Every island music tour has its adventures and misadventures and this year was no exception. Over the past dozen years of playing in the Virgin Islands I’ve gotten to know many of the islands’ colorful characters and their quirky, often quixotic ways.
We simply love 92-year-old Miss Ina with her nearly forgotten, back-time island ways. The first time I met Miss Ina, she was in her late 70s and had climbed high into a tree “pickin’ de cotton, mon”, gathering stuffing for a pillow she was making. She owns more goats than I can count. I've got lots of Miss Ina stories.
And there’s Miss Ina’s two 60-something “chirrun”, the brother/sister duo of Hendry & Genny who, when they’re not bickering unmercifully with each other, are two of the gentlest, kindest people you’ll ever meet and who’ll give selflessly of themselves until you have to beg them to stop. Gen makes the best fried chicken and plantains! Hendry's enthusiasm for music and life is contagious.
And up on Bordeaux Mtn. there are our been-everywhere, world-traveler friends TuTu & Kiko who create the most beautiful Larimar jewelry on-island and know everyone and “everyt’ing ‘bout dem, mi-son”. We love to hang with them at their shop TuTu Much. (It's just a coincidence that I named our duo TuTu Much. But it's a fun coincidence!).
80-something Pirate Bill (who’s the real deal and looks every bit the part) holds forth daily at Skinny Legs and once was part of a salvage crew that discovered sunken Spanish treasure in the late 70s – he even wears a necklace made of gold doubloons he “salvaged” from the wreck. Buy Bill a drink and he might regale you with the full story.
Then there’s puckish sailor Capt. Larry -“We’re not here for a long time, so we might as well have a good time!”- and his artist wife Annie who paints, takes photos, and creates mystical, magical 'spirit dolls' and jewelry from found objects. This year they hosted us in their comfortable mountain-top aerie for several nights – Thank you guys!
Cute-as-a-button singer Lauren had us grinning one night at Island Blues with her naïvely sincere misinterpretations of Bob Marley lyrics – instead of the verse in Marley’s Is This Love, “And Jah will provide the bread”, Lauren sang “And jump-rope by the bed”. Whenever she got to that verse in the song she’d pantomime jump-roping on the bed, the rum-fueled crowd erupting with guffaws and whistles. Kinda had to be there I suppose.
This was also the year of “Jamal, the Night Visitor”. An obviously psychotic young man who bore a striking likeness to a young Malcolm X, he’d become a trifle obsessed with me (Jamal warrants his own story!) and seemed to be wherever I was for several days until, like an apparition, he disappeared as suddenly as he appeared.
And then there was The Samurai Bean Man. It turns out we were real glad he showed up.
Miss Mary and I have in recent years stayed in many types of places on the island of St. John, from camping on Cinnamon Bay beach, bunking with friends in their homes to house-sitting in luxurious villas. But for the past three years, we have called home a tiny, unused cabin hidden in plain sight out in Coral Bay that friends arranged for us to stay in for a rather cheap rate.
Our rickety little wooden ‘villa’ is painted key-lime green - a great island color! It has a corrugated tin roof that pleasingly amplifies the tropical rain – a soothing accompaniment to an evening’s repose. By no means commodious – it’s only about 10' x 12' - there are only two ancient, tired bunk beds inside. We’ve discovered that the secret to sleeping well in them is to be more tired than they are. There’s no other furniture, but who needs it? Less really can be more. Besides, one doesn’t spend that much time indoors on de island anyway. There is electricity (most of the time) so we have a light at night and a fan to keep the air and 'skeeters stirred up. But there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the wiring and I never have gotten it straight which of the four switches works what!
The bathroom is (somewhat) attached and there’s a real toilet and shower, such as they are. The water flows from the rain-fed cistern - everyone is real careful with water use on the islands - and it is gravity fed so there’s not tons of pressure. At least the temperature is always consistent – COOL! Just cool enough to initially snatch your breath away! Hey, if you expect hot, pressurized water, better go spend $750+ per night and stay at Caneel Bay. Or rent a villa for several thousand per week.
There is a bathroom window with no screen. There used to be one, but it blew out in a hurricane years ago. This feature allows the geckos and aforementioned ‘skeeters to venture in and out, a pretty good arrangement for both. It also lets other things in and out.
