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.
Back when my husband and I first got married, we lived on a somewhat small and very sparsely populated island in the southern Bahamas. All the Bahamian locals were friendly and welcoming. A lot of them remain good friends today that I still keep in touch with. We were asked to dinner often and while it was always delicious, it was always “local”: Jamaican curry goat, fish and grits, and all the lobster a girl could dream of (steamed, boiled, grilled, baked, sautéed). Lobster was plentiful there because everyone, including me, speared it themselves.
But these dinners were always out of my comfort zone as well. As fun as they were, they were never quite “comfortable”. I had to explain over and over again why, because of my suburban Atlanta upbringing, I didn’t mind one bit giving up the eyeballs out of my fish to someone more excited about the treat. Or why I wasn’t “finishing” my chicken by sucking every last bit of gristle and tendon off and even removing the marrow from the bone. Or that I really would rather let the home’s resident nine-year-old finish my Vita Malt (I could never figure out exactly what the thick, warm, heavily-malted beverage was good with). No one was ever rude about my finicky nature and I wouldn’t give up the years I lived among those friends for anything, but due to my polite Southern upbringing (you finish what the host serves you, say thank you, and possibly take another helping), I always left feeling like I had been somewhat rude for leaving the fins of the fish on my plate. And no one likes to constantly leave dinner parties feeling rude.
Toward the end of our time on that island, a couple from Key West moved in a few dirt roads down from ours. They had spent many many years of their life living on their sailboat and decided it was time to settle down (for at least half the year) and build a permanent structure they could spend winters in. It was so nice to have people moving in near us because our home was so remote. Maybe 3-4 other people lived out on our long road in our sparsely populated settlement. Multiple days could go by without another car driving down our road. So here we were, with new potential friends right in the “neighborhood.” They invited us over one night for a little dinner party, and the thought was so comforting and familiar (steak fajitas! margaritas! guacamole!) that I could barely stand the wait. When you live and eat outside of your comfort zone for long stretches at a time, the thought of a brief encounter with the familiar really lifts your spirits. They even invited us to bring my dog over instead of leaving her home alone. New friends (not easy to come by in such a small place). Familiar food. An evening I had no way of failing at.
You see where this is going, don’t you…
On the highly anticipated evening of our little gathering, Seth and I loaded ourselves, our appetizer contribution, a bottle of wine, and my dog, Saylor, up into our truck for the 1/2 mile dirt road drive to their place. Once there, Saylor bounded out of the truck and tore furiously around the yard. Because I didn’t have a fence at our house, she didn’t get a lot of free time outside. I decided to let her run while I carried the appetizer inside. About three minutes later, I came out and called her name. Nothing. I wandered down the driveway a bit a called again. Nothing. Annoyed that she might have run into the dense island bush surrounding their yard, I called louder. Then I wandered out into the road, and there she was. I could see her shape lit up under a lonely street lamp on the little dirt road, not moving, lying on her side. None of us had heard the car. Maybe one, two at most, would drive down our road in a day’s time. But in the three minutes I had carried our appetizer inside for our glorious, long-anticipated dinner party (steak! on our island! completely unheard of!) with our new potential friends, someone had driven by and hit her without stopping.
I stood in the road, crying, and yelled for Seth. He came out with our new friends following behind him. They were now confronted with us: two people they had just met for a total of ten minutes, invited into their home, now standing and crying in the road with my dead dog lying ten feet away. (Clarification: I was distraught. Saylor, named after a very dear friend, had been my dog prior to marriage and Seth’s arrival on the island. She had kept me company as I lived there alone for a few years. Seth didn’t have much of a problem holding himself together.) There were no vets on our island. One would come from a bigger island once every few months. If you had a dog you needed spayed or neutered, he’d do it for you then. In your driveway. Or on a back patio table. So there was nowhere to take her. I was so thankful that we were able to determine that she was, in fact, dead because on that island when you had an animal that was suffering, the only option was to call a police officer and have them shoot it. You think having your dog hit by a car can ruin a dinner party? Imagine having the police come over to shoot it in the head. That’s pretty much the definition of party foul. But fortunately, that wasn’t necessary.
Our new friends offered to help us bury her. So with our fajitas and fresh guac waiting inside, we loaded my dead dog into the truck and drove her home as I continued to cry. Seth and our brand new friends took turns and dug a big hole in our side yard, wrapped her up in an empty dog food bag (as a deterrent to other dogs thinking they’d dig her up), covered her with rocks (also a deterrent), and buried her. They even brought a palm tree to plant on top of her (another deterrent – though this was a long way from home where my family buried hamsters wrapped up in pretty cloth and planted azaleas on top of them). After burying our dog, our new potential friends said something along the lines of, “Well, we still have fajitas…”
Remember when I said I was so excited about this dinner party because I knew it would be comfortable and familiar? Almost like I was home again? That there was no way I could mess it up? No fish heads to leave on my plate? Or bits of a goat’s leg bone chips to spit out? Well, yeah, having my dog die and then allowing practical strangers to help us bury her within the first 30 minutes of our dinner party topped all of those. So I drank margaritas and cried all the way through the next few hours. And they made sure my glass stayed full.
I don’t remember much about the rest of the night, but we must have made a good impression because we’re still friends with this couple today. (Meaning, Seth must have made a good impression because I lost count of my margaritas and the tears only increased per drink.) We went beaching with them. They gave us plants for our yard and helped me learn about gardening. We exchanged recipes that were possible with the limited ingredients available on island. When we needed it months later, they helped us out with some of the moving process as we prepared to move our life to another island. But, I can’t say I remember being invited to any other dinner parties at their house.
