When we left the British Virgin Islands last March, I packed up the things we always leave here - SwimVacation banner, swim floats, other miscellaneous equipment items, and stored them in the belly of Promenade, like we always do, planning to return in December. As we pulled away from her in the dinghy, I waved goodbye to our boat, SwimVacation's home for 9 years, blew her a kiss and never looked back.
A little over 2 months later, our Promenade was gone, lost to a devastating fire. Two months after that, we nearly lost our home base island of Tortola, as the unprecedentedly powerful hurricane Irma nearly wiped it from the map.
Things like this make you wish you'd looked back. Said goodbye one more time.
We accommodated our two sold out December 2017 trips in the wonderful Abaco Islands, a location new to us that we are excited to keep on our roster. And now, now, finally, it's time to come Home. The British Virgin Islands have been in steady recovery mode for 7 months. First to bounce back was the waterfront, where tourism and a busy charter industry are the economic engine for the people of Tortola. They're more than ready to receive us, and we are so glad to know that bringing our guests here will contribute to the rebuilding of this resilient island.
We've been planning and packing and making lists for months. Running a SwimVacation from a bare boat (a boat that comes with nothing but the boat itself - no crew, no extra equipment we took for granted on Promenade - is quite an undertaking. And I'm quite certain that without the experience our 10 seasons of running trips has given us, we couldn't ever do it.
In the Abaco blog, Hopper wrote about "The Spliterator", an invention of ours which will allow us to modify a large queen bed to accommodate two strangers, comfortably. He and I have spent months designing and building the prototype, and packed it in a huge duffle bag. My travel partner, our trusty deck hand Zack, and I have dragged it down here, along with 5 other checked bags including soft Yeti coolers full of clothes pins and power strips and sun block and more, not to mention all of my camera gear. It's quite a circus, this parade of peculiar looking bags we watch go down the conveyor belt.
From Maine to New York to San Juan. As the porter helped us schlep all those bags from one airline to the next, he handed me his phone - playing video footage of the monstrous hurricane winds of Maria last September lashing at his San Juan home. The people of the Caribbean have survived the formidable maw of nature, and now they have a story to tell. I am ready to listen. I watched, listened to his description of a day he'll never forget, and thanked him for sharing.
As we boarded the little 8 seat cessna, I noted the souls on board: One pilot, Zack, Me, the giant Spliterator bag, and three chickens. Yes, chickens. Live chickens, in brown boxes, unaccompanied by any chaperone, flying with us to Tortola. "I must be in the Caribbean" I thought, and our rag tag bunch was aloft over a sea that is as blue as ever. I turned to Zack and said, "I'm already feeling more like myself". The pull of the islands does that to me.
I won't lie. As Tortola finally came into my view, I choked up a little. Green. Life growing and finding a way, and quickly here in the tropics. As we got closer, I could see the significant scars. It made me gasp to see familiar sites reconfigured by the storm. But I also saw great signs of life, typical and ordinary - cars meandering the mountain switchbacks, brand new shiny yachts at sail, a cruise ship even. Amid the lingering signs of damage, Island life has gone back to business as usual.
We landed at the Beef Island Airport, lots of plywood covering windows in the terminal. But everything orderly and moving according to plan. The thing that struck me most was a particular calm I felt coming off of the first Islanders I encountered at customs. They were welcoming, warm, conversational - even more so than before. When I asked the woman stamping my passport how she felt things were going, she said "We coming back. We coming back.", with a smile. With wisdom. And she meant it.
I saw Albert through the window. His pink striped van - a little worse for wear - parked at the curb. When Irma ripped through last September, it was two worry filled weeks before we heard from him. Today, I ran at him. A flying hug. I've never been happier to see him.
Waiting for us with him were our new Captain and Chef, Bob and Miriam from Texas. Hugs all around. They are a critical part of this crazy plan we have to take people swimming. We've been talking with them for months, and when I saw them, I liked them right away.
On the taxi ride across island to our home for the night, Albert told us his story. About a wind like a freight train that never stopped for nearly 8 hours. About how his other van was lifted from the ground, spun around and slammed into a building down the road. About how he and his wife Iris stood clinging to each other in their bedroom as the wind sheared the roof right off their house. As we passed carcasses of boats in mangroves awaiting removal, he said "Heavy boats became very light that day". Nothing was spared. We listened intently. I couldn't imagine.
The taxi stopped and he handed me a package. It was the plastic ziplock bag containing the SwimVacation BVI phone and accessories. We leave it with him for safe keeping after each trip. It too looked a little worse for wear, but it was all there. "It's charged and topped up with data" he told me. Albert. You lost your roof in what people are calling a category 6 hurricane, but you still have our SwimVacation cell phone? Protected, charged and topped up? Incredible. I cried.
We've spent the last 36 hours on reconnaissance missions for the provisioning and boat work to come. We've spent lots of time in vans with Albert and Iris, seeing the island as it heals, and listening to their story. Tomorrow we'll dump a little money into this economy, starting at the Rite Way grocery store, stocked with everything we need. We stopped to grab some dinner at Pussers', waited in line behind islanders picking up pizza. Life goes on. Business as usual.
But maybe there's a unifying thing here now, the folks that live here with their incredible story to tell, of an unrelenting wind like no other, and the slow and steady process of putting it all back together. They've survived it together, are rebuilding it together. Resilience. Scars. Story. Unity. Calm. Perhaps they understand more deeply the strength they possess - individually and as a community. If possible, the scars of this island have made it even more beautiful to me.
Even if I'd looked back when I left last March, I'm not sure I would have seen the amazing nature of this place.