The Continuing Adventures of TikiMon and Irie Girl

May 26, 2019   Renn Loren

A Note to Friends and Loved Ones from the Caribbean…

For any of our fellow tropicalians out there who may have wondered where we’d gone in a whatever happened to… sort of way, here’s the story.

After spending nearly two years living in the Southwestern region of Louisiana on the East Texas border as a writer and online entrepreneur, we moved to the Dominican Republic.

The trop-rock scene of Punta Gorda Florida and even Key West had dried up. It had become increasingly difficult to land gigs as more and more karaoke playback acts grabbed up bookings and rendered the traditional troubadour with an acoustic guitar and a clutch of songs obsolete and suddenly anachronistic.

The last straw was when Melinda and I were strolling the nearby beach walk and heard a very full-sounding group up at the club that looked out over Charlotte Harbor bay. On closer inspection, the “group” turned out to be four characters singing harmonies to a karaoke backup accompaniment. I’d been trying for a long time to get a booking at that club and suddenly realized why I couldn’t get in.

I was playing my usual gig at TT’s Tiki Bar when I overheard some clown’s comment about acoustic guitar music sounding like “Unplugged” from the ‘90s as if it was an antiquated outdated form. That did it for me. No self-respecting musician worth their weight in rum and lost weekends should ever have to suffer that level of ignorance and stupidity! A few other incidents sealed the deal. I was getting a lot of booking offers from out west and decided to pursue those instead of trudging along fighting what had become an increasingly losing battle in Florida.

We bought an RV and hit the road west to Lake Charles, Louisiana. Perched on the border of East Texas, Lake Charles offered a good centrally-based location with New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette out to the east and Beaumont, Kemah, Port Arthur, Port Neches, and Galveston, Texas to the Southwest.

For a while, I was able to do quite well with bookings all around the region and even managed to form a highly talented band: Renn Loren & the Honky Tonk Surf Riders. I also booked frequently as a duo with my pedal steel player Johnny Briggs. There were also many solo dates at trop-rock clubs in Beaumont and the Port Neches River. But little by little we began to be pushed out by some kind of clannish booking of Cajun artists, bands, and music over anything else. Friends of friends who were booking. I decided just to write and quit trying to fight for live bookings.

My girlfriend Melinda (Irie Girl) and I had been living in Kershaw’s Cajun Village, an RV park out on the rural edge of Lake Charles, Louisiana. Owner Rodney is a nephew of the legendary musical Kershaw family: Sammy and Doug.

Rodney with uncle Doug at Loggerheads, Lake Charles

When I moved into the camp, it gave him a great excuse to work on his accordion playing and singing, at which he was pretty good.

It was much like one might imagine what living in a gypsy caravan to be. The camp was bounded by lush green trees, brush, bushes, and grasses. A tributary of the Calcasieu River ran along the western edge of the camp. The huge dancehall auditorium sat 100 yards across a brilliantly green grass field at the southern end bordered by East Prien Lake Road. Chennault International Airport lay one and a half miles to the east. The sound of the bird chasing scattershot could be heard blasting out of the speakers at the crack of dawn. The Mexican Gulf was 30-35 miles to our south as the crow flew. The wetlands and channels began much closer to us.

Moonrise at sunset in the ever-changing skies above Kershaw’s

Although the lots and roads were a blindingly bright white gravel, there was plentiful greenery, flora, and patches, strips, and carpets of grass around it all. The often pounding driving rains would disappear quickly draining through the gravel. Even after the most torrential downpours, there would only be a few milky-white puddles in the roads and gravel areas, and small rivulets streaming away in the drainage culverts about camp. Enough water remained in some of the drainage ditches that algae grew and tadpoles of various frogs developed. The water beetles kept a check on any wrigglers.

Vintage Trailer Row at Kershaw’s Cajun Village

The terrain was flat as a billiard table but the skies were ever-changing and often ablaze with orange, coral, pink, and fiery hues. Many of the evening and morning skies were otherworldly in their sun-dappled beauty.

On many evenings there were gatherings ’round campfires with drinks and music flowing. I would strum my acoustic guitar and Rodney would join on his Cajun accordion. Everyone would sing or clap along into the early hours of the night.

Me on my trusty Ibanez acoustic accompanied by Rodney on Cajun accordion at camp. Steven looks on from the lower left.

