As Sam's new 17 foot boat slowly drew closer to Red Rocks on a Wednesday afternoon in September, a flood of fond memories of our times growing up together as boys in East End, came rushing back.
I couldn't help but think back to a Saturday in August 1976 – the last time we were together before I went off to California to attend Pasadena City College. Although we reminisce every time Sam comes to my house and raid the "medicine cabinet," or I visit his house, it had been 34 years since he and I had returned to Red Rocks together. We brought along Kenai, the 11-year old son of one of my friends, whom we would enlighten about our Saturday boyhood traditions.
Unlike in the past when we walked on Ella Reef to get to our destination from behind, we approached Red Rocks from Red Bay – just off the coast of East End – and took a good look at our island with great admiration. Sam and I traded stories. "Chin," as he used to call me, "you remember our clubhouse?"
From time to time I still do "boy" things, as I did growing up particularly fishing, or picking whelk and conchs on the reef. But I don't see many of our young people displaying the same affinity towards the sea or its shore, like kids from my day. As this magazine celebrates its 40th anniversary and I reflect on life in this archipelago, I realize that there are several generations of British Virgin Islanders who are totally unaware of what it was like growing up here a generation ago. No traditions have been handed down and nothing has been recorded.
Growing up, I always looked forward to Saturdays. There was no school, and since I didn't have sheep or goats to tend like other boys, I would often try to complete chores on Friday afternoon so I could go with my buddy Sam to Red Rocks on Saturday morning. This was our tradition until I went off to college.
Red Rocks, a cluster of jagged rust colored granite rocks that form three distinct islets off the East End of Tortola, was accessible by two means – walking on Ella Reef or going in something that floated. Sam and I referred to the rocks as Christopher Columbus' three ships, the Pinta, Niña and Santa Maria. We basically inhabited the Pinta – the one closest to the coast, where we made a shanty from coconut tree fronds and driftwood. This was our clubhouse that kept the sun and rain off our backs. It was our Saturday home away from home because we often got some good sleep and relaxation there.
The Niña was the middle of the three rocks and was used to clean our fish and conch while the Santa Maria was the one from which we caught fish – snapper, hind, butter socks, grunt, old wife, doctor and gutu among others and sometimes picked the biggest whelks when it wasn't rough.
I recalled a few years ago, when I was talking with my cousin Lee – who will be 30 this year and went with Sam and I on several expeditions to Red Rocks – about a batalog, and asked if he knew what it was? He paused, searched his memory and drew a blank as if I had seemingly introduced a foreign word into his vocabulary. He had no idea. Several other under 40s who I asked had no idea either.
The century plant or corritor as we called it, which has been destroyed by disease and are no longer widely seen, were abundant throughout the territory when I was a boy. Every few years, the plant sends up a stalk that can reach 20 feet high. The stalk was used to make the batalog or bato as we called it locally which was basically a raft for going fishing. Six stalks would be cut, shaved and put together with a piece of steel holding the base, which would become the front of the bato. It was finished with layers of wood nailed crosswise to complete our fishing vessel. Under those same century plants, we would find soldier crabs – sodras as we called them – which provided the bait to catch fish.
A long stick or an oar would be found that would that be used to push the bato around just outside the sandbar, a dune at Joe Rhymer's Bay, which was a demarcation between the shallow and deeper waters. Most times though, Sam and I would simply walk on the reef when it was low tide, particularly during the spring and easier to negotiate. We would always find conchs along the way and sometimes shellfish, which I'd use my athletic ability to run down.
We never carried meat to eat on our Saturday excursions. Flour, macaroni, potatoes, tannias, yams or even sweet potatoes, Uncle Ben's rice, which Sam taught me how to cook, would form the basis of our staples. We either caught fish on the rocks, hunted shellfish, harvested conchs or picked whelks to complete our lunch. As Sam was a master cook, he always prepared sumptuous offerings: boiled, barbequed or roasted – whatever the style – it was always delicious.
As we spent between six and seven hours on the rocks, we carried a variety of drinks including limeade, maubi, tamarind or sometimes sodas and malts along with an ample supply of water. Our fishing excursions provided not only enough to eat but sufficient to take home and have during the week as well.
Once in a while, we'd catch a sea cat (octopus) which we roasted to use for bait. But once we got a whiff of the aroma of roasting octopus we would eat some as well. I recalled one time I grabbed a conch—but it turned out to be a sea cat who was disguised among the seaweed. From my screams of fright, Sam thought I'd been bitten by something.
It wasn't until I was in College, that I realized Red Rocks was preparing me for life. Many of the skills I picked up from Sam on Saturdays – particularly cooking (along with my Grandmother teaching me how to make bread) came in handy.
Red Rocks might be just a cluster of rocks off East End that provided a haven for crayfish, shellfish and sea life, but it was a lab that prepared me for the future. Those were the good old days and I thank my buddy Sam for the good times and the eternally fond memories.