It is hard to imagine my first impressions of St John now. Almost two years later, this hilly little outcrop 50 miles west of Puerto Rico has become my home. I had never been to the Virgin Islands before, and only once visited the Caribbean on a trip to Barbados for my celebratory senior year spring break from college. And yet, almost two years ago, I packed up my bags, tossed my eclectic mix of early adulthood furniture and accessories in a sketchy, albeit “cheap”, storage space in one of Brooklyn’s less gentrified neighborhoods, and hopped a plane to St Thomas.
I knew that I was running away, but from what? The relationship that didn’t work? The jobs? Responsibility? Complacency? Growing up? It’s true that in many ways moving straight to New York from college can eat a person alive. But why leave when I was just starting to move up in the world and make the connections I needed to be successful in my industry? I guess I just wasn’t happy – it’s that simple. Ever since that moment I have been trying to figure out how to balance success and happiness.
My last day in New York was dead cold in the middle of March. Residual snow covered the curb, the slushy brown kind that forms roughly 15 minutes after a city snowstorm. That was the last time I saw snow and the thought of it now simultaneously excites and terrifies me. I can remember my last hazy glimpse of New York as I crossed over the Verrazano Bridge leaving one island of dreams for another. My parents were in the front seats ushering their youngest son off to a home many miles away. I was curled up in the back somewhere between my two carry ons and two large duffle bags, overwhelmed with emotions by the time we crossed into New Jersey. I hid behind the luggage so my parents could not see the dread in my eyes. The excitement of what was to come had all but worn off now and I was certain that I was making the worst decision of my life. What in the world was I doing moving to an island in the middle of nowhere? After all, I am, by all accounts, a city boy through and through and from what I could tell from my extensive research on Google Earth, there was nothing on the small nine by thirteen mile island I was headed to. And to top that off, I was moving into a tent cottage in the middle of the woods a half hour drive from civilization. You can understand the excitingly terrified state of shock I was in as I left the city that never sleeps for the sleepy island of St John.
Half a day later and sixty degrees warmer, I landed in the bustling Caribbean port of St Thomas. I was herded into a taxi with seven tourists and bussed over to Red Hook, where I caught the ferry over to Cruz Bay on the island I was to call home, St John. I had to wait an hour for my taxi out to Maho Bay on the far end of the North Shore so I stopped at the closest restaurant to the ferry: JJ’s Texas Toast. Now I did not move to the Caribbean to eat Tex-Mex, but I was not lugging the four pieces of luggage in a myriad of inconvenient shapes and sizes across a town I did not know. So, Tex-Mex it was. The waitress was American, an expat (I would later realize that most waiters and waitresses on this island are expats and that the work force is pretty obviously divided between the local West Indians and the local and seasonal expats). I can remember wanting to chat with her about what it was like to live here. Where did she hang out? Did she feel safe? What in the world do you do on a little island that doesn’t even have a single traffic light? Instead I just sat there and ate my chili while a family of chickens marched in circles around my feet.
On my drive out of Cruz Bay to my final destination at Maho Bay I realized that everything was going to be just fine. St John is over two thirds national park land and the beauty of the drive along the north shore of St John is one that I will never forget. While it seems as normal to me now as driving past the local strip malls of northern Virginia did growing up, I am always aware of the immaculate beauty of the undeveloped land. There are two kinds of roads on St John, those that are maintained (the two main thoroughfares: Centerline and North Shore roads) and everything else. While I have since bounced up this road on countless trips, the “road” that branches off to Maho Bay seemed to serve only one purpose, to make the weary traveler wearier. One is exhausted by the time they zigzag and bounce their way up the many potholed switchbacks, but it is worth the trek. My new home looked out to the clear blue-green Caribbean Sea with broad views of St Thomas and the various cays that separate the US Virgin Islands from the British Virgin Islands.
