Caribbean islands are beautiful. Inspiring. Breathtaking. But all of that becomes secondary and quickly fades away when you realize one thing: they want to kill you. Yes, you heard me correctly. The islands are out to get you. Hurricanes. Mudslides. Flash floods. Sharks. Tropical diseases. High surf advisories. It’s like looming death wrapped up with a sparkly 82-degree-and-breezy bow. Last summer, our island attacked us with dual force. Here’s how it went down…
After some lovely time spent outdoors enjoying the beauty that is the Caribbean, my husband, Seth, got hit hard with dengue fever. It’s one of those wonderfully fun tropical diseases passed on by mosquitoes that ranges from “Hate-your-Life-and-the-Fact-that-you’re-Alive-for-a-Week” to “Kill You” levels. Fortunately, the strain he caught was in the former category.
Dengue hits you with a whole firestorm of symptoms that you never realized could go together. It’s basically every terrible thing about the full-blown flu, plus,on top of that, everything hurts – your bones, your back, even your eyes. Don’t try to look side to side without turning your head. Trust me. Oh, how your eyes hurt. Oh, yeah – and there’s a rash. A full-body red, itchy rash. Then there’s vomiting, dehydration, and the inability to keep food down. All from a mosquito bite. And if you think you have dengue, whatever you do, do not take ibuprofen no matter how much your cramping and aching muscles call out for relief. There is some bizarre stuff going on inside of you right now and ibuprofen can apparently make your red blood cells explode or something similarly scientific. Take Tylenol. That’s it. Tylenol and sleep until it all goes away.
So here I am, home on a summer day and Seth is fortunately in the middle of a marathon nap back in the bedroom. Falling asleep isn’t easy when you have dengue because you’re in so much pain, so the relief of sleeping and not feeling that pain for a few hours is glorious. And that’s when it happened. My internal monologue went something like this:
What is that? A truck?
That’s a really loud truck.
Why hasn’t it passed by yet?
Wait – is this an earthquake?
Crap, it’s an earthquake.
Wow, it’s still going.
This is a really long one.
Maybe I should go outside.
Yeah, I’m going to go outside now.
– *Stops* halfway between the living room and front door –
Wait…do I wake Seth up?
Our house could slide down the side of the mountain and he’d die.
But – he’s finally napping and getting some dengue relief.
If he’s still napping through this, then that means he’s really out.
Which is more likely to kill him – the earthquake or the dengue?
And then it stopped.
Yep, that’s me. Emergency responder to the rescue.
In actuality, we get earthquakes here pretty regularly. In fact, there were three in quick succession just this morning. Usually you barely notice them, or don’t even feel them at all. Sometimes they’re bad enough to loosen rocks that fall down the mountain onto the road. The one we got during Seth’s bout with dengue was the longest enduring earthquake that I’ve ever experienced here. Obviously, long enough for me to have an entire conversation in my head. Yet what it all boiled down to for me was – which was going to inflict the most pain and suffering on Seth? I went with the dengue (or “The Dengus” as a friend’s child calls it).
In the earthquake vs. Dengue Fever scenario, I was right. Me – 1, Island – 0. But it’s just a matter of time. This island has it out for us, I’m sure of it. For you. For everyone. Throwing death blows at every turn. I mean, beauty without adventure is pretty boring, don’t you think? Where’s the fun in that?
We humans are incredibly adaptable creatures. No matter how wonderful (or awful) a change is in our lives, we quickly grow accustomed to it and often forget what life was like before the change occurred. The same is true of island living. Things that were once novel to you become old hat before you know it.
Take, for example, the pervasive presence of lizards. I am reminded of a few years ago when I was moving into my first apartment on St Thomas. In an attempt to offset the kitschy white wicker lounge décor in my new living room, I went to remove an especially hideous painting of the landlord’s from the wall. As I lifted the seashell monstrosity off its nail, three little lizards burst out from their hiding spot behind the frame and were sent scurrying in different directions – one particularly bold soul dashed up my forearm at a concerning clip. The island-newbie that I was dropped the picture with a crash and flailed my arms wildly, screaming in a manner that can only be described as “someone poured acid on my face and now I’ll never be a teen model”.
My relationship with the lizards has since transitioned from fear, to novelty (I spent 3 years naming each and every one that crossed my path), to aggravation (their tiny poops on the walls are a never-ending cleaning nuisance), to a commonplace backdrop of my island life. Now, I am loathe to admit that I only tend to take notice of their existence when they happen to fall from a tree and land with a smack on my forehead. Even then, I snatch them up with an all-too-blasé sigh, removing them lest they make a home in my hair.
I do try to make an effort to not take advantage of the beauty that surrounds me though, as it’s easier than you’d imagine to allow the tropical wonderland slip away when you’re in the midst of the mundane detritus of daily life. I find that the best reminders always come when spending time with people who don’t live on an island. You get a peek into your world from their fresh perspective and can enjoy the reminder of how you once thought it all magical, when your brain was sharp and had yet to be rusted from the omnipotently corrosive sea salted air.
