Monday, January 5, 2009

City Slicker to Mellow Islander: How It All Began

In the early '90's I was diligently working for a small, regional airline in the southeastern United States. I had little interest in visiting most of the cities on our limited route until ... wonder of wonders ... a new route to the Caribbean was announced. I couldn't believe it. We were going to begin flying to the U.S. Virgin Islands!

Most of my friends and family had heard of the Virgin Islands, but knew next to nothing about this U.S. territory. So, I'd have to explain that it is only a couple of hours from Puerto Rico, and consists of three major islands: St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix; as well as close to a hundred small islets and cays. Oh, and that from the pictures I'd seen, it was extraordinarily beautiful.

I had never been to the Caribbean, so my first trip, to the island of St. Thomas a few months later, was highly anticipated.

I get my first impression of the island while still in the air as we come in for a landing. Looking out the window of the MD80, I stare down at the ocean mesmerized by the breathtaking beauty of the impossibly clear, turquoise water.

My later experiences would be that ... no matter how travelled visitors to the Virgin Islands happened to be, they were always amazed at the beauty of the waters and beaches.

My second impression, as I walk down the steps of the airplane to the ground (no Jetway here), is of heat so solid, it is like hitting a wall. It is the kind of heat that immediately generates perspiration (everywhere!); the kind of heat that gives you an urge to disrobe, at least of any extra outer wear.

What makes the heat tolerable and probably saves us all from absolute annihilation are the gentle tradewind breezes.

But, I am soon distracted from the heat by the picturesque beauty of colorful, pastel painted houses strewn across rolling, green hills. I would learn that St. Thomas' nickname is 'The Rock', because of those hills. The islands were formed by volcanic activity and as a result are mountainous and rocky, which makes farming extremely difficult.

Inside the airport travelers are greeted by Steel Pan musicians, and ladies adorned in native costume speaking in lyrical accents as they offer tastes of popular island drinks - especially Fruit Punch - with or without the rum that is made right on the island of St. Croix. Crucian Rum is one of very few products manufactured in the Virgin Islands.

Before I know it, my luggage and I are loaded into a long - thankfully air-conditioned -van (that seats about 15), and we're heading up hills so steep, I bite my lip to keep from crying out as we
seem to travel straight up.
I chance a look out the window and gaze down at the town of Charlotte Amalie below. We had recently passed through the lovely little town with the red-roofed shops on one side of the street and the harbor on the other.

I find it impossible to enjoy the view, however as I notice there is nothing even resembling a guard rail on the side of the road, and one wrong move could send us plunging over the side of the mountain!
I keep my eyes straight ahead until I reach my destination. Of course I would learn it's not as easy as all that to go over the mountain ... but it is indeed possible.

My resort is as they say ... "In the country", which means up from town, and in the mountains. It is a large, older property spread out over many acres of land, and set up like condos. There's the living room with floor to ceiling windows that opens onto a wrap-around balcony that's to die for; a dining area, kitchen, bedroom and bath. It really does look more like a movie set rather than some place I'd be staying.

It's not long before I realize the air conditioning doesn't work, but with all the balcony doors open and the ceiling fans on in every room, it is unbelievably breezy and yes, cool.

Something else I'd learn: most houses aren't air conditioned. Strategically placed ceiling fans, regular fans, windows, proper clothing, and a natural physical resistence to the heat (built up overtime), are the weapons of choice.

Later that evening, after settling in, I am dressed for dinner and waiting for the taxi to take me to the restaurant that I've been told has one of the island's best views, as well as some of the best cuisine on the island.

I walk out onto the balcony and look down at the twinkling lights in the houses all over the valley far below, and it's so beautiful, tears well up in my eyes and threaten to spill over and ruin my make-up. I quickly blink them back as I think, this is indeed paradise.

Suddenly, a small shiver travels up my spine as I feel this trip may turn out to be even more of an adventure than I can imagine.

Just then I hear the taxi give a couple of short bleeps outside.

I shake my head to rid myself of fanciful thoughts, grab my purse, and I'm off to begin the adventure.
The adventures ... and misadventures of a city slicker turned mellow islander.