Tea time at the Gingerbread Cafe Bequia

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the Gingerbread Cafe on the Belmont Walkway, Admiralty Bay…a popular spot for coffee, tea, breakfast, cakes, ice cream…and for yachters to check email with the free wifi…we try to get there for a mid week break after running errands…

This is the best place to sit and watch the boats, fish jumping, sea birds having a feeding frenzy, and the people walking by…it seems like everybody in Bequia passes by every day at some point…

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beautiful boats of all sorts in Admiralty Bay

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A common grackle…a frequent visitor hoping for crumbs…

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Construction in Island Time, Part 2

After a good summer in Canada and the chiropractic practice booming with the help of our great chiropractic assistants Kelly and Laura, we made our way back to Bequia in October of 1992 and were thrilled to see the progress on the house.  It was a long way from finished yet, but the tank had just been finished and the walls were going up.

Only a few hiccups to be dealt with.  Julian had called us in Canada a few weeks before our return to say we had a problem, the elevations hadn’t been done properly so the lower level apartment which we’d anticipated being at ground level and hadn’t included a deck off of it, was about 8 feet off the ground, so what did he want us to do, how much deck did he want us to add across the front of the apartment and did we want that deck uncovered or extended up which would allow the upper deck to be extended as well.  We asked what the cost would be for both options, and opted to add a 4 foot deck across the front of the apartment and another 4 feet onto the upper deck, which turned out to the be the best decision.  Previously the upper deck was going to be 9 feet deep, and adding 4 feet to make it 13 feet deep makes for a wonderful width, with lots of space for shaded outdoor living.  When you consider that we pretty much live on the deck, it was a problem that turned out to be beneficial.

My parents came down with us this trip and were thoroughly enjoying life at Keegans at Lower Bay.  They came out to Spring with us to see our construction project.  They still thought we were nuts to want to live on a small island, but they could appreciate how wonderful Bequia is.

Now where the compressor had been previously up on the road there was a small cement mixer, and a flume or chute made of wood.  Once the cement was mixed it was shoveled onto the flume and would slide down to a wheelbarrow at which point it was bucketed to wherever cement was needed. Cement blocks were also sent down the flume.

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The wood flume for sending the cement and blocks down to the site, the cement pours off the end onto galvanized sheeting and then gets shoveled into a wheelbarrow or buckets, and then gets carried to whoever needs cement at the time.  Two men loaded the cement mixer, one helped shovel it along the flume, and one or two at the bottom shoveled it into buckets.

It’s quite a process to get all set up to cast the water cistern which would be 25 feet long, 20 feet wide and 8 feet deep and holds 28000 gallons of water, first they pour the footings which are lined with rebar frames tied together with wire, with more rebar extending up out of the frame which will have more rebar framework tied to it later for the walls of the tank, then they frame out the base and line the bottom with more rebar framing, it’s a massive gridwork of rebar basically the way Julie built a tank it was a like a covered swimming pool with block walls outside the cast concrete and beams across the top to support the floor above.   Once it was all framed up, it took two long days with extra crew to pour all the cement, and as they pour the bucketloads of cement into the gridwork from the top edge they used long poles that they pumped up and down to make sure that the cement filled the space completely.  Nowadays in most cases a cement truck is used to provide the cement for casting a cistern, so the pour goes a lot quicker, but other than that the process is the same.

This cistern extends under our courtyard, master bedroom and a good part of our living room and kitchen.  Our downstairs guest apartment wraps around the front and one end of the cistern.  There are two access ports to get in to clean it out periodically.

Once the tank was dry wooden framework is installed to support the wood frames for the massive beams for the tank, and then to support plywood to cast the floor on top of the tank. Eventually somebody has to go into the tank to break down the wooden supports and to remove the plywood.

At the same time as getting the tank built the foundations and columns to support our deck and roof were going up, so that the floor of the lower apartment was cast at the same time as the floor of the cistern, and the columns for the lower level had to go up, so that when the floor on top of the cistern was cast that the floor for the complete upper level of our house was cast as well.

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from the top of the flume looking down to the living room and dining room.  A few years ago realizing that we always ate out on the deck, we moved the dining table out to the deck, the kitchen out to the ‘great room’ and made what had been the kitchen the master bedroom

Now the block walls begin to go up and things take shape quite rapidly.

