Sunday, July 31, 2011

If You Build It, They Will Come

Last week my sister and 4 year-old-nephew were in town visiting for a few days.  I’m not a mom and don’ t know much about kids, but in an effort to make my sister’s life easier and my nephew’s life more fun, I bought him snorkeling gear and a sandcastle building set prior to their arrival.  The snorkeling gear didn’t go over that well, but the sandcastle set was a huge hit…I mean huge.
We spent the first day together at the beach and enjoyed our day swimming and reading by the water, while my sister and nephew went for a nice long walk along the coast.  After taking a lengthy swim, I decided that I wanted to spend some quality time with my nephew, so I grabbed our sandcastle building set and yelled for my nephew to come join me to begin our quest for the best sandcastle a 4 year-old and a motherless 33 year-old could make. 
However, it didn’t take long for me to quickly learn that the world of a 4 year-old is less than organized.  In fact, I’m starting to question this whole ADD/ADHD phenomenon.  Personally, it’s been my [limited] experience that kids simply don’t have an attention span – no need to diagnosis or over-analyze this matter, it’s just the way kids are.  Either way, one minute my nephew was sitting next to me, filling a bucket with sand, and the next minute he was off trying to put on his snorkel gear or find his mother.
This left me alone, on the beach, doing the task of a 4 year-old-child.  Except I wasn’t alone for long…minutes after I had proudly built my first sandcastle tower, a flock of little girls came running to aid in my project.  There must have been 3 or 4, apparently parentless, kids that came out of nowhere when they saw me playing in the sand.  They were so eager to start helping me build this castle that they busily began shoveling sand and dumping water into the buckets we had brought.  One little girl who didn’t speak any English, plopped down right next to me and quickly became my little partner...or, more accurately, I became her little partner.  Somehow, she gently implied that she was to fill the buckets and I was to pack them tightly and flip them over to create the tower.  At this point, I was out-numbered, so I took her lead.

Of course, these children were heartbroken when it was time for me to leave.  I’d love to think that they enjoyed my company, but it was the buckets and shovels that they truly didn’t want to see go.  Conversely, I enjoyed the company of these children, and found it quite sweet that they wanted to play with me.  I felt awful when I saw their disappointed faces when I had to take away the buckets and shovels that had brought so much fun to their day.  Until the next day at the beach….
The next day we went to another beach.  This was just a short trip down to the beach before dinner, but I could tell my nephew was getting bored after a bit and my sister needed a break from him.  So, again, I called him over to build another sandcastle.  And, again, he was in and out, leaving me to tend to our project alone at times.  However, much to my surprise, another seemingly unsupervised pack of children came over to assist me in my efforts.  This was an older, English speaking crew of boys, and they meant business.  One of the boys immediately established himself as the supervisor of the situation, while 2 other boys worked diligently to get a castle wall and moat built.  Meanwhile, a 4th boy was determined to tear down the castle with his foot, and I continued to construct the towers.  No doubt, this was a tightly run operation.
Again, I had to cut our sandcastle building time short when we decided to leave.  No worries, though, this team had a back-up plan, as they had found an empty bottle to use as a means of filling up the moat, which was the last component left to complete our castle.  Needless to say, they were undeterred when I left.
I can’t help but consider how much joy these kids got out of a few buckets and some shovels and how easily entertained they would be if their parents had simply brought these few tools with them to the beach.  Clearly, these kids were starving for something creative to do when they found me, and they were more than excited to partake in building a sandcastle.  At the risk of sounding judgmental, how is it possible that these mysterious parents didn’t bring something for these poor kids to do at the beach?  I don’t get it, but selfishly I enjoyed bringing some fun and creativity to these kid's day, and it was a lot of fun to spend some "in-and-out" time with my nephew.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Week to Myself

