Thursday, September 30, 2010

Elizabeth "Ma Pampo" Israel - Dominica's Oldest Woman

Time waits for no man, but for dear old ladies in distant Dominica defying the ravages of age is all part of the natural process. Elizabeth Israel became the world’s oldest woman on authentic record when celebrating her 125th birthday on Jan 27th 2000 and, while agelessness is often misconstrued, in her case it seemed entirely appropriate. She never did enter the Guinness Book of Records though, the authorities decreeing that the lack of a birth certificate, which disappeared in a hurricane, precluded it despite a clear account in the local baptismal register. I know - I once spent three days sourcing it before spotting the original entry.

“Even the old people here knew her as an old woman”, said Lucien Da Silva, a long time neighbour in the Glanvillia tenantry near Portsmouth, “and I always felt she was a very special lady”. The register at St John and St Lewis Catholic Church also identified Louisia Frager as godmother and the date of birth as January 27th 1875 but many people in the village actually thought her much older. She was probably one of the last direct descendants of a slave, her mother Magdelaine Israel, a tall “redskin” from Antigua speaking Kokoy dialect, was brought to work on the Morne Talin plantation near Colihaut on the west coast. The terrible 1838 hurricane required a switch to the Picard estate near Portsmouth where she lived to more than a hundred herself. Something in the genes then, or are there other reasons?

When I met Ma Pampo, as she was known to one and all, she was blind but her recollection for times past still sharply acute. On the eve of her 125th I asked what had been the secret. “Well”, she chortled, “I ate callalloo, dumpling, meat, lots of fish and crab”. Sitting straight backed, upright in bed, cuddling a toy Dalmatian, she was listening to the radio in her humble two roomed chattel house. “An doan forget de coconut milk an dasheen either!” Finally, she advised “never eat a heavy meal after 6pm, then drink a bush tea. Fertilizers are making people weak”.

Raised with four siblings, she got up early, drank pure water and went to work at Picard aged 25, picking peas for 2/6d per month. A penny for a nine hour day. Rough trails were the only means of communication, no electricity, no telephone, and Roseau could have been another country, but she recalled her only trip to the capital 20 miles to the south. “My wedding day, and we went by the estate boat”. She bore a son Burleigh Codrington who died at 30 though a grandson Charlesworth lives in England. Pampo was known as Minetta George for a while after marrying Ernest, and remembered “walking to work and being turned back if you weren’t over dat bridge when bell rang at 7am.” Graduating to supervisor, she directed ox carts and the grinding mill, and organised lime, vanilla and coconut processing. “I danced the cacao too,” referring to the now rarely practised cocoa polishing with the feet manoeuvre. She avoided alcohol as a girl, and smoked tobacco in a clay pipe instead. Pampo preached simplicity, honesty, good faith and health care, with humour, patience and kindness never far behind.

In 1979, still strong and agile at 104, she took redundancy from Picard, lived alone and was revered throughout the neighbourhood, a classic case of care in the community, her life led at one with the soil, sustained by diligence, diet and an unfettered environment. “She was a sharing, kindly person”, Martha Martin said, “and the only lady who was never called witch by the children”. Suddenly the old radio crackled into life, a gruff voice from Roseau exhorting “we want Pampo down here to talk!” “Me gwan nowhere”, laughed Pampo, “dem haffa come to here”. Tributes poured in later from far and wide, and there was banter around 25 missing telegrams from the Queen.

People like Pampo are not unusual in Dominica. Just round the corner, I was introduced to Ms Rose Peters, a mere stripling at 117, who had sorted cacao with Pampo, still walked down the lane, chatted to everyone and prayed twice a day. A further four of her close associates were also centenarians, (there are currently over twenty others, three times the ratio of western developed countries), testament to the strength of its motto: After God, the Earth. Israel embodied Dominican toil and spirit from another era, sadly passing away in 2003 aged 128 after complications arising from a pedicure.

