Thursday, August 20, 2015

St Thomas Slide Show


On Monday, after living on St Thomas for seven months, I caught a one-way flight back to the mainland.

I gave it an earnest shot. But in the final analysis, it's just not my scene. That's not to say there isn't a lot I'm going to miss about the island, though.

Over the last day or two I've been trawling my cameras and inbox for snapshots from the last seven months. I've compiled a small photo album to serve as an overview (not remotely comprehensive) of the stuff that caught my fancy during my life in the tropics. For a few years now I've fallen out of the habit of carrying my little hand-me-down Canon with me (and I lost access to it for a good three-and-a-half months during my stay), so most of the pictures were taken with my flip phone. Do please cut me a little slack for the poor image quality.

The view towards the top of the hill where I stayed with Hannah (ex-girlfriend) for the first three months of my residence on St Thomas. I never, never got sick of the view, of walking to the bus stop at dawn and listening to the coquí frogs peeping in the brush. Can't say the same about the walk back up. Fair to say it's about a mile, all uphill, and the farther you go, the steeper it gets. On good days I was able to hitch rides with Rasta dudes. On bad days I'd march half the distance cursing the blistering heat, and then make the rest of the trudge in the rain.

The front steps of Hannah's place, plus a golden orb weaver. I remember finding these guys all over the place when I was living on the east end, but after moving to the west in June I don't recall seeing even one. The perspective of the photograph obscures the critter's size: this thing is definitely a BBW (big beautiful weaver). We're not talking tarantula size or anything—but I'm not sure I'd be able to keep my cool if one crawled up my face, and I'm certainly not squeamish about bugs.

A tetrio sphinx moth in its larval form: the most terrifying caterpillar I've ever met. Again, the photograph doesn't really convey a sense of scale, but this bugger was bigger than my finger. (Here's a better picture.) I was a little disappointed to learn that it eventually matures into a somewhat ordinary-looking (albeit very large) moth. At the time I was convinced this thing would emerge from its cocoon as some kind of world-devouring antichrist.

I came out of the water from snorkeling one afternoon and found this would-be stowaway on my backpack. I can say he's the smallest hermit crab (locally called army crabs) I met during my visit. The biggest hermit crab was underwater so I couldn't get a snapshot (the flip phone is impervious to impact, but not to water damage), but it will suffice to say he seemed somewhat chafed by the fit of his conch shell. ("GROSS!" said Caroline gleefully.)

This iguana likes to hang out on the patio at the Secret Harbor resort (my snorkeling spot of choice when I was still living on the east end). He's not shy at all; he'll just plod about and eat whatever scraps might fall from the tables. It was fun watching him, and maybe even more fun watching the servers swerve to avoid tripping on him. The staff calls him "Elvis."

A juvenile iguana trying to get into the Twisted Cork Café over in Frenchtown.

I can't tell you how much I already miss the geckos. They're everywhere. When I took a walk through the woods earlier this afternoon, I kept expecting to turn my head and find one doing pushups on a tree trunk or rock. The problem with lizards is that they're never available when you really need one, when the only thing preventing your heart from soaring is the absence of a perky little reptile.

It's driving me crazy. After browsing mollusc guides for twenty minutes, I can't conclusively identify this sucker, and I saw his brethren all over the place (especially after moving to the west end). This was the first one I saw, and I remember I photographed him because he seemed like an evil omen: less than a month after my escape from Maryland, here was a local whelk wearing the colors of the Maryland state flag. I worried it might be a sign that a return to Maryland was in my future.

I don't know exactly what these horrible sable hornet creatures are, but I do know what they're doing.

The ruins of a colonial-era sugarcane processing factory and rum distillery on St John, the neighboring (and far superior) island. When I first arrived on St Thomas I didn't have a job lined up, so on Tuesday and Thursday mornings I'd catch the ferry to St John and do volunteer work for the National Park Service. Most of those mornings consisted of clearing brush from sites like these while getting swarmed by ants, needled by cacti, lacerated by catch-and-keep, menaced by hornets, and hit on by anoles. I do believe it's important to preserve historical sites like these, and all the more because they're implicated in a history of exploitation and brutality. Without knowledge of the past, the context of the present is lost.

