The snake was a sinister black, roughly 7ft in length, and coiled in the corner of our hotel room’s foyer. As I ambled half-asleep towards the bathroom, I spotted it first peripherally, then in full, horrifying focus. Looking back, I admit that the three blood-curdling screams I released in rapid succession, the ones David would later describe as of the “There’s-a-Mass-Murderer-with-a-Chainsaw-in-our-Room” variety, were a tad dramatic. But at the time, all I could think was that when we selected this “luxury boutique hotel” in the “Mexican jungle” I had failed to consider that jungles aren’t solely populated by cheeky monkeys that run on your roof, but more ominous creatures as well. Now here we were. In the jungle. Shit was getting real.
On the precipice of hysteria, I made a non-negotiable demand for David not to go near it, citing poison concerns, and made a breathless SOS call to the front desk. The ever professional Oscar, who had just checked in what he had thought to be a chill, normal couple only yesterday, assured this now-crazed woman with the grave calm of an emergency responder, promising to send a crew over to remove the creature immediately.
Within minutes, a trio of no-nonsense Mexican men came trouping into our room, armed with garden tools to corral the intruder. David and I watched in our robes as they nudged it out the door, he, standing like a normal human, and me, curled into a ball on the bathroom countertop like a child who thinks the floor is lava. And in that moment, with the perceived danger removed, I let out a spasm of relieved, embarrassed laughter as I saw us at once through their eyes, reduced to a ridiculous tourist stereotype specific to their locale, Pampered Gringos Who Can’t Hack It in the Jungle. I immediately knew that we would be the subject of scorn at their respective homes over dinner conversation that evening.
Sometimes we’re the locals and sometimes we’re the tourists. And we all know there is nothing quite like the unearned, false sense of superiority that comes with being a local in a sea of tourists. Oh, how we love to mock their unfamiliarity of local customs and foolish, foreign attire. Yet when the tables are turned… oh, how we hope to be seen as the shining individuals of inherent coolness we consider ourselves.
Because it is here that I am a local and because our tourists arrive in such entertaining droves, I’m excusing myself for a moment from the worthy adult goal of refraining from judgment to instead, engage in a little adolescent tourist mockery. Let’s poke some fun from our glass house, shall we?
Allow me to introduce you to The 5 Tourists You Will Meet in the Caribbean…
THE ISLAND GROUPIE
After vacationing in the islands a handful of times, these tourists now consider themselves more local than tourist – the fact that they don’t actually live here (and never have) is a moot point. They spend their lives counting down the days until their next island escape, stalking restaurants and resorts via Facebook. During their visits, they greet the staff of local businesses like long-lost family members, rather than the people who may have served them conch fritters 3 years ago. They make a show of wearing t-shirts from island businesses that have long since bit the dust as irrefutable proof of their past visits, passive-aggressively reminding us all that “they remember when…”
Why We Love Them:
- They think they know everything, so they don’t ask you as many stupid questions as the tourist newbies.
- They are die-hard loyalists and if they like you/your business, they’re the best advertising you didn’t have to buy.
Why We Love to Hate Them:
- They think they know everything.
- They shorten your name to display a false sense of familiarity, insisting on calling you Chrissy or Chris, even though no one close to you has called you that before. Ever.
- “I used to come here when this place was owned by a pirate!”
- “Only 243 days, 4 hours, and 23 seconds until I’m back in that hammock again!” (posted to your resort’s Facebook wall – every. damn. day.)
THE TOMMY BAHAMA POSTER PEOPLE
When planning their Caribbean vacation, this genre of tourists appear to have focused less on the activities they look forward to doing and more on the outfits they look forward to wearing. With Tommy Bahama and his wasp-y cousin Ralph Lauren as their muse, the efforts they have put into looking relaxed are almost poetic in their irony. Think white linen pants, pastels, tropical floral patterns, and popped collars. And pink plaid shorts. On men.
Why We Love Them:
- They tend to be good tippers, because they are wealthy. Don’t their loafers make this obvious? Duh.
- A high percentage of them are honeymooners. And honeymooners are ebulliently happy as a species and therefore forgiving of island mishaps, of which there are always many.
Why We Love to Hate Them:
- Popped collars are obnoxious and it takes a great deal of restraint to not engage in aggressive behaviors when in their presence (ie. punching faces).
