Monday, September 28, 2009

Bermudianization, Part Two

Cooper’s Island, located in St. George’s parish on the eastern side of Castle Harbor, juts out into the center of the Castle Islands. It was a separate island consisting of 77.5 acres until 1943, when it was connected to St. David’s Island by dredged fill during the construction of the Unites States Air Force Base. “Prior to its connection with St. David’s Island, Cooper’s Island was Bermuda’s largest, most isolated and ecologically diverse island. Even today it retains most of this diversity and ecological importance because the military and NASA installations have not altered the contours significantly and the superb coastline and beaches remain intact.” (Wingate)

When Bermuda was settled in the early 1600’s, the protracted demise of Bermuda’s endemic species, most notably the Cahow, had already begun. Cooper’s Island, because of its isolation, became one of the last refuges for many of Bermuda’s endemic species. In addition to its vital ecological role, Cooper’s Island possesses a rich cultural history. Historical highlights include a reward to Christopher Carter from Governor Moore in 1612, legends of the island’s copious quantity of Spanish treasure, the building of Governor Moor’s Pembroke Fort, it role in military defense during the Second World War, and its role in the United States Space Program.

A bit dry, perhaps a wee bit stilted...but I was young and more than intimidated by my task -- to build a case for protecting Cooper’s Island -- but as I read the paper today, almost 12 years after writing it, I think, “not a bad job, girl, not a bad job at all.”

All the while I was writing the white paper, I fretted. I was certain that if C. were to get wind of my doing for free what she would have been paid for that there would be hell to pay. As an expat you were reminded constantly of your place on the island -- you were there by the grace of the almighty Work Permit and you lived in constant fear that you might do something stupid that would end up in your passport being stamped Involuntarily Repatriated.

Occasionally, The Royal Gazette would run a short article about the latest expat gaff that landed the poor sod in hot water and resulted in a hasty return to his home country. There was the British expat who got caught night farming Easter Lilies one spring -- poor bastard picked lilies for his wife, but the lilies happened to be in the 'Queen's field'...every year Bermuda grows a whole field of lilies just for the Queen and they ship them to her with great fanfare for Easter. The fellow ended up in the prison at Dockyards for a few days and then they booted him home to the UK.

Being an expat came with a constant undercurrent of fear and anxiety. It wasn’t just the fear of violating the terms of the Work Permit and possibly being sent home in shame, there was there was the fear of just about any sort of insane thing happening to you while you were so far away from home. The island was really dangerous in alot of ways. Sharing a 22 square mile island with 80,000 other people was intense -- not relaxing really. We got really paranoid at times, they called it Rock Fever and it could manifest itself in a myriad of ways.

Driving was a daily fearful challenge and there was risk everywhere you went and with many of the things you did. Part of that anxiety was that you were in a foreign place with foreign laws. I frequently asked myself "what if?" questions while I lived there. What if I got really sick and had to be in the Bermuda Hosptital? It had a terrible reputation, most expats had agreements with their employers to be airlifted back to the States if they got sick or injured. Women wouldn't have their babies there, they would go home for better medical treatment.

What if I had a car wreck? An easy thing to do in Bermuda...insane little narrow roads, kids on pedal bikes, motor bikes going between lanes, mad rastas driving dump trucks -- one rasta who worked at our quarry drove me off the road one day with his dump truck, I almost ended up in the ocean...luckily there was a ledge!

What if I drown?

What if I was the victim of a machete robbery? That was a good one, Bermuda was gun free, which most people took to make the island free of violent crime, but not so, and the weapon of choice? Machetes! I truly can say I would take being robbed at gunpoint any day over being robbed by a Bermudian with machete!

I would read about expats and tourists who got into terrible jams...arrested for driving drunk, arrested for possession...some of the best stories involved sailors...British sailors, US sailors, even some Russian naval boys, who came to the island on a Russian nuclear sub; they got into brawls, got arrested and ended up being jailed down at the prison at Dockyards...their ships would sail without them.

We knew of a futures trader who got drunk one night and stole a horse from a local livery stable! They busted him riding on the beach -- he and his wife and kids got sent home....he bought his way out of time down at Dockyards. Lucky for him he had that kind of money - Dockyards was positively medieval.

There was this constant threat of a misstep leading to your demise out there. The island tempted you into doing things you wouldn't normally do, paradise would intoxicate you and so - death, prison, scandal were not so far away as you think - the what ifs were interesting and scary - and funny, now that I look back on it.