A breezy porch overlooks the tidal salt pond teeming with aquatic and avian life just below. The Caribe-blue waters of the bay just beyond open into Drake's Passage and the mountains of Tortola stand like sentinels guarding the not-too-distant horizon. It’s a treat to sit out there at any time, munching a genip with perhaps a cold Carib beer or a wee dram o' black rum in hand, the rustling of palm fronds and flamboyant trees providing the overture to the sound track that includes the clucking and fretting about of the resident ‘House Chicken’ who scratches around the dooryard all day, the myriad goats who tramp by, commenting (not always discretely!) while glancing nosily through the windows as they pass by, usually in the late afternoon. Coki frogs can be heard at night when it rains. In the nearby settlement of Hard Labor there reside coop-fuls of roosters with names like First Blood and Ghost Face Killah crudely spray-painted on their cages in an amateur's graffiti. These birds "got game" and don’t seem to give a damn what time of day or night it is – it’s always time to CROW about somet'ing! You can bet these fellas ain't destined for any cooking pot, either.
We like staying here. Despite the rather austere furnishings, we’ve grown to appreciate the somewhat monastic simplicity and down-island serenity. Even an insomniac like me gets used to the roosters.
This year we had guests staying with us. They were insensitive, inconsiderate and unwelcome. We rarely ever saw them, but they were always there. Wherever they went, they left a mess without picking up after themselves. They greedily took food but didn’t eat it all, leaving crumbs and bits strewn about. They stole personal items such as ear plugs and nail clippers without asking and hid them. They’d destroy things like headphone jacks and tear up magazines, never owning up to it. They’d keep us awake at night sneaking around and chitter-chattering away, stopping only when I hollered at them, pounding on the wall with my fist. I discovered that they were even eating our soap and peeing in the sink. One evening I arrived home to find that someone of them had left a fresh, black turd on my bed – Ha, ha very funny! Now you must DIE! I know, sounds pretty drastic, but...
We had tree rats. These guys are not your typical filthy, disgusting Norway or river rat, nor your cute little pet shop-variety white lab rat. Nope, nothing of the sort. These sneaky devils live high in the coconut palms and, like ghosts and Bela Lugosi, only come out at night. They were the bane of the colonial sugarcane plantations because, while they are primarily omnivores, they quickly developed a perpetual sweet-tooth which led them to decimate most of the sugarcane crop year after year.
Sometime during the 19th century a brilliant bunch of Danish planters had the idea to control the rats ‘naturally’ by introducing a predator species - like, how 'bout mongooses!? (I really don't know why the plural isn't mongeese, but it's not). Could they have had Rudyard Kipling’s Riki Tiki Tavi in mind as mongooses are supposedly the curse of India’s sizable rat population?
And so the carnivorous, weasel-like mammals were introduced to St. John. They did rather well for themselves, eating the eggs of iguanas, birds and turtles. Even the iguanas, birds and baby turtles themselves were fair game for a mongoose menu. The only problem was. . .the mongooses didn’t eat the rats! They probably would have if they could, but there were two significant oversights made by the well-meaning planters: 1) Tree rats live in trees (imagine!) and rarely travel on the ground. Mongooses don’t climb trees. 2) Tree rats are nocturnal. Mongooses are diurnal. They never meet. Ooopsie!
So here we are. Plenty of happy mongooses and tree rats, but a severely threatened, miserable population of iguanas, birds and turtles. And now these damn rats were eating my soap, pissing in my sink (and who knows where else?) and boldly pooping on my bed. This was war!
Samurai Bean Man, that’s who! We needed somebody who could quickly assess the problem, devise a plan and see it through to the bitter end. Samurai Bean Man! We needed somebody who would not back down in the face of adversity or crumble under to the forces of the evil Ratmandu. Samurai Bean Man! YES!!!
So, one night the quickly-summoned Samurai Bean Man strapped on his well-worn 'PowerAde' loincloth, grabbed two of his finest lethal weapons - 20” long, 3” broad, flamboyant tree beans (or as the West Indians call them, shek-sheks after the sound their rattling seeds make) - and plotted to stay awake into the deep of night, stealthily listening, watching and waiting for the evil Ratmandu and his henchmen to enter the key lime-green cabin from who-knows-where and begin their verminly antics. He sat quietly on the bed, hoping not to disturb the slumbering Miss Mary with any yawning, sighing or errant bean rattling . . . waiting . . . . .
He sat, trance-like, until his muscles ached and eyelids drooped, but he remembered his solemn pledge to see this mission through to the end. He got up, stretched and fumbled through the dark on his way into the bathroom where, he was shocked to discover, that he was already too late!