I appreciate a thorough investigation. A good ‘ole fashioned puzzler requiring some research and critical analysis is even sorta fun for me. This has been helpful while managing ten condos built in the late 1960’s on a small, secondary island. I’m often required to balance my Sherlock Holmes cap atop all the other hats I don to get the job done. And while I’ve rarely shied away from a challenge attached to a paycheck, solving mechanical and maintenance issues will never be one of my many talents.
Mystery: Why is the water pump running without guests in the building? Answer: Because a leak has gone undetected in a storage closet for weeks.
Mystery: Why did the utility bill triple despite less use of the AC? Answer: Because the water pump ran continually to keep up with the leak.
Mystery: Why do I smell mildew in the entryway of one particular condo? Answer: Because there’s a hole in the roof, and it’s raining on the ceiling tiles.
Last week brought two mysteries. I suspected a common link, but couldn’t be sure.
A strange noise presented itself on a few different occasions. A splatter splat splat pitter pat of liquid hitting my roof, deck, and sometimes the ground behind my cottage. It sounded like Sally, the housekeeper, dumping the mop bucket onto my roof. But she hadn’t done this for several months, ever since I finally got around to telling her that my bedroom ceiling leaked in the exact place she dumped the water. She wouldn’t have been mopping at the time of the splatters anyway.
I hoped it was just the guests above my cottage dumping cooler water from their veranda onto my roof, which then ran onto the deck and behind the cottage.This made the most sense.
It made the most sense, that is, except for my worst fear as property manager: the dreaded sewer backup.
Which brings me to the second mystery of the week.
I had also started to notice, when walking across the deck toward my cottage door, a pissy smell. So there was also a sneaking suspicion that raw sewage was spilling under my deck after every flush due to a burst pipe or something equally unfortunate. This could explain the sporadic splatter splat splat pitter pat that I’d heard on the deck. Maybe it only sounded like it was on the roof. A ventriloquist sound effect. But if it was raw sewage, wouldn’t I be smelling #2 in addition to #1?
It worried me enough to put the mystery sound/smell combo at the top of the next day’s maintenance list. The handyman validated my concern the following morning when, upon reaching the top deck stair, did not offer salutation, but rather asked through my kitchen window, “Why I smellin’ piss?”
He determined that it was cat piss— a tom must be spraying. It wasn’t possible, he assured, for a pipe to have broken in the place I smelled urine. So it must be a cat.
click for photo credit
Since I had definitely caught more than one acrid whiff of cat piss, and since this is not a rare thing to smell on the property, I let it go at that. Although, I must admit that part of me knew I’d also smelled the separate and distinct odor of human piss in the area directly outside my kitchen window. But having many other things to fret over, I de-esclated the sound/smell mystery for the day.
Fortunately, the truth, as it often does, emerged quite organically later that evening. Or, should I say rather, very early the next morning.
I woke up at 2:30 am to splatter splat splat pitter pat on the deck outside my kitchen window. While checking my phone for the time, I saw a text sent just 15 minutes earlier from my across-the-street neighbor. She apologized for bothering me so late, but said there was a guest locked out of his condo making quite a racket trying to get back in. Yelling for Mom and throwing rocks at windows for upwards of 30 minutes, I would later discover.
This didn’t click immediately; the condo she mentioned was currently vacant.
But then I remembered another text received earlier that evening from the guests staying two stories above my cottage. One of the parents asked, on behalf of their 19-year-old son, which bars in Cruz Bay I recommend for a younger crowd. Being a helpful host, I suggested four, and passed along the message to have fun and be safe.
It occurred to me that the teenager must be confused as to which condo is his. While he harassed the empty condo at the top of the stairs in the lower building, his family slept at the top of the stairs in the upper building. I pulled on some clothes and went outside prepared to guide his drunk ass home. Stepping onto my deck, I noticed some fresh puddles on the otherwise dry wood directly below my kitchen window where I’d heard the splatter splat splat that woke me. I bent down and sniffed. Sure enough. Piss.
So then it further occurred to me that the kid must have made it home, seeing as that he had just pissed off of his veranda and onto my deck. Right between my kitchen window and front door, that is. Not only did he just do this while trashed in the middle of the night, he’s been doing it all week during the day. Presumably, in his parents’ presence. Even waving the stream about, it seems, if I’m to trust my ears as regards variety in splatter locale.
This is the splatter splat splat pitter pat noise! This is the piss smell!
Although he’d clearly made it home, I thought to check for good measure. No sooner had I reached the deck stairs when I heard from the kid’s veranda,
I spun around, looking up. He smiled at me and swayed a bit. Involuntarily. Like a skyscraper.
“Yeah, a neighbor just texted me complaining about someone banging on a door.”
“Oh, I had the wrong door at first. I’m sorry. Ashley, I’m really really sorry.”
I pointed my index finger at him in classic scolding fashion.
“Go to bed.”
“I’m so so sorry…”
“Go to bed… Go to bed and stop pissing off of the veranda.”
“I’m so so sorry…”
I walked back to my door, returning every apology with the directive for bed, accenting it with the finger scold.
“Ashley, I’m so so sorry.”
“Go to bed.”
“And stop pissing off of the veranda.”