Ask me anything on a Friday night. Loan you my favorite jeans, give you $100, donate a kidney, whatever. When I’m on top of the world because my favorite song is on and it’s sometime past midnight, take your best shot. I can only imagine that’s how seven of us ended up standing in six pits of muck with shovels and garden clippers way too early on a Sunday morning. The instigator, let’s call him Mitch, knew the exact right moment to ask his friends for free labor (sometime around the eighth round I imagine), ‘Come round and help me clean up the place a bit. It’ll be fun. We’ll have a BBQ.’ So here we are in our worst clothes and sandals (who owns practical foot ware on islands anyway?), staring at six giant concrete pools filled with unidentifiable muck and I’m pretty happy about the tetanus shot I got six months ago. This is the land that time (and obviously the former caretaker) forgot for nearly half a century. It is also our friends’ new home.
The huge property is called Fontein and it’s some kind of sick, twisted, and utterly fantastical tropical wonderland. It was and is truly something special, though no one knew the full story. It started as a plantation way back in colonial times and had obviously become a lavish bathhouse sometime in mid-last century. Dignitaries and even Queen Juliana of the Netherlands herself would stop in to soak in the restorative powers of the waters bubbling up from the underground aquifer. On a desert island where fresh water was so precious, it was surprising that they devoted so much of it to such a wasteful pastime. But that’s how these trivial otherworldly luxuries are, doggedly constructed and closed off from the realities and resentments surrounding them. An island in an island. It gave off that scent of regality, stubborn ostentation, and colonial guilt.
We pick our way through acacia brush and pieces of barbed wire which lodge into the bottoms of our sandals. The strong tree roots and creeping vines have broken through most of the concrete and mildew from the humidity has stained black streaks down the walls. A dead, stiff kitten lay on the first step of a grand staircase, leading to the piece-de-resistance: a six-pool bathhouse fed by a natural sweet water spring flowing out the mouth of a cave. On all sides volcanic cliffs closed in on us and mature almond trees blocked the light. Jurassic Park? Blair Witch Project? Great Expectations? I don’t know, but I do know I wouldn’t want to be there at night.
For hours we shoveled shit from one pool into the next, then out of the pools by bucket, then down a flight of stairs by wheel barrow and into the forest in a back breaking and tedious process.
“Look if it’s between you and the wheel barrow, just let it go over the edge” says Mitch. Why yes I do value my neck more than a wheelbarrow, but thanks for the permission, I think to myself.
No bit of black muck could be lost, oh no, this was an ecologically-minded project and we were actually hauling “rich nutrients for the garden”. Funny, it smelled like shit to me. We teased each other as we slung the stinky, black “nutrients” out of the pools, inevitably covering ourselves in it.
Mitch noticed the cat and I had to turn away as he scooped it up with a shovel.
“What are you going to do with the cat, bury it?” my tall Dutch friend asked.
“Naw, put it at the bottom of the compost pile. X marks the spot guys. Black shit pile on top of the dead cat please” with typical British deadpan, launching the cat into a forest clearing.
I started thinking about tomato plants made of dead cats and tried to remind myself this is the circle of life blah blah blah, but it’s still pretty gross and I let someone else throw the first pile of muck so I didn’t have to look at it.
This wasn’t my first encounter with a strange ruin, somehow stuck in time and slowly being swallowed by the jungle. Exploring ruins is one of my favorite pastimes. I’ve played in WWII-era Japanese barracks and a gun factory as a volunteer teacher on a tiny Pacific island. I’ve climbed my share of hills in the Caribbean to discover the last remains of forts, installed centuries ago to guard the tiny, vulnerable settlements below.
The strangest ruin I ever saw though had to be the plantation deep in the heart of my former island home in the northeast Caribbean. No matter the weather, this place was always in a state of shadow. The jungle was winning the battle for light and space. The property was owned by an eccentric animal lover, a lady who had long ago replaced her attachments to normal society with an intense and almost nonsensical devotion to saving the wretched and starving street mutts of the island. Her truck displayed a huge picture of one of these abused creatures and she could be seen circling the island several times a week, leaving bowls of dog food for strays on the side of the road. Those animals that could be caught were brought to the property. In her misguided desire to protect them from further harm, she could almost never bear to give the animals away for adoption and she eventually amassed some 70 or 80 animals. One female lived in a tree, forced into an arboreal life due to her low place on the pecking order.They took over every corner of the property. Eventually the structures became unlivable and overrun with mutts. The rumor was that one particularly ugly pit bull male and his harem of six or seven bitches had taken over the main house. The only place one could escape the animals was atop one particularly high dinner table and this is where the woman made her bed. I’d seen the place only once but my impression had been that the rumors were sadly true.
