Don’t you think people are formed by the landscape they grow up in? It formed everything I ever think, or ever do, or am.
Josiah’s Bay is a beach on the northern coast of Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands. While not the most popular tourist beach, it is a spectacular sight. During the day, it’s mostly frequented by locals and residents, there’s even a wooden bar that is more a colourful assemblage of planks and flags than anything approaching a solid building. Nearby, there is a surf school which is mostly a tent angled over old beach chairs. This beach has largely been able to escape the monstrosity of the worst kinds of tourism developments. It’s for the best too, as less than a mile’s walk up the road is the ruins of an old plantation. Surely, a spade’s depth below the ground blood flows back out to the Atlantic. Here, the waves never seen to stop churning. They roll up, and crash ashore in a crescendo, the creamy surf bubbling as the water recedes only to turn and come back upon itself.
Someone is always coming home to the British Virgin Islands. The islands have been a crossroads for centuries. First for the indigenous peoples who threaded bays with their dugouts, for the English, Dutch, and Spanish caravels squabbling in the channel for militaristic advantage, and later for us, the descendants of the enslaved. We all leave, come back, leave again.
I left almost twenty years ago to complete an undergraduate degree in Texas. Just a year after returning, I left again to do my master’s in Wales. Almost 70 years before that, my grandfather Reggie had done the same. First he’d followed his older brothers to Antigua for secondary school, he got engaged to his Antiguan girlfriend Mona after graduating, and not long after made his way by boat all the way to Edinburgh to study medicine. The Second World War began while he was there and effectively trapped him in Scotland. Twice, he tried to sail home. Twice, the boat he travelled in was torpedoed by German submarines. By 1942, the Germans had been pushed back from the Atlantic. It was safe enough to return and become the first locally born doctor to practice in the British Virgin Islands. Two of his older brothers, also medical doctors, had gone to study in the United States, had married and only ever returned for brief visits.
He married Mona and started practising medicine in Road Town. Every week, he would board a small sloop to make doctor’s visits to the outer islands. A hometown boy made good. In 1944 my father was born, but not much later my grandfather Reggie was leaving the islands again. This time for Guyana, having been transferred to Georgetown. He would never make it back to these shores. But my father did. Time and time again.
My father was only thirteen and the eldest of three when Reggie died. Mona, my grandmother, was a schoolteacher in Georgetown and later moved her young family to Trinidad, where a job at the prestigious all girls Bishops Anstey School in Port of Spain beckoned. Every now and then, she was able to take the kids to Tortola to visit family. All three children married and settled in Trinidad.
At some point in the 70s, my father started coming back home more regularly to Tortola. He says it was always his plan to come back at some point for good, and he wanted us to get to know the place, to get to know his uncles and aunts. The family that stayed.
The first thing I remember from my own first trip is the landscape—the lush hills, the crystal waters, the mangroves, the reefs full of fish, the white ridged waves stretching out to the fading horizon. Then the view through the howling American Eagle’s oval windows turning sky blue as the turbo prop, tilted to one side, approached the lonely strip of black tarmac at Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport. A short while later, we all piled into my uncle’s SUV and crossed a narrow bridge from Beef Island, where we’d just landed, to Tortola – the main population centre of the British Virgin Islands. This scene would repeat itself on every one of those many summer trips to Tortola during the 90’s. In a plane that small, there is a tugging sensation as you descend, as if the craft were tethered to the ground that rushed up to meet it. Along with all of my paternal cousins, I began my childhood in Trinidad—the end or the beginning of the archipelago depending on your viewpoint—but I have always been a Virgin Islander.
I would learn later that this seasonal migration of my family, my father’s recurrent homecoming, was a movement mirrored by family after family in this place. Generations before, hundreds of young BV Islanders made their voyages to the Dominican Republic, Panama, or Cuba to find work in the flourishing sugar industry. Many of their descendants have come back home as I have. Today many still make the passage to the United States, United Kingdom, or larger Caribbean islands.
My father’s father and most of his siblings made similar pilgrimages. Some never returned. But here he was and here we are. Times have changed. American Eagle and their $99 round-trip flights to San Juan disappeared. My siblings and I left the BVI like our grandfather did but we each made it back and started our own families. We still speak with Trinidadian accents. And the BVI is still a crossroads.
In the intermediate years—between my early years in Trinidad and the move back to Tortola—we (meaning the whole extended family) visited with regularity. Memory fails me now, but it feels like it was every single summer for weeks at a time. In those years, the British Virgin Islands existed in my head as a gorgeous place drenched in sun and sea that my cousins and I played and cavorted in while also paying our respects to the elderly members of the family that still made their home here. It seemed that every generation had left. That the history of the place, not just for my family, was a history of departures. Now it was time to come home.
Two years ago, Hurricane Irma shredded every tree on those hillsides bare. In their place appeared a forest of bones gleaming silver in the sunlight. The sea swallowed the northern shore. The coastal road fell away, the surge carried through the low-lying areas into people’s homes. Tornados sprouted out of the sky and touched the earth like fingers of chaos, peeling back roofs like the lids of cans, flicking cars and trucks and boats about with abandon.
After the storm, it was hard to see how the islands would recover. The destruction seemed so utterly complete. From my apartment I could see what were once two massive steel cell towers atop the mountain ridge. They were a hundred feet tall at least before. Now all that was left were naked spikes jutting against the clouds.
In the days after Irma, the waves of evacuations began. While the thought of leaving did cross my mind, it was never a serious option. My wife had an orthodontic practice that she could not abandon and I had felt I could not do the same to the college I had given 17 years of my life to. But besides that, both of us come from Tortolan families that can trace roots deep into the island’s rich history.
Several years ago, before the birth of our first daughter, my wife and I took a vacation to nearby Virgin Gorda. A picturesque island just southeast of Tortola, Virgin Gorda is full of verdant peaks, elaborate formations of massive boulders, and some of the most immaculate beaches in the hemisphere. My wife had got it into her head that we’d hike Gorda Peak, the island’s tallest point at just under 1400 feet above sea level. I remember driving our rented red ragtop Wrangler up the winding stretches of mountain road over the southern coast of the island until we came upon a subtle layby and a sign that announced the location of the beginning of the path.
We parked, and began the steep climb up the hillside. All manner of bird fluttered overhead, and we were surrounded by thick foliage despite the dry and sandy soil. At the summit, there was a lookout tower constructed of steel pipe and wooden planks. The tower’s green paint faded on the wood and peeled on the metal parts of the structure, but when we arrived at its top, a panoramic vista of this island chain revealed itself. From there, we could see just about every island in the British and United States Virgin Islands. To the west lay St. John, with St. Thomas just visible behind it. Further south, on the horizon, the hills of St. Croix poked about the clouds. To the north, Anegada stretched out, an ethereal strip of sand like a halo on the horizon, and the mighty Atlantic and nothing else between us and infinity. It was dizzying.
I know now why my parents brought me back here. I know now why I couldn’t leave after the sky opened up and swallowed up everything normal about this place. These tiny islands contain multitudes. They are filled with equal parts exquisite beauty and human resilience.
We will be resilient, too. No matter how many times I leave, I know I will always be coming home.
Richard Georges is the author of the poetry collections Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books), Giant (Platypus Press), and the forthcoming Epiphaneia (Outspoken Press). His work has appeared in Prelude, Smartish Pace, The Poetry Review, The White Review, Wildness and elsewhere. He lives and works in the British Virgin Islands.