ISSUE 102  |  Winter Lights

An English Gardener in the Tropics: 7 Seashell Ornaments, 5 Painted Coconuts, 3 Kids and No Partridge in a Pear Tree

December 15, 2013 11:00 AM

BY Clemmie Hambro

The story so far: A few weeks ago, I upended everyone, took the children out of school, put the dog in a crate, packed up all our t-shirts, shorts, and swimmers, rented out my house, and rented another one in the Bahamas. For six months. And now the children want Christmas.

Here are a few things that I have discovered about living on an island: You are constantly panic buying. The ephemeral boat comes in on a Wednesday.  However, sometimes the boat does not come due to high winds or other mysterious forces. So sometimes the boat comes at a different time or not at all.  So, you wander into Captain Bob’s to buy a pint of milk and lo, there are organic eggs.  You don’t know when they will be in again so let’s pop a couple of trays in the trolley. 

And look, he has those nice cookies in.  He hasn’t had those for a while, so let’s take them while we can.  And that broccoli still looks half alive, let’s take that and oh, some strawberries– do you think he will have strawberries next week? No? OK, let’s grab them now in case we have a desperate need.  Cheerios? We only have seven boxes in the cupboard.  What if we run out because the boat doesn’t come? What if we starve?

Before you know it, you have a trolley full of stuff you never know if you might need, half the stuff you do need, and another half of stuff you never knew you needed and a bill of $300. Conversely, you become microscopically, fanatically, obsessively aware of rubbish.  When you are living on a postage stamp in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, your awareness that all this “stuff” having absolutely nowhere to go becomes acute.

There is no recycling, no sorting, and no education on the topic.  Nothing.  Just lots of waste. I have become the crazy lady who refuses to take a plastic bag despite having 36 items at the checkout (see panic buying above). But feeling Christmassy? Not so much.

Above: Photograph by Clemmie Hambro.

Christmas means that it is very, very cold outside, with lots of re-runs on the telly, and often, the flu. It does not mean padding around in flip-flops looking at the beach, no matter how many blow-up snowmen are on top of the Piggly Wiggly.  No matter how many gardens I look at stuffed with illuminated reindeer and dinosaurs (no, I am not kidding), I have found it difficult to “get in the mood.”  I don’t even feel nostalgic.  I just don’t feel it.

But the children.  Oh, pity the poor children– I had to get a grip and get decorating.  But with what, exactly? Our luggage was overweight just with the swimsuits.  I wasn’t going to ship over the decorations; I was too busy shipping my dog.  So what with the panicking about trash all the time, and in the spirit of adventure and wanting to do something different… I decided to set us a few rules.  

1. Nothing was to be bought that was not going to come home with us;  i.e.: I had to like it enough to want to pay even more excess luggage.  Except lights.  No one can get through Christmas without fairy lights (US electricals do not work well in the UK).

2. Everything else had to be either sourced from the environment or be biodegradable.

Above: Photograph by Clemmie Hambro.

And the results have been surprisingly Christmassy.  Pared back compared to my usual festive explosion of garlands, fruit, candles, lanterns, and an overwhelming excess of baubles collected over the years, but definitely Christmassy and relevant to where we are and what we are doing.  So, instead of baubles, on the advice of a friend we went shelling and then during the course of a happy morning, these were doused in glue and glitter and are now hanging on the tree, twinkling.  

I have spray painted coconuts and dead bits of palm that look pleasingly like coral.  We seem to have gone back to the days of ancient man, when evergreen branches were bought in to give shelter to the spirits of nature, who were believed to have scarpered during the hard winter.  There is no icy snow here, but I kept a pair of snippers in my golf buggy and have been darting out here and there, trimming bits of plants that look, well, festive.

Like the pepper berry, which kindly has green leaves and red berries and remind one of vaguely of holly (if you close your eyes and squint). I found a lovely lady who is making the girls Christmas stockings out of straw-work, with their names woven through.  This Christmas is different in its simplicity, but exciting for it and will I hope be one they remember forever.  I love it.  It feels light and easy and calm.  And creating its look was fun, and something that we did all together as a family, which of course is what Christmas is all about.  

Did you miss the first installment of Clemmie Hambro’s adventures abroad? See 6 Months, 3 Kids, 1 Dog on a Tropical Island.