It’s been quiet in my house this past week.  My boyfriend has been away all week, so for the first time since I moved here I have had some time to myself. 
As far as I’m concerned I’ve spent my time wisely.  I’ve bought and successfully eaten all of my favorite foods.  My TV choices have included plenty of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, The Bachelorette and old episodes of Sex and the City.  I met friends for Happy Hour on Monday, and met them again for Trivia Night on Thursday.  Friday, I grabbed some drinks after work with co-workers.  And, I’ve managed to fit in a few runs in the morning (yes, I am conquering that bastard of a hill – see The Hill posting).  Of course, both dogs are also taking advantage of this opportunity by sleeping in bed with me – Oakley under the covers with his head on the pillow and Thor at the foot of the bed. 
Today, I decided to head to Town to do some shopping.  As a side, Town is formally known as Charlotte Amalie, which is pronounced either Charlotte Ah-ma-lee, or Ah-mal-yah, but everyone calls it ‘Town’.  This is probably because nobody has determined how to actually pronounce this place, but I digress. 
St. Thomas actually has some pretty good shopping.  The fact that there isn’t any sales tax on the island, coupled with all of the tourism, has encouraged some pretty high end fashion companies and many, many jewelers to set up shop here.  There’s Gucci, Salvadore Farragamo, Tommy Hilfiger, BCBG, H Stern, Tiffany & Co.  and Coach – to name a few.  Since I’m not one for high-end shopping, I stuck to White House Black Market and a few of the more local boutiques and jewelers.
I enjoyed my time perusing around from shop to shop and wound up buying some gifts for friends and a couple of things for myself.  I even splurged on buying my first pate for lunch, which is a local favorite that is basically a fried pocket with meat and spices inside.  I now understand why these delightful pieces of fried goodness are so popular because I couldn’t put this thing down!  I’m absolutely looking forward to my next one.
Of course, being alone for a week down here hasn’t all been fun and games.  I’ve also had the sole responsibility of killing any and all bugs that may creep into the house.  Naturally, last night, while brushing my teeth, I found the largest bug I’ve ever seen in my life, crawling around in the shower.   Thankfully, I had had 3 glasses of wine when I found it, so I had enough courage to kill this thing without hesitation by using the end of a mop and a broom.  Gross. 
I’ve also had to be on garbage duty all by myself this week.  Since the residential roads are too tricky for garbage trucks to drive down, there are centralized dumping areas where garbage has to be driven and dropped off.  The first day I had to myself I noticed that our outside garbage can was full.  Since I had an entire week ahead of me, I had no choice but to haul it down to the dumping area and throw it into the dumpster by myself.  This was no easy task.  First, to keep your car clean and maggot free, it’s important to double bag all garbage prior to putting it into your car.  With this I mind, I used every muscle in my body to take the bag of garbage out of the dumpster, tie it up and get it into another bag.  Since I’m a complete weakling, in order to get the bag out of the dumpster I had to tip the dumpster on its side and pull the bag out.  I then ended up using the hill to roll the full bag down into the empty bag.  At this point, the garbage bag was several yards away from my car.  I geared myself up to lift this monstrosity into my car by cursing several times.  Then, I somehow found the strength to hoist it up and into the car.  Once I got to the dumping area, I again struggled with lifting the bag out of my car and getting it to the dumpster.  I was successful in getting it out of my car but, I literally wasn’t strong enough to pull it up and into the dumpster.  I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t get this thing up high enough to push it over the edge of the dumpster.  Looking like a pathetic damsel in distress, a helpful man noticed me and came to my rescue.  Afterwards, he disapprovingly said, ‘Have you ever thought of using more than one bag?”  Exhausted, but somehow feeling like I needed to explain myself, I responded by telling this stranger that my boyfriend had [unknowingly] left me stranded with the garbage for the week.
So, this week has had its ups and downs, but overall it’s been nice to do my own thing for a bit, and the time has gone by quickly.  In fact, I only have a few more hours before heading to the airport to pick up my boyfriend.  I can’t wait to see him!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Land Ahoy!

