Ruby Bute is a bit of a legend on the Caribbean Island of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, but I didn’t know that when I descended into the notorious SXM airport. Even if I had known about Ruby Bute then, I would have forgotten. No matter how confident you are, landing at this airport will trigger the kinds of thoughts a person only has when they fear for their life. You’ll wonder why you ever burnt a single bridge you crossed, but then you’ll safely land and forget all about the minute or two you spent mid-air, preparing yourself for what seemed to be certain death. You’ll realize you’ve arrived in a regret-free tropical wonderland and begin brainstorming accordingly.
In many ways Caribbean islands are synonymous with a widely accepted notion of paradise. Toes attached to the feet of vacationing strangers nosedive into white sands and then arch back up for air. While watching others perform this common ritual, you’ll notice you’ve been doing it absentmindedly yourself. Except your sunblock isn’t completely rubbed in around your ankles and now you’re wearing a coarse, partial anklet of sand. This takes places under an expansive beach umbrella that can be rented for 5 or 10 dollars from a man you didn’t see on the beach until you sat down on his for-rent chair, under his for-rent umbrella. The dense forests you walk through, should you take a hike, reveal the lush landscape you knew to expect. Giant, waxy, vividly green leaves billow toward the soil. Neon-colored flowers burst open and reveal the water droplets they’ve managed to catch. Other living things, like frogs, birds and snakes, are just as vibrantly colored. In some cases, bright colors serve as a warning – they’re venomous – so you have to be careful. “Exotic” is a fine word to use to describe Caribbean Islands like SXM, especially if this environment is not your usual milieu. I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains in Ohio on the border of West Virginia. I find these things to be exotic.
People do live in these places, though. This is the backdrop behind the daily grind for some. It seems like many tourists fail to process this fact all the way through.
“How lucky you are to have been born on this island,” I hear them say to the cashier at the hotel gift shop. “It’s paradise!”
I have a single postcard for my nephew in hand. I send him one from every place I visit. He recently told me he’s outgrown these (he’s 13 now), but I haven’t. The person ahead of me in line, however, has just gone shopping in the gift shop. A 3D crystal laser-cut with the image of a palm tree, a box of small bottles of guavaberry liquor, island-shaped magnets, tie-dyed shirts, hemp and shell necklaces, shot glasses conveying humor that I’m convinced is only funny to those not yet old enough to drink and a suspicious-looking “island spice” kit. If nothing else, gift shop tourism is great for the local economy. And since people really do live on these islands, economy boosting is a good thing.
No paradise is without drawbacks and SXM isn’t an exception. The Dutch, French and Spanish fought bloody battles over this island in an attempt to claim it as their own. The Treaty of Concordia in 1648 divided the island in two, split between the Dutch Sint Maarten and French Saint Martin. The ghosts of these battles still haunt the island alongside those of piracy and slavery.
The devil had found a playground in my idle, afternoon mind. The rum flowed ubiquitously, but my vice was curiosity. Comfortably situated beneath Sonesta‘s beach parasol that seemed stretched beyond its own elasticity, my eyes glazed over with a keen sense of despondent beach-boredom. I pondered the island’s less sunny side, desiring to look past the coconut palms and azure waters and into the legacy of colonialism. I wanted to know SXM in a manner intimate enough to lend me multidimensional insight. Curious to find the seams in the picture-perfect tourism veneer, I began asking questions.
“Is anything here haunted?” I asked hotel employees in earnest, yet playfully enough that they could infer irony if they didn’t happen to be the superstitious type.
“Not that I know of, Miss Seward,” they answered, more often bemusedly than not. After much fruitless questioning, my inquiries were finally satisfied. “If anyone would know, it would be Ruby Bute.”
Ruby Bute is an Aruban-born painter, poet, writer and storyteller, among other things. She agreed to meet me at her art studio in St. Martin one afternoon, just before my departure. A friendly taxi driver named Gilbert drove me to the gallery, which is beside Ruby’s home. As we neared her grounds, the neighborhoods became increasingly farther apart and quieter. We wound our way toward the Friar’s Bay area. The gate to Ruby’s property was closed because it was her day off. By the time the gate was opened for us and we entered Silk Cotton Gallery, the surrounding land was unhindered by the types of urban constructions seen in downtown Philipsburg. Cows roamed freely and the grass on which they fed seemed just as free.
