Accepting Instruction: Another Island Attitude Adjustment

When I first moved to the VI, one thing I found supremely irritating was when old West Indian men offered unsolicited driving advice, specifically when I would try to maneuver or park in a tight area.

Try to being the key phrase here.

Because I’m not very good at it.

Oh, I’ve gotten better. Years of backing onto the car barge have improved my technique, no question. But I’m still nowhere near as skilled at maneuvering the islands’ narrow, winding roads and parking lots than the folks—especially the men—who have driven them all their lives.

Click for Photo Credit

Click for Photo Credit

Inevitably, the old island men limin’ under the tree in the parking lot, drinking greenies and playing dominoes would stop what they were doing to watch me. And one or two of them would go to the trouble of actively, and loudly, telling me how to go about doing it.

Since I was already on edge in these situations, being not only watched, but actually bossed around on top of it, would bring me to a state of silent fuming. In turn, making my task even more difficult.

Oh, how this would piss me off. Did they think I was stupid just because I happen to have a vagina and white skin? I drove in a big city for years! I didn’t need their damn help.

Until I realized that yes, yes I did need their damn help. And if they were offering to aid me, I might as well let them.

My landlord had to install this board in my parking space so I know where to stop....I blame poor depth perception.

My landlord had to install this board in my parking space so I know where to stop….

My poor Corolla from Minnesota had taken quite a beating in the first few months on island. (This theme continues.) Clearly, I was not an expert when it came to driving on island roads. And I finally came to realize that it might behoove me to put my ego in the glove compartment and just follow the old codgers’ instructions when they yelled them at me.

Five years later, I’ve actually flipped this former annoyance into quite the resourceful habit. I used it to my advantage just the other night in Cruz Bay. Which, for such a tiny downtown area on the tiny island of St. John, is generally a bustling place. And free parking (residents are rarely willing to pay) is a time-consuming challenge.

Luckily, the parking fairies were working for me that evening. On my first loop through town, I spotted an open space right in the Customs lot, the largest, most conveniently-located free Cruz Bay parking lot. Roughly 10% is taken up by a rum shack, and another 10% is reserved for Customs use only. So, finding a spot in this no-pay lot always feels serendipitous.

But there was one problem; the entrance to the empty spot was itself about 10% blocked by the ass end of a safari bus. Looking at it, I knew it was possible to get my Corolla in there, but I also knew the chances of pulling it off successfully on my own were rather low. Furthermore, it would probably require a carefully executed reversal into the space, rather than a more easy-for-me forward haul.

But the parking fairies continued to favor me, because while pulling into the lot, getting closer to the empty spot, and trying to figure out how I’d make this work, I was fortunate to notice an old West Indian man heading toward the rum shack. I rolled down my window and said loudly in his direction, “Good Evening, sir. Do you think my car would fit into that parking space?”

Not my fault!

Not my fault!

If he was surprised at the novelty of a bespectacled white girl randomly addressing him from her driver’s seat, it didn’t show. He just immediately looked toward the partially-obstructed parking space beyond my car and replied with assurance, “Ya, you could do it,” nodding his head vigorously for emphasis.

And as I knew would happen, not one second was wasted before he gave direction. There was absolutely no need to officially solicit his services, he started to shoot orders as if it were his job. (Although it occurs, perhaps unfairly, that if he had been on the clock, he might’ve been less eager to assist.)

The small group of tourists standing near us were utterly confused as to his master plan, but I trusted him completely. Caribbean born and bred drivers are experts at reversing into tight spots. I swear they could easily parallel park on a one-lane road in reverse around a blind curve while eating a johnnycake.

He had me pull way far forward, shouting, “turn it right…right…RIGHT…okay okay…keep gon fahwad fahwad FAHWAD…STOP. STOP. …Okay now come back…I said COME BACK…okay okay…keep gaan…turn it left…left..LEFT…keep gaan…KEEP GAAN…okay okay…right…RIGHT…STOP.”

We cheered simultaneously at our shared mini-victory. I was in. And beautifully so.

While in the midst of pliantly following his directions, I was so grateful for the confident assistance that I decided to buy his next drink.

Not even close to scale.

Not even close to scale.

I was still thinking this once settled in the spot. He looked so absolutely pleased that we’d made this work (with his leadership, and my obedience), a huge smile on his face…but then he walked away…rather quickly. It felt awkward, and maybe a little ham-handed to call after him, and since he looked fulfilled without it, I just thanked the Universe for his timely presence and got on with my evening.

