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Crabs in A Bucket

May 23, 2012

Meeting Nickola at the Grape Tree Cafe in Bodden Town

You’ll eat whatever they’ve cooked up…and that’s it!

We decided to meet at the Grape Tree Cafe in Bodden Town.  While I waited for Nickola to pull up, rain drizzled on my head and I snapped a few shots of the thatched hut I’d heard so much about.  I’d been waiting to experience the “Fish Fry” promoted on a roadside chalk board ever since we arrived on the island.  And I couldn’t have dreamed up a better time to do it.  I’d never imagined my search for Nickola ending with an impromptu lunch.  But all things happen as they should…and this lunch is really what Travel Gal is all about.  Serendipitous encounters with real people in real places…and I was standing in the rain waiting for the next one to begin.

Just then, a pickup truck pulled in and I saw her behind the glass waving hardily as if she knew me.  (Ironically, this enthusiastic wave only came about because she thought I was someone else.  🙂  I found this out later when we met some of her other friends.)  But who am I to question it, so I swooped that wave right up and didn’t hesitate to raise my arm and start waving back.   She opened her doors and her son jumped on her back to ride on over to greet me.  TJ, her son, wore a smile that would light up the universe.

“Would you like to just sit here and talk?” said Nickola.
“No,” I said, “Let’s eat.  It’s my treat.  What would you like?”

Fried Grouper…delicious!

We both ordered the grouper and made our way to one of the thatch roofed tables.

As I listened intently to Nickola recount her life’s story, I couldn’t help but to say “Your life is like ‘Crabs in a Jar,’ as one of the crabs gets closer to reaching the top, the other crabs grasp onto its feet and pull it back down to the bottom.”

“The saying on the island is ‘Crabs in a Bucket.’ And yes, that’s exactly what it feels like.”

Typically, when I think of ‘Crabs in a Bucket,’ I focus on the crabs below pulling back and not the crab that’s grasping on for its life.  But I urge you when thinking about Nickola, to remember the spirit of the crab holding on to the highest point of the bucket.  For that crab, is filled with aspirations.  It knows that with enough will, it can find something better.  And that letting go, just isn’t an option.  That crab has the strength to fight and the courage to accomplish what no one else thinks it can.  That crab is not willing to accept a lesser fate.  The spirit of the survivor is strong within that soul and it doesn’t take long after meeting Nickola to see the spirit of that crab shine from her eyes.

You see, Nickola’s life hasn’t been an easy one.  From an early age, she was forced into survival mode and it hasn’t stopped ever since.  She grew up the oldest sibling of four with an abusive father and a mother that just couldn’t handle the responsibilities of raising a family on her own.  So at the age of 5, she, along with her siblings, was dropped off at an orphanage to live.  This is where Nickola’s sense of ‘taking care of everyone’ was instilled.  In between changing diapers and making sure her siblings were fed and looked after, she used her imagination as a place to escape the world around her.  And that imagination wanted present itself in the form of art.  So she drew, sketched, painted and/or etched her visions with, and on, whatever materials and mediums she could find.  But in order to survive, she drifted away from her passion in art for a time.  She worked in many areas including being a police officer, a dive instructor, a postal worker, an insurance administrator and a teacher.  She hit a turning point when she suffered a spinal injury and was immobile for 3 months and underwent intense physiotherapy.  It was then that she turned back to her first love, the arts.  I’m guessing, in part, that she looked for ‘other’ work as she was always told that ‘art’ was a waste of time.  But I could be totally wrong on that.  I do know that she did not receive any positive support from her family when she made the choice to pursue her self-taught talent.  In spite of being beaten down emotionally, she pursued it anyway.

“People suffer for their art.  Being an artist isn’t necessarily a choice, it’s what you do because you can’t live without doing it.”  She said as we continued to talk.

Now, little TJ was fast asleep in his mom’s arms as she continued to share her story with me.  And how amazing is it that TJ was born at only 21 weeks.  This little guy had to spent his first year of life in a hospital fighting for his life, while she and Mo, her husband, actively fought by his side.  Nickola’s art actually made it possible for him to get the care he needed.  Without it, they wouldn’t have been able to pay for the mounting bills.  TJ and Nickola have a series of health issues that they battle every day.  But in spite of their struggles, they persevere.  It seems TJ has inherited the spirit of survival from his mom.  As I mentioned before, I was most taken by TJ’s gleaming smile.  You wouldn’t know he had any struggles from the way he shined.

