Sunday, July 23rd, 2006 • No Comments on A Nice Place To Visit, But…
Did I mention that island life is slow? We’re talking IRS refund check slow.
It is a pleasant change of pace, at first. Everything is flexible, there’s no need to rush. I had plenty of time to slow down, enjoy the sunshine and the wind blowing in the palm trees and the sound of the ocean and seagulls. I didn’t need to blow dry my hair because, between the sunshine and the ocean breeze, it dried quickly into a frizzy mess of curls (island hair, baby). Thanks to that same ocean breeze, the temperature was actually cooler in St. Thomas than it is here in Virginia. Island life has a different rhythm to it and the locals’ way of living rubs off on the tourists. Some tourists, anyway. Some never let go of their A-type lifestyles while others, like me, try but can’t quite give up the notion of scheduling things. Then there’s Jay, who seems born to be an island boy, despite the fact that he’s from land-locked Tennessee.
I am not destined to be an island girl, however. The inability to get coffee or chocolate ice cream (“I’ve been trying to get it for weeks,” said the woman at the ice cream shop) was only part of the reason I determined I couldn’t live the island life. There was also a strange division between the tourist parts of St. Thomas (shiny, tropical, wealthy, tour book St. Thomas) and the local parts of St. Thomas (poor, rundown, not found in tour books St. Thomas) that bothered me. It’s hard to enjoy a $18 sandwich (no kidding) when it seems like a good-sized portion of the residents of St. Thomas are living on very little. Air conditioning is limited to the places only tourists go—the resorts and expensive boutiques in Charlotte Amalie—and water is a high-priced luxury. I wonder if the tourists who visit St. Thomas ever stop to look around and consider what life is really like on an island? I don’t think it’s the fantasy Fodor’s or Frommer’s is selling.
Of course, the people who intrigued me most were not the locals, but the U.S. mainlanders who have made their way south away from a cheaper way of living to a more isolated, expensive and weather-vulnerable lifestyle. There was Sandy, the photographer from upstate New York who moved to south Florida in the 60s and decided that wasn’t far enough south. She had lived in St. Thomas for several years but was getting ready for yet another move south, to an island off the coast of Venezula, “Out of the path of hurricanes,” as she put it. There was Ken, the amiable waiter at the restaurant hotel who was originally from “the beaches of L.A.,” who loves island life and suggested he had run away from the threat of a jail sentence. His story was told with a smile, so it was hard to know what was real and what was fiction, but it seemed believable enough. Then there was Claire, a native of Texas and the owner of Gallery St. Thomas who was friendly to everyone, locals and customers, and spent a lot of time talking to me on my two visits to her gallery. She’s dating a guy who lives in my part of Virginia and was excited about the prospect of going shopping the next time she visited him. Shopping for her means stores like Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond. Places where she can buy sheets and towels, everyday things she can’t easily get on St. Thomas.
I don’t think I could move to an island because I would hate the isolation. There are times when I feel very isolated as a writer, but I can balance that kind of mental isolation with an iced mocha and a trip to the bookstore (as far as I could tell, there is only one, small bookstore on St. Thomas). There doesn’t seem to be a way to compensate for the physical isolation of island life except by taking the occasional trip (if, of course, they can afford it). Some people I met seem to prefer that kind of separation, but how do they live without chocolate ice cream for weeks at a time??
The one thing I wouldn’t mind about island life (besides waking up to the ocean every morning) is keeping my low maintenance island hair. Ahh…