Living happily (with relative sanity) on an island requires constant spinning of negatives into positives. I’m particularly proud of this one.


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Ashley Ladlie

About Ashley Ladlie

Ashley lives on St. John in the US Virgin Islands where she can be found drenched in sweat while communing with the hermit crabs who live in her yard. The irony of living in a shac-teau on the most remote part of a tiny secondary island in the Caribbean while spending the majority of her time with a creature named after people who prefer solitude is not lost on her.

Despite constant inquiry as to how long she’ll be on St. John, Ashley has learned in her three decades on this planet that setting one’s life plans in stone is the best way to ensure their futility. For now she remains enchanted with the beautiful absurdity on her rock of residence, which is colorful in far more ways than one.

You can hire her to write and design for you at

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16 thoughts on “Accepting Instruction: Another Island Attitude Adjustment

  1. What a fun story! We’ve lived it a couple of times. This was a great morning treat as we prepare to visit St. John next week for a low-low season treat.

    Cheers, RickG

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! You should have relatively little trouble finding free parking in Cruz Bay this time of year. Yay for warm ocean water and nearly empty beaches!

  2. Spot on description of driving instructions in the VI!! It’s taken me the better part of a year to be completely comfortable backing onto the car barges and being prepared for the inevitable gestures and commands being barked out by the attendants. I, of course, realize that those instructions are actually helpful, and like you, letting go of my ‘good / skilled driver’ mentality took a bit of time. I just might try your trick next time, and I’ll definitely be on the look out for parking spaces there (but don’t worry – I won’t tell anyone else) – I never even tried those – thought they were just for the taxi’s! Love the map!!

    • Hi Angela! Glad you could relate! Yes…I’ve just relinquished all ego….I smile sweetly, follow directions, and say thank you when I’m finished.

  3. Love this!!! Driving here has definitely been a challenge. I used to drive a big-ass 4×4 pick up truck in the States and figured my little island Suzuki would be a breeze! OMG, I never realized how scary the roads and hills can be. Even my own driveway is a challenge when its wet (or I am low on gas). I have to back part way down my driveway to the first switchback- and the lack of a driver’s side mirror (yes, it passed inspection!) and no a/c, means that I had to roll down my window and stick my head out in order to see where I am going – even in torrential downpours. It’s been interesting, but I am finally learning the lay of the road and can pretty much do it by “feel” now. It’s amazing how we adapt 🙂

  4. This is so fun to read….I could envision it perfectly. I love that your landlord has marked your spot to stop! Wish we would have had something like that when we were rolling backwards down that ravine on Berry Hill!! But I think it would have taken a boulder to stop us. Scary!

  5. Ah yes! The bliss that belongs only to the female island driver. I do love to see their eyes pop open when I back into a tight spot in one whirl and then step out in my heels and sashay away! Loved this piece!

  6. I have watched the local folks back into slots that I thought only a scooter could use, but alas they did it with ease.
    I attempted twice (in 12 years) to back into similar tight parking spots, but was met with blowing horns and frustration that if I didn’t make it on the first try, get out of the way.
    Unless I can pull directly into a parking spot, I use the parking lots. Shameful I know, I will never master the skills of reverse parking. But, I also feel I have done a service to others by not annoying them with the sound of blowing horns.

    • I know that feeling of anxiety trying to park when there’s a line of cars behind you quite well. I only parallel park when I have no other option. And I think years of backing onto the car barge has helped me feel a bit more confident about driving in reverse – I’ve gotten a lot of training in the form of being hollered at from the barge workers. 🙂

  7. Love it. Might need to translate ‘greenies’ for the general-Heineken beer. Use to help promote Jose Quervo and Coors there. All great trips.

  8. Not a woman and not an island resident but boy could I identify with the whole parking on St. John issue. We’ve been going to St. John once or twice a year since 2002 and now know what we don’t know. Like how to back into the last side space on the car barge! Last trip I looked at the deck guy and at my shiny rental vehicle which I had only driven a few miles, got out and just said, “Good afternoon, I clearly can’t do that, would you please do it for me?” He smiled, hopped in and performed some kind of magic, and we were in. Thanks for a fun read!

    • Hey Daniel! Glad you enjoyed this read and that you could relate. Yes- I know for sure that the barge workers will back your car up for you if you ask. It’s easier than annoying them (and stressing yourself out) when you do it improperly. Cheers!

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