Tiny Islands Can Bite, But Robert Louis Stevenson Sailed On

You might think that’s a paddle for the kayak, but it’s a mosquito swatter

When I screeched in displeasure and slapped yet another mosquito (this time, the evildoer biting my bony knee) today, Robert Louis Stevenson sailed into my mind. That mind of mine has been salty of late, because the insects are winning here: “here” being a house-sit on a small, lovely island, Bequia, in the Caribbean.

Small, lovely tropical islands often have lots of small, unlovely pests, and the mosquitoes here have been ravenous, particularly lately, where my twice-daily bathings in Deet (not recommended if you want to handle power tools later in life, or perhaps play effective chess) are now failing to take effect. Well, they do have an effect: they make me feel ill, and they provide a slick surface for the mosquitos to ski on my skin, before they dip in their murderous prongs.

I thought of Stevenson, because while my aggrieved groans probably echo all the way back to Santa Cruz, Stevenson, a Scot, author of Treasure Island and other charms, was a dedicated traveler in an era when traveling itself—much less traveling to distant lands with no comforts—was complex and effortful. Stevenson was a sickly child (lungs) and a sickly adult, but he took up world travel early, and had a few bouts of near-incapacitating illnesses during and after his early journeys.

A Complication of Bones

Not long after his marriage in California he described himself as “a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom.” For years after that, he searched for a region and climate that would aid his flagging health, but to no avail. So, rather than bunker up in Europe or the States, he embarked on a series of long, hard voyages to Pacific islands.

Now, I lived on a small Pacific island for a year, and they had many modern conveniences, though we felt the sting of deprivation when the island ran out of beer. Stevenson, chronically ill, was taking arduous sails to remote places where beer—and probably most of the foods he was accustomed to—was a fantasy. In the meantime, while he traveled, this mere complication of cough and bones was writing acclaimed works.

He journeyed the Pacific for years, finally settling on Samoa, where gentleman’s clothes were likely a nuisance. He was 44 when he died there, probably of a cerebral hemorrhage. (Oddly enough, with all those South Seas travels, some literary historians have suggested that Stevenson was inspired to write Treasure Island based on a stay in the Monterey, CA area, having spent time at shimmering Pt. Lobos.)

At Least the Mosquitoes Don’t Have Lawyers

What am I getting at here? This: I have been heatedly complaining to my boon companion Alice about the dastardly mosquitoes for days now. Spiteful things they are, but I’ve really got to buck up a bit. Mr. Stevenson was just a bag of bones and he wandered the globe in a time when wandering took some real gumption. Here, there’s plenty of beer (though I’ve been leaning more toward the rums).

I’ve been saving up the material of the many island stays I’ve had—there’s the wet clay of a novel amid all of that sweating. But in the one I’ll write, the mosquitoes will all be butterflies.

Operating Without the Net: It Bites, Then It Sucks

There's a cruel jester under the cool cap

This looks like a quart of ordinary ice cream. (Ignore the fact that Haagen-Daz and its European provenance is an illusion from the get-go). No, no ice cream this. This is the price of human folly, the crucible that shows the hollow core of the soul, the stuff that dreams are made of. But how can this glop of eggs, cream and sugar be any of that?

The concept comes from the spirit of Magritte, who painted under his famous image of a pipe, “This is not a pipe.” No, this alleged ice cream is a symbol of my boiling frustration over losing control of my situation. That situation is that Alice and I are house-sitting in the Bahamas, on a 3 ½-acre compound that was a former wilderness school. There’s a main house, some cottages, and a number of dorm buildings, just a long fly ball from the shoreline.

It’s the Bahamas, right? Beautiful beaches, lovely people, umbrella drinks at mid-day. Sure, that Bahamas is here. But Alice and I came here to work and play, and work daily, since we aren’t island jet-setters, and can’t afford not to work. But our work is all Internet-based. Gotta be online, all the time. Only the Internet hasn’t worked properly here since Hurricane Irene. It might be on for 10 minutes, off for 3 hours, on for one minute, off for an hour, off for an entire day. Yesterday, I was supposed to be on a Skype call to my main clients. I was knocked offline at least 10 times, and finally knocked off for good that day. Our homeowners didn’t quite elaborate on just how squirrely the connectivity is.

The Gorge Also Rises
We are both so accustomed to the Net just working that when it doesn’t—and doesn’t in an arbitrary way, the gorge rises. My gorge. We’ve both missed some deadlines and there’s no end in sight. The Bahamian Net providers have been here 5 times in 7 days, and are supposed to be here again today. They can’t figure it out. Better yet, they had a big layoff at their office yesterday—the main tech who comes out here was laid off. Zing!

So, we can’t work. But we can scratch. The no-see-ums and mosquitoes here are murderous. Below is a picture of Alice’s thigh from a couple of days ago. When the dogs that we are taking care of here escape the compound (they have multiple devious ways), we must chase them to retrieve them, but we must chase them through a boggy zone where the mosquito is the dominant species. No applications of Off, Skin-So-Soft or rum can deter them. Speaking of rum, I was so frustrated at all this business the other day that I slapped a nice cool drink of pineapple and rum right off my chair into the bushes, followed by a fusillade of curses. Those who know me know that the day I throw good liquor into the bushes is the day The Beast has risen.

You should see the other leg

Get Back to the Ice Cream Already
What this all says to me is that I’m so used to controlling certain things that when that control is wrested from me, my inadequate coping skills don’t provide much backup. And what does this all have to do with a quart of Haagen-Daz? This: I bought this quart of ice cream out of spite. One factor is that I could control the purchase of this ice cream. The spite part is that this ice cream cost me $14.50. Yes, when I heard the price, I just laughed. These are the only bites on the island I’ve truly enjoyed.

Postscript, Minus the Sting
Last night, when I was washing the dishes, I lifted this little platform above the sink that the dish-scrubbers sit on. Underneath was a little scorpion, tail-flag waving in greeting. He didn’t actually alarm me—he was a beautiful little creature. I didn’t have the hysterical reaction I’ve developed when I roam the mosquito-zones around the house, slapping madly at the air, my face and legs. Instead, I got to study my little friend, and then was able to capture him in a wine glass and put him outside. He was a bit angry at that, stabbing his laden tail against sides of the glass. I’m hoping I made him angry enough to go sting a squadron of mosquitoes or two.

PPS By the way, I do realize that I am a large crybaby. But hey, it passes the time.