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  • It has been said, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” So we went to the Caribbean and drank rum—lots of rum, at all hours of the day, even in our dreams. We drank it because it was novel; we drank it because we’d been told it was safer than drinking water; but we mostly drank it because of the Two-for-One Happy Hour Specials. We savored fancy cocktails in the evenings, gulped down frivolous long-drinks during the day, and even had the fermented molasses served to us straight from a barrel, like true pirates.

    As avid travelers, my husband and I constantly feel the need to get away. Escapism was one of our reasons for relocating from South Africa to California in 2001, to upstate New York in 2003, to North Carolina in 2005, and to the Midwest in 2010. Early on, in those flat-wallet days, road trips were a favorite touring option, allowing us to crisscross the West and East Coasts from north to south. As soon as our bank balance showed some aha promise, my husband mentioned the Caribbean as our next holiday destination. He used the word ‘paradise’ repeatedly, so I started dreaming of sipping rum punch on a white beach under a blue sky.

    Our best friends wanted to share our adventure and suggested the U.S. Virgin Islands. We were delighted at the prospect of their company! I pictured myself in a polka-dot bikini; my husband pictured several polka-dot bikinis, in different shapes and sizes, on blondes and on brunettes. “But,” he said, “none of them as pretty as you.”

    Soon, the two of us were on our way to St. Thomas; our friends would follow a few days later to join us at the more eco-friendly St. John. I exhaled my seasonal blues as the madness of Raleigh shrunk to a small speck way below the belly of our plane. It felt good to leave behind the seesaw temperatures of late winter. Upon our arrival at the airport, I rushed outside and stretched my arms to soak up the welcoming t-shirt weather. Oh yes! This is the type of sun that will color my skin bronze, just like they promised in the brochure.

    While my husband waited for our luggage, I scouted the taxi situation. All I had to do was lift my hand and a cabbie claimed me like I was his Lotto winnings. He asked the destination address, I asked what it would cost, and the deal was done. I went back inside the airport building to check on my husband’s progress. I caught sight of him, and of our luggage on the carousel passing right under his nose to complete another merry-go-round. Then I saw the reason why he’d missed our luggage—he was staring intently at an exaggerated set of dimensions in a mini skirt and spike-heel sandals. I stared too, because I thought she might topple over and join the luggage on the carousel. Finally, our eyes made contact and I signaled my disapproval. Jeez—men!

    In the Virgin Islands, tourists are totally dependent on taxis for transport. We soon discovered a taxi could be anything from a luxury sedan to a dilapidated mini-bus that has made too many trips on little maintenance and no repairs; others resembled Safari jeeps; some looked like ridiculous little ice-cream vans. Taxis aren’t metered, so you have to make sure to negotiate the fee in advance. Thank goodness we’d been forewarned, because our accents got in the way of our taxi driver’s understanding and we ended up on the far side of the island. The cabbie had to take us all the way back to our hotel, which was to our and his surprise just around the corner from the airport. Our trip was the kind of ride Disneyland might want to imitate—just the right amount of body-rattling bumps, nerve-jangling twists and turns, and flashes of paradisiacal views to be thrilling. My husband and I smiled at one another, knowing it was a good deal to have toured the whole island for a small fee.

    We stayed at The Green Iguana Hotel because we couldn’t afford the rates next-door at Blackbeard’s Castle. I remember my husband keeping a nervous watch-out for the resident iguana. I also remember witnessing the birth of a pirate over the course of our holiday: crumpled clothes, uncombed hair, and a prickly stubble—my husband’s idea of a hands-off holiday. Our hotel room offered a much stronger local flavor than we’d anticipated, the result of not taking the more expensive unit, the one higher up that offered a view free of telephone lines, satellite dishes, and electric cables; the one that faced south onto the harbor, where the impressive luxury cruise liners and private yachts docked in the aquamarine ocean, where the private seaplanes landed and took off all day long. However, the additional auditory stimuli of our local neighborhood view came free-of-charge, and we realized it was an honor being privy to the razzmatazz of local radio stations, the thumping-clanging-screeching cacophony of private parties and domestic arguments, and the rooster alarms that go off at 5:00 am—that’s the true heartbeat of St. Thomas, the way we really like to experience foreign places!

    We had one day to explore the island before joining our friends, who did not favor the hustle of St. Thomas. Instead of opting for an inland sightseeing jaunt, we hung around the port city of Charlotte Amalie, watching cruise liners dock throughout the day to offload hundreds of jovial tourists sporting sunny smiles. They buzzed around, giggling, showing off their tans, crowding the bars and restaurants, and stuffing their shopping bags with duty-free clothes, perfume, jewelry, ornaments, liquor, and chocolates. Sadly, the high-end shopping malls made us choke on every purchase we considered—the offensive hard-sell techniques of the desperate I-better-make-my-target-or-I’m-so-fired salespeople stopped our spending spirit dead in its tracks, and we never bought anything more exciting than a packet of rum balls.

