Color in spite of a long drought

Some times  you have to look hard to find color when we’ve been in a drought for so many month.

bougainvillea at Lower Bay

Thank goodness for bright paint colors, but in spite of the drought even though your garden in general looks pretty sad, many plants still bloom.

Yellow Poui above the Frangipani

Yesterday, I took a drive around Bequia, from Hamilton, to Paget Farm, and up Mt. Pleasant in search of color.

Oleander in Port Elizabeth
False Frangipani in my garden at Spring


Wardrobe malfunctions

When you’ve lived on a Caribbean island for a while, you discover that your clothes just don’t last.  Items that have been put away in a drawer develop strange discolorations which I think must be from the humidity, but white and pastel items show it the worst. Remember your mother telling you to always wear clean underwear in case you get into an accident; well, your underwear will be clean, but have strange yellow/beige blotches.  The only way I’ve found to prevent this is to pack completely clean and dry items into a zip lock bag with the air squeezed out; however, while that might be fine when you are ‘coming and going’ and are only here for holidays, when you are here all the time that just isn’t practical.

Clothes hanging in the closet fare a little better due to air circulation, but they get gecko droppings on them, and moth holes, which might not be from moths, but little holes all the same.  Clothes also develop little bleach like markings which I can’t figure out, especially if they are items that you’d never think of using bleach on. Elastics rot, and spandex threads breaks apart, so your bathing suit will lose it’s shape, as well as anything else that has stretch to it.

Clothes left on the line to dry in the sun soon rot, so you have to have a line in the shade for hanging your laundry.  It’s not uncommon to walk into a friends home on laundry day to find a line stretched across their deck, or through their living room.  One of our neighbors has a room solely dedicated to laundry with lovely drying racks and lines, but for most of us that just isn’t practical.

White sheets and towels also suffer from the same strange discolorations, which is probably why laundry bluing is so popular here.

Dressed up here is a clean pair of shorts and a clean top, they may have mysterious stains, bleach marks, holes, or frayed hems but they are clean.  With the reality of keeping your clothes nice here being nearly impossible you quickly give up on keeping stylish.  The only stylish people you see on Bequia are almost always tourists.

We were once tourists here ourselves and I clearly remember a lovely pair of Italian sandals that had their thin soles ripped to shreds on the rough concrete roads after walking to the beach one day, and white linen slacks that got mud spatters up the back of the legs that never washed out.

Leather gets hard, and flakes, and purses, belts and shoes have a short lifespan.  It’s not uncommon to be wearing a fairly new pair of shoes to have the sole fall off while walking along; or for a fairly new purse to leave little flaky bits all over your hands or blouse where the strap rides as the leather flakes off, and to be looking at these flaky bits wondering where it’s come from and then you see that your purse strap has developed bald patches

You learn to be practical rather than stylish, a small backpack or a local flour sack made into a shopping tote becomes your purse, flip flops are the footwear of choice, you no longer care what the latest trends in summer clothes are, and you realize that you wear the same 2 or 3 pair of shorts, the same 3 or 4 shirts, all the time, and they tend to be the most comfortable, breeziest items that you own.  Just as you don’t care what your friends are wearing, they don’t care of notice if the shirt you have on today is the same shirt you had on a few days ago.

Photo: Spring beach, Bequia

Beach time, mosquitoes and the seasons

Contrary to what most of our friends and family back in Canada think, we don’t spend every day at the beach, in fact we rarely get to the beach as we are too busy working, the upside though is that it is gorgeous summer weather all year long.  We were invited to a beach barbecue not that long ago and we realized that it had been two years since we’d been at the beach for a swim. I have a couple of friends who do get to the beach every day for a swim, but they live right at the beach so they start their day with an early swim in the sea.

Though we may not get to the beach for a swim often, we are in the pool every day.

The big difference between summer weather here and summer weather in Canada is we don’t have mosquitoes like Canada has mosquitoes, and not a black fly in sight. Mosquitoes in Canada are big and fast, mosquitoes here in Bequia are quite small and slow, so when you do see them they are much easier to swat…I guess they are on island time too!  Also there generally aren’t swarms of mosquitoes here, so you don’t need screens and you don’t have to quickly close the door to keep the mosquitoes out.  We do have screens on the bedroom windows, but that’s more to keep moths out at night when the lights are on than mosquitoes.

We were told that after we’d lived here for a while that the mosquitoes wouldn’t bother us anymore, and I couldn’t understand how that could be possible; however, it’s true, they are still present and they still bite, but after a while you no longer react to the bites, they no longer raise a bump and they no longer itch.  We still enjoy having an electric swatter to zap them with when we find some hiding under the office desk or in the bathroom.

We truly enjoy outdoor living all year long, with all the doors and windows open wide to the outdoors, letting the breeze blow through the house. Dining on the deck for every meal.  We live on our lovely shaded deck enjoying the view and the breeze more than inside.

We have two seasons here, dry season and wet or rainy season, which coincides with hurricane season.  Dry season is from December through to June and rainy season is from June to November.  Dry season is very dry and just about everything green gets brown in a hurry.  Wet season is very erratic, and we hope for enough rain to fill our water tanks, and to bring the gardens back to life.  It’s surprising though, that through dry season, when most plants are looking just about dead, that the bougainvillea bloom in a riot of color, and the yellow poui and the frangipani burst into glorious color.

