The U.S. Virgin Islands: the American paradise. That was the notion I first had as we were sailing in amongst the emerald like islands sprinkled over a sea of turquoise. But, my dreams of lush green rainforests, coconuts, palm trees, and white sandy beaches were in for a serious reality check. Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, was not exactly what I expected the Caribbean to be like. It was hot, crowded, touristy, dirty, over-populated, and commercialized. It was not the exotic tropical paradise I had hoped for. In many ways it was much like some of the cities we had left back in the states. But, other than the intense heat, there was one very noticeable difference: the rain. From the day we arrived it rained. And it rained, and it rained, and it rained. After we had all just taken our most disgusting, but at the same time most welcome shower, we were continuously given incredibly better showers by far. But, those grotesque showers alone are a story in themselves.
After spending two weeks in the middle of the ocean without one we were all in dire need of a shower. Because we were so desperate, we went to the first place we could find and paid whatever they asked. As it would turn out, they should have been paying us to use those disgusting showers. They were part of a run down, hurricane damaged old hotel that had been mostly condemned. There was no electricity in the place, so we had to leave the bathroom doors open in order to see. Fortunately, we were the only people there, and it was quite obvious why. The place was much filthier than we were, and that is really saying something. There was more than a little bit of dirt tracked across the linoleum floor, with bugs crawling all over the disintegrating walls. There were five bathrooms in this disgraceful complex. I believe at least two of the toilets had “out of order” signs on them, and the sinks sprayed water all over you when you turned on the faucet. That is, if the faucet turned on at all. Then, the icing on this moldy, freezer burned cake was the showers themselves. Thank goodness we were all smart enough to ware sandals in any public shower, or else I’m sure we would have contracted some rare tropical type of foot fungus. There was absolutely no water pressure in the showers, and the little water that the pipes managed to squeeze out was freezing cold. It was literally like taking a shower under a dribbling hose. As disgusting as these showers were, we were all incredibly grateful to finally be clean once again.
Once we were all finished taking showers, we couldn’t wait to get out of there and explore. But, we would be forced to stay there much longer than we would have liked because of a sudden downpour. Eventually the rain stopped, for a few minutes anyway, and we set out into this unknown land.
As it would turn out, we were almost as unimpressed with the rest of the city as we were with the first little part of it that we had seen. The city was far too crowded for our taste. Sidewalks were sparse in parts of the city and often overcrowded so that you would get pushed into the bushes, street, or stores. Nearly all the shops that lined the bustling streets of Charlotte Amalie had exactly the same t-shirts, postcards, and souvenirs, all probably made in China.
I was surprised to see was how Americanized this island was. Sure, this was the U.S. Virgin Islands, but I didn’t expect to see a KFC, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, Burger King, and K-Mart in such a relatively small radius. I had also expected it to be much cleaner in the Caribbean. I had always thought that the whole Caribbean would be this pristine, natural wonderland, but I found this place to be a bit dirtier than your average American city. But, I guess it wasn’t that bad.
In spite of the fact that we were quite disappointed with Charlotte Amalie, at least one good thing came of our stay there. It all started out with the four of us lugging enormous sacks of laundry down to the local laundry matt. It was a hole-in-the-wall sort of place, crammed chalk-a-block full of washers, dryers, and people. When we first got there we had to wait a while in order to get a few washing machines. After we had filled all the machines we could find until we ran out of clothes to fill them with, we sat in the coolest spot we could find in that stifling place, made so by the large number of hot dryers and bodies crammed into such a small area.
It was then that we met our email savior. She was a fellow cruiser, from Canada, who had been traveling around for many years. From just looking at us she realized that we too were cruisers. I think the heaps of laundry gave us away. We quickly began talking, and it turned out that she, her companion, and their two visiting teenage grandsons were stuck in Charlotte Amalie because of a broken generator. So she asked, semi jokingly, if we knew anything about generators. My father, a marine engineer, did in fact. In return, my mother asked if she knew anything about pactors and ham radio email. As it turned out, she had the highest possible ham radio license and had almost exactly the same ham radio and pactor we did. But, unlike us, she knew quite well how to use them. So we did a switch-off. My father went to their boat to see if he could help with their generator, and she came over to our boat to help with our pactor.
For months we had been scratching our heads about how to hook up and use this new ham radio email system we had purchased. We started out scratching our heads about where we had put the various components in our rush to leave Maine before the cold set in. Then, we scratched our heads a bit more about where we had stuck the instructions for a month or so. Later, we found the instructions for installing everything and had everything put in, but there was nothing to tell you how to use this stuff after it had been installed. So, we had been trying in vain to figure out how to use this thing from the help section of the computer program. Thank goodness we ran into someone who already knew how to use it, or else it probably would have been another few months of head scratching before we figured anything out.
In return for her assistance, my father was able to help with their generator, somewhat. We met with them numerous times, and eventually heard all of their stories and they knew all of ours. We later saw them in a few different places in our travels through the Virgins.
But they were only one instance of the many interesting people that we have met along the way. When we first set out, I didn’t realize that there were so many people doing almost exactly what we were doing. These people are of varying nationality, but to many of them the whole world is their home. Just from listening to their wonderful stories you can gain some insight about different parts of the world. And everyone has their share of stories to tell, even if they’ve only been cruising for a short time.
Meeting people is only one of the many aspects of cruising. Another is seeing a completely different side of a country than what the vacationers see. It is more like living there rather than just visiting. But just as locals can have varying opinions about their native land, cruisers that visit the same island can have varying opinions about a place. Other cruisers we have talked to actually liked St. Thomas. Apparently, we had just seen the worst side of it, but we had had such a bad first impression we just didn’t give it much of a chance. Supposedly, there are quite nice beaches and lush green rainforests on other parts of the island that we had not seen. Oh well, there are lots of other islands in the Caribbean for us to explore.
And so, I end this installment with the image of the golden Caribbean sun dipping down below the horizon, leaving behind it a spectrum of color, bespeckled with fluffy white clouds. This show had been put on for us while we sit at anchor in Christmas Cove, off Great St. James Island, just around the corner form St. Thomas. A large fish jumps clear out of the water and shows us his strange body, while prehistoric looking birds soar overhead, and large graceful Manta Rays play around our anchor chain.