- When they ask you to take “a picture” for them, it inevitably turns into a photo shoot, with them hugging a palm tree and you, grimacing through multiple poses.
- “What’s the dress code for dinner? Would you say it’s Caribbean casual or is it more Caribbean elegant?”
THE DRUNKEN PARTIERS
Having escaped from the shackles of their suffocating existence in the real world, these people use this annual Caribbean holiday as a balls-to-the-wall excuse to party like it’s 1999 (or, you know, college). They tend to travel in packs and behave like barely recognizable versions of their otherwise responsible selves; if you get them talking, you’ll discover that most have high-stress, high-profile jobs such as lawyers, politicians, doctors, and the like. They came to the Caribbean to fly off the radar – and party like they can never quite get away with back at home.
Why We Love Them:
- They can be fun as hell to play with, if you’re in the mood.
- They run up exorbitant bar bills. Cha-ching!
Why We Love to Hate Them:
- They can be aggravating as hell to be around, if you’re not in the mood.
- Things get sloppy fast. And kind of cringe-worthy to watch as the hours pass.
- “WOOOOOOOOOO!!!! SHOTS!!!!!!”
- “Let’s get NAKED!!!!!”
THE OBSESSIVE SAILOR
Sailing for these people has gone beyond basic hobby and become an almost neurotic fixation in which NO ONE is as passionate about as they are. It’s typically one member of a group chartering a sailboat who you can spot wearing a shirt with some variation of “I’m the Captain” emblazoned across the front, tucked into pleated shorts, and fused with a belt covered in naval navigation flags. His/her insistence of using solely nautical terminology with their crew of friends and family who have no idea what they are referring to is clearly getting on everyone’s nerves.
Why We Love Them:
- To prove their sailing prowess, they will go out of their way to assist other tourists out on charter, most of whom have no clue what they’re doing because all that was required to rent their boat was a credit card.
- They are professional and competent on VHF radio.
Why We Love to Hate Them:
- They can be extremely arrogant, misogynistic, and demanding – basically every unflattering term you’ve ever heard people use to describe an insufferable Captain.
- They wage a war against people who powerboat instead of sail, as though the ocean belongs to them alone because they are “greener”, managing to leave out the fact that they’re the ones pumping their waste water into the sea.
- “The SE trade winds are projected to be favorable for our crossing in 0500 hours. We cast off at daybreak, at which point I will require all hands on deck.”
THE PATAGONIA ADVENTURER
Unfortunately for this traveler, our islands are more drinking challenge than fitness challenge. Where they had pictured mountains to climb and raw, wild nature to trek, they are instead met with beach bars to drink at and hammocks to lounge in. Where everyone else is wearing swimsuits and flip flops, you will spot them in overly practical footwear (the current trend being those disturbingly ape-like neoprene socks that have individual toe slots and grippy soles), camel backpacks of water to stay hydrated, and those zippy pants that turn into shorts (or as we all know them, “shants”).
Why We Love Them:
- They are ecologically responsible travelers and treat our landscape kindly.
- They tend to be the most easy-going guests, striving to prove how Zen they are in their adaptability.
Why We Love to Hate Them:
- They’re often highly critical of how un-eco they deem our islands to be and are full of magical “solutions” to all of our problems after being here for a mere 3 days.
- They bring their own snacks and “picnic” at the local beach resorts, as though they are national parks, not restaurants.
- “Why don’t you have any recycling here? Don’t you people know how easy it is?”
- “This humidity doesn’t bother me at all. My shirt wicks moisture. And it is made of SPF 100 fabric. It may as well be winter to me.”
– – –
Thanks for humoring me and for letting me get that out of my system. Feel free to mock me mercilessly when the tables turn and I am a tourist in your part of the world. I’ll be the one wearing impractical footwear, doing yoga poses in front of your monuments, and, most likely, butchering your language.
Disclaimer: My sincere apologies if this offends anyone but please, use some common sense.
Around 50% of the BVI’s economy is obtained from tourism. That’s right – half of this territory’s money comes from those newly-wed, over-fed, really-red, nearly-dead folks from overseas. Those four categories are typically used to describe cruise ship passengers, but we mustn’t forget the various corporate Vice-Presidents, CEOs, doctors, and other well-placed members of society who grace our shores and our offshores with their presence and put bread on the Government’s table. Those of us who have been here for a long time have taken to grouping all visitors of a certain genus into one subcategory of fauna that we call Tourons.