The daytime temperature is usually 30 Celsius and at night it might drop to 25 Celsius. Every day you can go swimming. Every day you can wear shorts, a sleeveless blouse, or short sleeved shirt and sandals, or a sarong.  At home I always wear a sarong or pareo and bare feet.  There is only the very rare evening in the winter months where you might want to put on long pants and a light sweater and a pair of socks or slippers.  We look forward to those evenings though as it means we’ll be able to snuggle under the sheet, or maybe even the blanket.  It’s such a rare occurrence that we treasure it when it happens.

My husband, who still has to keep up appearances as a Chiropractor has to wear long pants and dress shoes a couple of days a week, but that’s in an air conditioned office, and he changes into shorts and sandals once the clinic is closed and he’s ready to catch the ferry back to Bequia.

We laugh to hear the winter residents complain about the heat, but the winter months to those of us that live here year round are much more comfortable, and the winter residents think we are nuts if we say we are feeling cool.  In the winter months, though it’s still shorts weather, the pool gets down into the low 80’s and that feels cold to us. It’s all relative though.  We’ve gotten so used to the heat that when we go back to Canada in the summer we find it cold when family or friends set their air conditioners to 75F.  I remember one visit going outside to warm up because the a/c inside was too cold for me, and having to wear a sweater indoors.

In the summer months/rainy season if there is a storm to the north of us, the breezes die down and it gets very still and very humid, and those days we’ll be in the pool 5 or 6 times a day to cool down.  The summer rains help keep the pool from getting too warm, but by October/November the pool and the sea are like a bathtub and it’s more refreshing when you get out of the water and feel the breeze on your wet skin.

When you live here year round since the climate pretty much never changes, unless you have a boat of some sort, you don’t check the weather very often.  The only time we check the weather is every few days during the summer months/hurricane season/rainy season if we think about it, just to make sure that there isn’t a hurricane heading our way; but we get so few hurricanes and the worst we ever get is a category 1, that we get lazy about checking the weather.

Photo is of Ixora at the Gingerbread Cafe




Maintenance in Island Time

There is no such thing as a quick maintenance job here.

The hardware stores in Port Elizabeth might not have the part you need, which means you usually have to take the ferry across to Kingstown, St. Vincent, and try any or all of the hardware stores in Kingstown, which means walking all over Kingstown, then if none of them have the part, you have to source it online and either have it shipped in, or have it sent to a friend to have them bring it with them.  Sometimes a store clerk might suggest another store that might have what you need, but that is rare, usually the response is ‘all finish’ and if you ask when they will have it again, they shrug and say ‘me nah noh.’   If you are able to let your fingers do the walking and source what you need over the phone, then you have to send a cheque across on a ferry, or make a deposit to the stores account at the bank on Bequia, and the store will send the item across on a later ferry.

What would be a 5 minute repair job if you have the part, can end up taking 5 weeks or 5 months. Of course this is a great improvement over pre internet days when you’d call a friend or relative to tell them what you needed and hope they got the right part, or you’d wait until you were going to Canada or the USA and take the old part with you to make sure you got the right replacement part.

I used to think that if you bought what was locally available that that might help with getting replacement parts, but that doesn’t work either.

Maintaining a car is somewhat of a challenge too, something is always needing attention.  We both carry jumper cables in the back of our cars, as well as basic tools and bottles of oil, rad fluid, wiper fluid, water and rags, and I’m not sure what else.  My husband makes sure I have what I need and when I have a problem I just go and grab the appropriate bottle from the back. I’ve learned a lot more about cars here that I ever knew when I lived in Canada.  Here I’ve had to learn how to check to make sure my battery contacts are clean, how to use jumper cables, and how to top up all the fluid levels, things I never did before moving to Bequia. Fluid levels must evaporate somewhat here, as there is no leak and yet the fluid levels seem to need to be topped up regularly. Car batteries generally don’t last more than 2 years.  Our roads are rough concrete which are hard on tires, so tires need replaced about every other year. Because our island is all hills, brakes need repaired quite often as well. The rubber on wiper blades only lasts about 2 years as the rubber gets hard and stops functioning properly. Fortunately we have a great mechanic and he’s rescued me on several occasions, meeting me on the side of a road to change a hose, coming out to the house to check the car and bringing back a new battery or whatever part needs replaced.

Many of the roads in Bequia are narrow and if you have to go off the shoulder to let somebody else pass, your vehicle might get scratched, so you don’t want a new vehicle here.  We both drive really old cars, mine is a 1993 and Gregs is a 1991, both are Suzuki jeep type vehicles, and they are ideal for the road conditions, rough windy hilly narrow roads.  If you mistakenly get a tire stuck in one of the road side gutters, they are light enough that a few strong guys can easily pick it up and move it back onto the road.  Plus when you drive an old vehicle you don’t care if it gets sand in it after a day at the beach; and with our cars being used for property management, and sometime construction management they often get more than sand spilled in them.