* That was almost two years ago. My days wondering the streets of Manhattan seem like a lifetime ago. Time, I’ve found, is a funny thing in the tropics. There is a certain sameness to everything that makes the days linger on endlessly while simultaneously slipping away before my eyes. I watched the summer Olympics on a black and white 2” analog TV with questionable reception. Thanksgiving was a blur and I spent most of Christmas in my board shorts, towel scarf and a Santa hat, playing volleyball on the beach. With the weather varying no more than ten degrees between summer and winter, the seasons and their holidays pass by rather unremarkably – and somehow it’s okay. When you don’t have to rush to the mall ten minutes before it closes on Christmas Eve to fight the stressed out mob for a gift that’s no longer available, you kind of forget that you are supposed to care that much. There is an accepted ambivalence to the notions of our contemporary American holiday traditions. Void of these landmarks, months can pass without notice and before you know it, it’s fall again.
Now fall is the one season you don’t forget about. It doesn’t just pass by without notice; it lets you know it’s here with full force. It starts with a drizzle here and there and before you know it, it’s been raining non-stop for weeks. To fully grasp the morose effect the fall had on my well being I should elaborate on my accommodations. I lived in a tent-cottage in the woods connected by a series of boardwalks to other tent-cottages (think Ewok Village from Star Wars). The tent-cottage had running water and electricity, but was completely open to the elements, as it was made solely of wood, petroleum cloth, and screen. Communally living with the cute creatures (frogs, lizards, feral cats) and the not so cute (dive-bombing-flying cockroaches, menacing spiders, and the occasional momma scorpion with 100 babies on her back) I soon got over any hesitations about living so close to nature. Instead of screaming, “Holy shit!” I’d find myself arguing, “Are we really doing this again Miss Acid Spider?” or “You would jump on my face while I’m peeing wouldn’t you, Frogman?” The creatures became a part of my home and we had a running banter that never ceased to amuse me (and them?).
I had a beautiful outdoor shower with a vine wall that sprinkled out cold rainwater as the afternoon sun shined down on me. However, as fall approached and clouds fenced in the sun, the rain poured, the vines grew at alarming rates, and before I knew it I was showering in a dark green cave that was now home to a colony of mosquitoes. Exposed to the elements, the moisture built up inside as well and all of my possessions were soon layered in a thin green film. My passport looked like peat moss, my clothes were sporting a new polka dot look, and I constantly woke up in the middle of the night thinking I wet the bed only to remember that that was just how it was in October. Instead of surfing in the water, my coworkers began surfing down the roads, which on some days resembled rushing rivers.
Even though I knew that the rain kept me wet, inside, and bored I could not help but enjoy the beauty of its raw power and the way it turned the hillsides from a dark brown to a vibrant green. I found myself staring endlessly out my screen “window” at the falling rain as if in a trance. The islands and cays in the distance faded away into a cloud of white. I especially enjoyed watching the rain in the not-so-rare times when the sun was shining its brightest. The sun reflecting off the droplets creates a kaleidoscope of color in the Caribbean sky.
When not staring out into the wet abyss, TV on DVD was my savior. I spent a good portion of my free time in front of my computer at home escaping. Being at home wasn’t so bad, but to be at work was to wage an epic battle. I worked outside (in a hut-like building, but with no screens) and even with bug spray, a citronella candle wall, and my trusty electric racket zapper, I was no match for my crafty foe. The mosquitoes had me hitting myself silly; and to top that off one of my employees thought it a nice gesture to whack me across the face anytime she saw a mosquito planning an attack. Needless to say, I got hit a lot. Yet, as luck would have it, my body grew used to the bites (and beatings) and over time they no longer dotted my bronzed skin.
With each new bloom came the always hyped, but never realized fear of the Dengue Fever! It seemed everyone had a story from a few years back about someone who got the “bone crunching” disease and how they were lucky they didn’t get the strain that kills you. This was a nice thought to have in the back of my mind as I sat at my desk in my hut, slapping myself while pretending to work, but really looking at CNN.