    The next day we arrived on the other side, at St. John, with upside-down stomachs after a forty-five-minute ferry ride on a moody ocean. I picked up on the Zen atmosphere of the island even before we’d docked properly; it might’ve been my natural sensitivity to the spirit of the place, or maybe it was the yawning dogs and the sleepwalking tourists, or the lackadaisical way in which the locals moved about their usual activities. By the time we eventually, ultimately, finally, got to our destination, I feared I might need another bikini wax.

    At Maho Bay Camps, we were greeted by our friends and one of the island's regular downpours. Canvas huts, disguised by indigenous bush and playing peek-a-boo with breathtaking views, were scattered against a steep hillside. But I felt my smile freeze as I realized all the cute dwellings—communal bath houses, shop, restaurant, and private beach—were connected with three miles of boardwalks and dozens of steep staircases. Our unit was on the far side, our friends’ on the opposite far side, the restaurant in another remote corner, the beach way down below, and the yoga and meditation studio right at the top of a steep incline. On top of that, we discovered there was no hot water and cold-water showers were only allowed from 6:00 am to 11:00 am and from 4:00 pm to 10:00 pm.

    “This isn't a tropical hide-out,” I whispered. “It’s a Buddhist boot camp.”

    “Get the rum punch!” my husband bawled. “We’re gonna need something to take the ‘eek’ out of eco-tourism.”

    “Don’t worry,” our friends said. “You’ll quickly get the hang of the place.”

    Luckily we are sociably inclined, so we loved the mealtimes that created a kinship among guests; every evening we’d fall in line to place our food orders and chat and sip at drinks while waiting for the delectable meals to be served: garden-fresh salad, fruit, and vegetables, and fish straight from the ocean. We ate on a large deck, gazing at the glittering bay down below from under a canopy of dazzling stars.

    One night, a tropical storm fell out of the sky on top of our canvas hut. I woke with a jolt, hearing crazed female laughter and tuneless singing. “Sounds like pirates!” I called out to my husband.

    “Nah, that singer is high on The Doors and probably just singing along with her iPod,” he said, recognizing the words of the song that drifted up the hill from a yacht moored in the bay.

    But my imagination ran as wild as the torrential rain and thrashing wind as I recalled the log book of Columbus wherein he had specifically referred to the native inhabitants of the Caribbean as cannibals—savages, who would “behead a victim, drink his blood and cut off his genitals.”

    “Yuk!”

    “What? Are you getting wet?” my husband asked.

    “No—yuk, the cannibals.”

    “What cannibals?”

    “You know…the ones who eat people.”

    “No more rum punch for you,” he said.

    A highlight of our holiday was Hamilton’s Island Tour. One morning early, while our stomachs were doing their best to cope with the coffee, fruit, cereal, bacon, egg, and pastries, Hamilton arrived in his open-aired, canopied taxi, armed with a barrel of rum punch and a 'no-problem' attitude. Hamilton, originally a native of St. Lucia, had relocated to St. John many years ago; he overflowed with local lore, told funny stories about the home-grown people, and even funnier ones about the tourists. He identified all the indigenous and foreign plants, flowers, and trees by their scientific names; he showed us exotic views like Bordeaux Lookout and Hawksnest Point, and Trunk, Cinnamon, and Caneel Bays; he pointed out the best places to snorkel.

    When we complained about the heat, he said, “Have another cup of rum punch, it’ll cool you down.”

    When we told him we were getting hungry, he said, “Okay, I’ll take you to the best local barbeque dig in town.”

    On our way back, he asked our permission to stop off along the way to run some personal errands and we said, “No problem, we’ll have a cup of rum punch while we wait.”

    We returned to Maho Bay by sunset, exhausted and in time for a nap before dinner at 7:00 pm. “Thank goodness for all the physical activities,” I said to my husband, “or these polka dots on my bikini would have been twice their size by now.”

    He casually stroked his stomach. "So much for thinking our travels are expanding our minds."

    In the spirit of nature preservation, Maho Bay Camps had hired two full-time glassblowers to recycle the beer bottles. At the same time, they were masters at entertaining the guests with interactive demonstrations and keeping the gift shop stocked with arts and crafts. Not one for small dreams, my husband said if I were a glassblower he'd make sure I had all the empties I needed for my craft.

    It was not until our hike to the Annaberg Plantation that I fully appreciated how vital preservation was to the future and how well it has served me, the keen traveler. The sugar mill ruins and its history of slavery dating back to 1780 formed a stark contrast with the glitzy image of modern-day tropical island life. There was something vulnerable yet tough about the shape-shifted sugar mill ruins that seemed to cling to the steep hillside as a last reminder of what used to be. I realized if we could protect our architecture, maintain our history, bring alive our myths, share all the rum punch in the world, culture would be a reciprocal experience, a collective mindset.

    Our holiday on St. John came to an end long before we were in the mood for goodbyes. Hugs, kisses, and tears circulated a few times while Hamilton loaded our luggage into his taxi for the drive to Cruz Bay, where we caught the ferry to St. Thomas and our homebound flight via Miami.

    I’m proud to say that we made the best of our unusual holiday—once you’ve touched the evidence of yesteryear, stolen a glimpse of another culture, imagined yourself one with the mystic spirit of a strange place, it sure gives you a different perspective on life.
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