When we lived in Canada we kept our vehicles spotless inside and out.  Here, not so much. I had a construction worker who I’d often give a lift to and he showed up one day and said he was here to clean my car for me because it was dirty.  Since then I take it to a guy to have it washed and vacuumed once in a while. Somehow it’s not much of a priority.

We joke that bumpers are meant for bumping, because everybody’s bumpers are a little cracked or dented from backing into a wall or stone outcrop on the side of a road when you are turning around, and side mirrors are often a little battered from cars passing too close and ‘clicking’.

Collage above is one of mine…




Understanding Island Time

Island time is a hard concept to grasp for most people from 1st world countries, where most of us do everything by a clock, where you pride yourself for being on time, never late, never holding other people up because we believe that other peoples time is just as valuable as ours, so we’d never want to make anybody wait for us which we’d consider rude.

I imagine our concept of time is just as alien to people from the Caribbean who have moved to a 1st world country, as island time is to us.

If you want most islanders to be on time, you have to specify ‘early time’ though even then chances are good that they might still be late, but they won’t be as late as they would have been if you hadn’t said ‘early time.’

Maybe it’s just that everybody is just so consumed with the here and the now that time doesn’t matter, or whether it’s some sort of rebellion against rules, or if the heat and humidity has anything to do with it; or whether it has something to do with the fact that a lot of our life here is ruled by the ferries which may or may not be on time as although they have a schedule, it’s a little loose, the ferry may leave early, or it may leave late, or it may not leave at all.  Even the planes here rarely ever leave on time.  If you are meeting a ferry or plane,  you go early and wait, and if you are smart you take a book to read, because you don’t know how long you have to wait.

Many people don’t even go to work on time.  If they show up on time or maybe just a little late, then they go out to get breakfast, or a drink, or to run errands.  It’s a miracle to me that they stay employed.

One of the contractor who did some work for us would tell us ‘I’ll be there in 20 minutes’ we got to the point where we took bets on how long his 2o minutes would be, or which 20 minutes of an hour that he meant, the first 20, the middle 20 or the last 20.  This wouldn’t have been a problem if his workmen weren’t waiting on him to arrive with construction materials.

Whatever the reason, Island Time does not have anything to do with clock time.  When it comes down to it, I think it means, whenever I get there, no rush, no worries, just relax, chill out it’s Bequia.


Photo is by my friend Anna Landry, and amazing artist and photographer



Grocery Shopping: You can’t always get what you want

If you are going to live on a tropical island know that you may not be able to find everything that you want, but you can get everything you need, though you may need to visit a couple of stores and a couple of market vendors to do so.

When you can’t get what you want in the stores or markets, you have to make do with what you can get.  Sometimes it’s easier to plan your menu based on what is available rather than trying to adapt a recipe; though some of the adaptations come out wonderful and create a new favorite dish.

You need to learn to cook with what is available locally.  There are many vegetables that I’d never cooked with before moving to Bequia:  okra, eggplant, christophene, snake gourd, sweet potato, dasheen, breadfruit, pigeon peas, plantain, pumpkin.  We love plantain, and came up with a version of lasagna that uses thinly sliced plantain in place of lasagna noodles. It’s so delicious.  Eggplant is wonderful cooked in coconut milk with onions and a little hot sauce.  I’ve always slow cooked okra in a vegetable stew, but recently started roasting okra just tossed with olive oil and salt and pepper, and the pods taste delicious with a french fry crunch.

I happened to be offered a lift one time by a couple who were staying with neighbors and they were hoping to buy a house here, and the woman went off on a tangent because she couldn’t get a yellow sweet pepper and she wanted a yellow sweet pepper as she wanted to make dinner for her hosts and the recipe called for a yellow sweet pepper.  You’d have thought it was the end of the world.  Her husband asked if she couldn’t just use a green pepper since it tastes the same.  She glared at him and said it would taste right but it wouldn’t look the same.  I was almost afraid to say anything, but said that usually the only time of year that you can get yellow peppers is at Christmas time when all sorts of foods are brought in.  I told my husband later that we shouldn’t expect those people to be neighbors as she’d never be able to handle life in Bequia, if not being able to get a sweet yellow pepper was such a calamity.

There is a huge variety of fruit that varies from season to season, from bananas that taste like candy, papaya, mango, soursop, sugar apple, wax apple, pomegranite, star fruit/five fingers, passion fruit, guava, limes, and more that I just can’t think of right now.  So many fruits ripen quickly that we peel ripe banana’s and freeze them, and then cut them in chunks and throw them in a blender to make banana shakes.  We take the seeds out of soursop or sweetsop and put the pulp into a container in the freezer and it’s like ice cream.  We make juice from five fingers/carambola/star fruit.  We make juice from the sorrel flower that is usually only available near Christmas time.  Guava jelly or jam is a popular item here.  For a change of pace and because I was curious to see what I could do with extra ripe mangoes I altered a recipe for lemon curd and made mango curd, which was very tasty, and would go nicely with vanilla ice cream, pannacotta, or custard.

