The Virgin Islands Part Four: The Power Goes Out

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

St. Thomas and St. John Islands lose power. The entire islands.

St Thomas Water Island

Water Island

The power goes out around four AM. Paddle fans stop turning. The pump from the water cistern won’t operate. We have to therefore avoid flushing toilets or running water. No lights, of course. In the morning we drink bottled water. Can’t cook breakfast or make coffee. The fridge will eventually defrost. Alex has a backup generator, purchased by a previous homeowner, that’s supposed to kick in when the grid supported by the U.S. Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority goes down, but after a half hour the generator’s battery went dead and it quit, too.

St Thomas Water Island near ferry

Water Island at the dock; the “cactus truck” is up on the right

Island life. Happens often, though not usually on this scale.

St Thomas Dec 2015

The house and pool

Alex gets on his smart phone, checking first with WPA to find out when power is expected back, then with the private company that services the generator to get a sense of when they might be able to come out. We swim in the pool and enjoy the breeze and the view. Alas, Alex is treated to the island response. Sure, we will send someone. Soon as we can. “Let’s go,” he says. “They say they might be able to send someone this afternoon, but I think they were only saying that to appease me. I’d be surprised if anyone comes out before tomorrow.” It’s decided we’ll catch the foot ferry to a beach on Water Island and not worry about it for now.

We need cash. We drive down to Charlotte Amalie. There we encounter a scene that could have been lifted from a zombie apocalypse. Traffic lights aren’t working. Stores are closed. Offices closed. Banks closed. ATMs not functioning. People, who can’t work, can’t shop or conduct business, are milling about as though in a daze, as though awaiting word from the Grand Leader to direct the attack. We find one bank with an operating generator and use their ATM to secure cash.

Next stop, Compass Point Marina. Before catching the foot ferry, we go for breakfast at Tickles, a marina diner. Alex knows from experience they will have an operating generator. Tickles is open, and not surprisingly crowded. We are seated at the last vacant outdoor table and our orders are taken, but then we wait. And we wait. No point in saying anything. Just how it is here. The hulls of yachts and large sailing craft loom over us. The cooling breeze makes sitting outside pleasant, even if the view is restricted. We worry about missing the ferry. When the food does arrive, we have ten minutes to wolf it down, pay, and hot foot it to the boat. Dain’s order is forgotten. He grabs from our plates. Gotta go.

The tiny foot ferry takes us north and east, in the direction of the British V.I., to Water Island. It’s a short smooth ride. On the boat we meet a family from Pennsylvania. Mom and Dad live here on St. Thomas, now. The three college-aged boys are visiting for the holiday. Can’t have been here long. That boisterous, frenetic, gotta make every minute count demeanor hasn’t been rubbed out yet.

St Thomas Dec 2015 10

The “cactus truck” on Water island

Near the marina on Water Island, a pickup abandoned in the parking lot is growing a cactus out of debris trapped between windshield and hood. Daiga dubs it the “cactus truck.” I dub it the objective correlative. Where there is industrial deterioration, there is growth.

A short hike over a hill and down through thin woods delivers us to the beach at Honeymoon Bay. Sailboats moor here in the protected water. Craft from cruise ships that can only dock in Charlotte Amalie regularly dump 30-40 people at a time onto this beach. Those passengers invariably hang by Heidi’s outdoor bar and grill, as if the grill were the attraction, not the beach. They step off the boat, wait in line for rum drinks and burgers. Wolf and slurp. Back on the boat. Next.

We avoid them easily by staying at our end of the beach.

The water is clear. Dain and I discover and swim after a couple of sea turtles. Three species of sea turtles habituate the Virgin Islands. The ones we see are either the Hawksbill or Green Sea turtles. They have flippers rather than legs with feet, but underwater without masks we can’t see well enough to tell if their shells are serrated around the edges or not. When these creatures are fully grown they can weigh two hundred to three hundred pounds, depending on which species, and they spend most of their life in the sea, aside from the female adults who come onto the beach at night to lay eggs. The two we see are not particularly fazed by our clumsy attempts to approach in the water. They do hold their distance.

We toss the football with the dad from Pennsylvania. He played college ball at Pitt and is currently the head high school varsity football coach at Antilles School. This private school, Alex later tells us, is the recommended school on St. Thomas. People who move here do not send their children to the public schools if they can afford otherwise. We chat about the relative value of teen sports as part of an education. In his 50s, fit, articulate, he claims, “I would never go back to live on the mainland. I love this life here.” Power outages notwithstanding.

Between boats, we catch a shorter line at Heidi’s and order the “Painkillers” Megan recommends. This beach cocktail features British Navy Rum, pineapple juice, cream of coconut, and sprinkles of ground nutmeg. The starving boy inhales a thick, juicy, grilled burger.

Next boat dumps. Heidi’s is again mobbed. Time to head back and see how things stand.

The power comes back at some point in the afternoon. Alex spends more time on the phone arguing with the company responsible for the generator to see if he can get them out sooner because tomorrow we will be boating and snorkeling and gone all day. The taps are running again. Toilets can be flushed. We shower away the day’s salt and sand and make reservations for a special dinner out. Daiga’s treat. A thank you for their hospitality.

The Banana Tree Grille, our destination, is part of Bluebeard’s Castle Resort on the hill overlooking Charlotte Amalie Harbor. No rum drinks and burgers tonight. This is a serious step up toward fine cuisine. We are seated at an outdoor roofed pavilion with sweeping views of the hills and the harbor below. Paddle fans rotate overhead. The place is busy with people staying at the resort or, judging by overheard conversations, taking a break from galley kitchens on their boats.

St Thomas Banana Tree Grille

St Thomas Banana Tree Grille

We order two hearty reds, a Tempranillo and a Rosso de Montelcino and sip wine and relax and sink into the luxury of a calm that is a rare thing to find at home. The swooping diving birds. The rubbing insects. The frogs that go “ko-kee.” The crowing roosters. The klaxon calls of boats gliding in after dark. The gentle whoop whoop of the turning fans. The swash of the lapping tide. It’s a calm silence for us because the movement and sound is mostly of the natural sort. It is never this calm and silent, this devoid of agitation, in the city where we live.

Our hungry eleven-year old devours his pasta with scallops in white sauce and raves about it. My mussels in a seasoned broth and sautéed calamari are also rave worthy. Everyone is pleased with their dinner. It is costly. Everything costs more on the islands. Alex and Megan claim it’s hard to find reliable fine dining on St. Thomas. This establishment rises to the top of their short list.

Late, after the others have gone off to bed and the lights by the pool have been turned off, Dain snuggles up with me on the couch. We ignore the view of the dark islands and the rolling Atlantic. We watch a cheesy video on Megan’s laptop about a summer boys’ camp. Despite heavy-eye, Dain insists we watch to the end. He misses his video games. Playing soccer. His friends.


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