* The campaign, voting, and inauguration of now-President Barack Obama was one of the strangest times to be in the Caribbean. It was at times refreshing to be away from the over-saturation of it all, but I could not help but feel left out of the whole process. I was always raised to believe that my one vote made a difference and even though I voted absentee, I felt out of the loop. I got a sense that something big, a “change,” was happening and I was not a part of it. I took a brief trip home to visit my parents in a quaint suburb about an hour out of Washington DC just before Election Day 2008. It was then that I was made glaringly aware of just how bombarded the everyday American was with election coverage. I pride myself on staying in touch with the “real world” more than most on the island, but I had totally forgotten what it was like. It also struck me that it was a voluntary subjugation to the media overload as I watched my mom turn on CNN and keep it on day in and day out. CNN was the backdrop of everything we did in that week- breakfast, dinner, family game night…
Back on St John I watched the coverage of election night at the “Quiet Mon Pub” sipping a Cruzan and Coke with everyone else. The election coverage was splattered across the two TVs above the bar but no one could actually hear what was going on. Like most things on this island, the election was just another reason for folks to go out and party. On an island with not much going on, you look forward to anything that can pass as an “event.” As it turned out, I spent most of the night chatting with a man that I knew to be one of the biggest drug dealers on the island. He had some really interesting insight into the whole election and it seemed important to hear the perspective of a young West Indian man who had a lot invested in the election but did not have the opportunity, like I did, to vote. The Virgin Islands are on Atlantic Standard Time so we were one hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time and it was getting late so we left before the coverage was over. I pounded fists with the drug dealer with whom I spent my election night chatting and headed home in a friend’s car. As we passed by the first beach and glimpsed up into the starry night, I heard from the radio announcer that Obama had won. Back home, my brother called from Manhattan where they were storming the streets in an impromptu parade. In the background I heard fireworks and music and it seemed like the whole world was screaming behind him. When I hung up, all I could hear were the tree frogs.
Without a doubt, the most touching moment of the whole process was watching the inauguration on the trusty 2” black and white TV with my coworker Madre. She is a 60-some-year old grandmother from St Lucia, but time and illness have aged her considerably. She is missing many of her teeth and her walk isn’t what it used to be, but she is as wise as an ox and knew way more than I about the election. As we sat together in the office with her two grandsons watching that tiny screen she began to cry. Madre loved everyone and especially loved to make jokes about us white people. She would catch many a newcomer off guard with her jokes about eating “white food” and doing “white things.” Just as they got a bit uneasy, she would have herself a hearty laugh. She made a point of telling one and all that she loves everybody black or white… but she had never dreamed of such a day when she’d see a black man as the President of the United States. When Barack Obama got up on the stage she pointed to the television and cried out to her grandkids “See, you can be anything you want to be in this world now that a black man is president!” What better way to usher in a new president than this!
* I knew moving down to the Caribbean that my time there would reach a threshold. Before I left, there were those who were sure that I would turn into an islander the second I hit the hammock and never come back to the real world. On the contrary, there were those that constantly questioned how long it would take before paradise got old. In fact, that was my biggest fear – that paradise would get old too fast. After all, one comes to the Caribbean to do nothing – how long can you go on doing nothing? As it turns out there was a lot more to St John than I initially anticipated. Just like any small town, once you immerse yourself in the people and the culture you find yourself getting involved in the community and finding reasons to stay.
There are those that venture to this island for an extended spring break and those who come for their spring break, get lost to the tropics, and never return. I know both types very well. Take my friend Daniel for example. He is a fixture around Cruz Bay. Daniel is, perhaps, in his mid sixties although it is hard to tell with the old sailor types who have spent their whole lives in the fun and sun. He may be much younger than I think, weathered the way a lot of folks on the islands are. Anyway, you can find Daniel just about every day at the bar with a bag full of Sharpies in shades you’d never know they made. With a couple dozen markers and a never-ending supply of washed up conch shells he draws religiously. Daniel creates magical seascapes in the endless spirals of the conch and hands them out, free of charge, to those around who will spare him some time to chat. On my “wall of art” in my cottage I had a shelf dedicated to Daniel’s works, always signed “pax Daniel,” pax being the Latin word for peace. Now, Daniel could go on and on about a lot of subjects, but his views of the States were squarely rooted in the 1970’s. It is as if he had no concept of, or chose not to partake in the America we live in now. He has his view of the America he left and he chooses to hold on to that fleeting image. It’s a touching thought and yet I can’t help but see the irony when I conjure up the conversely idealized, if not flawed, views of the Caribbean that I held onto before I journeyed here.