The word touron is a completely fictitious noun and serves to combine the words “tourist” and “moron” into a jovial juxtaposition of jargon. In terms of expression, it can be used with the same tone of disdain as when using “moron” when witnessing someone doing something idiotic from a distance. Hence, the definition of touron is: a tourist doing (or saying) something idiotic. Sadly, this is most often right under our noses, rather than from at a distance.
While we may still shake our heads, we have long ago forgiven them for their “Caribbean holiday outfits” that they have so carefully chosen for their trip. Hawaiian shirts, socks worn with sandals and pulled up to the knees, fanny packs, bee-keeper type hats, and a raging sunburn are no longer causes for surprise. They’ve given in to the various Caribbean stereotypes acquired subconsciously over time via television shows, advertisements, and movies, and show up looking like weatherman Joey Stevens. All that’s missing is the puppet parrot on their right arm. But it’s fine. They thought this was the Caribbean norm. They thought it was quirky and fun. They didn’t know any better.
Complete and utter ignorance as described above is laughable, and just about forgivable. It’s when some tourists arrive, decidedly devoid of common sense, that we tend to start muttering “touron” under our breath. It’s as though, when faced with the issue of overweight baggage, they decided that removing their brains and leaving them at home would allow more carry-on room for their jelly shoes and zinc. That’s about 8lbs right there, and besides, I won’t be needing this in the blissful waters of the BVI, right? Wrong. Showing up here without your noggin is far from forgivable…it’s downright inexcusable.
Upon experiencing the words and actions of a touron, stunned silence, widened eyes, raised eyebrows, uncontrollable bursts of laughter, a face-palm or pursed lips (and schtupsing) usually ensue. In hindsight, however annoying they may be at the time, all of them are downright hilarious. I’ve compiled a few of these incidences below, which I have either experienced myself or which have been shared with me by friends and family.
THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO… HUH?
- Walking in the middle of the road.
Ok, not a huge deal, but…why? It’s clearly a road. There are two lanes, with cars going up and down it in either direction. Would you walk in the middle of the road at home? No. I rest my case.
- Walking around town in a bikini/with their shirt off.
Again…why?! Surely not something that’s encouraged upon the shores of home. I can only assume that this stems from the stereotypical view of “No Shirt. No Shoes. No Problem.” Well, guess what: no shirt? No shoes? Big problem. Walking around half naked for all the world to see is considered culturally offensive in the BVI. You can’t blame the heat either…if I can survive in a work blouse and trousers, you can handle it. Put your Hawaiian shirt back on!
- Referring to the locals as “indigenous.”
?!?! Really, I have no words for this one.
- When asked to provide picture ID with their online credit card purchase: taking a selfie with their computer webcam and emailing it through.
Hmm looks like sometimes their brain is stored away before they even board the plane.
- Asking how long it’s going to take them to get back to the ship from where they are…when they can see the ship, big and bright as day from where they are.
You’d be surprised how often this happens.
Yes, people really said or asked these things.
- “How do you keep the islands from floating away?”
Magic. We’re not quite sure but it has something to do with mermaids and giant anchors.
- “What do you do with the islands in hurricane season? Do you have to tie them down?”
See above. They work overtime.
- “How long do you think it would take me to swim under the island?” [Blank stare.] “I’m not stupid; I know I couldn’t do it all in one breath, but hypothetically, how long do you think it would take?”
Why don’t you give it a try and find out? We’ll give the mermaids a heads up on your arrival.
- A lady’s response when she was asked why she was carrying multiple small vials with her: “I want to collect the different shades of blue in the ocean.”
Good luck with that.
- When sitting on board a sailboat in BVI waters: “What’s the altitude here?”
Seriously? You’re sitting on a boat. On the ocean. You know, the sea?
- Having met a crew member on a cruise ship in the middle of a stairwell: “Excuse me, Miss, do these stairs go up or down?”
- How many sunsets do you have?
Just the one. Everyday. About the same time. You see, the Earth revolves around the…oh, never mind.
- What are those weird dark patches moving over the mountains?
