My Birthday Brother

“You need to meet Martin” said headteacher Sue after I completed a few days teaching at St Lucia’s Tapion school. So, I called this bloke and discovered his wife Alison and daughter Naomi were away in England. He invited me to his plantation style house, overlooking beautiful Rodney Bay, and was snoring on the couch when I arrived. After a cough and a nudge he got to business and introduced me to Mount Gay the local rum of choice. 

Martin and Alison’s house

Over dinner we discovered that besides rum and being British we had other commonalities including reggae music, marmite and May 18th birthdays. I was exactly a year older and I became Mart’s bonus brother. Our journeys have intertwined across continents, mingled on many islands and emerged from many marriages since that initial meeting.

Martin was contracted to manage St. Lucia’s daily newspaper ‘the Voice’ and after a Tapion school trip my class decided to print our own school magazine with student content. It was a huge hit with parents, although a few of them took offence at the radical content and my liberal approach to editing. I spent many a tropical evening creating these expressions of children’s worlds and they remain some of my most treasured possessions to this day.

I met loads of other expatriates through Mart and Alison and regularly sang folksy songs with them at the bi-weekly gathering held at different people’s homes. I got a glimpse of how other people managed their lives in the tropics with tips on rum punch recipes, dealing with racism, understanding colonialism and other third world issues.  We were a tight community mostly engaged in small town gossip but we supported each other through some tough times. From outside it looked as if life in St. Lucia was all beaches and cocktails but as expats we paid some heavy dues for our pleasures. In the late ’70’s, as the country finally broke away from British rule to become an independent nation, life became wild and crazy as the new paradigm emerged.

When Martin and Alison moved on from the Caribbean to Canada I decided to follow and arranged to meet them in Toronto in August of 1977. I flew to Denver where I bought ‘Gertie’ a 1961 VW beetle bug. After visiting Aspen I cruised to Mesa Verde, the Four Corners and the Grand Canyon before heading to Tuscon, Arizona to pick up a few belongings I’d left there two years prior when I slipped away for a quick trip to Mexico that had lasted two years and led me to eventually to St. Lucia where I met Martin.    

After stops in San Diego, DisneyLand and then San Fransisco I drove directly to Toronto. With old ‘Gertie’ having a top speed of about 55mph I sat in the exhaust cloud of every car and truck that passed me on the 2,650 mile journey. Thank god that American roads are wide and gas was only 66 cents.  Luckily I had a really cute passenger for most of the journey and we took turns at the wheel.

We each drove for three hours and then tried sleeping for the next three hours. It wasn’t an easy ride. Coffee and the amphetamines, I had bought over the counter in St. Lucia, really helped. It took me two and a half days to get to Cabbage Town, Toronto and I don’t remember much about the visit since I slept for most of it in preparation for the next stage of my mammoth Kerouac-style road trip.

Early on September 12th 1977 Martin and I crawled out of Toronto in our courageous slug bug headed westward on a 3,218 mile journey to to Victoria B.C. via Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary and Vancouver. Mart and I had lots of time for some serious chats since the only alternative was my very crackly radio and our six cassette tapes. Luckily, we had made some great music choices with JJ Cale, CSNY, Third World, Steve Winwood, Bob Marley and Eric Clapton and their songs became embedded in our brains. We both still listen to these same tunes over forty years later, probably for the memories they evoke. 

After cruising past thousands of lakes we spent a night in Winnipeg with some long lost relatives of mine. Mart and I checked out a traditional Canadian hotel bar with a live band playing. It was dark with red plush carpet and round tables and the barmaid came by with the one drink choice; a glass of awful tasting beer. Being lusty lads on the loose, we eyed a couple of girls on a nearby table and got up with our beers to join them. We were immediately busted by the busty server who rushed over saying she would carry our glasses. We told her it was ok, but she insisted explaining there was a law preventing patrons from moving around with their drinks. This was our first encounter with archaic Canadian liquor laws and we discovered the colony had long since abandoned our traditional English pub playfulness for some ridiculous fundamentalist prohibition policies.

Exhausted, after driving mindless miles across the prairies of Saskatchewan we pulled over in the middle of nowhere and pitched our tent. We had driven through a hundred miles of nothing but fields and all we could see for twenty or more miles in each direction was wheat. We lit a fire, and cooked some grub, and just as I was taking my first toke on a sweet joint a blue light suddenly flashed onto our campsite. Headlights shone straight in our faces and two gorilla sized Royal Mounted Police ambled up sniffing the air and looking suspicious and aggressive. 

I dropped the criminal evidence and stepped on it. In the darkness my red face of guilt was concealed. While one cop searched the tent the other asked us to empty our pockets. I was praying he wouldn’t ask to look in our shoes. Martin shared some English banter trying to defuse the situation and soften the primordial attitudes. I remained rigid as a statue with my feet stuck to the ground. Flashlights beamed around our campfire and, after all their futile searches drew blanks, they finally left in failure. We gave it awhile before roaring with laughter and smoking the heck out of that tasty spliff.  Bob Marley was smiling down on us that night!

Survived the trip and arrived on the island

For the final leg of our sojourn across the country we drove from Calgary to Victoria in one very long day, traveling over 680 miles. Approaching the Rocky Mountains we prayed that Gertie and our six cassette tapes would survive the journey. They didn’t let us down, our beloved bug crawled stubbornly up the mountain passes and she thoroughly earned her highway stripes while we sang along to the beat of our onboard musicians. Tired and confused we cruised through the Kootenays and the Okanagan Valley and thanks to directions from a roadside fruit vendor, we miraculously made it to our final destination, without any smart phone or GPS guidance system!!! Was it destiny or sheer determination?

Having lived on a tiny Island for a number of years, it was no wonder that we hastened across that vast continent to get to the Pacific. We’ll never forget that first ride on the Tsawwassan Ferry from Vancouver to Schwartz Bay, Sydney. It was September 28th 1977. There was a ferry at 7.00 pm, and we arrived at the terminal at around 7.15, expecting to wait many hours for the next sailing. The cashier waved us through and said the boat was still at the dock and we could get on. As we drove aboard the doors closed behind us and the ferry departed into the sunset. It was a sweet reward!

The scenery was epic. As the boat meandered between the Gulf Islands seals, whales, eagles and other wildlife grabbed our attention. Later on I did a lot of ferry crossings hauling food products for our workers co-operative and always loved strolling around the upper decks. No matter if it’s sunny, windy or rainy that ride is always exhilarating. 

After being blown away with the ferry ride we then met loads of beautiful, emancipated young Canadian women. We decided right then it was a place we might want to stay. Forty three years later Martin has fulfilled that vision – happyily living on Vancouver Island. Maybe I should have done the same but, after we shared a couple of years creating a workers co-operative and establishing a home base, my wanderlust spirit got the better of me, immigration officials caught up with me and I was destined for more escapade adventures on other islands. Martin morphed into Mountain and his renegade journey continued too!

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Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

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