In the winter months, because of demand from private and charter yachts, and winter residents, there are more imported items available, but in the summer months you just make do without. We have a fabulous shop in Bequia, called Doris Fresh Food and Doris imports wonderful treats, but even her stock tends to run low by the late summer and fall. If you are looking for something out of the ordinary though, Doris’s is where you will likely find it, even yellow peppers on occasion!  She has the most wonderful selection of chocolates which are a real treat, and if you want cheese other than mild cheddar, then Doris’s is the place to go.  She also carries an amazing wine selection, as well as just about everything else edible.

We often purchase non perishables when we see them as they might not be readily available when we run out, and we fill a shipping barrel to ship down whenever we go to Canada or to Miami, because it is cheaper in the long run, even after you pay the shipping and duties, to import many items.

You can get fresh milk in the winter months when there is more demand for it from the winter visitors, but the rest of the year it’s scarce so you usually have to get tetra pak sterilized milk that doesn’t taste anything like fresh milk…some brands taste better than others.  Learning to drink tetra-pak sterilized milk is an acquired taste, and it goes down better if you drown it with chocolate syrup!

We get locally made yogurt here, made by Maranne and it is fabulous.  She also makes lovely ice cream.

We also get lovely farm fresh eggs.  Farmers in St. Vincent grow pigs and the ham is incredible, as is the pork tenderloin and the ribs.  There is also local beef, and chicken, though that is primarily imported.  And of course there are fish in the sea: Snapper, Cavalli, Grouper, Mahi Mahi, Tuna, Lionfish, and Lobster, to name a few.

The strangest thing to me is that we have lots of almond trees, but nobody bothers to collect the nuts to shell them to sell.   We have lots of coconut trees and though people will climb the coconut palms to collect coconuts to sell coconut water, you can’t get freshly ground coconut for baking; you have to get a nut from the beach, and you tell if it is ready by the sound and the color, the color needs to be brown, and there should be a sloshing sound inside, break it open, get the meat out and grind it yourself, it’s very labor intensive.  I did discover a trick that makes it easier though, once the nut is free from the husk, if you freeze the nut overnight, the next day, cracking the nut open leaves the meat, which looks like a snowball, free from the shell, and it just pops out; then you poke a hole or two and let the liquid inside drain out into a bowl as it defrosts, then you can drink the coconut water and shred the coconut meat in your food processor or with a madeliene slicer.  We also don’t have local sugar; although some sugar cane is still grown in St. Vincent, it’s not processed for sugar, our sugar is imported, so believe it or not, sometimes sugar is scarce if the sugar boat hasn’t come in.

Funnily enough, sometimes you go looking for a common item in a store only to be told that ‘we don’t carry that anymore as we couldn’t keep it in stock.’  That seems a strange way to do business.

Colored pencil drawing of Papaya, Lime, Mango, Bananas, Passion Fruit, Mango, Soursop, and Avocado



Bequia critters

Mosquitoes: If there is rain, we have mosquito’s, and since Dengue Fever is endemic, you must use mosquito repellent and mosquito nets to sleep under.  You don’t need to overdo it with the mosquito repellent, usually just spraying your legs is enough and we usually only spray our legs if we are going out at night.  At home if necessary we use mosquito coils or bug mats.  Mosquitoes in Bequia are not like mosquitoes in North America where when the mosquitoes are out they are swarming everywhere and you need screens to keep them out, here we might see a couple a day if that.  Our home is open all day until we go to bed, there aren’t that many mosquitoes it’s just that they do carry dengue fever and possibly other fevers, so you want to avoid getting bit.  Two years ago saw the Chikungunya virus some to Bequia, and it is spread by the same mosquito as spreads Dengue fever.  I’m not sure why, but it spread like wildfire and just about everybody on Bequia had it.  We were all walking around like cripples for the longest time, as the fever causes terrible crippling arthritis like pains that last for the longest time.  Fortunately you can only catch that once, so since everybody has had it, it isn’t a problem anymore.

Ants:  Ants can be a real problem, so you need to make sure that no food is left out. Everything needs to be sealed up, or refrigerated.  The tiniest bit of food, especially anything sweet will attract hordes of ants in no time at all.  Ants will even get into a closed microwave if there is a crumb or bit of grease inside.  Another problem with ants is that they for some reason are attracted to electrical wires and can make a mess inside of outlets and light switches, so those need replaced on occasion.

Termites:  Oh yes, we have termites.  Termites can do a lot of damage fast, so you are wise to spray at least once a year.  Before building your foundation hole should be sprayed, and after construction is finished, spray once a year and as needed if you discover a trail.

Cockroaches:  When we see evidence of cockroaches, we spray, but they aren’t a huge problem.  They do like to hide in damp vegetation though, and you might unintentionally bring them into your home in cut flowers, or in a bunch of bananas.  The like to hide between the stems of the bananas, so you should try to remember to check them before bringing them into the house.