It would be hard to talk about Cruz Bay and it’s myriad of characters without mentioning Hollywood. Hollywood is a large West Indian man with thick head of graying dreads and an unmistakable swagger. He used to work at one of my favorite bars, Larry’s, a pour-your-own-drink bar that has a great mix of locals and tourists, although I was never quite sure what he did there. One night he showed up in one of his larger-than-life outfits sporting a pair of the most ridiculous glasses I had ever seen. The glasses resembled safety goggles but had garish 1970’s orange-brown rims. Needless to say, I had to have them so I (very easily) convinced Hollywood that they would look better on me and bought him a couple Budweisers in return for his generosity. Some of my most outlandish pictures to date have been taken wearing these gems. More recently, Hollywood began spending most of his days on the street corners playing his guitar. I don’t really know where he got this idea because this is not New York City, and I have never seen anyone honing any craft other than hitchhiking on the side of the street in the Virgin Islands. However, Hollywood seemed to take pride in his new occupation. It was a step up from his other job of trying to peddle drugs to tourists – drugs which he did not actually possess. I have never once heard him complete a song, nor have I been able to understand quite what his approach to the music was, but you could tell it came from the heart. At the end of each day Hollywood would pack up his guitar and head up a partially disguised trail on the outskirts of town to his makeshift home in the woods. While I had never been there myself, I was told that there is a whole community of homeless islanders that make their home up this trail and a similar one on the fringe of St John’s sleepy second city, Coral Bay – all of this on an island whose average new home price is 1.5 million dollars.
This disparity reflects the underlying problem of race relations on St John. Growing up in a very diverse suburb of Washington DC and having spent a good amount of time living in Brooklyn, NY, I have never experienced such a racial divide in my life as I have in the Virgin Islands. In the states there is a sense of equal opportunity for all; that is to say, in theory, we all have the same possibility of becoming anything we want to be. There is not that sense of hope on the islands and it seems to create a greater divide in the community. It does not help that the land that has historically belonged to the West Indians for the past two hundred years is being increasingly sliced up into plots for million dollar villas bought up by predominantly Anglo-Saxon Americans. All of this lays the groundwork for the intricate race relations on these small islands.
As the Fifth Virgin Islands Constitutional Convention’s proposal typified, these issues have not abated. In it’s fifth unsuccessful attempt to create the territory’s constitution, (the previous attempts took place between 1964 and 1980) the proposal was eventually turned down by Governor John DeJongh on June 1, 2009 because, as he argued, it failed to defer to federal sovereignty and disregarded basic civil rights. Essentially, the proposal sought to give what DeJongh declared unconstitutional advantages to those defined as “ancestral and native Virgin Islanders.” These advantages included generous tax breaks, exclusive rights to be elected Governor or Lieutenant Governor, and the right to vote on any changes in the territory’s political status in relation to the United States. So, the Virgin Islands go on as an unincorporated and unorganized territory and the tense relationship between the black majority and the white minority continues.
* In an island with no movie theater and barely any public showcasing of the arts, I helped the newly formed St John Film Society grow into an established artistic venture. We began producing a bi-weekly film series free of charge to and for the community with the Caribbean diaspora in mind. We held our bi-weekly showings at two venues, one in Coral Bay and one in Cruz Bay. By doing so we hoped to reach both the West Indian and expat communities alike. The Cruz Bay location was on the third floor of the Marketplace Shopping Center, a posh building complex containing the islands’ only gourmet market, coffee shop, used bookstore, sushi restaurant, and other businesses frequented by the white community. However, our Coral Bay venue was a bar named Sputnik (like the Soviet Space Program).
Contrary to what the name may have you thinking, Sputnik is home to some of the best West Indian food on the island and is the only place on St John that serves Roti. Roti is one of my absolute favorite foods and I liken it to a West Indian burrito. Typically curried goat, chicken, conch, or other proteins and vegetables are mixed with curried peas and potato and served wrapped up in Roti Bread (similar to a tortilla but greasier). At these film showings, we were sure to have a strong West Indian presence, and whole families came out to enjoy the food and film. In fact, being at Sputnik always felt like being in the family home, with the matriarch in her tall wicker chair in the corner and the kids racing around the perimeter. While the screenings were equally enjoyable at both locations, I always looked forward to going to Coral Bay once a month because the audience interaction and appreciation was palpable. Afterwards, we would clean up and sit at the bar, talking to the fashionable and gregarious owner, Juju. She was a great cook and loved to talk about her food, especially her renowned “Viagra Soup.” She claimed (and there are those who have unabashedly vouched for this) that her stewed Whelk Soup would make a man of any age jump at the bit to get with his lady. The whelk, she said, is our “Caribbean Caviar” and it is a very powerful aphrodisiac. While I have not experienced this reaction myself, it was certainly entertaining to talk to her about it!