It’s that same deadly fog that’s in Lost. Yeah, we’re going to be stuck out here for a while. Or at least until the clouds move…
- After using the head (toilet) on a sailboat: “The colour of the ocean is so blue you can even see it in the toilet bowl!”
It’s fucking Fabuloso.
And on and on it goes. It’s quite scary to think that these types of people are responsible for half of our economy.
Some of these questions are posed by more than one set of tourons (perhaps they go to conventions, or interbreed), but you can guarantee that by the end of the tourist season each year there are a slew of new touron-isms being relayed to us year-rounders for our audible pleasure.
Many of the stories make us laugh so much our bellies ache. All of them make us shake our heads and mutter: “tourons.”
Feel free to share your own experiences in the comments!
Well, okay, not really bahn here (island speak for “born here”), but she’s been here on St. John since she was 2 months old. Her mother – me – is a controlling Virgo and first-time mom. I must say that after watching so many pregnancy/new mother/chick-flick movies, my ideas of what it means to be a mom are a bit on the commercial side. I have idealized motherhood and child-rearing in the context of a city – not an island – and there have been some rude awakenings. I’ll discuss (bitch about) a few…
I see that there are other infants on St. John. There has actually been a bit of a baby boom of recent with little boys and girls popping out of island gyal’s canals all last year. Unfortunately, regardless of demand, there are no practicing pediatricians on island. BOOO! There are health care providers wandering under the domain of the all-encompassing Myrah Keaton Clinic, but I was frightened off at our last visit when the friendly nurse wanted to give my 3 month old daughter a vaccine made for 6 month olds.
So, being city-minded, I went to the internet and Googled “pediatrician in the US Virgin Islands”. After a few clicks and phone calls to the St. John health care providers listed, I was informed that while the doctors on staff do see children, they are not pediatricians and that I should instead contact the neighboring island of St. Thomas. This was not good news – St. Thomas is huge and it is either expensive to pay the $50 to barge your car over or a pain to take the “dollar safari taxi” over with an infant and mandatory stroller/diaper bag. Fortunately, I found a pretty feasible option (as if there were many) near the ferry terminal in Red Hook that would do, only to find out a few months later that the doctor we were seeing had started her own practice way in town and the distance necessitated further transportation than just a walk across the street from the ferry dock. I guess this means we should stop feeling so special and just go see the general doctor at the St. John clinic.
Childcare and Babysitters
Unfortunately, the nearest blood relative to my daughter and me is about 2,000 miles away, give or take a few hundred miles. So what’s a girl to do when she wants a little rendezvous with her he-for-me, you ask? Wait for the baby to fall asleep and speak sweet nothings very softly in the living room for the 30-60 minutes she’s out.
Fortunately, I am staying at home with my daughter and her father is supporting us which means we don’t need a regular childcare provider. But out of curiosity, I’ve asked around anyway. Back in Wisconsin, there is a childcare provider on every corner along with a church, liquor store, and bar. I am used to knowing there are many places to bring your kids when you’ve got to play or work. Here in the islands, it is a different story. After several inquiries to neighbors and women I’ve run across holding infants, I have only been told of TWO places on island that provide childcare, both of which close at 5pm sharp. There are a few other loose arrangements I’ve heard of where woman are watching folks’ infants while the mothers work their 9-5. The only babysitting service I’ve seen costs somewhere around $20 an hour and is geared more towards villa services for the tourists here on vacation. I guess three’s not a crowd when there are no other options. “Me time” and a solo shower are overrated indulgences anyway, right?
While motherhood on a rock comes with its adjustments, there have been some major positives. There is nothing more breathtaking or serene than playing in the ocean that surrounds us, watching my baby laugh and taste the salt of the earth. Living here is beautiful and while we may not have a lot of conveniences and the pleasures of material wealth, we are surrounded by beautiful spirits both in the flesh and not. And that is priceless to both mother and child – pediatrician or not.