As much as time had crumbled their foundations and softened them into harmless but fascinating oddities, I could never look at these ruins and forget their history. Plantations, forts, and slave housing come from a harsher time when our forebears lived hard and died young. If abusing or killing another meant your short and miserable life was a little more palatable, so be it. In the “civilized” Western world, we like to think we’ve progressed, but a hundred years isn’t a blink in the eye of the world. The past, present, and future are full of brutality. I sling muck and break my back by choice occasionally, but for most of humanity, that was and is a way of life. I often wonder if I could have survived those times, or if I would have died young in child birth or from disease like so many women. I like to think I could have survived the physical endurance of being a laborer’s wife at least.
As if to prove this point, I turn down an offer to switch out muck hauling duties with a stiff upper lip and curt “nah, I’m good mate”. However, the shooting pains down my back quickly put an end to my stupid machismo and I sheepishly requested to switch out with one of the boys, preferring to rake and pile leaves for a while instead. I chuckled to myself thinking how unrecognizable I would look now in the stuffy and pretentious suburbs I’d grown up in. But I’m honestly ok with that. I look better with a rag tied around my head and covered in filth than I do in Prada anyway. Sometime around this point we heard a loud CRACK! and lightening flashed across the sky. The sky opened and a downpour only the tropics can release fell on us. The slag became more liquid diarrhea than mud and we shrugged at our situation, next to very tall trees and ankle deep in water in an electrical storm. If today was our day to be electrocuted, at least it would make a good story and we’d all die together as a team (yippy!) so we labored on.
“This isn’t work; this is fun. This is a spa day. Mud treatment! People pay for this stuff. Ooh that smells LOV-ely!” chattered Mitch as he energetically flung shovel after shovelful of stinking, decaying plant matter six feet over his head onto a tarp laid out on the deck, smatterings landing on those within range.
Gotta give it to him though. The cunuku where he lived (think the Outback, island-style) is not for the delicate and demanding. Solar panels and gennies provide the little current they have so if something can be done in the dark, it is, like “I can totally find the loo and toilet paper by feel! Loo roll out? Something within arm’s reach will work just fine.” I could say I’m just guessing about this one but really, I’d had a bit of a close call in his very dark bathroom at dusk.
The rain eventually stopped and we opened the canals and let the stream water flow through, rinsing the pools one by one. We laughed as we chased tiny, squirming juvenile tilapia before they could be swept out the bottom drain to a certain death on the forest floor below.
“I got one!” “I missed one!” “It’s coming down to you, grab it!” “Oops, this one didn’t make it. My bad.”
Giant almond trees hung over the pools and we raked two, maybe three million almond pods out of the pools, or so it felt. I tried to clear the drains between the pools and flung a shovelful of the stuff over the wall. I immediately heard “Ah! Ah! It’s all over my face! Ah! Disgusting!” from the other side of the drain. Being a sensitive person, the first thing I did was double over in uncontrollable laughter as my friend desperately tried in vain to wipe the muck off his face with an equally mucky hand.
“wooHOOHOOhoo!!! I’m so sorry man….oohHAHAHA!!! I forgot you were there. Oh my god… hahaHA!!! *gasp*Stop being funny….. I can’t breathe *gasp*.”
Luckily my friend is more good natured than me. If it had been me, he’d have gotten a full shovel of muck in the face.
We watched in amusement as two guys stuck sticks in a drain on either side of a wall between two pools in an attempt to keep the drain clear.
“That’s it boys. Stick it in his hole. Git’n there!” Mitch teased, eliciting unamused, withering looks.
“You boys look like you’ve found yourself a nice glory hole” I sassed.
My foul mouthed, but naive English friends looked at me, waiting for an explanation that would no doubt lead to many jokes at my expense. I blushed and muttered “I lived in San Francisco for five years boys. You learn things. Things you don’t always want to know. Just believe me, if you’re ever at a rest stop in California and you see a hole in the bathroom stall, don’t look through it if you value the gift of sight”.
I jogged off behind one of the old almond trees for a wee, on the way passing a dead bird and the jawbone of some large mammal. God we were really in “their” territory. I squatted and noticed reptilian skin directly in front of me. Crouching there with my pants around my ankles I thought “Oh please let that be from an iguana and not a boa. Please, anything but snakes.” Because you see, the history of this place doesn’t end with the Queen and glamorous pool parties. Oh no, it gets better.
