Life on land
15.01.2012 -26 °C
As I start to write time has already faded those first weeks on land. The Virgin Islands, the first place I set foot in the Caribbean after sailing across the ocean, seem long ago and far away. With this note I am back-dating, filling in the gaps. I find primary sources amongst my possessions – a ferry ticket, my old diary, photos stored on my hard drive. And then there is the least reliable primary source of all: my mind. But I am about documenting my journey. Through the dusty carpet of time and the rotten floorboards of memory I will try to pull the nails of recollection onto the paper here.
St. John is the smallest of the U.S Virgin Islands and seventy five percent national park. Eight miles long and at its widest three miles across, the island is a jigsaw piece of bays and promontories, isthmuses and inlets. Bordeaux mountain rises 1277ft above the sea swathed in the tropical forest that has reclaimed St. John since the bad old days of the plantations when most of the land was cleared for sugar cane. Its charm and relative affluence set it apart from the other islands of the archipelago which have the dubious pleasure of boasting the highest murder rate per capita of any U.S state or territory by quite some margin.
I slipped into life on St. John so easily it was as though the island was inviting me to stay. Within three days I had a house, a job and a nascent group of friends.
Crewmember Jake had moved out of his shack in the woods, finally frustrated by the never ending repairs and the somewhat rudimentary standard of living it offered. Incredibly kindly he offered it to me for free. Fresh off the boat, nothing could have been more perfect.
It stands amongst the tropical forest down a steep narrow path off a dirt track. A single room perhaps 15 foot square with a sink, cooker and a fridge, some battered old furniture and a bed draped with a mosquito net. No walls, but screened in on all sides, and it has been at one stage jauntily painted and hung with odd nautical paraphernalia. I didn't mind the encroaching termites, slowly devouring the door and gnawing away above the bed. The rats were much less of a presence as long as I cleaned up immediately after I'd cooked. The dilapidated mesh was dotted with holes, but the many lizards I shared the space with helped keep the mosquito population at least a little lower than outside.
I settled into shack-life quickly, reading and writing to my heart's content, doing a little meditation in the mornings and reacclimatising to shoes by pottering around the island discovering trails and beaches. Many footpaths intersect the steep rocky hillsides, cut through the dense forest with machetes by the park rangers. It is such alien vegetation to me, these low trees and creepers, mangroves and cactus suited to this hot, rocky climate and deeply unlike the temperate trees we have in the U.K. Often while walking I stumbled across old plantations, poked around the ruins of abandoned sugar mills that gave testament to three hundred years of slavery. Incredible butterflies winged past me, a blur of colour and many of a size we don't see so often in Europe. The ones I came to know were the ubiquitous zebra longwing, the delicate tropical chequered skipper, the bold Antillean white.
I was entranced by the hummingbirds that hover, wings ablur, by the flowers they suck nectar from and stood watching them for hours. A yellow breasted bananaquit would hop around the shack door just feet from where I worked, oblivous to my movements. This puzzled me for a while until I realised there are no real predators here; an island this size simply can't support them, making all the wildlife oddly approachable.
Lazy iguanas stalk the saltponds while pelicans and boobies plunge dramatically from high into the shallows after small fish. Sadly the pelicans do so with there eyes open and often die from starvation, having blinded themselves through this continual impact. It's an irony of existence (doubtless lost on our equally blind, uncomprehending universe) to have evolved a hunting technique that allows you to live long enough to procreate but shortly after leads to a miserable, desperate death; that ebbing of strength, vitality and energy, a slow demise through hunger and fear, cramps and contortions into uneasy oblivion.
Aside from walking, hitching is the only way to get around the island, and locals almost always stop to pick you up. Tourists whizz by in their rented 4x4s, not aware of this island custom. Walking down the steep hill from the shack I stuck my arm out and was collected by a man who promptly offered me 20 dollars an hour to help him clean and ready a couple of holiday villas. It seemed churlish to turn down such easy money and John was an interesting character. Tall, grizzly looking, very masculine, he had been a commercial fisherman for years based in Martha's Vineyard before getting into trouble for his part in some drug dealing. In prison he found god, went through detox and now works as a carpenter in the Caribbean during the winter and Massachusetts in the summer, a lynchpin of the local AA group in each place. He was brusque, straightforward, kindly; honest about his past and the new path he was on. Like so many of the older American men I met in the Caribbean, he had a strong libertarian attitude expressed through a powerful contempt for taxes, big business, central government, red tape and bureaucracy. It is a tangled set of values with religion playing an interesting corollary part. As we talked about these views there were some aspects I found deeply problematic and others I could agree with wholeheartedly.