The only problem with my evenings in Coral Bay was finding a way home. You see, my primary source of transportation was hitchhiking, which can prove rather difficult at night. All in all, hitchhiking is very safe on St John and I have never hesitated to do so as long as I was in my right mind. However, late night rides were hard to get and could be a bit sketchier. Over the span of my time on the islands I came up with many observations and guidelines for securing a ride.
- Never try use the old American Thumb rule or you will get very dirty looks from the locals. Point in the direction you are going and wait for the ride.
- Peak hitching times are early morning and late afternoon. In the middle, plan to wait upwards of an hour depending on the time of year. After hours, good luck!
- Look pitiful enough to be picked up, but tough enough not to be messed with.
- If there is a large group split up. Nobody wants a party in their backseat.
- Don’t wear your sunglasses until you are already in the car / truck bed / trunk.
- Don’t be on your cell phone, drinking a latté and trying to catch a ride or you will look like you should own a car by now.
- Hold on for dear life. Some rides in the back of make-shift trucks will feel like rollercoaster rides.
- There are no open container laws in the VI so you can technically drink and drive. Choose your rides wisely.
- If a tourist picks you up, have your story ready because they will ask. Example: “My name is ___, I moved here from ____, _____ years/months ago. I moved down here because ____ and I plan on staying here ____ long. No I am not a college student, I graduated ____ years ago and ____ happened so now I’m here… Sure, I guess you could say I am taking a break…”
I guess the scariest part about hitchhiking is that I knew that if anything did happen to me in the car, nothing would ever happen to the driver. See, the USVI police are notorious for their ambivalence. Virtually every crime on St John goes unsolved. There is a running tally in the weekly newspaper, the St John Tradewinds that keeps track of how many crimes have happened each year versus how many have been solved. The solved column is over 90% zeros. The main newspaper for the Virgin Islands, the Virgin Islands Daily News takes great pains to hide any unsavory incident on the islands far in the back of its pages. In doing so, one can only assume they are trying to protect the islands’ fragile reputation as a safe destination in the Caribbean. Consequently, one rarely hears of the crime that goes on other than by word of mouth.
* There are very few places in the tropics whose landscape is preserved from development as well as on St John. The natural beauty of the island is undeniable. From my front door there were numerous hiking trails to take me away for hours. Being alone, walking the trails up one side of the ridge to the forgotten beaches on the other was my favorite weekend activity. Lost in the woods, I tended to find my thoughts the best. My favorite hike took me all the way to the other side of the island down the popular Reef Bay Trail to a spur called the Genti Bay Trail. This short trail drops you off on Genti Bay, a long stretch of beach that rarely a soul sets foot on. I have once seen sunbathers and once a man combing the sand with a metal detector, but typically I simply shared this beach with the herons. While it is not a pristine white sand beach like those that dot the north shore, this south shore beach has a more rustic allure. The water is shallow for many yards and patched with sea grass so the waves crash several times as they approach the shore. Many dead mangrove trees jut out into the water, making the perfect bench for an afternoon rest. I think what I liked about this beach and other similarly isolated places on the island were the sense of discovery that one feels. Even though I knew that the island was home to three times as many people in the plantation era, and that the overgrown ruins in the woods just beyond the beach once housed many slaves, I couldn’t help but feel like I was the first person to discover this stretch of the island. I marched around with my hiking stick and searched the woods for relics of the past and the beauty of the present. Alone and unseen, I could act like a kid again, jumping in the thick piles of washed up sea grass like it was a trampoline. I talked to the birds and cooed them into letting me get very close. I climbed the rocks to an overlook and tried to make out St Croix in the distance – beyond that there was nothing but sea until South America. Back by the shore I made androgynous humanlike figures out of the washed up coral, giving them stylish coconut husk hair dos, shell bras, palm fronds skirts and sea grass facial hair. Marching down the beach I planted fake flags declaring this my own little oasis in the increasingly busy world. Days like these made me wonder how I could ever leave.