We enjoyed our fellow campers. Many were having tough times. But they never seemed to lose their sense of humor in spite of it all, and I found that inspirational. Because of Rodney’s sense of humanity and generosity, there was an exceptional and unique feeling in the camp. One knew one was amongst friends. And Rodney himself was one of the best of them.

Rodney would frequently invite Melinda and I to the Cajun dances at the massive dancehall that was part of the camp. There was always a good band, tasty jambalaya, grilled chicken, and rice and beans, along with beer, coffee, and sodas. Sometimes there were crawfish feasts. It was an oddly improbable combination of strange and fun. The Cajuns are a very clannish lot and tend to stick together. There was often the sensation of being on the outside looking in, while still somehow being a part of it. Rodney and his friends were warm and inclusive. It was always a kick to watch Rodney dance with the various ladies and take part in the raffles.

Some of my fondest recollections of those times were when Melinda and I would meet Rodney out by a large old weathered, jeans-polished tree trunk on which we would sit and eat the cheeseburgers we would sometimes buy for us all.

We’d talk about camp, Rod’s plans for it, the constant peaceful battle with the beavers and their dams, his work crews, disputes and histories of the other campers, my latest writing assignments, and music. Sometimes I would have my ukulele or guitar and strum a bit. But very rarely would I do that. By that time, I’d eased entirely and totally out of music to focus more exclusively on my then-new writing career.

And though Rodney thoroughly respected and honored that, I also knew that he thought I was somehow out of my mind for having quit music. Therefore I agreed to back him on guitar and vocals for any gigs that he may wish to do. So whenever Rodney played I would back him up. I loved those East Texas gigs with Rodney.

Rodney keepin’ it Cajun with trusty Ibanez-wielding sidekick and backing band.

One gig-free evening I went to the Blue Dog Cafe. Melinda and I were having some drinks, reveling in the cool of an early eve the first week of March. Brad Goins, the chief editor of Lagniappe Magazine, was also there having drinks with his wife, Nydia. Brad had written a review of my album for the magazine which is the most-read printed publication in the region. I noticed he was drinking something very similar to my drink and decided to strike up a conversation. It quickly drifted to music. We got into a bracingly good discussion about all manner of pivotal rock, folk, and country artists: old and new.

Brad mentioned something about my apparent encyclopedic knowledge of music. I asked if there was an opening for a talented music journalist at Lagniappe. He handed me his card and told me to give him a call or an email – my choice.

My pedal steel guitarist Johnny Briggs and I were playing the Blue Dog Cafe, Luna’s courtyard stage and the main club, an enjoyable club called Junction 171, a fun golf club cafe, and at Rita’s Landing on Big Lake out south of town. We also had a couple of gigs at the hardcore honky-tonk that was Mary’s Lounge. They were fun gigs, and we even had the band at the golf club and a couple of other clubs. We played in Galveston too. We quit Blue Dog Cafe after a run-in over volume (which the house controlled) with the manager.

I had a lot of gigs out in East Texas: mainly in Kemah at Tom’s Smokehouse and another tiki bar, Tia Juanita’s Fish Camp and other clubs in Beaumont, and the Port Neches River Wheelhouse. Johnny and I played a few dates at Loggerheads with our band and Rikenjaks Brew Pub, but they were both Cajun hipster (oxymoron if ever there was one!) joints and soon the Cajun music local heroes took over.

The gigs soon dwindled out, and only Cajun bands seemed to get all the concerts.

A few weeks went by, and I suddenly found Brad’s card in a shirt pocket. I wrote an email asking if there was ay writing I could do for him and Lagniappe. To my surprise and great pleasure, he had an idea he wanted to run by me. A day or two later, he wrote back with an offer that I write a column about the upcoming artists who were scheduled to play at the Golden Nugget casino. Of course, I was thrilled and started right away.

I ended up writing about Willie Nelson, America and interviewing Harry Wayne Casey: KC of the Sunshine Band for my first few columns. They were a hit with the readers, so I was signed on and went on to cover many other significant artists, town events, and human interest stories. I even got to do a cover story about Stephen Staples, the owner of the legendary vintage guitar shop in New Orleans.

I loved my writing job and was able to completely drop out of music. Dropping out of music meant that I was utterly free to devote my full focus to literary and journalistic writing – which I did with wildly fanatic enthusiasm.

Although I had officially quit music, I was still playing occasional gigs for our friend Susan’s Tia Juanita’s Fish Camp restaurant and Luna’s courtyard stage.