The clean-up of Fontein had started months prior. One coerced laborer (i.e. friend) wading around in a pool had gotten the shock of his life when his shovel hit something solid, squirming, and way bigger than a toad or turtle. And it had big teeth. The legends were true…
Fontein fell into ruin after it changed into private hands and it eventually found itself the property of an eccentric man with a penchant for exotic pets. We don’t know all that he had, but we know he had a blind boa constrictor and at least one caiman. If you don’t know what a caiman is, it’s an alligator with a pointy snout from South America. The rumor was he’d just let everything loose on the property when he sold it and the prospect of seeing a caiman was really the only reason we were all sweating and slogging it out that day. God knows how it had survived years in a foot of water with no obvious source of food or place to sun itself, but we aimed to find the animal and make one of the pools a comfortable home for it. We hadn’t actually worked out how we were going to catch it, but surely one of was young and dumb enough to do it, but first we had other ornery creatures to deal with.
The bravest (i.e. foolhardy) among us volunteered (my tall Dutch friend) to find the animal so he jumped down into the enclosure armed with a large and intimidating, or not so much, length of PVC piping. He balanced himself on a fallen tree branch and got to the business of poking around the murky water as we crowded round safely on the outside.
“See anything yet?” “You think it’s even alive still?” “What the hell does it eat, almonds?” “You’d look good with seven toes buddy, git in there!”
And finally, “I hit something!”
At first the caiman didn’t move, obviously in some state of hibernation, but as my friend poked and flipped it with the pipe, it suddenly came to life. In a flash we saw a wake from its powerful tail cross the enclosure as it high-tailed it to the far side of the pool searching for safety, quickly disappearing back under the water.
“Holy shit!” “That was awesome!” “Can I offer you a fresh pair of underwear, my friend?”
The tall Dutchie looked up at us with a huge, childish grin, “That was the coolest thing ever, but my heart won’t stop pounding. Pretty sure I just shaved a few days off my life expectancy.”
“So that’s it; that was the alligator?” “All that work for 30 seconds of reward?” “It’s a little guy, can’t be more than half a meter.” “I want my money back.”
But of course we said “all that work” as if it were over, but it was far from over. We still had several hours left. Then came a lovely BBQ with bottles of red wine and hot tea to chase the chill out of our bones and the fatigue from our muscles. We congratulated each other on a job well done and basked in its glow, heartened by friends and the red wine. We each tried to ignore the fact that Mitch kept saying things like “We really should go clean it up a bit more. You know, just leave it nice. “Just a bit more. Shouldn’t be bad. It’ll be fun.” We kept praying he’d have another beer and lose his resolve but he knew when he had free labor so we weren’t getting off that easy. We’d come this far and couldn’t puss out so grudgingly we picked up the shovels again and headed back for a second round.
One by one we got picked off by the creatures of the woods who vehemently showed their distaste for our presence. First my Latin friend got stung by a wasp. Next the tall Dutchie got it from a scorpion. The good natured English fellow suffered fire ant bites while attempting to climb a tree to cut down branches, a tree that was also swarming with wasps. We decided to abandon that task, but our fearless leader was not so easily perturbed and Mitch clambered up the great tree with alacrity, only to drop the ten feet back to the ground a moment later, breaking his fall by swinging from branch to branch like a monkey amidst shouts of pain. Back on the decking, he found his head burning with fire ant and wasp stings and one eye nearly swollen shut. He quickly brushed off any concern for his well-being, but became concerned as the adrenaline wore off and the wooziness and dizziness hit him.
“Um, I don’t reckon I’m allergic or anything but, what are the signs of sting allergies?” he asked only half nonchalantly this time.
“Well, you wouldn’t be able to breathe. How’s your throat?” the most medically savvy amongst us answered.
“Little tight. Little scratchy” he answered.
“Oh, that’s not good. But you can still breathe right?”
“You know what, I might just sit down for a second. Maybe that’s better,” said Mitch, shaking his head up and down, agreeing with himself that indeed this was his first clever thought of the day.
“You just took about a dozen stings to the head. I don’t suppose you would feel good after that” I offered.
“I suppose you’re right. Well not likely to die. Probably would have already by now” he said.
We all chimed in with “Oh for sure, you’d already be dead”, “yeah I’m sure you’re good”, and “if not, can I have your guitar?” We got an enthusiastic “Fuck off!!” for that one and that’s when we were all happily assured he’d survive.
I looked at my bruised and battered comrades and realized it was only a matter of time before it was my turn. I figured it was a female’s natural inclination not to do stupid stuff that will get you hurt that had kept me out of harm’s way until then, but really, it was only a matter of time. Sure enough, I soon stepped on the wrong spot and my feet were covered in fire ants mercilessly biting and leaving huge red welts. A steady string of obscenities flowed out my mouth as I ran to dip my feet in the one full, green pool.
“Uh, you know. We’re not absolutely certain there aren’t, you know. More caimans” said Mitch, in a slow, measured word of caution.