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what was originally our kitchen and bathroom walls are going up

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My father, Greg and Julie on the front deck with the columns going up

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the master bedroom on the left, entry court in the middle, kitchen on the right, living room and dining room in front, with the deck wrapped around the ‘great room’ and the hole where there will be stairs to the downstairs apartment off the deck on the left of the living room…the columns finished now the ring beam framing goes up

Above all the french doors will be a row of breeze block, then more block and the beam that will anchor the rafters to the walls.

 

The block walls practically fly up.  After the block work is all done, the walls will be coated with a plaster coat of cement.

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da

When we first read about Bequia in Caribbean Travel and Life in the spring of 1989, one of the bullets in the article was “Entertainment in Bequia: how entertaining can you be?”

The only night life in Bequia in the early 1990s was a Jump Up with the Elite Steel Orchestra (steel band) at the Frangipani hotel on Thursday nights, and the local string band which if I remember correctly was De Real Ting with Avondale Leslie and  J. Gool at the Gingerbread on Sunday nights.  The Bequia string band music is played on guitar, quattro, mandolin, banjo with tambourine accompaniment.  Nowadays there is music in several places just about every night through the winter months, with most of it being amplified.

Staying at Keegans Guest House in April of 1992, it was a league of nations, the languages spoken were German, Spanish, English and Portuguese. Fortunately, among all the couples, it happened to work out that there was always somebody to translate.  It made for long conversations as the Portuguese speaker would speak to a German fellow who would then tell his wife and she would say it in English, and somebody else would repeat in Spanish.

The one evening after a lovely dinner we all went into Keegans bar for drinks, and we made a circle of chairs to sit and talk.  One of the other guests knew a German man who lived on Bequia year round and he came and joined us that evening which made the conversations much easier as he was fluent in all the languages.

One of the other guests had seen Lydia John with a guitar and asked if he could borrow it; he started to play Beatles songs, and everybody knew all the songs and all the words, which got everybody grinning and laughing and dancing  It was quite a memorable evening.  Who knew that Beatles songs were an code breaker for international language barriers.

“Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on bra! Lala, how the life goes on”

Photo at the top is of a very old applique wall hanging that one of my friends happened upon.  He believes it was made around the 1960s.

 

Construction in Island Time, Pt. 1

‘Island time’ is a very loose concept that basically means ‘whenever’, and of course it’s one thing when you are on a holiday and time slows down with the lapping of the waves on the shore, and you aren’t keeping a schedule because you don’t need a schedule to know that it’s time for lunch, it’s time for a nap, it’s time for a swim, and your only clock is your stomach, and you’ve packed your watch away with your airline tickets and passport until the day you have to leave.

However, when you are not on vacation but have business to take care of, and you are from a clock regulated country where you are used to keeping a schedule, and when 10 am means 10 am sharp, Tuesday means this coming Tuesday, 6 months means 6 months, where people call if they are going to be delayed or have to reschedule an appointment; it’s a real learning curve to adapt to the island way.

We’re learned that if you want somebody to come and see you at a specific time, say 2 pm, you need to say 2 pm early time, and even then they might not show until 2:30.  If a show is to start at 9 pm it might not start until 11 pm, and the people running the show might not even be on time.  The only exception seems to be with hours of work and people are generally at work on time.  They might not be ready to work right away, but that’s a different story.

So, when we were told that our house would be finished in 6 months, we actually believed it would be finished in 6 months.  Had we been more aware of the reality of island time, we would have quadrupled the time frame, and that would have been more accurate.  At that point though we still had a lot to learn.

We had a fabulous builder though, Julian McIntosh.  We’d seen several properties that he’d built or renovated.  He’d recommended that we visit several different properties, some of which he took us too, and some that he said, just stop in and see if they are home.  There were few phones on Bequia at that time and most land based people would only turn on their marine radios when they wanted to make a call out, so you couldn’t call ahead to see if it was okay to drop in.  We’re not the type of people to just drop in, so this felt awkward to us, but everybody that Julie told us to see, seemed happy to see us and show us their homes.

One of the neighbors at Spring that we visited with Julie was getting a new galvalume roof. Galvalume was a new product for Bequia in 1990 and the workmen were trying to install it without any direction.  When Julie saw the men trying to cut the galvalume with a cutlass, or machete, he realized that some instruction and other tools would be necessary.