Monday, September 20, 2010

High in the Blue Mountains, Jamaican Flowers and Gardens

Flowers and gardens are part of the rich tapestry of everyday life in the Caribbean, startling in their variety, vibrancy and colour for the first time visitor, but an element of the landscape it’s easy to become blasé about. Run of the mill even, and often overlooked. Every major city will usually have somewhere to while away time amongst unusual trees and plant life, a welcome oasis of tranquillity and calm amid the clamour of urban living. In Kingston Jamaica, the 200 acre Hope Gardens which were officially designated by the Queen in 1953 serve the purpose well and there are other long established havens beyond the city at Bath, Castleton and Cranbrook.

It’s probably true to say though that most of the populace will be oblivious to that holy grail of gardens due east, the stunning sanctuary at 5500 feet in the beguiling Blue Mountains and only 2.5 miles as the crow flies from the central ridge line. It’s impossible to know everywhere in the Caribbean of course and Jamaica casts a veil over its secret places better than most, but Cinchona Gardens has a definite other worldly feel, an ethereal ambience of swirling mists and strange new aromas. The stairway to heaven is never easy to locate either, it’s not the sort of spot you come across by savour the spirit of Cinchona you have to be committed to going...and be prepared for the rigours of the ascent and the occasional landslip.

Deep in coffee country, past Pine Grove, Guava Ridge and Mavis Bank and on towards the mystical heights of Clydesdale, a rough road suddenly veers upwards for two miles to the aptly named Top Mountain junction, from where an even steeper incline, riven with crevasse like gullies and channels to hinder weary hikers, leads to Cinchona, which commands an utterly spellbinding location on a remote bluff above the Yallahs and Green river valleys. It’s quite probably the highest botanical garden in the world (if anyone knows of another at a higher elevation let us know)

Its history and development is equally fascinating; European settlers encountered malaria on the first incursions along the coasts of Africa and Asia in the sixteenth century but it wasn’t until the wife of a Spanish nobleman, the Viceroy of Peru, was miraculously cured by a tea prepared from the bark of a cinchon tree, a native of the High Andes, by the Inca descended Quechua Indians that quinine was taken seriously as an extract. In 1868 seeds were brought from Kew Gardens in London and planted in conjunction with Assam tea but the dual project failed due to competition in India and the site slowly changed from a scientific arboretum to English country garden. By 1874 it was more a centre for orchid propagation under Kew’s William Nock and subsequently botanists arrived from all over the world to view night flowering shrubs and other magical visions in his glass palm-houses.

Sadly it fell into disrepair over many years, severely damaged as well by hurricanes, vandalism and general neglect. I was fortunate to discover this place almost thirty years ago when I was brought for an audience with Andreas Oberli, a Swiss botanist who had just been engaged as project manager to restore the gardens to their Victorian grandeur. Lloyd Stamp, keeper of the estate, has been here even longer and both are dedicated to the cause though Andreas lives in Kingston now. The uninhabited central Great House contained a large fireplace with a ton of dried wood, my first indication that it could get cold in the Caribbean and, though I came for an hour, I finished up staying three days such was the power of the experience.

That spirit still exists today, much of it down to these two latter day guardians. In the early 1980s Oberli dissuaded then Prime Minister Edward Seaga from developing it as his helicopter accessed private mountain club, and even observed another PNP politician Ronald Thwaites ordering his henchmen to dig up rare plants and bulbs to cart off to his own garden. Through all this, Cinchona has somehow survived, not intact, but forever changing; the 150 feet high Masson pines remain, a landmark even in the murkiest of light from as far away as Lime Tree Farm (a stupendous site in its own right several miles away, a working coffee farm and one of the best places to stay in the mountains) the Panorama walk too with its wonderful vistas of the Blue Mountain ridge and main peaks.

There are well tended lawns and flower beds and a lattice work of paths and walkways, interspersed with extraordinary tree specimens like eucalyptus, juniper, Japanese cedar, Chinese cypress, rubber trees, cork oak, incredible gold washed ferns and banks of hydrangea and azalea. At every turn, something new draws your eye. Nowhere is the term splendid isolation more fitting—for a new perspective on Kingston far below, here is somewhere to head for.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hurricane Allen and other pleasant Caribbean Hurricanes!

