words sound the feelings and realities of hurricane damage from earlier times. Ms. Penn Moll, a believer in the special heritage of Tortola and future potential, also gives a positive message through another of her writings, This Land: A Trust from God, published in 2014: “The islands may be small and fragile, but unique … and [they are] for mankind a precious natural and psychological resource to be shared.”
Tortola, as an outsider who loves your island, your people and your azure waters, I wish you endurance and support to maintain harmony with a challenging environment. May you preserve your treasure.