What we learned from talking with people was that Julie was the best builder on the island and that he built the strongest water tanks/cisterns.

One of the major elements to the construction project that we weren’t aware of and that took a lot of time was that there was very little in the way of heavy construction equipment, and all the cement would be mixed in a small gas powered cement mixer.  Our foundations had to be dug out by hand and jackhammer; and that started in December of 1990 with two men, a pick and shovel, a jackhammer and a wheelbarrow, and was just completed when we visited at Easter, April 1992.

 

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the back section of our foundation, the soil is heavy clay and the lower part of the hole was rock so the jackhammer came in handy

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Greg and Julie discussing the foundations at the lower front edge of the hole, the yellow up at the road above was the compressor for the jackhammer.

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Greg and Julie in the hole at the top, the wood frame was the front edge, note the steep pitch, which is why machinery couldn’t dig the foundation hole

Another element we weren’t aware of, and didn’t fully realize until we were living here full time and saw how this worked, was that Julie had one crew, and he was working on 3 other projects at the same time.  Once the foundations were started, not a lot happened unless you were expected to be here, and then they’d make a big effort for a couple of weeks before you arrived and when you were on island, and then the day you left, they went to another job site.  If two of you were here at the same time, either you’d each have a partial crew, or the more vocal client won out. We were building at the same time as a couple from Texas, and an engaged couple from England who wanted to get married in Bequia and have their wedding reception at their house and so they needed the house completed by a certain date.  Fortunately we weren’t in a hurry.

To be continued…

Featured image is the old sugar mill at Spring with coconut plantation beyond. The pasture with the horses is part of what was then the Spring Hotel.

Just another day at the beach…

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Spring Bay

I’ll admit I’m not the best photographer, and for the most part I think the photos I take with my phone are awful, but I think I got a few gems down on the beach after Qigong exercises this past monday…it was so gorgeous it was hard to concentrate on the exercises…there was a blue heron, several cattle egret who flew out to the little island where they roost, a pelican, some laughing gulls, a duck, and several small swooping birds which I think are some sort of tern…we were so full of the love of life and feeling so blessed to live here after our Qigong exercises and our walk on the beach that we went to the Firefly for a happy hour drink…We sometimes joke that we are a Qigong group with a drinking problem or a drinking group with a Qigong problem…aren’t we lucky though to have this view…

 

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Spring Beach with a much lower tide than normal…March 2016

Down the beach from the far end of the Firefly section of the beach, small specks in the distance were a couple fishing.  Their grandson was netting bait which is lovely to see, then line fishing and his grandmother was using a pole in the water.  They caught a beautiful amber cavalli for their evening meal.

 

 

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La Dolce Vita, our ‘cabana on steroids’ overlooking Spring Bay

 

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Arawak sharpening stone 

Thanks to my friend Charlotte who knew where to look, I finally saw the Arawak sharpening stone at the west end of Spring beach, where once upon a time the Arawak Indians would sharpen their stone axes and knives.

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Artist Julie Lea, and Charlotte Robertson

Friends and Qigong partners, Julie Lea and Charlotte Robertson, self styled ‘Bernies Babes in Bequia’

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Relton’s fishing boat

Reltons boat wasn’t too far away from where we were doing our exercises and I kept thinking I hope the light holds so that I can get a photo later.

A few days to play tourist

Once we’d satisfied all the important jobs to be done, got all the red tape cleared up and knew there was nothing else that we could do; and in fact, from now on all we could do would be to send money and take photos of the construction, we had some time left for a vacation.