We’re half way through the hurricane season and so far so good, for the most part anyway. Despite projections of a greater incidence than usual in this era of changing global weather and climate, the anticipated flurry of storms has not transpired despite the battering of the northern Leewards and Virgin Gorda last week by Hurricane Earl. Antigua and St Maarten had trees flattened and power outages, parts of the Virgins suffered substantial damage and restaurants and other buildings on Frigate Bay in St Kitts were lashed by heavy rain and high winds. It could have been worse, so let’s hope the status quo continues.

The period is one of fear and loathing for many in the Caribbean, the several thousands who live in less sturdy accommodation, though satellite tracking systems now give ample early warning and time for safety measures which the old time West Indian simply did not have. Seeing out a powerful hurricane then was a matter of experience, good fortune and trusting in the shelter as much as anything else. As an ingénue in Barbados in 1979, I awoke one morning to find everywhere covered in a thick red dust, blown over from the erupting Soufriere volcano in St Vincent. It was a startling revelation, something quite out of the ordinary, disturbing to the status quo. Not long afterwards something far more traumatic and personal assailed Little England, the first indication and realisation that perhaps all was not sweetness and fine light in these balmy isles.

Sundays then were reserved for beach cricket, and that alone, and Bathsheba on the east coast the chosen destination once a month. This one morning, someone rang advising against it, mentioning a brewing storm which the dogs accepted but not the mad Englishmen relishing the noonday sun. Beautiful day, over Farley Hill we drove, past Morgan Lewis mill and down to that glorious foreshore on the most atmospheric part of the island. Things were blissful till around mid-afternoon when suddenly the wind whipped up and the sea got angry. Even then, as someone used to rough weather in the Pennines, often for months on end, I wasn’t unduly concerned. The game continued, though one or two of the more enlightened decided to head back to Bridgetown and the south coast.

A hardy Irishman Mr David O’Flynn lingered with me, but eventually we too were forced to repair to the Edgewater Inn for sustenance. Soon after, we were about to set off for the west coast when the proprietor hailed us, obviously worried: “no one can leave now, you’ll die” were his words of admonishment, spoken in all seriousness and registering like no other. “It’s a hurricane now, and heading our way fast”. We were forced to bed down for the night along with a score of others on mattresses scattered on the floor. It was humourous at first, until we heard a St Lucia radio broadcast echoing through the bar area “Ok Barbados, signing off here, the Caribbean is with you, the Lord God too, we trust there’ll be minimal damage”. By now it was dusk, doors and windows were barricaded and taped, the wind howling like a banshee, the rain driving horizontally.

The Edgewater was built of solid coral stone blocks on a cliff edge high above the roaring ocean, seemingly exposed to the raw elements but in defiance of all the weather could muster and probably one of the safest structures on the island. As darkness fell I took one last glimpse of the world beyond through a chink in one of the thick porthole glass windows. The vision that appeared shocked me to the core - Hurricane Allen was upon us, in all its fury. As far as the eye could see out to the horizon, gigantic lines of white topped breakers tumbled shoreward, immense battalions of them, twice the size of houses. To the right down the coast road, coconut trees were bent at ninety degrees, snapping amidships when the force became too great and scattering their cargo like bouncing bombs, chattel houses had their corrugated roofs peeled back like sardine tins, then torn asunder and flung to the heavens.

A sleepless night ensued, followed by a long, surreal journey back to the west coast later the next day, clearing roads of debris, matchwood trees and people’s belongings. I was dropped off at my place on Gibbs Beach, incredulous at the scene that awaited - a palm tree had toppled right across the car, a write off, the gently sloping beach had all but disappeared, replaced by a 20 feet high cliff, and my cottage awash with smashed cutlery, broken trees and foliage forced through open louvres stupidly left open. My cat clung on terrified at the top of what remained of some flimsy curtains. Twas a salutary sight, an awakening to the awesome power of nature. It was deemed a glancing blow, not even the full impact. In Dominica, people still talk of “David”, in Jamaica of “Gilbert”, reverentially in a way, out of respect. Hurricanes. Don’t underestimate them and ignore them at your peril. Heed any warnings and batten the hatches.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Farewell to Lord Glenconner by Stephen Thorpe

