About a decade ago, I crossed paths with a gentleman called Dr. Dolvinsky. He was undeniably screwed up. He was bi-polar, had middle-child syndrome, chronic diabetes, a 50-something German wife, a 20-something Swedish girlfriend, and a fairly heroic cocaine problem. His ancestors were Belorussian Jews who had fled the Pogrums. That said, he was a source of rather sage advice. At a time when my life was in the gutter, he told me that the only question I ever needed to ask myself was, Does it really matter? He assured me that for the most part, it didn’t, and that most people couldn’t come up with a rational reason why it did. Uncertain as to how to evaluate whether something mattered at this point in time, he continued by way of example:
“Does it matter that your husband wakes you in the morning by *insert crude sexual act here* (he didn’t spare me the technicalities, but I will you) in your face?”
“Yes, it really does matter.”
“Does it matter that your husband fails to empty the washing machine?”
“In the scheme of things, no, I suppose it doesn’t.”
And thus I was sent forth into the world.
In the Caribbean, the concept of monogamy is both alien and incomprehensible. Men have wives, girlfriends, mistresses, and one night stands and everyone seems to live in perfect harmony – everyone seems to know their role. At least that’s how it seems to me, who is still, for all intents and purposes, an outsider. I admit that I am not entirely sure whether the women follow the same rules. I suspect that they probably don’t have the time, what with all the working and child-raising they have to do. Yet when the boys come over, there are frequent references to “my girlfriend in New York” or “my girlfriend on St Thomas” floating around. Initially, I rather naively thought they were simply referring to friends who happened to be girls, but I soon realised that a West Indian man would never understand or even contemplate engaging in a platonic relationship with a woman.
On this basis, the Rastaman and I have always had an understanding. I know there are other women, I simply don’t want to know the details and it is his responsibility to ensure that I don’t find out. I am a firm believer that ignorance is bliss. Our system has been flawless for over 2 years. However, recently, an unfortunate sequence of events led to me finding out details about several of his dalliances.
As my heart exploded in my chest, I staggered backwards across the room, pointing at the door and trying to retain composure as I told him that he needed to leave. The Rastaman remained seated and looked confused. He really had no idea why I was losing my mind. As my back hit the wall, my body went limp and I slid down to the floor, choking out dislocated nouns, verbs, and fragments of thoughts. At which point, the Rastaman leapt into action, scooping me up into his big arms and delicately placing me into his lap. We sat in silence, my cheeks wet with tears, his eyes wide and alarmed. It was at this point that I remembered the words of Dr. Dolvinsky and took a breath to ask myself in earnest, Does it matter? We are conditioned to think that it does, but does it?
Was I happy with the amount of time I spent with the Rastaman? Yes.
Did I enjoy his company? Yes.
Did we argue? No.
Did he give me sufficient personal space? Yes.
Did he always come over when I was upset? Yes.
Did I wish to hang out with him when he was drinking shots and getting loaded? No.
Did I want to have sex with him when he was loaded? Categorically, no.
Did I wish to be woken up by him when he got home loaded? No.
So did it really matter that he sought the company of other women in circumstances when I had no desire to see him? Was he not, in fact, doing me a favour by taking himself elsewhere? Is it not true that in all other relationships in our lives we allocate certain friends to certain duties? Yes, we have our best friends, who we can more or less do anything with, but for the most part, we select different friends to fulfill our differing social needs. So why are we conditioned to putting our sexual partners in chains?
My eyes dried. The Rastaman loosened his tight grip on me. As he ruffled my hair, I fell into a deep and blissful sleep. I was onto a winner here, and as it turns out, Dr. Dolvinsky was right. It really didn’t matter.
I often compare life on the island to living in a stereotypical small town where everybody knows everyone, everything, and every misstep. If you’ve never experienced what it’s like to live somewhere like Mayberry, allow me give you a briefing so you have an idea of what I’m referring to.
You Know You Live in a Small Town When…
- You have been in the town parade
- Loitering isn’t a bad thing, it’s the only thing
- You refer to THE stoplight
- You measure distance in minutes
The similarities here on Tortola to small town living haunt you sometimes – like times when you can’t find anything open on a Sunday, or times when it feels like the sidewalks have rolled up at 5pm, or times when you just want to be anonymous but will inevitably run into someone you know. Generally, I just shrug it off and accept it as a fact of island life, however, there are two situations where it goes beyond basic acceptance and living in a small town setting can either make or break you.
Small Town-Island Survival Tip #1 : Secure a Reliable Gossip Source
When you go away for a couple of weeks, you’re bound by Small Town Code to come back and immediately catch up on all the gossip you missed while you’ve been away. This is critical: you must have a reliable source to come back to! In Tortola, very little changes with the landscape and businesses and what does can usually be summed up in a sentence or two even if you’ve been gone for months; what can’t be summed up in a sentence or two is the bemusings of the people in Tortola… my equation works out to roughly one drink per week you’ve been away. Without a solid source to come back to, you could mistakenly walk into a minefield of foot-in-mouth situations which have the potential to spread like wildfire. I repeat: always have a reliable gossip source to come back to!
Small Town-Island Survival Tip #2 : When Dating, Hope for the Best – but Prepare for the Worst
If you come to this island single (or single-minded), chances are you are going to end up dating someone and with that, is the chance that you will end up not dating that someone (read: The Dreaded Ex). When dating in your small town-island, it is wise to hope for the best, but prepare for the very worst. Best case scenario, you fall madly in love, spend your days here in bliss, and maybe even take your love with you beyond the island someday. Second choice best case, you break it off amicably and continue on with your separate lives, saying hello in passing and otherwise being unobtrusive. If only it were always that simple…
Enter worst case scenario (the best of the worst), which you can expect to play out in several ways:
- You work in the same office as The Ex and still have to see them everyday
- You attend the same gym as The Ex and even when you vary your schedule, 9 times out of 10, you run into one another
- You start dating someone new and, on your first date, end up being served by The Ex (yes, it happens!)
The other worst case (worst of the worst) combines the small town-island inability to not run into the same person over and over with a case of rock fever (read: uncontrollable crazy behavior) – trust me, you will recognize this situation when you see it. It’s when an abrupt spatter of yelling occurs on an otherwise pleasant Friday night out, or when laser beam eyes start burning a hole in the back of someone’s head when they’re chatting with someone new, or when one person is constantly showboating to whoever will watch to appear as though they are the superior being, or, my personal favourite, when all of the above are combined (with multiple drinks) into one giant explosion of WTF ?! All I can say is, always hope for the best but prepare for the VERY worst.
– – –
With a profound positive outlook on life, I can see the the good side of these small town quirks. When the foot-in-mouth situations occur, or the almighty WTF ?! moment just happened, the good news is that at least you’ll never have to repeat the story yourself; Small Town Code dictates that within the hour, the majority of the population will have already caught up with their source and be fully apprised of the scoop!
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.