I was recently in the states attending a workshop attended by mostly stateside people. As per usual in these types of situations, it will be revealed in those initial getting-to-know-you conversations that I live on an island and my life is not normal. From there, the inevitable string of follow-up questions ensues. Among them, one of the most frequently asked has to do with transportation. It seems to blow people’s minds that I haven’t driven a car with regularity in years and instead, have to drive a boat anytime I go anywhere off my rock of residence. The way their eyes light up at the mention of a boat, I inherently know exactly what they’re picturing:
Okay, fine – so they’re most likely not picturing me as Angelina Jolie (although, it sure would be charitable of them if they could) but their minds are definitely conjuring up a similarly fantastical image. Windswept hair, shiny boat, sparkly ocean, French-stripey sailor girl shirt – the works. I know, because that is exactly how I pictured myself before I began riding around in boats all the time in real life.
But more often, arriving by boat is not as glamorous as it sounds. Unless of course by “boat” you mean mega-yacht and in that case, I’m certain it is exactly as glamorous as it sounds. Otherwise, in the average island girl’s life, you ride in a boat much like you ride in a car, except you don’t have the protection of the wind-free, climate-controlled interior. In a boat, you’re out in the elements and on your way somewhere with the hopes of arriving dry, sweat-free, and with a minimal amount of rat’s nest tangles in your hair. Sometimes it works out. Other times, the boating elements get the better of you.
On a recent trip to the big island, one of my main errand goals was a haircut. The thing I love most about getting my hair cut is that someone else who isn’t me puts in the muscle to wash, dry, and straighten the untamable curly beast that is my hair. Then, if I’m lucky, I can enjoy a salon blowout for a couple of days before I have to go back to doing it myself. As I left the salon that fateful day feeling fresh out of a Pantene commercial, I carefully swept my hair back in a loose bun and covered it with a scarf in hopes that it wouldn’t frizz on the boat ride home.
All went according to plan for about 20 minutes before the boat began to hiss and groan. I nervously adjusted my scarf as my captain/boyfriend David went to investigate. But before he could diagnose the inevitable, the starboard engine went out with a bang, jerking us to a halt. I could give you mechanical reasons for why the motor quit that day, but why don’t we just call it like it is – that boat can be a spiteful bitch and she was set on sabotaging my hair.
For the next 3 hours, we chugged home on one engine, all the while being blasted with black diesel exhaust. The wind had changed its course to just the right direction conducive for creating a vortex of smoke at the helm station, enveloping us in its sooty embrace. Not to be outdone, the choppy sea splashed over our side rail intermittently, soaking me in the face with the accuracy of a direct water gun assault.
David medicated my fury with what remained in our cooler – a tonic of sauvignon blanc and Red Stripe, when the former ran dry. This explains the only possible reason I allowed him to snap these pictures of me before I got in the shower to scrub my skin furiously in an effort to remove the heavy coating of soot that was now covering every exposed piece of my flesh.
So there you have it. When traveling by boat, some days you get to be Angelina and some days you end up looking like a pitiful Dickensonian character who moonlights as a chimney sweep. Sometimes it’s glamorous and sometimes you end up blowing a worrisome amount of black liquid out of your nose for a week. Either way, I’d prefer it if you could still picture me as Angelina Jolie.
On a recent hunt for a local source of essential oils (that did not involve a folding table and a Rasta guy outside of Kmart) several people asked if I’d been to the natural foods store. Yes, of course I’d been there. No, not the orange one between Pueblo and Thai Pro Nails, they’d say. The one across from the post office. The one I thought was a sketchy convenience store that I joked about being people’s source for illegal drugs. I mostly thought that because I judge books by their covers, and this cover had bars on all the doors and four open signs hanging up, lest you think the building is condemned. I also thought you could buy drugs there because over the door in uneven, sticky letters it said “DRUG MART”. I mean, when you go the extra effort of labeling yourself that way, what else is a girl to think?
But on the hunt for essential oils to make my homemade cleaning supplies smell like a spa day, I decided to branch out. To Drug Mart I went. Inside I was confronted with mismatched shelving, missing tiles in the linoleum floor, Five-Hour Energy, and lottery tickets. Suspicions confirmed. But wait. No. A closer look at the mismatched shelving showed rows of natural vitamins and supplements (the legal health food kind). Unexpected. Turning the corner of the long, L-shaped interior, there was organic, unbleached flour and grains. Completely unexpected. And then in the very back, right under a wall of weave, were three shelves of Mrs. Meyer’s cleaning supplies. Score. There was even an eleven-ish year old boy following me around, I’m pretty sure to make sure I didn’t steal anything. But he did also continue to ask if I needed help, so maybe he was just being overly helpful.
I only know of one other place on St Thomas where Mrs. Meyer’s is available. So, in spite of the small boy following me around to make sure I didn’t slip any basil-scented floor cleaner into my purse, I took my time smelling up the goods and settled on a geranium candle to make washing dishes not such a terrible chore. At the register, the very nice owner told me my candle was buy one get one free. Drug Mart even does promotions! I complimented his store and told him I’d never been in before. He asked me if I knew what Whole Foods was. “We’re just like Whole Foods. Without the meat.”
When I left I noticed that above the DRUG MART stickers there was actually a natural foods sign. I guess I had just always been too distracted by the bars to notice it. Drug Mart, I like you and your island ways. I will be back.