In the British Virgin Islands, a Lesson on Loving Your Backyard
What’s in your backyard?
When the pandemic hit, he added another title: tour guide. Stuck in lockdown at home, he turned to the familiar outdoors for comfort, broadcasting educational nature walks to his friends on Facebook. It sparked interest and eventually led to Hastings creating a new company: Eco Adventures BVI, born out of the interest of locals wanting to know more about their own country, an inspiring example of making lemonade out of pandemic lemons. And in Mervin’s case, it’s also literal—at the end of his tours, he offers guests local soursop and passion fruit juices and, yup, homemade lemonade. As told to Vanita Salisbury.
Growing up with my grandmother, we mostly used herbal remedies. So if I had a cold or the common flu, if I had a headache or my stomach hurt, my grandma would take me outside and show me the plants you would need to brew into teas good for that [ailment]. If I had a headache, we would use crab bush; if I had a fever, we would use lemongrass; if I had the flu, we would use the crab bush or the blackwater bush.
From the age of six, I was snorkeling, diving, fishing, doing all of that stuff. My parents were part-owners of campgrounds in Brewers Bay. So from the time I was a young teenager, I would take campers to the pineapple farms, to the batcaves, out diving on excursions. At a previous job with the Conservation and Fisheries, we would do a summer program where we would take students ages eight to 16 out in the field and teach them botany, and about the environment. So I’ve been doing this tour-guide stuff for quite a while.
This Eco Adventures BVI tour company, though, came about because of Covid. I was stuck in Brewers Bay so I was like, let me start doing what I was doing as a kid, let me go out and start walking around. Because I was bored! I went on Facebook Live to show my friends what I was doing, and it was a hit. Even though I was on lockdown, I was out showing people that there’s stuff in the BVI to do. I started getting some feedback, like, “Wow, we didn’t know that the BVI had all those caves; wow, we didn’t know the BVI had this or that.” And I had friends telling me, “Mervin, I want to go with you.” So I started off taking a few friends with me, and they said, “Mervin, I would pay for this.” And I said, “Really now!”
It was very surprising that people who had been in the BVI their entire lives didn’t know we had a bat cave, or a bamboo meadow. They didn’t know about the endemic species of plants or the herbal remedies we have available on the island. So basically I started doing my job, but on tours. I started teaching my guests about what I learned from my work, and my grandmother. And I love history, so I started teaching them about the history of the BVI.
A lot of people didn’t know that [the island of] Tortola got its name from the Dutch, and not the turtle dove, which is our national bird. The Dutch came to the Virgin Islands in 1653, and these were Dutch islands for 22 years. People who came to Tortola came from northwestern Holland, and there’s a peninsula there called Tholen. So the guys called it “New Land of Tholen.” Over the years, Ter Tholen became Tortola.
People like to hear stuff like that. They’re interested in hearing about the cholera epidemic that hit us, and slavery—where our ancestors came from. We came from two tribes in Africa: the Akan tribe and the Igbo tribe. So if anyone from Tortola wants to trace their heritage back to Africa, those are the two tribes they would want to look into. And I just give them a little bit of history: from 1720 to 1800, there was a total of just about 6,000 slaves brought into the Virgin Islands.
I love to get people involved, especially students. I like to pick up animals, I like to pick up plants, I like people to smell the plants. You remember things from your senses: from smelling, from touching, from feeling. The Virgin Islanders are very religious people, so they don’t like snakes. Snakes are satanic. I love snakes, so I enjoy taking students out and collecting snakes and showing them the snakes are harmless.
I tell them the boa is endemic to the Virgin Islands; please don’t kill it if you see one. Here’s the Puerto Rican Racer, please don’t kill it; they have their purpose in the environment. Even the termites. I offer the termites for people to taste, but not many people take me up on it. A lot of people take samples of bush medicine, though.
I’m not the only one who started up a business like this during the pandemic. There’s another company called Hike BVI, [the owner is] a friend of mine; there’s another group called Heritage Tours. I consider myself to be doing guided educational tours. Currently I have about eight different tour routes, and I’m always expanding. I try not to take more than 25 people at a time. The maximum I’ve taken is 40. But if I’m by myself, I feel comfortable with 15. The local rate is $20 for an adult, $10 for students. If you’re visiting, tourists pay more. They pay $40 [for adults] and $20 for kids. And I require a minimum of five people to book a tour.
I hope people get a love for nature and the BVI out of the tours. I’m actually very happy that we get a lot of locals coming on our tours because I’m teaching that the environment is very important in the BVI. A lot of people don’t have a love for the environment, but they’re seeing that the BVI has a lot to offer. You don’t have to jump on a plane; you can do a staycation.
And believe it or not, I have a lot of people who are now not killing snakes! I now have people who call me and say, “Mervin, can you come and get this snake?” I’ve had at least two requests to come and remove snakes from people’s homes. They’re not killing them, so I’m happy for that.