When most people think of life on a Caribbean island, they usually conjure up images of beautiful beaches, warm weather, and crystal clear waters. They think of a calm and slower pace of life and that everyone is relaxed and set to “island time”. I’ve been living in the BVI for the last year and I can assure you that this is all true. It is amazingly beautiful and everywhere you look, the scenery is postcard perfect. It is perpetual summertime and I love it. But the thing is, I am exhausted…as in, perhaps I have a vitamin deficiency or actual illness, kind-of-exhausted. But I’m not sick or rundown, I’m just seriously sleep deprived all because I have this inherent resistance to sleeping in on a sunny day, which happens to be almost every day when you’re living in the Caribbean. Any time I try to sleep-in, I suffer a severe self-induced guilt-trip for not being outside soaking up the sunshine.
I moved to the BVI last year from Ireland, which isn’t exactly known for its amazing weather. Most days are quite grey and it rains all of the time. And the rain isn’t like a Caribbean shower where it will rain for a few minutes or an hour and then, voila!, it is beautiful and sunny again. In Ireland, it could easily rain all day and night for several days. I didn’t even see what the big deal was when I experienced my first tropical storm here in the islands last year. Far from threatening, it reminded me of a normal rainy and windy day in Ireland. In my eyes, it wasn’t what I would consider a legit storm or borderline hurricane. I actually quite enjoy a tropical storm. I sleep really well and like being tucked up in bed listening to the howling wind and rain drops falling on the roof. I find it quite comforting, as it reminds me of home.
My sleeping patterns have always been linked to the weather. Prior to moving to the BVI, a sunny day was rare for me and was considered a reasonable excuse to leave work early or not to go work at all. It felt like the end of the world if it was nice out and I had to stay in the office and miss out on the sunshine. Warm and sunny days in Ireland are like gold dust and there is a mass exodus to the nearest beach or park to soak up the limited-time only rays. Everyone is red raw with sunburn and yet they still stay out in the sun and sizzle some more because it may be the only glimpse of summer most people will get. Sunburn, an eruption of freckles, dehydration…these are the things that make up some of Ireland’s best days of the year.
I vividly recall my last sunny day in Ireland. It was almost two years ago and my mom ran into my bedroom to wake up me and ordered me to run outside straight away because it was so nice out. While this may come as a shock to people who have grown up in the Caribbean, I’m sure that a lot of people who have spent time further North will know my pain. I stayed outside that day until the sun went down. My legs were scalded and emitted heat like a radiator for days. I was a human tomato and I couldn’t care less. A sunburn didn’t matter because it’s not like I saw enough of the sun to worry about skin damage – I was more concerned about developing a vitamin-D deficiency due to a serious lack of sunlight.
So, due to being pretty much sunshine-deprived my entire life, I am left with an urgency to jump out of bed in the morning, no matter how tired I am, and make the most of any signs of a clear blue sky. But while I love the sunshine, I am now in serious mourning for the days of staying in bed on a Saturday or having a lazy day catching up on a box set or watching a movie. Now that I’m in the perpetually sunny Caribbean, it doesn’t matter whether I go to bed at 9pm or 2am, I will still wake up at sunrise the next day and begrudgingly get out of bed.
I find myself reminiscing about the times in my life when I had an ability to sleep-in and even bypass the AM hours altogether. My life now consists of a pretty geriatric sleeping pattern – a case of early to bed, early to rise. When lack of sleep catches up with me, I don’t make plans to sleep in late, but instead, try to catch up by falling asleep at an embarrassingly early hour like 7pm. There are some days that I will even hop into bed at 6pm and watch a movie, unable to stay awake long enough to see the end. Sadly, though I’m decades too soon, I would fit in really well in a nursing home at this point in my life. And heaven forbid my phone rings past 8pm on a weeknight. I’m actually shocked as to who would ring so late and wake me up – don’t they know the unrelenting Caribbean sun is waking me up at 5am against my will?
I now find myself fantasizing about what my life would be like if I was well rested. I would probably be happier and better looking. My skin would be radiant, my hair would be super shiny, and I would have boundless energy. People would stop and ask where I get all of my pep, rather than asking if I am anemic and recommending that I get my iron levels checked. To me, sleep is a one-size fits all solution to all of life’s problems. Who knew that a move to the islands would deprive me of this?
So until I overcome this psychological barrier to sleeping in while it’s sunny out, all I can do is pray to the weather gods for some rain or, even better, a tropical storm for the weekend. Saturday is only a few days away and, fingers crossed, let’s hope it’s a wet one!