More St John ruins. This is an old estate near Francis Bay. You can see much better photographs here. (Looks like the park staff slashed through the vines since Mr. Carr's photo was taken, but for all I know they've grown back in the last five months. Stuff grows fast down here.)

The salt pond near Francis Bay. Birds spotted: black-necked stilt, yellow warbler, least sandpiper, brown pelican, and white-cheeked pintail (among others).

I haven't conclusively identified this species of cactus, but I became quite well acquainted with it over the last seven months. Succulents are generally among the most reasonable and phlegmatic members of the plant kingdom, but this guy is an exception. He is downright nasty. If you so much as brush against him, at least one of his segments will detatch itself and dig into your clothes and/or skin. I ended up referring to him as "shrapnel cactus."

Carnival (the Caribbean strain) is celebrated on Saint Thomas in late April/early May, and what you're seeing here is the village, the central vortex of the festivities. Take the grease and halogen glitz of a skeezy mainland Fourth of July fair, the music and grinding bodies of a soca concert, and the raucousness and cascades of booze attending the New Year's Eve party in Times Square, spike it with West Indian spices, and you've got the village. Not remotely my preferred cup of tea, but I'm still glad I checked it out.

From Limestone Bay on nearby Water Island (cleped thus by pirates who took advantage of its freshwater ponds). I sometimes feel like I prefer these lonelier, more rugged, austerer beaches to the white sands and palm trees variety. They offer more to wonder at, I suppose.

 The Tree of Lost Soles at Limestone Beach. Get it? GET IT? DO YOU?? HUH?

Background: the famous and picturesque Magen's Bay. Foreground: Hannah's arm. I forget what she was pointing at.

A tide pool at the base of the basaltic cape at Peterborg. And that's me: obviously this one was taken by Hannah. The tide pools I occasionally came across were one of the many reasons I momentarily (during many moments) contemplated taking a marine biology course at the University of the Virgin Islands. Even without the benefit of education in that area, you can plainly see the tide pool is a vibrant miniature ecosystem with a lot of activity: coral growth, sea urchins, chitons, whelks, crabs, starfish. I wish I knew more about it.

While scrambling up and down the cliffs at Peterborg, I came across the remains of a crab. It's anyone's guess how it managed to find itself thirty feet above the water—perhaps a storm or a particularly rough high tide carried it here, and it just couldn't figure out how to safely get back down.

I held Hannah's iPhone directly in front of the crab's carcass for this shot. This is what its eyes were fixed upon during their last moments of functionality. Home—everything it needs—right there, right in front of him, but impossibly and fatally out of reach. (Fun fact: these were all taken on the day we broke up. I was going to write a lugubrious post about the crab as a metaphor for my feelings in the wake of my relationship's implosion, but I was too gloomy and you all were spared.)

Yours truly. Going up and clambering down in bare feet was probably a mistake.

The isthmus at Mermaid's Chair, which connects St Thomas proper to a promontory called Little St Thomas. I wish I possessed a better grasp of what it actually means, but the isthmus forms a narrow partition between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. On the face of it, the difference is palpable: on the Atlantic side, the waves strike the shore with significantly more force, and a saline odor hangs in the air. I got the brilliant idea to put on my snorkel, wade into the Caribbean side, and attempt to circle the promontory and come back out on the Atlantic side. Let's just say it was a somewhat greater distance than I had anticipated, the water around the peninsula's terminus was a bit choppy, and the rocks a bit jagged. It's a wonder I didn't return to the shore (on the Caribbean side) riddled with sea urchin spines or with a cracked skull.