Other bugs:  We often joke about the bug of the month, which depending on the time of the year is whatever bug seems to be the most prevalent.  We have moths that are so big that Greg says they come with their own stewardess.  We have locusts which are horrible and leave droppings like mouse droppings and stains on walls.  We have green grasshoppers, a green leaf bug that we call a sticker bug as it has sharp edges and catches in fabric, a huge green mantis that looks like some alien life form (apparently the mantis are good for eating bugs, but when I saw that, I was so freaked out by it thinking it was some sort of mutant lifeform that I sprayed it with BOP), now that I know what it is the next time maybe I’ll just nudge it to fly away with a broom, scorpions that are scary but aren’t toxic but sting if you get bitten, centipedes that are nasty but rattle as they move so you hear them before you see them, a small brown beetle that we call a June bug as it usually appears in June, and spiders, dandy long legs types and the Oh My God, which is some sort of tarantula that isn’t harmful, but scares you half to death as they are about the size of your hand.  Also there are ticks and fleas so if you have a dog or two, or a cat, you’ll need to protect your pet from those.  Dogs can get mange here, so when you adopt a local dog one of the first things to do is to give them a bath with this special shampoo that kills mange.

Critters:  We have geckos, lots of cute geckos which like to hide behind picture frames and bookshelves and come out at night to dine on whatever bugs have been attracted to the light.  We have several types of lizard and though they might wander into the house, they scoot out in a hurry.  For whatever reason, it seems that a gecko can live inside a house but a lizard can’t.  We have big ground lizards that live in the garden and they only time we’ve seen one in the house is if one of the dogs brings it in as a gift.  We have land crabs and we have had a couple of land crabs come into the house.  They bang around as their shell hits the furniture, and you have to get them out by sweeping them into a garbage pail avoiding the claws.  We’ve had a tortoise come in for a visit; those you can lift up and take out to the garden, and if you like you can scratch their back, they can feel you scratch their back through their shell and they appear to enjoy it. Mice and Rats are another reason to make sure all food items get sealed up and put away otherwise you’ll have unwanted guests.  We have manicou’s which are an opossum and a fruiteater.  We did sleep with the doors open when we first came down until we had a manicou come in and eat the fruit off the kitchen counter. We have bats that like to swoop over the pool at night to get a drink. We have tiny little tree frogs that serenade up to sleep along with crickets, and fireflies that light up the trees like tiny twinkle lights. We have two types of snake a ground snake rather like a garter snake, and a hooded snake that nest in trees and eats rodents. Last but not least we have iguanas, beautiful iguanas, and we sometimes see them in the yard eating hibiscus blossoms, and sometimes they’ll come for a swim in the pool.  The iguana in the photo above was feasting on hibiscus flowers.  It’s hard to tell it’s size from the photo, but it’s tail was about 3 feet long so it was quite large.

We do have a few other things in Bequia that you need to be aware of. The machineel tree which has a small apple like fruit is toxic and sap from the machineel tree will burn your skin, so you don’t eat the apple and don’t sit under the tree if it’s raining, those trees are found along the shore at some of the beaches and are posted with signs.  The brazil plant is a wild shrub that has leaves that look somewhat like holly leaves, and this plant will give a nasty rash like poison ivy, so you want to avoid that at all costs, this shrub is found everywhere so you need to be able to identify it so that you don’t touch it.  The other thing to be aware of are sea urchins which are often found in shallow waters along the shore; they have nasty spines which are very painful when stepped on and they break off under the skin; the remedy to remove the spines is ammonia, which makes the spines pop right out of the skin. If you don’t have ammonia, urine does the trick.  Untreated you are going to be in a lot of pain and will need antibiotics for infection; so although it sounds gross, if need be get somebody to pee on your foot.

Construction in Island Time: what we learned

We learned various things from our building process, from our own renovations, and as project manager for other people, and hopefully what we learned might be of benefit to others thinking of building a house in Bequia or elsewhere in the Caribbean.

