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.
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.
I was talking to someone recently about how frustrating it is that everything over here is constantly breaking. But then I began to wonder whether things actually did disproportionately break on this rock or whether the truth was that it simply took a disproportionately long time to repair anything, hence giving the impression that everything is constantly breaking.
It’s a double edged sword of gloom and doom. When something breaks, your first hurdle is that everyone moves in slow motion and tradesmen tend to address most issues “in about a year”. The second hurdle is that “you need a part”.
My car has needed a new radiator for quite some time but I quite simply couldn’t be arsed to deal with it. So I diligently drove around with a gallon jug of water in the car at all times for topping up. Sadly, I eventually reached the point that I couldn’t actually complete my 5 minute slide down the hill to work without the radiator completely emptying. I was still in denial until the boys at the dock in the morning starting talking about gaskets blowing and $$$$$$ being spent. They drove the point home – I had to buy a freaking radiator.
With car repairs here you have three options: they have it in BVI; they have it in the USVI (and will put it on the ferry – a truly exhausting experience); or you have to ship the part in from Miami (which takes so long you have lost the receipt by the time the shipping agent needs it). Fortunately for me, I drive the car of the islands – a Suzuki – so parts can normally be found over here. The Rastaman drives a Dodge, which might as well be a spaceship for the teeth sucking and head shaking that goes on when that thing needs a part.
So I got lucky. Not only did they have a radiator over on Tortola, but one of my boys volunteered to pick it up for me. I felt like a princess. Add to this the fact that my next-door neighbour is one of the best mechanics on the island and he volunteered to fit the bloody thing. For the first time in many months, I felt like a winner.
The radiator was duly delivered to my house by my boy. The Rastaman duly opened it. So near, yet so far….. a beautiful radiator without a radiator cap – ergo, totally freaking useless.
How long could it possibly take to buy a radiator cap on a Saturday, you ask? Nine hours, my friend. NINE HOURS for a $13 cap.
From previous experience, I decided that the safest thing to do was to take the radiator with me to ensure that by the end of the day I had the right cap. So the radiator and I left home at about 9 am and spent about an hour on the corner trying to hitch a ride. We made it to the car parts shop at the other end of the island, only to discover that it is closed on Saturdays. The helpful man that I hitched a ride with told me that he assumed I knew that the shop was closed on Saturdays and that I had other reasons for carrying a car radiator to this destination. Arsehole! This detour meant that I missed the ferry to Tortola. So, at 10:15 am, I cracked my first Heineken. Bring it on. If this is the way this day is going, I’m going through it half-cut.
By 12:15 pm (only three and a quarter hours since I left home), I arrived at the car shop on the next island that had sold my boy the radiator.
Me: “My boy bought this radiator yesterday but it doesn’t have a cap.”
Salesman: “Of course it doesn’t have a cap. New radiators never come with caps.”
Sweet baby Jesus. I am not sure if I was more annoyed with radiator maunfacturers for selling their products without the only vital part or with this charming assistant who had failed to share his in-house knowledge when we bought the radiator in the first place. Would it not be helpful to have a large sign on the box like “batteries not included”, as they do for kids toys? Men/Kids, Cars/Toys, you get me?!
Approximately one minute later, I am the proud owner of a natty cap for my radiator.
Now, because I am a self-confessed idiot, I thought I should try to make this pointless morning more worthwhile by squeezing in a much needed haircut. I figured the next ferry was at 2:30 pm, so I had enough time. Sadly, the hairdresser was fully booked – it was Saturday afterall. So I mooched off to the nearest bar and hit the liquor to drown the sorrows of my pointless day off. I drank another Heineken, a couple glasses of wine, a piña colada, and a shot of cinnamon whiskey. I felt a bit ill.
Suddenly alarmed by the time, I staggered/ran to the ferry dock, clutching my now very cumbersome radiator and was delighted to find that I had arrived ahead of time. Yet 2:30 pm came and went with no ferry in sight. I had an overwhelming desire to sleep now or simply lie down and possibly pass out. I mustered the energy to enquire as to the whereabouts of the 2:30 pm ferry. It transpires that the 2:30 pm ferry is a figment of my imagination. I was now looking down the barrel of a two hour wait for the 4:30 pm boat.
I sat under the pathetic shade of a dying tree and felt the sun burning my pasty white skin with the knowledge that my lunchtime hangover was in the post, guaranteed delivery before nightfall.
When I finally made it back to my island, some poor blind man who couldn’t swim managed to step off the ferry into the gap between the ferry and dock. The ferry workers reacted as if someone had dropped a piece a paper. The next man to disembark reacted like a normal human and dove into the water after him. I, on the other hand, could only focus on one thing – HOME. I was half-cut, sweaty, dirty, sunburnt, and clutching an uncomfortably large box.
I hiked up the road and waited at the prime hitch-hiking corner. The wind blew my radiator into the road. I left it there. I figured I would pick it up when I got a ride. I finally arrived at home after 6:00 pm.
The Rastaman was sinking a cold one on the porch.
“Hello, Princess. Have you had a nice day off?”
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.