So yeah, there was a breakup and I had to find a new place to live. This is the exterior of one of the efficiency apartments I found advertised in the Virgin Islands Daily News (Craigslist isn't very widely used in the USVI). The landlord had given me a ride there and I wasn't totally certain he was unarmed, so instead of saying ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING I just smiled profusely and kept nodding and saying "looks good thanks let me check out a few other leads and I'll get back to you take me away from here please." (You should have seen what it looked like inside.)

And this was the place I actually moved into. Thank god. I really did luck out: I knew somebody who knew somebody, and the somebody that somebody knew was in the position to offer me a studio apartment in one of the nicest of the island's affordable, safari-accessible, and non-sketchy neighborhoods. see that object under the window, around the corner to the left of the chair (to the left of me)? For two months I was aware it was there, but never came around to inspecting it. I fell into the assumption that it was just a hollow log somebody left behind for some reason, a piece of wood with dirt at the bottom, and I didn't think anything one night of stubbing out a cigarette on the rim before going back inside and dropping the butt in the trash can. Well, it was actually a palm tree stump, full of dry and highly flammable palm tree guts. Look: when you stub out a few thousand cigarettes in your life and none of the stray embers start a blaze, the possibility of such a thing doesn't even occur to you. So when you go back inside and smell smoke, you go outside and examine the air conditioner because, well, what else could it be? So yeah, I eventually went around the corner and saw the flames spewing out of the tree stump, whereupon I ran inside, grabbed a pair of one-gallon Virgin H20 jugs from the kitchen counter, and prevented a dumb mistake from escalating to a catastrophe. Once the danger was over, I found myself less relieved by the averting of disaster than by how it had been accomplished without any of my neighbors noticing. And that was when Shanya—a coworker of mine who just happens to live on the other side of the building—woke up, smelled burning wood in the air, and came to have a look around. That was how she found me outside at 1:30 AM standing in a cloud of smoke wearing nothing but pajama pants, dumping water into a smouldering tree stump and uttering maledictions like a possessed Linda Blair.

"Fuckin' Pat," was all she said. Nothing about the scene surprised her. Sometimes I'm reminded that the red-headed author from 8EB is still me.

And this was my roommate. I excuse myself by saying I subscribe to the Hindu/Buddhist principle of ahimsa, but if I'm being honest with everyone, I'll admit to feeling squeamish about killing anything that produces an audible footfall. I really should have just nutted up and murdered him from the onset. After letting him live for a week, to turn around and kill him out of nowhere seemed rather impolite, and I grew to enjoy watching him flail his antennae about. We got along decently until the last couple of weeks, which was when he began letting his buddies come over and crash whenever they pleased. It was more than a little discourteous on his part, but I was already on my way out, and I had only myself to blame for establishing a precedent of leniency. Here's the thing, though: of the five homes I spent one or more nights in, I saw at least one roach in each of them. The giant cockroaches are just something you have to learn to live with on St Thomas, like mosquitoes, power outages, and shortsighted avarice.

Something I am definitely going to miss: the view from my front door. Something I am definitely not going to miss: the party boat that drifted in and out of the bay on the weekends, blasting soca from sunset until after midnight.

I was glad to get my old camera back in time to catch this pair of black-crowned night herons conducting a business meeting (or drug deal) on the dock.

My friend Michelle standing on the rocks and rubble at the end of the street. I'm pretty sure this was the day we found an octopus lounging in the shade under a cement block.

Now that I'm back on the mainland, I'm finding I rather miss Michelle and wishing I'd spent more time with her, gotten to know her a bit better. I feel the same way about the octopus.

The view from the dock at night. Not the best picture—it doesn't convey the sense that what you're looking at isn't a hill, but a sheer black wall dotted with orange lightbulbs. St Thomas is very hilly, and the hills are very steep, and the real estate developers see no reason not to build houses anywhere they can get a bulldozer. This results in roads that are literally impassable after a rainstorm (unless you just bought your tires in the last week or so).