  1. We should have kept coming back and looking for a house that we could buy finished and then just make improvements to, instead of building, then we’d have had a house that was ready to move into right away, rather than 3 1/2 years later.
  2. We got talked into building a bigger house than we really wanted, which though we love it, it is more house than we need, and it put an incredible financial burden on us for many years to get it done (mortgage on the house in Erin, second mortage, line of credit, and mortgage on this house, loan from my father, we put everything we had and what we hoped we could earn into this house, which was nuts).  We call our house the cabana on steroids, because we really just wanted to build a cabana not much bigger than the cabanas at the Plantation House. Build the house you want to build, don’t let somebody else pressure you into building bigger than you want or need, and don’t worry about having room for guests and family because Bequia being so hard to get to and so expensive to get to that most of them won’t come anyway, and if they do, you can always rent someplace for them to stay. Don’t think that you are going to make money renting it out when you aren’t here, you might offset some of your maintenance costs, but don’t think it is going to give you an income because it won’t. Stick to your budget, the house is going to cost more than is quoted anyway, so stick as close to budget as possible.  We got so far in over our heads we thought we were going to drown, it was not fun feeling that way.
  3. Not that there was a problem with our house plans, except for a minor glitch with the site elevations, which ended up working to our advantage, but we should have hired a project manager, or used a local architect who we could then pay to keep an eye on the project, then perhaps we’d not have had the changes in room dimensions, as the project manager could have caught the error before it went too far.  The funny thing is that Julie knew that he didn’t  follow the plan, he just went by the bottom layer of blocks, instead of cutting a block in half to tie in the bathroom wall. Why?  It’s a mystery.
  4. Having a laborer who was just responsible for keeping the job site cleaned would have been a good idea, and laying down tarpaulin around the perimeter of the house would have helped protect the soil from the lime in the concrete, as well as making it easier to clean up after the fact.
  5. We eventually discovered that none of the local contractors that we know of are any good at finishing.  They build a great shell, but for finishing we’d have been better off subcontracting out, but we weren’t able to be here to oversee that and at that time we didn’t know who the various tradesmen were.  Other neighbors who had just had their shell built and had moved down were able to hire the workmen they needed to finish the interior to their specifications.  One in particular flew in tradesmen from England to finish the interiors.
  6. We were actually very fortunate in our choice of builder.  Julie was the best builder at the time and had a proven track record for building solid houses with strong water tanks.  We went and talked with several people who he’d built for and were able to see the quality of his construction.  It amazes me when I see newcomers sitting down at one of the cafes with some of the notorious builders and I think, ‘haven’t they talked to people that he’s built for that are terribly disappointed in his work? Haven’t they gone to see some of the houses that he built?’ Talk to other people who have built and ask about the contractors you are thinking of using, listen to what they have to say, don’t go into it blindly trusting.
  7. We had a few things happen that we weren’t totally happy about, and a couple of things that couldn’t be changed without making a heck of a mess, like the bathroom walls being positioned 6 inches further out than they were supposed to be, but for the most part we got what we wanted.  We know of a house that is disastrously close to the road because somebody measured wrong, not understanding the algebra and measuring down the slope instead of out, meant that particular house looks to be about 8 feet from the road, when it was meant to be further down the hill…seeing that makes us very sad for those people, as now they are going to have to build a wall along the road which is going to cut down on their light and air circulation.
  8. I said it before, and I’ll say it again. We should have found a real estate agent and bought a house that was already built that was within our budget; but, since we went ahead with building, though we were fairly lucky, ideally we should have hired a project manager to be on site daily to check on measurement and details and to keep the job moving along.
  9. If you want to go with Caribbean style louver windows you will be letting in bugs, geckos and lizards, especially if there are lights on inside, so you might want to investigate some type of removable screen for the louvers.  We installed permanent screens over our louver windows which quickly became a nightmare to clean as there were bugs trapped between the screen and the louvers that couldn’t get out and died, and it was impossible to get them out without removing the screen.  We switched over to sash windows with removable screens, they let in more light, and keep out the bugs and other critters.
  10. Our biggest mistake we made when we were finally living here and realized be needed a parking space and we hired a friend from church; although he was a mason he didn’t understand the problems associated with building on a slope so he didn’t allow for a deep enough or wide enough footings or for buttressing, and we didn’t know anything at that time to know any better.  That parking area started falling apart in about a years time, so we ended up having to hire a contractor to replace it, and he actually built around it.  Don’t hire a friend to do a job unless they have a proven track record.
  11. Listen!  When you ask people with experience for advice, listen to what they have to say. If you aren’t going to listen, don’t waste peoples time asking, or come back later saying ‘I should have listened to you,’ ‘you told us not to do that.’
  12. Do your research, don’t depend on your contractor to be completely honest with you. It’s not that he’s being dishonest, it’s just that here if you don’t ask a specific question, you will never get a specific answer. It’s a cultural thing, a Bequian would never try to correct you no matter how wrong you might be as they don’t want to hurt your feelings. One client wanted greenheart used for all his woodwork, and the contractor said okay and used greenheart.  The client should have asked, is it okay to use greenheart for windows and doors, and the contractor would have said that, greenheart is great for railings, but for finer work like doors and windows, they will twist and warp.  Greenheart is termite resistant, but it also weighs a lot and the doors need special hinges to support the weight of them, and big wide double doors actually have wheels to make it easier to open and close them.  We worked for another couple for a while and his carpenter did recommend that they use cherry instead of greenheart, but he didn’t listen  and went with greenheart and his doors are continually needed worked on as they keep twisting.