Ruby slowly made her way out of her yellow one-story home. A heavy mass of dreadlocks speckled with white and copper framed her face. She hollered a drawn-out greeting as she neared. Hunched over at her gallery’s entrance, she unlocked the door and announced that she wasn’t done with lunch, but that she’d return when she was.
By the time she came back from lunch, I knew her better than she knew me. I’d perused every colorfully expressive painting in her space, thumbed through her poetry book, picked out a few tokens to carry home with me and forgotten all about my ghost-story hunt. I felt my face flush upon remembering the request I’d made of Ruby. How embarrassing, I thought, to be on a beautiful island looking at beautiful local artwork and to now have to own up to my ghost hunting, my Mulder-esque conviction in the supernatural. My plight, clearly, is self-inflicted.
I couldn’t think of any transition that was not a non sequitur. How does one say, “Your art is great. So, about the ghosts…” without silencing a room? Ruby’s face washed over with intensity when she leaned into me, seeming to sense I had something on my mind. And so I made my case for ghost stories, legitimizing the query by pointing out how superstition and supernatural beliefs are intertwined with the history and culture of a place. Grabbing a fist-full of assorted hard candies from her gallery’s checkout counter, she waved me onto her front porch. The candies were glued to their wrappers from the island heat. I began picking the paper from the sticky sugar, embedding candy beneath my fingernails.
“Every nation has a story,” she said while interrupting herself to ask Gilbert to get a stick so that she might keep her playful dog busy and under better control. “It is a part of man to create the imagination.”
The mosquitoes were biting me in what appeared to be a premeditated team effort. Ruby continued speaking, her soft Caribbean lilt lending credence to the story she was telling.
“It is the other side of God: fearing. The unknown becomes mysterious. Those of us who are gifted to feel and see will feel and see. There are houses that the living cannot live in. They derive from the days of piracy, conquerors, slaves, the middle passage, the suffering of the people brought over.”
The land behind Ruby’s gallery is wild. Overgrown with brush and large iguanas; bright purple flowers were blossoming throughout the harsh expanse. The water is at the edge of the property but there wasn’t a path down to the beach. The land has been in Ruby’s family for generations but there is a reason, she said, that her plot of land in Friar’s Bay has yet to be cultivated the way much of the rest of the island has been.
“This is virgin land. Buried treasures on this spot, slaves were here, working the fields, lashed and killed. The edge of our property is where slaves were brought in and this energy exists. Treasures are buried here. Pirates always had a slave who had to do the work. So the pirate has the slave’s head cut off so the head can stay with the treasure – so he can watch over the treasure,” she explained. There’s probably another reason pirates cut off the heads of slaves who dug holes for their treasure, I thought to myself. Keeping hidden treasures hidden is the best way to avoid sharing.
Ruby told me that her grandfather was once beckoned by a vision, perhaps a ghost of a sort, to dig up treasure. He was awakened by a vision telling him the exact day and time that he was to seek out the treasure. He conveyed the message to his family members and went but there was no treasure to be found. Ruby won’t dig for it herself. She declares, apotropaically perhaps, that she hopes the treasure, if it exists at all, is never found. Some sleeping dogs should be left to lie.
The afternoon whiled away. Ruby pulled me aside as I stood up to leave.
“Why are you so interested? Why do you come here asking about the ghosts? You have got to focus on the positive. The negative will follow you when you start looking for it,” she warned me.
Her words followed me for days and I knew them to be true. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d committed some atrocious faux pas in going to such a lovely place and finding myself interested in the not so lovely.
Still, the images of Ruby’s face and art, and the sound of her voice are inextricably linked in my mind to the island she calls home. To me, her stories and her warning gave SXM the context I was looking for, lending a sense of realism to a place in which most find escapism. People go there to get away. To have a vacation is to have rest and to escape what makes us uncomfortable. In most cases, a vacation is not a time to ask about ghosts. By this definition, a vacation is not the means through which one seeks acquaintance with a place beyond the superficial. To have an experience, however, is something else entirely. I don’t regret “following the negative” in this regard. Where a vacation implies traveling to one place for the sake of vacating another, an experience implies traveling to one place for the sake of occupying it and getting to know it from multiple angles – not just the flattering ones. I will always remember Ruby’s words. To me, St. Martin/St. Maarten will always be much more than the sun, sand and sea.