Julie had suggested that we go and introduce ourselves to some of the Spring home owners who were on island at the time to see the houses that he’d built for them, so we walked out to Spring.  We met one of the earliest people to build at Spring and were invited us up onto their patio where we had a nice visit.  Their house was built in the old Spring style which was stone walls and floors, cedar shake roofs, purple heart railings, with patio railing seats for entertaining, and big folding doors with fibreglass inserts instead of glass. When they were in residence they never closed the doors.  They had a propane fridge and a gas stove and oven, but they had just gotten electricity so they now had progressed from gas lanterns to electric lights. She took us across to their next door neighbors,  who’s house was recently built by Julie so it was more modern with sliding glass doors and a tile bathroom instead of stone, and it had electricity. They both suggested that we should go up a path above their properties to meet another neighbor, who was a real character, an old bachelor, who we found dozing in his hammock on his porch.  He said it must be his day for visitors, as he’d woken up a little while earlier to find a bottle of wine and a novel left on his coffee table.  His home was very primitive, stone walls and huge openings where doors might have been but weren’t.  He only had one interior wall in his house.  He hadn’t yet gotten electricity so he was using a small solar panel to charge car batteries which he ran a couple of lights off of at night.  He offered us soft drinks and told us that as long as we didn’t need a glass and were happy to drink from a bottle that we were welcome to drop by anytime. He said that the bottle test was his test for whether or not you could make it in Bequia or not.  Unfortunately his knees became too bad for him to get around and he had to move back to the States.

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The ruins of the old sugar mill at Spring 1990

 

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Bequia lawnmower
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View of the harbor above the Plantation House

Another day we walked up Mt. Pleasant to meet a couple that we’d met in line at the Toronto airport.  They happened to be laden down with a pile of boxes marked for Bequia. We introduced ourselves and said that we were going to Bequia that we were just getting ready to build and they said that their house was almost finished.  We suggested that since we were travelling carry on only, that if we could swing it, they could have our luggage allowance, and the agent on check in was happy to allow that.  We made the trek up Mt. Pleasant only to find that they weren’t home, but we got to see their house, and then we made our way back to Julies.

Now we’d have to go back home to Erin and we’d have to wait and see what progress was made when we’d return in April 1991.

Next steps in the building process

 

When we returned in December we opted to stay at Julie’s Guest House as we thought it would be more convenient, since we had to meet with Julie several times with our house plans; to meet with a local draftsman to take him out to the lot to do the elevations; to go across to St. Vincent to finally meet the lawyer; to go see the CIBC to establish a relationship and open an account and to talk about eventually getting a mortgage, and to submit our plans to planning.

Julie’s is centrally located in Port Elizabeth.  The rooms are very basic, but clean and have mosquito nets.  The food is great.  The windows are louvers though so you hear everything, from the ferry ramp rubbing  up and down on the wharf, car horns, roosters, dogs, people talking in the bar downstairs.

We missed the proximity to the beach, and quieter setting, so future visits would be back at Keegan’s Guest House at Lower Bay.

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The view from our land after the bush is cleared for the house site

We discussed our house plans with Julie, and he introduced us to an architect who had come across to meet with another couple who’d bought at Spring.  This guy was smarmy and you could almost see the dollar signs that he had dancing around in his eyes. He criticized our plans and didn’t want to do our elevations unless he redid our plans completely.  We said thanks but no thanks and told Julie that we needed to find somebody else who would just do the elevations.  He hired a shop and drafting teacher from the high school to do the elevations so that the plans could be submitted to planning.  First though, more of the land needed cleared so that they could establish how much of a pitch there was and where exactly the house should be sited on the lot.  Julie had a relationship with the people in planning so he said that he would take the plans across to Kingstown for us.

The day we crossed to Kingstown, Captain Adams of the Friendship Rose said that the seas were the worst he’d ever crossed in, with 20 foot waves.  The captain ordered everybody into the cabin except for the crew on the back deck, and he ordered all the strong men with sailing experience, which included the Prime Minister, Sir James Mitchell, out to help man the sails.  It was the worst sailing experience I’ve ever had in my life.  It wasn’t long before buckets were being passed around in the cabin as the boat was tossed about, and I headed for the back deck, where a sailor grabbed me and passed me along to the lower side, where anything that came up wouldn’t blow back, then I collapsed on a pile of ropes where they let me be.  When we reached Kingstown and I got off the boat, I was dreading having to cross back again.  Once off the ferry, my land legs restored, my skin no longer green, I was good to go and we headed to The Heron Hotel for breakfast before the bank opened.

We met the bank manager and found out that once we had our permanent residency that we could get a mortgage, picked up the application forms for the residency, met with the lawyer and asked him to act for us with the residency process.  This all took most of the day, and we picked up Gravol to take before braving the ferry ride back to Bequia.

