Written by: ANDREA MILAM
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for love. If mushy, lovey-dovey proclamations aren’t your thing, you might want to stop reading. Because today is one of those days when I’m bursting with gratitude and feeling so fortunate to have built a life on this rock, and I want to tell you why…
This hits first on my list because because natural beauty is often what initially draws people to the Caribbean, and I must admit, it’s part of what I still find so dazzling. People scrimp and save for months, sometimes years, to vacation on the beaches where my children learned to swim, the pristine stretches of white sand where they go on school field trips, and where we spend nearly every Sunday as a family. During the winter, one percenters drop anchor in the dreamy blue waters that I glimpse from my desk. And I absolutely understand why. When we take our weekly Sunday sojourns to the north shore and come around the bend that reveals the incredible palette of blues in Hawksnest Bay, my heart still jumps into my throat the way it did on my very first tour of the island.
Island residents are in touch with nature
Here, the landscape isn’t beaten back and controlled for the benefit of human residents the way it was in my childhood suburb. Chickens, donkeys, deer, cats, and iguanas show up in our yard. Bananaquits eat sugar out of my children’s hands each morning. We make do without air conditioning in favor of power bills that aren’t heart attack-inducing, so we live an open-air lifestyle among the trees. Hearing the breeze rush down the hillside through the leaves, the anticipation of knowing that breeze will soon invite itself inside by way of our sliding glass doors, is the ultimate luxury on a hot August day. Even those residents who do sculpt their landscaping, chase the chickens from their yard, and close up and air-condition their homes can’t get around having a close and personal relationship with one aspect of nature: rain. Rain fills our cisterns, and we live by the rhythm of the raindrops hitting our roofs. This method of water supply teaches us that water is precious; we understand that lengthy showers, leaving the water running during teeth-brushing, and even flushing every time is inconceivably wasteful. We look to the skies for water, and all residents learn quickly that this resource isn’t something that can be taken for granted.
Waste not, want not
My island has no big box stores, no car dealerships, no Starbucks (gasp!), in fact, no chain stores or restaurants of any kind. New residents learn quickly that what they thought were “needs” were actually “wants,” and the number of conveniences that fall into your “needs” category directly correlates to how long you’ll last on island. Though not having a Target within a five minute drive from home is surely some people’s idea of hell, I adore the lack of materialism and consumerism that seems to run more and more rampant in the U.S. with every visit I make. Cars here are lovingly patched together with garbage bags, duct tape, and twine, driven until they simply can’t go anymore. Clothing and toys are handed down and passed on. Electronics are opened up and repaired again and again. A fridge that’s marred with rust on the outside yet perfectly cold on the inside will be kept in service rather than being discarded for its unsightly appearance. Here, we don’t have the option of being wasteful, and this inspires a special kind of resourcefulness and creativity among residents that never ceases to amaze me.
We are out of touch
Forgive me for briefly introducing politics into this article, but the fact that cable service simply isn’t available to residents on my road because the cable company hasn’t yet run the necessary lines has been a blessing in disguise. We get out of being bombarded by the news, commercials, attacks, and straight up hate that are all a part of this year’s election (according to my Facebook feed). On another positive note, my kids know nothing of pop culture or the advertisements that teach them from a young age that they aren’t good enough without certain products or beautiful enough if they don’t meet certain beauty standards. These things just aren’t important here. Before I moved in 2005, I knew an embarrassing amount of celebrity gossip. Now, I have no idea who’s famous or who the lead singer of that one band is sleeping with or what movies are breaking box office records. And you know what? I couldn’t care less. There’s so much more to life than what the media tells us is important. (Stepping down off my soapbox now).
The small island community
The mixture of native St. Johnians, down islanders who moved here from their own Caribbean home, and continentals who moved here from the U.S. has resulted in a truly special community. Many continentals here are far away from extended family, so we become one another’s family. We share thoughts of gratitude over turkey at Thanksgiving, we go on vacations together, we welcome one another into our homes on Christmas Day. When an island resident is in need, from meal deliveries after the birth of a baby to fundraisers for someone facing a health crisis to grief support, this community steps up like none other. We recognize each other’s faces and we know each other’s stories. When my son won the St. Thomas-St. John district spelling bee (proud mom moment!), he was showered with congratulations by grocery store workers, bank tellers, and the random passersby we encountered on daily errands. When I go grocery shopping solo, the cashier asks how my kids are doing and remembers how excited they were to devour the donuts I purchased during my last trip to the store. On St. John, housekeepers are friends with multi-millionaires are friends with restaurant workers are friends with business professionals. The pretentiousness and “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” that pervades American culture is notably absent. Here, we look past your appearance and profession to see what really matters: who you are as a person.
I save this one for last because above all else, it’s the culture that brought me to this rock. During an August 2002 trip to Barbados, I found myself ‘pon de road, decked out in a blue sequined Kadooment costume that was every bit as shiny as it was skimpy. The music! The dancing! The sheer joy among the band of revelers who welcomed everyone to partake in this important cultural ritual! That day changed me. Two years later, I chipped down the road in the capital of Caribbean carnival culture, Trinidad, in a costume even more brilliantly decadent with a tall feathered headpiece to match. A year after that, I couldn’t ignore the call of the Caribbean any longer, and I made the move to St. John. The very culture that brought me here is something I still revere today, and it’s something I hope that visitors and transient residents learn about and respect too. When you’re out and about on St. John, greet those you encounter with a friendly “good morning,” “good afternoon,” or “good night.” Eat some kallaloo (I like it best with a thick layer of fungi at the bottom). Wash it down with soursop juice. Don’t be afraid to tek a little wine to some soca music. And remember that St. John is more than just a pretty face. This island has warmth, community, and culture in spades. And I get to call it home!
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What things are you grateful for on your island today?