Island with an Identity Crisis

Island with an Identity Crisis

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.

Chronic Island Wardrobe Frustrations

Chronic Island Wardrobe Frustrations

It is the eve before I depart on my newly initiated annual trip to New Orleans. With the time showing just minutes to 11pm, it has become apparent that  a) I have yet again left packing to the last minute and  b) I have absolutely nothing to wear. I realize, of course, that every woman has nothing to wear, but I really do have nothing  to wear.

Two years on this rock has resulted in the complete and utter demise of my entire wardrobe. My clothes have been bleached by the sun, degraded by the salt, discoloured, tattered, and half-eaten by bugs. It is only when I’m about to re-enter my old world that I take a good look at myself and realise that not only are my clothes desperately in need of attention, so too am I. Which is where I find myself now: instead of excitedly anticipating tomorrow’s adventure, I have faffed about for hours and performed a slightly manic last minute groom. Now I need to pack.


Fortunately, I always schedule a shopping day into the first part of my trip. I’d love to do this at home and spend my precious holiday time doing something more exciting, but, sadly, my nearest town holds little more than a couple of tourist shops whose selection of brightly coloured “been there, seen that” t-shirts hold little appeal. So instead, I pick a town with a mall for the start of my trip and prepare a list of all the items I need to buy. I then waste an entire day of my vacation traipsing around, overwhelmed by all the choices, outraged by the crowds of people, and thoroughly fed up by the end of it. I’ve learnt that snack stops are essential, margaritas preferable, and that throwing in a movie mid-shop lifts everyone’s moods (just an FYI, this is especially essential if you’re shopping with your partner in tow).

While pretty much everything needs replacing, there are two items that I require in bulk: flip flops and knickers. When I’m not barefoot, the flip flop really is the only foot attire worn on the island. I’m currently wearing out pair #28 since my arrival. This may seem excessive but they just seem to be one of those things that either go missing or fall apart, much like a lot of things on an island. They also have to tolerate a 6’6″ giant’s (a.k.a. the aforementioned partner’s) repeated attempts to remove them from my feet. Some people it seems, like a cat without whiskers, are unable to estimate their size and have a tendency to step on my heels whilst I’m walking, stretching the life out of my flip flops. It is this perfected technique which has now taken me from 8 pairs in September down to 2 pairs today.

The need for a bulk purchase of knickers may sound odd, but know that as much as I like sexy lingerie, I’m not really into the crotchless variety – which is what I’m currently stuck with. I don’t know how many pairs the average woman goes through in a year, but I suspect I go through considerably more. There are two reasons for this, neither of which are kinky: underwear-eating bugs and something my gran told me as a child.

The bugs have not been identified, but I’ve been told by a former island dweller that it is likely the small green crickets, as they have a taste for cotton and lace. I’ve yet to find one hopping out of my underwear drawer, but they can often be heard chirping away from inside the walls of my bedroom, so it’s quite possible that they are the culprit. A quick online search for underwear-eating insects  suggests that I’m not alone and neither are the crickets – apparently moths, mice, and something called silverfish also like to terrorize people’s bloomers. The first hole can be easily dismissed, but more than one and you start to question whether or not you should be wearing these, which leads me to my gran.

As a child, she told me to “always make sure you have clean underwear on”.  While this is a reasonable request in terms of hygiene, I find it slightly ludicrous if you know what it is that my gran is actually referring to. For those of you who weren’t given this line as a child, the real point of having clean underwear on when you leave the safe confines of your house is all about limiting your embarrassment were you to be in a serious accident. By which I mean, the type of accident where someone other than you needs to remove your clothing for you. I’m fast approaching my mid-thirties and this phrase still runs through my head in the morning. When faced with a new style of gusset lace, I ponder, “If a stranger where to see these, would I be embarrassed?” If the answer is yes, in the bin they go, and here lies my never-ending quest for new underwear.

Baldrick knickers_WWLOR

But this time around, I shall return to the rock prepared. For not only will I be bringing a year’s supply of underwear and flip flops, but I shall also be picking up a year’s supply of lavender bags. After much research, it would appear that the old fashioned remedies are still the most effective at repelling pesky little insects. Going forward, I will now have bay leaves in my pasta jar and lavender in my knickers drawer. I seem to remember my gran doing the same – perhaps there is wisdom to her words…

Keep in touch with the tropics!


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