So it wasn’t totally farfetched to think that if C. found out I was doing her job, then my husband and I could find ourselves packing for home. But I couldn’t possibly foresee the events of the next year that would send us home just two years after arriving on the island and those events would have nothing to do with writing a white paper for the Bermudian government!

In the meantime though, I tried to keep my Rock Fever at bay by working diligently at the Aquarium and my secret hope was that through my good intentions and some luck from the stars, the powers that were at the Aquarium would see fit to hire me. But the chances of that were slim and Jen made sure I was reminded of that regularly, she was one of those Bermudians who played strictly by the rules. But even though Jen and the newspapers and the government insisted that Bermudianization was a water tight concept that protected the working rights of Bermudians, I saw how wildly inconsistent the carrying out of the law could be. Politics and money and the good old “its who you know” frequently worked in the favor of foreign workers. Bermuda would say one thing and do another. And I saw it with my own two eyes right at the Aquarium

I had been working there for a year - as a volunteer, no ifs ands or buts. I was feeding fish, toiling over turtle data, writing white papers for the government, turtling, and my payment was sanity - pure and unadulterated sanity, because I knew that when I returned to the States I could say I had accomplished something while I was on the island. And on a daily basis, I had a place to be and people to see - many Expat wives didn’t have that. They saw the walls of their pink Bermuda house, they kissed their husbands good bye for the day, they maybe had a drink or two and then they would go to the beach and cook in the hot sun all afternoon. It was a recipe for mental disaster. The aquarium helped me avoid that slippery slope and so I thanked goodness for them every Bermudiful morning.

But then they did it - they pissed me off. They did something that I thought they would never do. One day Jen asked me to go to lunch with her and the volunteer coordinator and some volunteers. Terrific! Lovely. We sat on picnic tables overlooking the water in Flatts - the sailboats were rocking in their moorings and the big pink tourist busses were making their stop at the Aquarium to deposit tourists like coins at the entrance. I sat next to this lovely American girl named Trudy. She was a new expat wife, she and her husband had been on the island exactly three weeks. She was all full of questions and bright eyed. And I was happy to tell her of my first year in Bermuda and how terrific it was that she was volunteering for the Aquarium. She was from Connecticut and so we tried to connect our friends and family from home, but to no avail. She told me where she and her husband were living. I told her about the best snorkeling spots, the ones that are less frequented by tourists and where to go for the best fish and chips, which was the White Horse Tavern down in St. George’s -- wrapped in that day’s Royal Gazette, with just enough grease and vinegar and salt! Lunch ended and I got on my pedal bike and trundled home, it was a good day.

About a week later, Jen sends me across the road to the volunteer office building to pick up some things. When I get there I meet up with the new American girl, Trudy, she’s whirling around organizing this and organizing that for a camp for school children later in the day. She whooshes by me and says Hello! I notice something different about her...what is it? what’s different? Her hair? No, blonde as it was last week, tied up in that perky pony tail. Dammit, what is it? Oh, I see, I see now, she’s wearing a STAFF shirt. She’s not wearing a VOLUNTEER shirt, she’s somehow gotten confused and worn a STAFF shirt for her duties today. Hmmm. How very odd. I ask B. for the materials Jen requested and B. says, oh, from now on you can see Trudy for those kinds of things, its her JOB now. “Really, B.? Trudy is working for you now?”

“Oh yes! I am so pleased to have Trudy on staff! She’s going to be a much needed addition around here!”

“Great...great for Trudy....” I was stunned. I put the papers and other sundries Jen asked for in a small box and headed back out into the heat of the day. Something was roiling about in my stomach. Was I hungry? No, I wasn’t hungry. I was pissed. This girl had been there for three weeks and she was on the payroll. I went into Jen’s office and handed her the box. “So Jen, I think I’m done for today. I kinda have a headache. I think I’ll head home. And you know what? I think I need a few days off. I’ll call you next week, maybe. I’ll be back, I just need a few days off.” Jen cocked her head and asked me if everything was okay? “Yeah, everything’s fine, I just need a little R &R.”

I did take a week off, maybe two. It was the most empty time I had spent on the island since arriving the year before. I read books and went to the beach and stared out at the horizon wishing for a ship, something you did alot of in Bermuda. That empty horizon just begged you to wish for a ship, like you were stranded and ready to light a distress fire...you wanted that ship to appear and take you home.

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