I whipped my head towards him with a look of ‘You must be joking? Oh jesus you’re not’. The pool felt good on my burning feet but any caiman in that pool hadn’t seen a flesh meal as tasty as my toes in years so I reluctantly, but quickly pulled them out. I snapped off a nearby aloe leaf and furiously rubbed the smelly yellow oozing liquid all over my feet, still letting out intermittent strings of obscenities, giving no end of amusement to my friends. That’s it, I thought. I’m done with this. Work’s over. My English friend was kind enough to say with an empathetic smile “I know, no one likes to be in pain” and I appreciated it and felt less miserable.
I might be one of the dudes, but I’m still a girl, and even I have moments where I wonder why I do the things I do. Lions and tiger and caimans and wasps and scorpions and fire ants and who the fuck knows what else. I was feeling like Dorothy in cheap shoes. I might have chosen an easier life without muck and with reliable electricity; stayed in San Francisco and married this boyfriend or that one; have a two car garage; maybe by this time have kids and a nice house. One without a leaking roof where I didn’t spend time every day killing the biting, buzzing, disgusting insects that always crept in. Maybe not spend the occasional night sitting up in bed with my head faceplanted in a pillow stuck between my knees, trying to find a comfortable way to sleep upright because I’d figured out the hard way why meat in the Caribbean so rarely went on special. I love adventure and nothing yet has inspired me to stop traveling, but some days even I didn’t understand why I’d chosen this life or why it had chosen me.
Just then the sound of my own thoughts were drowned out by the calls of hundreds of parrots. I looked up and the sky was filled with wings. It was dusk and the green lora parrots were returning to their roosts for the night after a full day of foraging for cactus fruit. I stopped to watch them swoop and loop in endless formations, breaking and converging in an unintelligible pattern. I really am Dorothy some days, but all I have is a pair of oversized Havianas with thorns stuck in the bottom and no amount of clicking them is going to transport me to a magical place called “home”. From perched atop a bench tending my wounds, I watched my friends continuing to work with admirable dedication. The tall, gangly, and foolhardy Dutchie with the easy smile was really my scarecrow. And the timid, good-hearted Latino was my Lion and the kind and clever Englishman was my tinman. And Mitch was the fockin crazy Wizard of Oz and this made me smile. What a motley bunch I found myself with and I fit right in perfectly.
Finding my grouchiness and the light fading, I took my last chance and hiked up the hill for a view of the valley below. The path disappeared amid a tangle of acacia thorns growing around and in a half-constructed house. The only sounds up here were those from the rapid retreat of some goats I’d scared. In the skeletons of those uncompleted structures, I saw stairs that led nowhere, rooms open to the heavens. I saw the unfulfilled potential of it all. It was beautiful in a lonely sort of way and I hoped the new caretakers would be successful in bringing this place back to its former glory. I knew they certainly had the gumption.
This was my last Sunday on the island. My last chance to share an experience with my friends and I was glad I’d chosen to spend it where and how I had. It was important to me to breathe in and capture the last of this, hold it in my lungs and make my own mental home movies. I hiked back down the hill to my friends who’d just wrapped up their work, happy and proud to have contributed to the noble project and vowing to come back next Sunday to help finish it.
That Sunday was two weeks ago and I’m back “home” now. It’s the most subjective term in my vocabulary but for all intents and purposes, Florida is as much home as anywhere else. I heard the next Sunday’s adventure was more BBQ, less work and I was quite disappointed to have missed it. I’m sure the memory of me is already fading there and the little island is quickly becoming just another chapter in my erratic story, ripe with unfulfilled potential and lonely beauty. The only direction to move though is forward and that’s exactly the direction I’m pointing myself.
I guess I seek out those places because they speak to me, of courage and pain; of struggle against the encroaching jungle; of loss and ultimately; of survival and progress. The people that built them are a part of humanity’s family tree and what they left behind is here to remind us that we are made of stronger stuff than we realize. We as a species survived famines, slavery, wars, and more to raise children that have lived far beyond our wildest dreams. We crossed great oceans without any idea of what waited for us on the other side, if indeed we survived the crossing at all, emboldened by the belief that a better life was just somewhere beyond the horizon. This belief coupled with the urge to survive is woven into the fabric of our beings, in the very stanchions of the double helix of our DNA. It’s a shame empathy’s bond within the structure is far less tangible or guaranteed. Some are overwhelmed by empathy and devote their lives to “worthless street mutts”, while others lack the capacity entirely.
I find myself again at the mercy of others, dependent on their good will and helpless without it. I’m thankful for a life that doesn’t allow me to take empathy for granted, but my DNA tells me to want more than just to survive. 2012 is thankfully almost over and thirty is around the corner so I’ve got my eyes on the horizon and I’m crafting my next adventure as we speak. Bring. It. On.