A new political climate had seized America, and the nation just became way too weird. I couldn’t stand all the division, hate, hostility, confusion, and chaos that only seemed to be increasing with each month.

Some odd racially-tinged moments and incidents were happening a little too often around town and I felt the instinct to move on.

Even so, thanks to great friends and supporters such as Sunny Jim White, Chris Rehm, and Jerry Diaz, I went on to play some very significant and prestigious events such as the Six String Songwriters Festival in New Orleans. Booked initially at Margaritaville, it ended up being held at the Tropical Isle club because Margaritaville’s lease had lapsed. Soon after, I was invited by Jerry Diaz to play the annual massively attended, highly coveted Meeting of the Minds Parrothead gathering in Key West.

I joined Jerry Diaz for a few more sit-in dates and a couple with Donnie Brewer at Port Neches River Wheelhouse (where I frequently played) and Austin, Texas. I also made one last monumental recording with the legendary producer Bill Halverson at Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberley, Texas.

That was to be one beautiful and memorable last hurrah.

Yellow Dog is out in the wild dry sage canyon, and river washed countryside of Central Texas. There were herds of deer that would come right up to the wooden slat porch decking in the mornings and evenings.

We recorded five of my songs and lived in the studio. There was a lot of time to hang out and hear Bill’s stories and recollections of his mythologically legendary career. We even got Augie Meyers to come in and contribute some accordion, keyboards and sing some vocals on my songs. Bill said it was a great sign that Augie was inspired enough by the songs to sing some vocals.

Augie about to lay down some of his signature Farfisa organ triplets
The incomparable Augie Meyers of Sir Douglas Quintet, Bob Dylan, and the Texas Tornados adding some of his trademark Tex-Mex accordion style to my recordings at Yellow Dog

Augie had so much fun at the recording sessions that he agreed to let me rewrite lyrics for his huge Scandinavian hit song “Meet Me in Stockholm” which I rewrote as “Meet Me in Key West.” I couldn’t get any interest in it from any record labels – as the whole music business had collapsed from record labels and CD/album sales to radio airplay. It seemed a good time to call it a day with music and drifted nonchalantly off into the sunset. No fanfare, no fuss: just over and out.

I was relatively content and resigned to my gypsy caravan writer’s life living on the verdant grass-lined banks of a tributary of the ubiquitous Calcasieu River in Rodney’s village. Even though the camp was in the countryside, it was also just around the corner from everything we could need. From 7-layer burritos, electronics, and chemical portable toilet solutions, cat treats and camp chairs to running shoes, Russell Dri Power t-shirts, and inflatable kayaks: it was all within a mile of camp. There was Home Depot, Petsmart, Lowes, all kinds of clothing and electronic shops, Academy Sports + Outdoors, and Walmart. There were also all kinds of fast food places from Taco Bell to Sonic and some great Mexican restaurants right around the corner as well.

Wetlands, shipping channels, and ultimately the Mexican Gulf were nearby
Our kayaking companions

We were pleasantly situated at the edge of the wild wetlands, shipping channels, canals, and quite close to the gulf itself. Irie Girl and I would often paddle our kayak around the shipping channels and other waterways, ride with the dolphins, explore sandbars and islands and chat with people on the large boats and ships from our kayak below. We would also ride our bikes around the quiet back roads taking in the lush green of the land: the ever-changing skyscapes adding a welcome dimension to the flatness. The biggest downside was the occasional terrible tornado-packing thunderstorms that charged through the region more often than one would wish.

Pink dolphin surfing bow wave in Calcasieu Shipping channel

All things considered, Kershaw’s Cajun Village was ideally situated and located for our lifestyle.

We took a long trip out to Central California, where I connected with a local reggae-rock band and played a few gigs. Irie Girl and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves there, and there would have been a possibility to get something going both with my pedal steel-playing pal Johnny Briggs and the band. Johnny and I could play club gigs with the backing band and as a duo at the vineyard gigs which were exceptionally good jobs and even supported by radio broadcasts.

We were also considering a move to either Albuquerque or Santa Fe, New Mexico. There was a lot of opportunity for my brand of music in Central California, New Mexico, and Arizona. There were highly receptive crowds and radio support from some refreshingly tasty stations. Mexico would have been more of a retirement situation. But at least semi-retirement was beginning to appeal. And there was the added issue of the cost of living to be considered.

