Sunday, January 18, 2015

Something completely different

Three days later. I've packed a few suitcases and moved to join Hannah on Saint Thomas in the American Virgin Islands. It's a move I undertook with no small measure of trepidation.

When I tell people about the trip and try to explain why I feel so apprehensive about it, their reactions are nothing but incredulous. The way they tell it, you'd think I was moving to a tropical paradise or something.

Tropical, sure: it's the middle of January and I can go out on the porch quite comfortably wearing nothing but my underwear. But paradise it ain't. Hannah has been here since August, and she's still struggling to get into the swing of things. (And she's one of the most adaptable people I know.) One of her coworkers at the private school is raring to move back to Boise, Idaho as soon as the term ends. On the face of it, most people would say they'd rather live in the Caribbean than Idaho. But having lived in both, this woman is now happily choosing Boise over "paradise."

During the flight I sat in front of a woman who was coming to visit the island four months after returning to the mainland. She'd lived on Saint Thomas for about a year before that. For the better part of half an hour she explained to the woman sitting next to her why she left, and she left because she just couldn't take it anymore. It was driving her crazy. The high prices, the lousy transportation, the isolation, being surrounded on all sides by career drunks, having nothing to do but get drunk herself.

This seems to be a place where people from the mainland come to physically age at two to three times the normal rate (through a combination of cheap booze, cheap cigarettes, and fierce sunshine) while intellectually regressing at a rate of 1 to 1.5 years annually. By the looks of things, Saint Thomas is like an island-spanning college town without the center of higher learning at its nucleus. Generally speaking, people come here from the mainland to get shitfaced and laid between bartending shifts. Or to simmer in sun and rum after an early retirement.

I've noticed that people talk about living here the same way people up north describe living in New York. Unless you're already loaded, this isn't the easiet place to make things work out. Actually, I'd be willing to bet New York might actually be easier. At least it has subways and is eminently pedestrian-friendly.

Money's going to be problematic. This is not an inexpensive place to live. For instance: in the house that Hannah has been sharing with three other people, the "if it's yellow, let it mellow" rule is to be followed as a matter of economic necessity. Water ain't cheap. There isn't a room without an air conditioner built into the wall, but they're never to be turned on—not even when it's 95 degrees and so humid that the mosquitoes are actually doing the breaststroke as they converge on you. Electricity ain't cheap neither. Unless you're working two jobs, owning a car is a dicey prospect. Parts aren't cheap, repairs aren't cheap (where else are you going to drive to find another mechanic?), and the hilly terrain and salty air work hell on automobiles. (Right now Hannah's talking about renting a car on a month-to-month basis and sharing it between at least two people.) And it's absolutely necessary to know exactly where to shop for which things: groceries are expensive everywhere, but certain things are less pricey at certain places. I recently watched a friend paying nine dollars for a pint of soy ice cream. I passed a jar of Tostito's salsa in a convenience store that was selling for five dollars. A can of chunky Campbell's soup was running upwards of four dollars. A tiny bag of coffee (maybe eight ounces? maybe a little less?) was selling for eight dollars.

Don't ask me what kind of job I plan to get. I have no idea. It's something I'll have to start figuring out come Monday.

In New York, people bear with the crowds and the noise and perpetual rush and urban isolation because they're getting so much in return: the excellent transportation system, the vibrant arts/music/literary scene, the cultural pluralism, the museums, the good schools, jobs in myriad fields, the easy access to pretty much anything one could ever need, the readily available high-quality drugs, and so on. Saint Thomas has none of these things.

But it has feral chickens and lizards. And cacti and mangrove swamps. And zenaida doves and singing tree frogs. And coral reefs and sea turtles. And pelicans and frigatebirds. And easy access to Saint John and its swaths of protected parkland. And the woman I love and a magnificent view of the sea from the balcony outside the room we share.

Best case scenario: I'm able to walk over the resort bullshit and immerse myself in the coral reefs, the forests, the unfamiliar flora and fauna, meditations on the manifold historical and environmental problems this island presents, and friendships with any other resident mutants to whom the permanent vacation milieu doesn't appeal. And write a whole bunch of cool stuff while I'm at it.

Worst case scenario: the experience will foster a greater appreciation for life on the mainland, with all its warts and cold weather and nonsense.

I'm beginning to suspect that nonsense is inescapable, and the best anyone can hope to do is try find it in a flavor that's the least offensive to his palate. And maybe "paradise" is a state in which you acquire a fond taste for the nonsense.


  1. Amazing. I do love those who take a leap of faith. A friend of mine recently proclaimed he was dropping everything to move out to Tobago with his woman (who lives there) and become a gardener for ex-pats - also in part to try and kick his drug habit (apparently the heat eases symptoms of cold turkey). However, where he's painted the place as some sort of frugal paradise where life is easy, cocaine is cheap and pure, and everyone's nice to one another - yours reads more like some sort of purgatorio where you have to compromise on the stuff generally taken for granted for... a beautiful geography? Obviously there's probably some discrepancies between life on Saint Thomas and Tobago, but the difference between ones objective perceptions of the Caribbean and the reality of living there pretty interesting.

    Having said that, however, England right now is grey, grey and more fucking grey... if you can concieve of that sort of weather where you are, so i'd gladly take that $4 Campbell's soup and trade places.

    1. I mean, I'm a pessimist and am more inclined to bear in mind the downsides of a situation than focus exclusively on the perks. (When I don't let myself get carried away, it can be a useful habit.) There are definitely nice things about being here, but you've got to take them with some deficiencies, inconveniences, and pitfalls -- and I'm finding that for some people, the pains in the ass outweigh the perks.

      I'm adjusting pretty well so far, but I miss being able to buy ice cream or cheese or asparagus without breaking the bank. Still working on the "job" thing. But I'm having fun bothering the wildlife in the meantime.

      I had a college professor who joked that the whole reason for British colonialism wasn't to procure natural resources or spread Christianity to the heathens, but for an excuse to "get off their cold, damp little isle." You think there's some veracity to this...?

  2. Like many ~tropical paradises~, it's only "paradise" for those who don't have to live/survive there.