I can't be polite about this: St Thomas is a garbage dump. You have a lush tropical island, yes—but there's no taboo on littering (it's not at all uncommon to see locals chucking glass bottles, beer cans, or McDonald's bags out the window on the road), no recycling, and no residential trash pickup. So the rubbish just falls where it's dropped, and either piles up in the hills and mangrove swamps, or gets flushed out to sea when it rains. I don't think it's inaccurate to say that the majority of residents don't give a shit.

Robots bleed...

 ...robot blood. (The color of the paint and the lousiness of the camera make it almost impossible to see here.)

So if there's no door-to-door trash pickup, what does one do with his household waste? He lugs it to one of twenty-two public dumpster sites on the island (where it will be transferred to the Bovoni Landfill—which straddles the protected Mangrove Lagoon—provided it doesn't blow away in the wind or get lost in the transfer from dumpster to dumptruck). It's much less of a hassle if you can afford to buy, fuel, and maintain a car or truck. If you can't? Well. Imagine: it's ninety-one degrees outside, you've got a twenty-gallon sack of rotting produce and beer cans, and there's a long walk between you and the nearest dumpster site. It must be awfully tempting to just toss it into the woods when nobody's looking, and by all appearances, this does not happen infrequently. The closest dumpster to me was maybe a little more than a quarter mile away, near the waterfront, at the other end of a neighborhood I absolutely would not pass through after dark. I usually just discreetly tossed my garbage into one of the private trash bins behind Betsy's Bar. (Sorry, Bess.)

There was one bin I occasionally saw on the east side, but never got a chance to photograph. On its side were spraypainted THIS NEVER HAPPENED in white letters.

The McDonald's in Frenchtown, four blocks from my home. I did not take this picture. It's consistently the first or second result of a Google Image search for "ghetto mcdonalds."

I count myself blessed to have been on the island during genip season. They're like juicy, pulpy Sweet Tarts that grow on trees. While there doesn't appear to be any systematic cultivation of genips (there is very, very little agricultural activity on St Thomas), the trees grow everywhere, and you can find folks at fruit stands and on the sidewalks selling bunches of them for a dollar (two dollars if you're white and they don't know you). I never once paid for them; a genip tree grew in the parking lot behind the café I worked at, and I just went out and climbed it after work, ignoring the tetanus risk from the rusty fence I had to stand on to reach the lowest limb. The genips would have been worth an infection. They're that good.

When I swung by the café to grab my last paycheck, I took this snapshot from the front door. That's a cruise ship. It's not even one of the biggest ones; sometimes you'd look out the front window and find the sky completely obscured. Where it not for these monsters and the legions of sightseers in their guts, St Thomas would not have a functioning economy. A tourism-based economy leads to some complicated relationship dynamics between residents and visitors, and one senses the people getting the short end of the stick are—surprise!—the West Indians. (When you travel west on the main drag and look to your left, you see Yacht Haven Grande, a posh shopping gallery within walking distance of the cruise ship pier with duty-free Gucci, Louis Vutton, Bvlgari, and Diamonds International shops, cordoned from the street by a ten-foot metal fence that locks its gates after dark. When you turn and look to your right, you see—surprise!—housing projects.)

Just a snapshot of the view from the safari during my commute to work. (The safari is an informal public transportation system consisting largely of pickup trucks retrofitted as open air buses.)

And this is your reward for making it to the end. Pat-a-cake, baby.


  1. It looks pretty. Shame about the whole necessary evil of the touristry.

    1. I wanted to quibble with you on the word "necessary," but that's unfortunately where history has positioned the place. Right now, it really isn't capable of supporting itself any other way.

    2. there would be nothing there without tourists! we love em, they invade and disrespect, and we still welcome them back, needless to say- they make our world go round so we have to deal with it. often they are unaware about them being disrespectful so its not too hurtful. now the people living there(i lived there 15 years) definitely need to figure out new recycling ways! and since like 2018 there have been many tries and fails, glass recycling has taken off. just need to find somehow to discredit the landfill mountain.. to a small hill.. thats for sure!