Closer to my home at Maho Bay, I often spent time alone on the bank of the Francis Bay Salt Pond. Its syrupy brown water is home to many dead mangrove trees that sit like a pile of antlers in the pond’s center. Francis Bay Salt Pond is a stark contrast to the pastels of St John’s beaches and reminded me of the cyclical nature of life. There was an old boardwalk that once jutted out into the pond, but more recently sits dilapidated on the shore. This is where I spent many a late afternoon, balancing on the decaying wood while watching the migrating birds dash across the murky water. Mangrove Cuckoo, Scaly-naped Pigeon, White-cheeked Pintail and Smooth-billed Ani among others made their way to Francis Bay to feed throughout the year. At first it was just the birds I would see. Yet, a few minutes later when the creatures got used to my presence, a whole community of crustaceans would pop up and business as usual would commence. Some building homes, some starting fights, and others running errands, these little crabs were a lively bunch. I was fond of Francis Bay Pond because the activity there was in a constant state of change. By the end of the rainy season in November, the trail that circled the pond became a part of it. Wading through, I felt like Huck Finn navigating the swamps. Every day was a grand adventure on St John.
* One of the joys of living on a small Caribbean island is that one can get incredibly lost. Lost in thought, lost in action, adrift on a cloud hovering above reality. Coming back down to face the responsibilities of the “real world” is the hardest part. I by no means had to leave this cloud. My time in the Caribbean was like a return to the wild and wonderful days of college, without the responsibilities of going to school or studying into the wee hours of the night. However, remaining out of touch with reality for a considerable amount of time can take its toll. There is a yearning for all the amenities and cultural opportunities left behind in the states. Going to the movies, seeing a play, concert or game, going to a museum, eating non-imported, fresh produce – all these things begin to wear on you and you crave them more and more as the days go by.
While the turquoise wonder of the Caribbean Sea never ceased to prickle my senses, its glory and grandeur began to fade into the background. By September 2009, I made the bittersweet decision to leave before the holiday season began. While it was nice not having to worry or stress over work or island holidays, I kind of missed it. A lack of stress can lead to a lack of ambition and I felt as though I was losing some of my drive while living the carefree island life. Not that there is anything wrong with this life choice, it just wasn’t for me – I wanted more.
Along the way I came to realize how little I needed in life to be content. Almost two years without all the facilities and material items generally deemed necessary in western society left a lasting impression of empowerment and self-reliance. I had gained a greater respect for my place in the grand scheme of things that would be hard to appreciate had I never lived away from the megalomania of the continental United States.
I had lots of firsts in the Virgin Islands: first time sailing a boat (instead of being sailed), first time scuba diving, first time attempting to surf, first Full Moon Party on Tortola, first painkiller on Jost, first Carnival on St John, first time on a sea plane, first kiss shared in bioluminescent waters, first encounter with a shark, first time waking up to a scorpion, first time away for the holidays, first time feeding a pig beer, first time coughing on clouds of Saharan dust, first time getting my place “hurricane ready”, first time dousing my meals in local hot sauces, first time crying for hours because I doused my meals in local hot sauces, first time embracing cold showers, first time pretending it was my first time skinny dipping, first time riding a dinghy in for a night on the town, first time watching live iguana sex… the list goes on.
My last day on St John was blazing hot in the beginning of November. Lingering sand coated the sides of the road, the purest of white kind that is omnipresent on a small volcanic island. I will always remember my last glance of the sunlit rooftops of Cruz Bay’s pastel harbor as I crossed the channel on a ferry to St Thomas. I had rode into town with my dearly missed coworkers in a small “island car” packed to the brim with two boxes, two large duffle bags, and one carry on. This time I did not hide behind the luggage overwhelmed by my move but rather danced on top of the tightly packed contents of my island life, attempting to cheer up my glum buddies. I had realized for the first time that a move should be a celebration. Life is too short and the world is too large and the people in it too wonderful to fret over change. You take the pictures off the wall so you can make more pictures for another wall somewhere else. It was time to write a new story.