Driving around the US Virgin Islands, you’re likely to see a cheerful catchphrase on most license plates: “United States Virgin Islands, America’s Caribbean!” You’ll see the same slogan splashed across the main tourism website for the territory, which entices US travelers by proudly proclaiming, “No Passport Required for US Citizens!” You might imagine a move to the USVI would be similar to relocating to a beachy mainland locale like the Jersey Shore or Cape Cod. You would be wrong.
While it is technically true that one can hop off their plane or boat in the USVI without handing over their passport for a stamp, those who live here know the truth: we’re not in America anymore, Toto. Sure, the dominant language is English and we use the dollar for currency, but don’t be fooled. Island life often feels distinctly foreign from anything you’d experience on the mainland.
You may get your first inkling of these differences while preparing for your journey to the USVI, as the airline representative explains that you cannot check a box when traveling to St Thomas because it is an international flight; boxes are only permitted on domestic flights. As this is your first brush with your new island’s somewhat ambiguous status in relation to the mainland, you’ll be passed through four different customer service representatives, none of whom have a satisfactory explanation for why this flight is considered international. “You don’t even need a passport,” you explain, helpfully. You will be put on hold for a very long time.
The most obvious difference you’ll notice as you disembark on island (gleefully skipping past Immigration, unburdened by that pesky passport!), is that we “keep left” here in the VI, the only US territory with the distinction of driving on the left side of the road. This will be a particular challenge, as they were handing out shots of rum as you departed the airport. Careening towards your new apartment – driving on the left, in a car built for the right – you’ll be baffled as to why the road signs say “gade” where you’d expect them to say “street”. No matter – you’ll eventually arrive at your new apartment, miraculously unscathed – time to enjoy some celebratory rum!
You will quickly realize that the Tourism Department’s “No Passport Required for US Citizens!” announcement should really include the caveat, “…unless you plan to live here.” You will be turned away at both the bank and the post office as punishment for arriving in the USVI without that little blue book. You will return to the post office the next day and find a less grumpy employee who kindly sets you up with a PO Box after you hand over your lease, a paystub, and a blood sample.
Similar persistence with the bank will not pay off. Resign yourself to the fact that all of your banking will be done in your husband’s name; he will need to sign every check you write until you can get your hands on that passport you were convinced you did not need. It is very expensive to live here – he will be signing a lot of checks. Luckily, the passport office will expedite your passport processing for a fee. Less luckily, you will call six weeks later to ask where your passport is and be told it was not processed as expedited. (It should go without saying that the US Passport Office will be unable to help you recover your passport expediting fee.)
As you realize traversing the mountainous roads of your new island exposes you to near-death situations on a daily basis, you’ll try procuring yourself some life insurance from a mainland company and endure the barrage of additional questions they ask of those applicants who “reside internationally”. Patiently explain that you live in an unincorporated territory of the United States, for goodness sake! The company will tell you that this does not count. Completing the telephonic questionnaire for “international applicants” will take three hours, as your phone keeps picking up on the cell tower from the nearby British Virgin Islands and dropping your call.
As you arrange to have the rest of your belongings shipped down, you’ll quickly discover that the confusion over the USVI’s status relationship with the USA is nearly universal. The US Post Office will – thank the heavens – operate much the same as the mainland USPS (other than necessitating the rental of a PO Box, as home delivery is impossible without a standardized street address system). But when trying to arrange overnight shipping for an envelope containing a single sheet of paper, you’ll nearly faint as the FedEx representative tells you it will cost over $80. “It’s international shipping,” you’ll be told. Attempts to order a few other necessary items from the internet will similarly fail, as you’ll find many websites lack “VI” as an option in their drop-down menus for shipping locales. You briefly consider calling some of these vendors to inform them of this issue, but elect to dejectedly drink rum instead.
As you make your way back to the airport, sunburned and quite possibly hungover, you may be startled to find yourself being directed to the line for Customs. Your confusion is understandable, as you didn’t go through Customs upon arrival to the USVI – back in the good old days when you still thought you were in the United States. Someone will tell you that this is because the USVI is “outside the Customs’ territory of the United States” and these words will make even less sense to you than “unincorporated territory”. The Customs agent will scowl at you for your lack of passport. “But this is America’s Caribbean!” you’ll say, weakly now, as you make your way to your plane and your adventure on the island with an identity crisis comes to a close.