The Caribbean lost one of its great characters last week. Not a sportsman, statesman, comedian nor entertainer, but someone who defied formal categorisation and remained rather indefinable - an eccentric indubitably, and a true Brit born not just of the silver spoon but with the whole tea set intact. Yes, Colin Tennant, aka Lord Glenconner was one on his own for sure, the last of a breed in the West Indies who bestrode Mustique, south west St Lucia and a few other places besides for nigh on half a century. In 1959 he acquired that Grenadine backwater, a scrub covered, mosquito ridden Mustique for a song, then spent years and half a fortune developing its infrastructure having given Princess Margaret a few prime acres for her wedding present.

After Royalty, the new aristocracy followed - rock stars, media moguls and socialites, in search of escape and hedonism alike which Colin was more than happy to facilitate over the next twenty years. After various management and financial wrangles he decamped to another gilded piece of paradise between the Pitons in St Lucia, importing Bupa, a pet elephant, for company. More trouble ensued over land development and Colin eventually settled for a relatively quiet life running his small estate centred on the Bang bar and latterly selling off plots of subdivided land. I first became familiar with him in Barbados in the 1970’s through his son Charlie who enjoyed bejewelled teenage years in Mustique before sadly dying young; family calamity became a theme but Colin somehow maintained a stiff upper lip throughout.

His trademark outfit of white cotton pants, white cotton shirt and hat never seemingly changed, and I can truthfully aver that I never saw him in anything else throughout our acquaintance. Sometimes he’d misplace the hat and get cross. He was a patriarch, with a loyal staff and following in rural St Lucia and prone to the occasional tantrum when things went awry. Once, in some down at heel shop in Soufriere, he overheard me mention I had to go to Castries the next day and kindly offered a lift (this in the days before a properly surfaced west coast road existed); he collected me in the morning in a battered jeep and we set off on a journey scheduled to take two hours. It lasted eight. At every wayside halt, for every fruit seller, fisherman or higgler in Anse La Raye or Canaries he had a friendly word, or they for him. Chats turned into discussions, long ones; at one stage, just as I thought we were getting somewhere, he drove into a deep drainage gully, almost writing off the vehicle. Four Rastas hauled us out, and we repaired to a rum shop to thank them. The Laird of Lucia I called him, which he quite liked.

Another time I found myself in some smart hostelry, which was unusual in itself, when suddenly Princess Margaret walked in unannounced, clutching her customary bottle of Famous Grouse (half empty as I recall), followed close behind by Colin and his wife Lady Anne, the Princess’s Lady in Waiting. We were introduced, and chatted briefly. A while later I felt a light touch on my forearm. It was Colin, whispering over my shoulder: “Stephen, Her Royal Highness has requested you accompany us to supper”. Lawd God Almighty, I was dumbstruck for a moment. What could a poor boy do? I’d never had the Royal Command before (then or since), me dear ol’ monarchist Mum back in Rochdale would have been proud. As a vehemently (dis)loyal subject of the Crown, I suppose I had no choice, and dutifully accepted. Besides, I was bloody hungry. Later in a memorable evening Colin lifted an eyebrow disdainfully when I failed to rise as Marj briefly excused herself from the table for a fag. As I told him later - I wasn’t going anywhere, so why bother getting up. He despaired.

Only last Christmas, he learnt that a London psychotherapist Joshua Bowler was his illegitimate son from more than fifty years ago by Henrietta Moraes and, true to form, gladly accepted him into the family fold. I bumped into Colin a year ago in late afternoon on an isolated beach at unfashionable Laborie on St Lucia’s south coast. He was taking his evening stroll miles from home, alone in his thoughts at 83, a ghostly figure in the gloaming, in the twilight of a life well spent. We shared a pot of tea. He seemed tired, something in his pale blue eyes said this would be the last time I’d see him. And it was. Many will miss him.
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