  13. If you want a swimming pool, and you probably will, make sure that you do research online, and look at as many pools in Bequia as you can.  Some of the local architects seem to think that the more jets are in a pool, the better, but the reverse is actually true. More jets means less pressure, and  you need the pressure for circulation, so a few jets placed right does the job.  There are many sites online will all the info you could ever want to know about pools.
  14. Another thing to consider is do you really want a disappearing edge or infinity edge with a catch basin. Firstly, we are dependent on rainwater for our water supply and the overflow leads to more evaporation than a regular pool, so the pool needs topped up more often. Secondly, the catchment/gutter for the overflow needs to be high enough (no less than 1/4 inch below the edge of the pool), wide enough, and deep enough that the water stays in the gutter and doesn’t end up in the garden below where the chemicals in the water will damage the plants. Thirdly and this is the most important one, put in a skimmer; when you aren’t in residence you don’t need the effect of the overflowing edge, and it just wastes water; if you have a skimmer, you still have good pool circulation, any leaves end up in the basket, and you aren’t wasting water.  If your architect tells you that with the overflowing edge you don’t need a skimmer, that the bottom drain will be good enough, don’t listen to him or her, they don’t take care of pools, they don’t know what they are talking about. The drain in the catchment/gutter will need a basket or trap to keep leaves and other debris out, otherwise the leaves will end up in the water tank for your pool. And fourthly, to have an infinity edge pool means you have to have a separate water tank for the pool overflow water to circulate through, which means more expense.  An infinity edge pool really is a luxury item and I’ve seen very few that give the illusion that the edge of the pool is merging with the ocean, which is supposed to be the whole idea.
  15. By the time we put in our own pool, we’d been taking care of other peoples pools for several years, plus we’d had a pool in Erin, Ontario and had a pretty good idea that we wanted a salt chlorine system for the  pool, that we didn’t want tile,  we didn’t want any stone inside the pool, and we didn’t want a light inside the pool.  Tiled pools here seem to need regrouted every couple of years which means draining the pool, grinding out the remaining grout and applying new.  Stone inside a pool looks nice but tends to be awful for attracting algae buildup, though there is a new 90 day algaecide that has made a huge difference to that issue. Lights in the pool, though they look gorgeous at night, attract bugs which die on the water, which then fill up the skimmer basket. We went with diamond brite finish with a tile border and though it may need touched up in spots or a fresh coat in time, it holds up well.  Ours is 8 years old and we are just now thinking that we should drain the pool and touch up some small spots where the diamond brite has come off.  Nobody else notices, but we know where they are and we tend to be a little on the particular side.
  16. We haven’t done it yet, but we are thinking of putting in a solar pool pump to cut down the electric bill.  From experience though, the solar pool pumps are great when the sun is shining, but if there is no sun when the pool guy is there to clean the pool, he can’t clean it, and if it’s rainy for a couple of days it would be good to be able to flip the switch, turn a couple of taps, and have the electric pump take over. Some of our clients have both the solar pump and an electric pump for backup, and if we do install the solar pump, we will keep the electric as well.
  17. Last but not least is the KISS rule, keep it simple (stupid)!  The fancier things you use, the harder it is going to be to find the parts to replace them when they need repaired. Use standard plumbing fixtures.  For one of our clients who had mixer taps, we had to locate the parts, which we were able to find in the UK, order the parts and  do a bank transfer to pay for the parts and the cost of UPS, and which took weeks to get here, all to stop some dripping taps. Refrigerators with the water in the door can be a problem as the hose from the water supply to the fridge will eventually rot and you’ll have water everywhere, so if you have to have a fridge with the water in the door, you need to shut off the water supply to the fridge when you aren’t in residence. It’s good to turn off the water at the pump when you aren’t in residence anyway, just in case of anything springing a leak, if you are only having your house checked once a week, a lot of damage can be done by a leaking toilet in a weeks time.  I’d say to buy what you can get locally, but that doesn’t work here.  We bought lovely tap sets at a hardware store in Kingstown, but when we needed a washer for one of them, nobody had that size of washer and we had to have it brought in by a friend who was coming in for a visit.
  18. Keep in mind that things break down here that you’d never imagine breaking down, plastics get brittle and snap, so you might find your toilet paper on the floor as the plastic roller has broken, or the toilet float is broken as the plastic bar has broken, or you pick up a plastic garbage can to have the brim snap off, and plastic garden pots fall to bits in time; metals rust or corrode; we initially went with brass door handles and hinges thinking that brass is on boats, it must hold up to the elements, but what we didn’t realize, not being sailors, is that somebody is always polishing the brass on boats, now we’ve gone with nickel plated stainless and it seems to be lasting longer than the brass did, but there is still some pitting and corrosion; double glazed windows fog up in between the layers and can’t be cleaned, so go with single glazing; glass etches from the sea blast if not washed off.  Fan blades on ceiling fans will start to droop, so go for exterior ceiling fans as they have PVC blades which will hold up in the humidity much longer. Only use real wood, no MDF, as the MDF swells with the humidity and starts to fall apart, especially around the base.  As much as you try to make your home here low maintenance there is always going to be something you didn’t think of.
  19. If you are going to go ahead and build, be brave, be patient, step back and take a break, look at the view, go to the beach and remember what made you fall in love with Bequia, and don’t sweat the small stuff.
  20. Photo is the view from the top of the road at Mt Pleasant.