Recent photo: Along the waterfront near the dinghy dock see the refurbished Friendship Rose moored beyond the dock

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Walking down the Belmont walkway to get to the Frangipani for Jump Up after dinner, a young man calls out to us and says ‘Hi, you’re back, how nice to see you again’ then realizing that we didn’t remember him, he proceeded to say, ‘You’re the Thomas’s from Erin and you’re a chiropractor; you don’t remember me but I served you breakfasts at the Plantation House when you stayed there last year.’  Wow, what a memory.  We never forget Michael now, though he now works in Mustique so we don’t get to see his handsome smiling face very often.

The Frangipani Hotel and Restaurant

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Julie managed to get our house plans approved quickly and workmen would finish the clearing and start digging the foundations within the next few days.

 

To buy our land in Bequia

Now that we were home with a copy of our offer to purchase, and a list of what we needed to get our aliens land holders license, we got to work.

We had to get a reference from our bank, a personal reference, and a police certificate to go with the application for our aliens land holders license.  Basically, they wanted to know that we weren’t bankrupt, and didn’t have a criminal record.  That collected, we faxed the information off to the lawyer in St. Vincent, and now we had to wait.

Nowadays, the process generally takes about 12 weeks, for some reason when we applied it took 7 months.  The application has to go to the office of the prime minister for approval, and he was busy getting the new Bequia airport project off the ground at the time, and since getting the new airport built meant getting a new wharf big enough to offload the heavy equipment, and rebuilding the roads all the way from Port Elizabeth to Paget Farm, approving an aliens license was probably pretty far down on his list of priorities.

Then we listed the farmland, which didn’t take too long to sell.  It was a really sweet piece of land with a small pond not too far in from the road, and a creek running through that had been dammed to make another pond, rolling hills, awesome views, so it was going to be a sweet site for a country home.  I listed it at the price I wanted to close for and I told the agent, be clear, this is the price I want, no dickering.  Of course the purchaser wanted to dicker, and came in about $10,000. lower than my price.  I signed it back full price and reminded the agent that I wasn’t going to sell for less.  The purchaser came back somewhere in between, and I signed it back $1000. more than the listing price.  They said to the agent, ‘she can’t do that,’ the agent called me and I said ‘I can do whatever I want, the listing is an offer to sell at whatever price, I told you what I want and you don’t seem to be listening, so I figured by signing it back higher that maybe you’d finally listen.’ They came in at the full listing price, and the land was sold.  Now we had the money to pay for the land in Bequia, and some money left over to go towards building the house.

While waiting to hear back about our aliens land holding license I worked  up the rest of the drawings and we took them to a draftsman from an architectural firm in Orangeville. The draftsman knew nothing about building in the Caribbean, where we at least had had a crash course from Julie McIntosh, and had seen and stayed in enough Caribbean properties by this time that we had a pretty good idea what worked and what didn’t.

We knew that we needed breeze block above doors and windows to allow for ventilation in case of a hurricane; that the rafters had to be tied into a ring beam so that the roof would withstand high winds; that we needed a large shady roof over our decks for protection from the sun; that we needed good cross ventilation, so we needed lots of french doors; that the exterior walls should be at least 9 feet high with a high rafter roof so that hot air could rise; that most of the foundation of the house would be a large deep cistern to catch rainwater.  We also knew that we needed to use termite resistant wood, so our railings would be made of green heart, and our roof rafters be cedar and the roof boards cypress.

The draftsman had other ideas and it took a few tries to get him to draft exactly what we wanted.  Now we had our plans for the house, and all we would need would be to have somebody in Bequia do the site elevations, which Julie said he could arrange once the aliens license came through.

And we waited and life went on as usual.  We finished renovations on Gregs chiropractic office in the house, converting what had been the drive shed for the horse drawn stage which ran from our house before the advent of motor cars, into an xray room and Gregs examination room.   We put in an above ground swimming pool, and celebrated Gregs 40th birthday and our 5th anniversary with a big party in the back yard  which was decorated with Happy 40th birthday signs, that we woken that day to find friends had stuck in the front garden. Life was busy, life was good, but thoughts of Bequia were never far from our minds.

And we waited…Finally at the end of September we got a call from the lawyer to say that our license had been approved and he would be going ahead with the closing.  It happened that his wife would be in Toronto visiting their daughter who was at college in Toronto and we would meet with her to give her a cheque for the monies owed for the balance of the price of the land, and for the aliens license.

