Monday, December 28, 2015: Immersion
St. John and the Virgin Islands National Park.
We can’t miss the eight AM foot-ferry. Okay. Up early. Down at the Red Hook marina, a few miles east and north around the island from Charlotte Amalie, we line up at an outdoor kiosk for breakfast sandwiches and coffee and we buy our tickets at the waiting boat. Departures for St. John leave every hour on the hour, and the boat is punctual. Dress is casual here, as you might expect. Sandals, shorts, loose shirts. On work days, Alex is expected to wear a suit if going to court or meeting certain clients, otherwise dress slacks and collared shirt. Not everyone gets to be casual.
Passengers on the ferry’s open upper deck are teased by views of Pillsbury Sound in the distance and the British V.I., home of Jost Van Dyke and the infamous Soggy Dollar Bar. In under a half hour we pull into Cruz Bay on the west end of St. John. The ferry drops us at a marina choked with moored sailing craft. Nearby, we meet up with our national park guide and the remainder of our 33-person tour group. Open-air buses shuttle us up winding roads to the trailhead at the island’s central spine. The road is lined with rented jeeps. There is no parking lot. The trailhead, little more than a trampled break in the vegetation, would be easy to miss.
Reef Bay Trail descends two-plus miles through a tropical forest (what Dain calls a jungle) with remnants of a sugarcane plantation set down by the Danes in the late 1600s. Permanent settlement began in 1717 with the first revolts of former slaves. The plantation economy continued to thrive on sugarcane and cotton, but was abandoned after slavery in the West Indies was made illegal in 1848.
The air is damp and steamy. The high canopy of limbs shields us from direct sun. Our guide stops frequently to hold forth on the Virgin Islands National Park’s minutest attractions. She bids us notice West Indian locust trees with their gray, mottled bark (one of the few lumber worthy island hardwoods), then kapok (cotton) trees with wide flat trunks that fan out horizontally via roots that grow above ground and anchor the tree in tropical storms. We ogle Golden Orb spiders weaving massive webs. Stoop to pick up Stinking Toe pods (brown, slipper-shaped) dropped by the locusts. The pods’ spongy fruit smells worse than our eleven year old’s shoes. But taste? Ummmm. Sweet. A cross between honey and bananas. The Stinking Toes were said to have nourished the colonizing Danes, until they could establish a food supply. Holes in the dirt path lead to the lairs of tarantulas. Our guide promises, they only come out at night.
In a wide ravine on the southeast-facing slope, maybe a half-mile up from Coral Bay (or Reef Bay, wasn’t clear which), we come to walls and foundations built of local stone, coral, and mud and daub. This is what remains of the sugarcane and cotton plantations. The fields were terraced behind stone walls. A quarter-mile side path leads to a spring and a series of clear, chilly, fresh-water pools. In the plantation days, it was catch-water pools like this, fed mainly by rain, that provided the islands’ drinking water. The massive scooped boulders that hold the pools bear the imprint of crude petroglyphs with swirling shapes and skeletal looking heads. It’s not known for sure who did them. Likely it was either Caribs, who were probably still here when the Danes arrived, or the Arawaks before them.
Rain dumps suddenly. We rush down to the Sugar Mill ruins near the bay and take shelter under tin roofs. The rain pounds and sizzles. Fifteen minutes later, the sun is back. We walk a sandy path through mangrove woods to catch the foot-ferry waiting for us off-shore in Coral Bay (or Reef Bay). Waiting for everyone to gather, Dain and I and a few others jump in for a refreshing swim. There are rocks here. The thin beach is littered with forest debris, but the clear protected water is inviting.
Daiga forgot to wear her swimsuit under her clothes. Something about the allure of the sun glinting off low-breaking waves, the coziness of the bay, seeing our boat anchored out there, maybe a hundred or two hundred yards off-shore, waiting, as though offering a protective barrier between us and the open Caribbean, breaks down any hesitation she might have been feeling. She wades in, shirt, shorts and all. Emerges soaking wet, but grinning for the sheer pleasure of it. The stronger swimmers among us opt to swim out to the boat. The rest are taxied out in one of the islands’ ubiquitous rubber motorized dinghies.
Our passenger ferry skirts the south side of St. John, heading west and north back to Cruz Bay. Along the way we are treated to views of cliffs with nesting off-shore bird populations that could include Brown pelicans and boobies and cormorants, maybe even ospreys and Peregrine falcons. Parrots once lived here in the forests, but they, we were told, have been wiped out. In Daiga’s estimation, the best part of what we’re seeing is the color of the Caribbean. Depending on depth, the blue varies from aqua to French ultramarine to a deeper blue that is a blend of teal and navy.
In Cruz Bay, we shop at Mongoose Junction. Daiga hauls Dain into Made in St. John They walk out wearing gray stylish form-fitting pullovers with aquatic themed graphics. After sampling local hot sauce, we visit an art gallery and fall in love with and purchase, as a house gift for Megan and Alex, a glass enclosed topo map of the Virgin Islands that shows sea depths in 3-D.
Sunset approaches. We walk by the open-air market with its many stalls (under umbrellas because of the rain squalls) and sample fresh squeezed fruit drinks and head for the white sand beach by the ferry dock. We sit in plastic chairs in shade under palm trees. Sip drinks purchased in plastic cups from the open-air bar behind us. Dain and I toss a Frisbee. We watch the sun go down and the light soften on the flotilla of sailboats anchored in the bay for the night. The warm, breezy serenity is interrupted only when, tossing the Frisbee back to Dain, I misjudge the angle. The flying disc knocks down the plastic drink cup dangling from the hand of a young man walking with his other arm around his sweetheart. He mutters an epithet and walks away, leaving the plastic cup and red straw in the sand. The young lady says no worries, it was empty anyway. I call out an apology. Dain collects the cup and straw and disposes of them. Then we run to join the crowd of commuters waiting at the ferry terminal.
Too hungry to drive up to the house and cook dinner, we stop in Red Hook at the Tap & Still near the marina. This is one of the few bars (as far as Megan knows) on the island that serve beer on tap. Beer has to be shipped here in kegs, but the breweries charge for the keg itself, probably assuming the empty keg won’t travel back, so to avoid that extra cost, most bars just avoid beers on tap. Rogue Brewery in Oregon has found a way to either absorb the lost cost, or manufacture cheaper kegs (all speculation). Their burgers are outstanding. The place has reasonable prices so it attracts locals. It’s busy. We have to sit at the bar. This place has a big screen TV with sports playing (cable connections aren’t available, but satellite access is). The sports seem irrelevant here. No one is paying attention.
Here at last. Immersed. Layer by layer shedding our hurry-up scheduled Seattle selves and enjoying the pleasures of being alive in this island world. Eventually we would no doubt yearn for the delivered newspapers and cable and coffee houses and uninterrupted internet connectivity and bookstores and boutique restaurants and bicycles and improved roads. We certainly wouldn’t miss the Seattle traffic snarls. Not that we’re thinking of moving here. One thing is certain. Coming alive to this world opens a treasure trove for the senses.