Construction in Island Time: the Aftermath

You would think that once the house was finished that that would be it, but no, there was the site to be cleaned of all the construction rubble.  Something that we’d assumed would be part of the contract, but wasn’t.

Never assume anything, and get your agreement in writing.  We didn’t have a contract, it was just a verbal agreement, not that there was a problem with that, but if it’s in writing both parties know what is expected and agreed upon.

Some cleaning up had been done, removal of cement bags, and any wood that Julie could use on another job, but there were bits of tile, and broken pieces of concrete block and lumps of dried mortar everywhere.

Part of the way clean up is normally done is to just bring in a load of topsoil and dump it over the worst area to conceal bits of concrete, tile, bent nails, bits of wood, sardine tins, bottles, anything cast off from either the project or the workmen.  Over the years, as we landscaped, we would dig up all sorts of things.  The rain would wash away the soil and items would surface.  Initially we concentrated on picking up whatever we would find on the surface.

We made a small graveyard area in our woods below the house where we piled all the chunks of concrete block so that it was temporarily out of sight and out of mind, and later when we built our pool and pool patio and had a huge area under the patio that needed filled in and packed down before the concrete deck would be cast, that we filled with the old block pieces.

Unfortunately, the lime from the cement sterilizes the soil, so trying to get anything to grow within a few feet of the house had proven to be nearly impossible without removing the top foot of soil and replacing it, or by adding soil and manure and seaweed to it.  Had we been more aware, we’d have put tarpaulin down to protect the soil, and that would have made clean up somewhat easier as  well.

The area around the ‘flume’ (photo above) where the cement was sent down to the house was full of debris, clumps of concrete and other rubble, and that area needed stripped down and the soil replenished before we could think about planting.

Construction in Island Time: the finale

We arrived back in Bequia in February 1994 bringing Greg’s mother for a visit, fully expecting that the few remaining jobs would be completed.  They weren’t.  We were now over 4  years  under construction.

The day we were to return, a couple of Julie’s masons finally showed up to block up the lower part of the kitchen wall to install the windows.  Our neighbors who had started a property management company and who we had cleaning our house for us, figured correctly that we must be coming, as the workmen had arrived. We arrived to find plywood over the hole and a partially done job.  By this time we were sick and tired of the whole process.  We felt abused; by not being assertive, we let our construction job be pushed aside while other more aggressive people made sure that their work was being done.  We were tired of being compliant and nice so we set off to talk to Julie.

Long story short, though Julie wasn’t planning to have the workmen there to finish the window, thinking we’d want to be left alone for our holiday, we convinced him that we wanted the job done, over, finished.  The masons showed up the next Monday to finish the window job, plus a masonry repair where they’d had to dig out the wiring to the lights for a bathroom and rewire putting the switch outside the bathroom. Somehow the wiring had been crushed, plus it needed moved from one side of the wall to the other, as the switch had been in the shower!  We took back the keys from Julie figuring that anything else that needed done, we would have done ourselves.

We’d warned Mother about the ants and not to have any candy unless it was in a sealed container, and not to leave any food out.  We hadn’t been at the house more than a half an hour getting settled in when she started to scream for Greg to help.  We raced downstairs to find out what all the fuss was and her white purse was now black, just covered in ants, inside and out, and there was a thick trail of ants coming into the bedroom.  We asked her what she had in her bag that would attract ants and she said nothing, but it turned out that she had a bag of dried apricots in a plastic bag that the ants were going crazy for.   BOP insect spray and a broom to the rescue.

Mother kindly offered to varnish railings a couple of mornings while Greg and I got some more painting done, but mainly we showed her the sights, taking an island tour with Eddie to all the highlights, going to Lower Bay beach a couple of times, dinner at the Gingerbread listening to the band.  Mother picked up an admirer at the Gingerbread; one of the older taxi drivers came over and sat at our table and flirted with her, so we started teasing her about her Bequia boyfriend.

Toward the end of that weeks visit, Mother was shopping in Port Elizabeth for souvenirs and we’d gone in different directions while I got supplies for the house.  I went looking for her and was standing on the roadside looking around trying to figure out which way she might have gone, and a man called out to me from the other side of the road, to tell me where I’d find my Mother.  Nothing goes unnoticed in Bequia.

We would continue to come down for holidays and to work on the house, when my father took sympathy and said that he and Mom would come down and paint, and their good friend Jim MacDonald wanted to visit Bequia so he’d come too.  So we planned a trip with me, my parents and Jim and painted until we had it fully painted outside.  What a lot of work.  By this time the metal light fixtures outside were all rusted, so they were taken down and painted as well, and I realized that a different type of light fixture was going to be needed.

We’ve gone through several different materials for exterior light fixtures over the years and finally have nickel plated stainless which are holding up well.

After we moved down full time there would be paint colors changed and additional improvements made, from a retaining wall and a sidewalk across the back of the house and nice wide set of stairs down the one side to allow access to the downstairs apartment without having to come through the upstairs which would allow us to rent out the apartment, a patio out the kitchen side of the house for our rotary laundry line, a parking space for two cars.  Then about 6 years ago we put the electric and cables underground, moved the kitchen into the great room and had new cabinets built with concrete counters, and made the old kitchen into the master bedroom, renovated the master bathroom completely making it into a wet room with a huge shower, added a new private patio onto the apartment,  installed a gorgeous swimming pool and another water tank for the pool water supply,  concreted steps all the way down to the road below our house, replacing the step stone path that used to be there, and had stone put over the concrete steps down to the house and the sidewalk across the back.  Just recently we decided to replace the counter in the master bath with granite, and Greg informed me that he hated the concrete counters so we replaced them with granite too.  Very nice.  I think we are done for a while with renovations, though I’ve been eyeing the other bathroom upstairs thinking it’s looking a little dated, so you never know.

One thing is certain, other than touch ups, we now hire a team of painters and in a week or so, everything we want repainted is done.

Photo shown at the top is our first island dog, Gizmo aka Gizzie