Just as Nickola went on to share stories of her childhood friends, who are artists from Cayman as well, one pulled up in the gas station next to us.  How’s that for serendipitous?  Nickola called out to him and up walked Randy Chollette and his spunky wife Nasaria.  Randy is another amazing self-taught artist on the island.  And his wife, is the educational coordinator at the National Museum and an artist herself.  Here I was surrounded by some of the islands most premiere talents.  And yes…I was loving every minute of it.  Here’s a pic of the crew that afternoon at the Grape Tree Cafe.

My new friends

Once Randy and Nasaria arrived the energy rose to a whole new level.  I got to share my hopes for Travel Gal with them and they entertained me with the stories of the East vs. West cooking competition.

“People on the West side are always running so fast, they don’t take the time to do things right,”  said Nasaria.  This lead into a more detailed overview of the difference between how the West siders prepare Turtle and Fish in comparison to the East side.  “I just don’t get anyone that would rather use coconut from a can than to pick it fresh off the tree.  That’s just sacrilegious in my book.”

Now I ask you…how could you not be entertained by this woman?  Pure gold kept spinning from her lips.  And from the descriptions and the humorous banter between them all…my future on the island will only include the East side cuisine.  🙂  Thanks Nasaria for that gem of a tip.

Randy and Nasaria went on their way and we got back into our conversation.

“So Nickola, if I come here with a group on a Travel Gal Adventure, would you be willing to teach the workshop portion of the package?”

“YES, and not only me but I would ask Randy and Gordon Solomon to join in too.  We can do the workshops at my house and possibly at Gordon’s as well.  We all have different things we can share.  And we’ll take your guests on a tour of the island to see and experience the things we loved growing up here.”

I honestly can’t even describe what went through my head as Nickola described what would happen here.  But I can tell you that I’ve now decided that the very first Travel Gal adventure simply must be to Grand Cayman to meet and work with these amazing artists.  I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to see their work in person and bring a piece home…but that doesn’t matter for now.  I shared a special experience with them on the beach that day.  Someday soon, I will be adding a piece of Nickola’s spirit to my home, when I proudly purchase one of her works.

Nickola had the courage to share stories with me that you might not just openly share with a stranger.  We talked about TJ’s battle to survive, her challenging childhood, the opening and closing of her gallery on the island, how she met her amazing husband Mo and of course, what other local artists she’s inspired by.  We also spent some time talking about the politics on the island and the importance of speaking your mind without fear of the consequences, which she does whenever the opportunity presents itself.

I will forever remember our time on the beach in Bodden Town.  The time we first met.  The time I knew, your voice and your art must be shared.  And the time I knew I would, in my own small little way, be a part of sharing it.  What an honor!  Thank you Nickola…for opening your heart to me, for sharing a part of yourself and for being so completely open to helping me share my passion for art and culture with others.

Now to all of you reading this long ass post, I can’t possible tell you everything we discussed while we ate our fried grouper that day.  I’d rather save something for you to discover on your own, WHEN YOU JOIN ME ON THE ISLAND.  Stay tuned…the planning now begins!!!  Who wants in on this adventure?

In case you’re interested, here’s an artist statement of  Nickola’s I found online.  It might be a bit dated…but I think you’ll enjoy a glimpse into her spirit.

“I believe that art is an alternative language and is universal. No words are needed. It is as old as time and as relative as the earth is round. I believe in the power of art to conceal, to heal, to reveal and to conceive. My work represents the ever revolving door of the human mind’s desire to dream, and imagine, to examine and determine. I will not limit myself for the pleasure or the pockets of anyone. My work is of me and is me. It has always been, and will always remain, me and the world as I perceive it. I will continue to create for the pure pleasure I get from producing what is uniquely mine, as it is conceived and birthed in my mind’s eye. This is my oath to myself and to all who may find a moment of beauty or mystery in my work. Let your mind too be challenged by what is uniquely yours, your mind and your vision. No one on this earth has your view and no one can tell you what you feel is wrong because it belongs to you and you alone. Challenge the world and its perceived notions of beauty… yourself, as only you can!”

And let’s not forget Randy Chollette….

And that character Nasaria…,1820063&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 23, 2012 8:06 pm

    Hiya, it’s me just wanted to say thanks for the write up. I hope you still have my email..Tj got a hold of my bag once we got in the truck and due to the fact that your card had an aeroplane on was decimated. Please get in touch with me at so we can catch up and sort out the next TravelGal experience. Nikki McCoy

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