Fresh toothmarks alerted him that the mischievous Ratmandu had purloined another portion of the Irish Spring soap, peed in the sink and vanished surreptitiously into the night. Visions of a TV commercial with a well-scrubbed, handsome Irish lad singing the praises of Irish Spring soap played through the Samurai Bean Man’s mind. Only instead of the pretty (and clean!) Irish lass who usually enters at the end of the commercial to inform us “And I like it, too!” there appears a sneering, giant tree rat who snidely tells us “And I eat it, too!”
"Drat! Foiled again by that vile vermin! But," reasoned the consternated Samurai Bean Man, "there's always tomorrow night!"
Samurai Bean Man made a plan to station himself quietly on the 'throne' in the bathroom. "He came in through the bathroom window!" he sang the lyrics to the old Beatles song to himself, pretty pleased with his new plan.
The next evening, under a waxing moon, he arrived back at the cabin after a delicious dinner of avocado snapper, rice 'n peas and plantain and went straightaway into the bathroom. Expecting this would be another long night, he fumbled one of the four switches and flicked on the light - Whoa! - there he was, Ratmandu himself! Standing on the sink gleefully rubbing his paws, a fresh mouthful of Irish Spring caught between his razor-sharp yellow teeth, the rat continued to chew defiantly. For a split moment the two surprised adversaries glared at each other, trying to surmise which of them was going to make the first move. Neither had really expected to discover the other where he actually was quite so, well, suddenly. The anxious silence was broken when...
Ratmandu acted first. He dropped the bar of Irish Spring, spit out a waxy mouthful of soap and bolted for the shower curtain, scurrying to the top. Samurai Bean Man instantly slashed at the damp plastic curtain with his loosed weapons. Ratmandu deftly dodged the beans' blow, raced across the shower curtain rod and leaped to a narrow, empty shelf. He had his eyes peeled on the open window, but the distance from the shelf to his freedom seemed interminable. Samurai Bean Man wheeled and thrust his rattling weapons at Ratmandu, this time lodging a direct hit to the rat's sinewy flank, momentarily stunning the stealthy rodent. Gathering his wits, the trapped rat calculated a risky leap for the electric wire that was loosely strung just inches below the ceiling rafters. If he could make it to the wire, perhaps he could remain out of the wildly jabbing beans' reach long enough to tight-rope his way over to the window and out to safety.
Ratmandu, heart pounding and adrenaline pumping, focused intently upon the wire nearly three feet above his head – and leaped! He made it! Below him, the high-wire balancing rodent could see the Samurai Bean Man staring up at him, heart pounding and adrenaline pumping as he pirouetted, took a step towards the shelf, and menacingly raised his twin deadly beans.
Despite his years of practicing offensive bean moves before a mirror, the Samurai Bean Man understood that now, at this moment, focus and agility were of the essence. If he missed this attack, Ratmandu would be out the open window and gone - at least for this night - and the Samurai Bean Man feared he would have rightfully earned the dreaded title of "Has-bean".
He calculated Ratmandu’s panicked route towards the window. With a lightning, fluid motion, he raised his left arm and whacked a single, deadly bean against the wire just inches in front of the racing rat. The blow shook the wire like a whip crack, the electric light in the bathroom momentarily flickered - on/off/on/off/on. In the chaos, Ratmandu lost his balance and fell as if in slow-motion to the concrete floor. The Samurai Bean Man knew it was now or never! He raised both quivering beans and crashed them down onto the fallen rat.
"Once! Twice! Thrice times a rodent!" he shrieked, shattering the tropical night.
Everything was suddenly eerily still. No rustling palms, no night birds, no frogs . . . no nothing.
Ratmandu lay lifeless upon the shower stall floor, beady eyes lifelessly staring heavenward into the great white lightbulb. Flecks of Irish Spring still clinging to his grizzled whiskers.
The Samurai Bean Man, exhausted from his brief, though intense, altercation (and a large Dark ‘n Stormy), wiped the sweat from his brow, scooped up the stiffening corpse of his unworthy adversary and flung it over the porch railing. “May the mongooses have mercy on your soul!” cried the Samurai Bean Man as Ratmandu arced like a dark spectre into the night sky, only to crash into the underbrush below. The victorious Bean Man returned to the bathroom to wash his hands. With liquid soap.
Things remained quiet for the rest of that night. Miss Mary awoke ever so briefly from her slumber in time to see Ratmandu go airborne over the porch railing. “My hero!” she sighed at the Samurai Bean Man. “Now go to bed.”
The next evening we returned home after our gig to find teethmarks chiseled into a fresh bar of Irish Spring. And piss in the sink. It had to be the work of none other than the cursed Ratatouille!
The very next day I went to the hardware store and bought rat poison.