Central California is relatively unaffordable. Even to camp there in an RV park costs more than a thousand dollars per month. Over $1200/month just to park an RV. Add vehicle insurance, health insurance, and food to that and it’s basically unaffordable. At least it’s very poor value for one’s buck.

New Mexico was more affordable and near to Colorado. But Arizona was the most affordable of all as I had a friend who has a remote desert RV park for $200/month. That was extremely appealing and very feasible.

We had narrowed our destinations down to the desert wilds of Arizona or the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. We were leaning towards and favoring the move to Mexico. I have some trop-rock friends who live in San Carlos on the shores of the Sea of Cortez and a bass player living in Puerto Vallarta.

I pictured us in our RV with me writing for some local expat newsletters or newspapers, and playing whatever occasional gigs I might be able to chase down in the cantinas around the area with my friends.

Ultimately the vision I had was of myself disappearing anticlimactically into a cocktail blurry misted oblivion of tropical sunsets at tiki bars strumming an instrument or pounding out some halfway meaningful prose on a keyboard. And although I imagined my slow fade out happening in the most uncelebrated way, there is, against all odds, a quite improbably beautiful lady along for my ride into the tropical tiki bar sunset.

Melinda and I had begun packing and storing all unnecessary things away and readying the RV for the trip. We decided on Arizona first. From that base, I could easily play New Mexico and California. From Arizona, it was also an easy drive down to check out San Carlos. I figured we could spend some time in Arizona – a few years or so and then move on down to San Carlos for our final destination. If the lack of beach life got to be too unbearable in Arizona, we could head out for San Carlos in a flash.

The only downside to San Carlos was that with all the American expat development, prices – including rent had risen. From all my continued and combined traveling, I have found that rising prices and their corresponding costs of living are the scourge of the world.

Suddenly out of the blue, amidst our packing, an old acquaintance from the trop-rock circuit named Brian contacted me. He contacted me after discovering that I was behind programming and supplying the music of his favorite trop-rock radio station.

He found this out the hard way.

Brian had built his Tiki Island Radio Bar & Grill; the deal being the radio station would be part of it. The radio station backed out of the move because it couldn’t continue programming fresh new content. It couldn’t do this because I had provided 90% of the music library, storylines, catch-phrases, and the music formatting concept.

So Brian asked if I would help him get it all back on track at his club in the Dominican Republic.

The deal was for me to program, format, and manage Paradise 102 FM radio station in Sosúa. For this, I was to receive food, drinks, lodging, and all the income generated from sponsors.

The proposal ideally suited our plans for a move. That it was outside of the US was a significant plus. I had a bit of hesitation about Brian, however. I had the feeling that he could become a problem quickly. I didn’t feel he was dependable. And mostly I felt that his hard-right conservative midwestern viewpoints might ultimately become too much with which to deal. But I knew that our success in the DR would not be entirely dependent on the radio station job. We were independent with online jobs. I was still writing, and Melinda had an excellent job with Car Dash back then.

I saw the DR as a perfect backdrop and environment to develop and further my writing career. My philosophy was to view Brian’s offer as a catalyst rather than a reality. It was a perfect motivation and opportunity to spur on and enable us to move.

We sure didn’t expect it all to fall apart as quickly as it did though! We headed down to the town of Sosúa on the north coast of the Dominican Republic on August 11th, 2017.

Brian kept on putting off his arrival with a flurry of varying excuses. But at the same time, he kept asking us to find lodgings using his “friends’” rental agencies. So we were getting very mixed messages. It sounded as if he was definitely on his way, but the dates and plans kept changing.

I went to check the club out and ended up getting the whole story from the realtor who leased the property. I knew then that Brian wasn’t coming and began making arrangements for more permanent long term dwellings.

To keep the costs down, I had booked our first week in an unairconditioned apartment at the Mary Rose Hotel. You might think that mid-August in the Caribbean would be pretty unbearable without AC. And you might typically be right about that – especially at night. But amazingly, we had just left Southwestern Louisiana bordering East Texas where temperatures were in the 100’sF and with humidity levels consistently above 90%.

Mary Rose was cozy and friendly. There was a fantastic outdoor lounge on the second floor where we worked on all our correspondence and other laptop chores. The breezes were beautifully refreshing. At night the winds would ease up but the humidity wasn’t too high, the temps were in the lower 80sF and with the ceiling fans on and windows wide open it wasn’t all that bad.