Our next trip to Bequia would be in December when we would finally meet the lawyer and get our copies of the deed and the license, and now we could move ahead.  We were told that with the construction on the new airport the land values had doubled and that the government had wanted to charge us the land license costs based on the new land value; however, fortunately for us, the lawyer convinced the government that the fee should be based on the value when we made the offer and applied for the land license, not based on the value of the land when they finally got around to approving our license.

 

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What did we just do?

The beach at Spring

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The bush was thinned enough that we could go back on the Sunday morning and see the lot again to get a better appreciation once we could see the view, and the view is spectacular.  There are views not only to Spring Bay and the Atlantic Ocean across to the uninhabited islands of Battowia and Balliceaux, but also down across the farm below to the old sugar plantation at what was in 1990, the Spring Hotel, and beyond to the hills above and beyond.

Then it was off to St. Vincent to spend the afternoon and overnight at the Sunset Shores where we had a clean and comfortable room with nice hot showers. This time, Bequia was still visible across the channel…it didn’t disappear…it was real!

Up early the next morning to head for our flight to Barbados where we had about 5 hours until our flight to Toronto, so we went for a taxi tour of Barbados of which I remember little except a story about a skeleton who’s casket in it’s vault keeps getting upended.

On the flight to Toronto, reality set in and we looked at each other and said, “What did we just do?”  We’d signed a document and given a cheque for $5,000.US and were wondering if we’d just made a huge mistake.  Now we just had to wait and see when and if we’d hear back from Always Spring and their lawyer, who we’d agreed to use for our end of the transaction.

In the meantime, we’d list our 50 acres of pretty rolling farmland with it’s creek and pond, and get cracking on the drawings for our home in Bequia.

Keegan’s Guest House

Lower Bay Beach in front of Keegan’s

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We have such fond memories of all of our stays at Keegan’s Guest House.   I would say that Keegan’s is the quintessential guest house.  From the warm, welcoming hosts, Grace and MacVille John, the basic but clean and comfortable rooms, the wonderful family style meals, and the terrific location just off the beach.  We loved it there at Keegan’s.  In the early 1990’s it was a family affair with cooking being done by Grace and the elder daughter Lydia, serving of tables by  younger daughters Rose and Donna, housekeeping by Grace’s sister, taxi service and help on the bar by Smith, and little chores done by the youngest son, Keegan.

One thing you learn quickly at a guest house is that you don’t get fresh towels every day, so make sure you hang up your towels to dry after you use them because you won’t get fresh ones for a few days.  A lot of rental apartments in Bequia follow the same rule, after all, water is precious here, and a bath towel is not dirty, just wet, so you don’t want to waste water to wash something that is virtually clean anyway.

When Mac worked on the banana boats and was away for long periods of time, Grace got the idea of building their home and a business at Lower Bay, Bequia, and little by little she built up the business and once it was busy enough Mac gave up going to sea to help out with the family business.

Keegan’s is still very much a family business and is now run by Smith John and his wife Kayleen.  It’s now called Keegan’s Beachside Hotel, and they have considerably updated the rooms as they now have a/c, cable tv and wifi; my how the times have changed.  Grace and Mac still live on the property in their home at the back, and Smith and Kayleen live up the road where they have apartments to rent in their home on the beach.

On our first visit we were warmly welcomed, but on future visits we’d be welcomed back like long lost friends.  The John family always took excellent care of us.

In 1989 the Paradise School was run in a little building in behind Keegans, the children would come to school happily chattering away and most mornings at some point you’d hear the students singing.  Lucky children, the students at that school, as they’d often have a class sitting in the shade on the beach.

We’d often see school children down on the beach early in the morning having their morning bath in the sea, often with an older child being in charge of the younger children. The girls would have their hair plaited once a week and would wear a plastic bag tied over their hair to keep it from getting messed up in the water.

Fisherman coming in with his catch and Bequia sailboats

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When this fisherman came in,  I guess his anchor wasn’t set, because his boat started to drift.  He looked up and called to some young kids on the beach and said, ‘go fetch my boat’ and to our amazement, one of the kids just kicked off his shoes and swam out to the boat and rowed it into shore.