For a week one of the large villas I had to clean was unoccupied. John installed me there with instructions to 'clean it in your own time, and use whatever you want' and left me his laptop and internet dongle to boot. My new kingdom included a pick of beautiful bedrooms, a pool, clothes washing facilities and all the food left by the previous guests, not to mention an incredible view over Coral Bay. Getting to stay in a place that rented at over two thousand dollars a week was a definite perk capped by the $200 I earnt for cleaning the place. One evening John showed me the poetry he'd written whilst in prison that he wanted to be able to share with his family and friends. I built him a simple website for it as a thank you for everything he'd done for me on top of 20 bucks an hour. It felt good to be part of the gift economy which, lets face it, had mainly flowing the other way. I could get used to this: free trips across the Atlantic, free villas on arrival.
In the evenings I would find Jake, Adam and a small group of the younger Coral Bay expats drinking at Skinny Legs down by the shore. I was welcomed with wonderful hospitality. We played darts, horseshoes, smoked the local weed and imbibed the incredibly cheap alcohol the islands sell to further encourage tourists to visit.
Which leads to the darker, more sobering story of St. John.
The islands are reliant on tourism for everything. Almost all food and even water has to be imported; there is no manufacturing and surprisingly little farming and fishing. Without the visitors 21st century living would not be sustainable, and it isn't cheap as it is. So rich tourists, almost exclusively white, come to charter yachts, go diving and snorkelling, sun themselves on the pristine beaches and admire the incredible mountains. To serve them come bright young things from the States escaping the cold and commitment of regular 9 to 5. And with the perfect weather, incredible natural beauty and gentler approach to life come the retirees, the boaters, the adventurers looking for a place in the sun out from under the scrutiny of the man.
Once you're here, actually living here, there's really not so much to do. A little surfing, the walking of course (but it's a lot of effort), some sailing perhaps, and partying. And drinking. The Virgin Islands are famous for drinking. With the sole industry, the sole purpose of the island being that of leisure there's a weird suspension of normal life here. St. John feels like Neverland. The washed up sailors and escapist hippies leaning on the bars from 9am were once chasing a dream of beauty and freedom that for many has ended in the bottle. They are the strange lost boys and there's no Wendy to look after them.
And then there's the stark contrast between the wealth of the U.S owned resorts and the poverty of the West Indian population. While the West Indians are in charge of the administration of the islands and work in the service industries, they rarely equitably benefit from the incredible wealth the tourists bring. There is little crossover between the American expat community working and drinking in the tourist bars and the West Indian community drinking right next door. It can feel like a throwback to segregation but with a unique island dynamic.
Hitchhiking is a good example of this divide. Black drivers picked up black hitchhikers, white drivers white hitchhikers. Not exclusively, I had rides with both, but it was certainly the trend. Casual racism was common in both directions; I never felt like it was near a boiling point but frequent generalisations about 'lazy locals' were loaded statements, made with raised eyebrows, a short hand for saying so much more. And I felt the black community suffered the white one as an economic necessity, but with some resentment. This most often manifested itself in preferential treatment for fellow West Indians in a shop or at the customs office; small indications that the colour of your skin counts for a lot here. Of course there are plenty of exceptions to this – lots of working relationships and genuine friendships bridge the divide and there is definite cross cultural community in some quarters.
But still I sensed something sinister under the island's perfect beaches and laid back tranquillity. It all gets to feeling a little J.G Ballard.
Nonetheless St. John lulled me, and the days slipped into weeks. Adam and Jake joked the island had me in its grip, said no-one they knew had ever landed on their feet there as easily as I had. I went surfing (which, incidentally, is absolutely amazing), we took Adam's beautiful ketch out for a day, and went shark fishing. Yes, that's right, shark fishing. At night.
I could have stayed months, so in the end my departure was somewhat arbitrary. I woke one Friday in mid January and decided I'd leave the next day. Everything was a bit too comfortable, too sedate. Another quick decision, another madness. That moment in which we chose one route and not the other, take a step towards our unknown future, cut off some options and open up others for better or worse.
I said my goodbyes, packed my things and Jake drove me to the ferry.
So the next afternoon I found myself stood on the public dinghy dock in Charlotte Amalie on the island of St. Thomas asking everyone who came by if they happened to be heading for Puerto Rico. Or St Martin. Or anywhere. And, shortly, I see a battered old homemade rowing boat pulling for the pontoon. In it, an old couple, colourfully dressed, and alone in not having an outboard. As they pull up I introduce myself and with almost no ceremony Ted says “Puerto Rico. We're heading that way tomorrow. Meet you here at 10am sharp.”