What was bad was that we now needed to find independent lodgings and bear the full costs ourselves. Suddenly we would need to come up with at least $500-$800 extra dollars each month. Not only were we abruptly hit with the additional expenses; we were also down $1500-$2000/month of income that would have come from the radio job. Ouch!

One of the reasons I had booked the Mary Rose condos was that they offered long term rentals, which I thought might come in handy just in case. And now, four days after having arrived in a whole new Spanish-speaking world with two cats and a dog, it was just in case time.

We couldn’t have ended up in a better location. Our long-term quarters would be the Trade Winds. The aptly named Trade Winds sit on a hill at the eastern edge of town on the highway leading to the windsurfing hotspot of Cabarete to the east and coming in from Puerto Plata to the west. The wind-cooled condos are 150 yards up the hill from the Super Pola supermarket and the magnificent Nelson’s Bistro Lounge just across the street from Pola. And then there is George’s Oasis Bar at 70 feet on up the hill to the north and across the road from our front door. We also have a small colmado (local market) another 50 feet up the road from George’s where we stock up on beer, wine, rum, coconut sodas, cheese, sausages, water, and other staples and treats.

Highly animated, smiling Haitian ladies bring fresh fruits and avocados to our door daily via baskets borne on their heads.

With our prime location, we don’t need a car. We take taxis or buses if we need to go far.

I’d lost my writing gig at Lagniappe. The owners found it too bothersome to navigate all the maneuvers required for the online banking necessary to get my payments to me down in the DR. Oh well, I had a great run at Lagniappe Magazine. It was an incredible experience and an excellent opportunity to develop some interviewing and researching techniques, and writing chops.

I will forever be indebted and grateful to Brad Goins for having given me that golden opportunity which has placed me squarely on my path as a professional writer. Thanks, Brad, Bob, and Greg too.

So, much to my avid opposition, I began playing live music gigs again for income. I continued to write and submit to various publications and landed a few bits and pieces here and there. Surprisingly the music bookings rolled in. My live performances took off. Before long I was making decent money strumming my ukulele and howling in tiki huts on the beach.

Back to the islands

At the same time, I continued to write voraciously and prolifically while pursuing all publication opportunities.

Effort and persistence finally paid off when the national English-speaking newspaper Dominican Today hired me on a part-time basis to edit, fix, correct, and even rewrite articles.

After a few months, I pitched a weekly Saturday column to the owners of Dominican Today. To my great surprise and amazement, they liked the idea! So now I have a regular Saturday column in Dominican Today! These developments have been a deeply significant windfall for me – not just financially but as a writer. I am once again a published professional writer, and that is no easy feat in 2019!

A major development also happened on the musical front. A longtime producer friend in Norway launched a new record label and signed me on as a songwriter and English lyric consultant. So again, this job only requires that I write which is ideal for me.

The DR: not entirely unlike Hawaii

So here I am, living the life of a writer, songwriter, and part-time singer of songs on the north coast of Hispaniola in the Heart of the Caribbean. More or less, that’s right where I wanted to be at this time and place in my life.

A burst of local color

Ultimately I would have preferred to live in Hawaii the land of my origin. But as we all know it’s too expensive if one does not already have an in there.

And while Hispaniola may not be Hawaii (namely, it lacks Hawaiians and Hawaiian music), it’s not too bad either. It’s a big island; over twice the size of all the Hawaiian Islands combined. There is much to see and do here with a correspondingly fascinating and colorfully-storied history of the land and people. I do not claim it so much as appreciate the loan. And though it is in a way for me a borrowed island, there is a part of my ancestry which seems to belong here too. The rum is memorably tasty and the environment stimulates – and is conducive to – creativity: albeit at a relaxed pace. Dominicans observe “Island Time” which suits me just fine.

Irie Girl back in her element in Hispaniola

By culture, mindset, heart, soul, and disposition, I am an Islander. Hawaii is home and my island. But Hispaniola is a gracious, enigmatic, and beautiful host. There are many times here when the temperature, humidity, and trades are just right, I feel I could still be in Hawaii.

There are never really any things that I miss. It’s people: friends and loved ones far away that are missed most.

It’s all kind of hard to believe. I often have to repeat it to myself every time I look around completely blown away by the otherworldly splendid beauty of this tropical island world. I am living the life of a writer and acoustic troubadour in the heart of the Caribbean with a beautiful adventurous companion by my side.

Life is definitely good today.

Tiki hut sunsets to all!