As you all know, last weekend was the 4th of July, and for any of you that were wondering...yes, the people down here do celebrate the 4th.  In fact, the islanders are a particularly celebratory bunch, so while they were at it, they threw in the 3rd as a holiday, too.  It’s considered Emancipation Day. 
For the USVI, St. John is the center of the celebration for the weekend of the 4th.  They have their own Carnival for the whole week leading up to the 4th, but there’s no doubt that the 4th is the biggest day of the Carnival week, as it includes, J’Ohvale (Marti Gras-like party starting very early in the morning), a parade and a fireworks display.  However, this year the grand finale wasn’t the fireworks.  It was after the fireworks, when the ‘captain’ of a ferryboat doing a special route for the holiday rammed the Royal Miss Belmar, carrying about 100 people, into dry land.
I don’t mean that this guy happened to accidentally hit a barrier reef and scrape bottom – no.  I mean that the ferry actually hit an island so hard that three quarters of the ferry was up on dry land.  As a result, 98 presumably half-bagged passengers and about 6 (apparently also half-bagged) crew members had to be rescued during the night. 

The newspaper reported that the rescue volunteers used a ladder to help people from the ferry down to another boat that took them to St. Thomas where treatment and shelter was provided to all 98 passengers.  This ladder broke at some point and they created a make-shift rope to transport the rest of the passengers from the ferry down to a rescue boat.  The rescue mission ended at about 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
Okay…let me get this straight.  A captain with a ferry full of passengers hits an island, rescuers use one ladder to get the passengers off the ferry, the one ladder breaks and a rope is somehow created to get the rest of the people off the boat.  Naturally, this fiasco took 7 1/2 hours to get all the people off the ferry and over to St. Thomas.  I mean, there are so many things wrong with this comedy of errors that I don’t even know where to begin. 
I think I’ll start with – what the hell was the captain doing when the boat somehow drifted into shallow waters and hit dry land?!  I’m not one to know my way around boats, but I know enough to understand that the liability of a ferryboat such as the Royal Miss Belmar requires all kinds of GPS and Sonar.  So, clearly none of the crew members were paying any attention to what they were supposed to be doing.  While the crew is being tested for drugs and alcohol, the managing director of the company that owns the ferry has said that she has no reason to believe that the operators were under the influence.  Really?  What other reason could she possibly need?
Let’s move on to the rope and the ladder, which the newspaper is referring to as ‘uncooperative equipment’.  Keep in mind that the following are all the responders that arrived at the scene of the accident: The Coast Guard, St. John Rescue, St. Thomas Rescue, VI Department of Planning and Natural Resources, VI Port Authority, SeaTow and the Park Service.  Apparently, the only device that all 7 organizations could come up with to rescue these people was a crappy ladder, and when that broke they ‘fashioned’ some sort of rope.  How is that possible?  Some of these poor passengers were so terrified to get onto the rescue boat via this broken down ladder and/or rope that they had to be tackled by the emergency crew to force them onto the boat.  Frankly, after this trauma, I wouldn’t be too keen on the would-be rope or the shoddy ladder, myself.  It would probably just be safer to jump into the ocean and swim the remaining distance to St. Croix, than to put your life into the hands of this crew.
I can’t even make this stuff up.  The incompetence of the entire situation is so completely unacceptable that it’s tough to believe.  And, I’m somewhat terrified to think about how this emergency would have been handled had there been life-threatening injuries for the passengers.  I mean, what would they do?  Bring in a patched up emergency dingy that needed to be blown up one breath at a time?
So, lesson learned.  Don't take a ferryboat on the biggest holiday weekend of the summer, after a long day of celebration, during the night, from St. John to St. Croix.  This lesson could save a life.              



Monday, July 4, 2011

A Holiday Hike

Yesterday morning, I woke up to a cloudy, rainy day, but instead of staying in I decided that we should take the car over to St. John and hike Reef Bay Trail.  Reef Bay is one of the more popular trails, and I had been wanting to hike this trail since hearing about it several weeks ago.  So, we packed a couple of backpacks full of water, snacks, bug spray, a rain jacket, a towel and sunscreen and headed off for the car ferry to St. John.
While driving the car to the port I had my doubts about the day.  After all, the sky looked threatening, so I wasn’t sure that the rain would hold off.  Regardless, we arrived at St. John at about 11:00 a.m. and drove our car 5 miles inland where we found the beginning of the trail.  The trails on St. John are well groomed, but can be rocky, steep and slick in the rain.  We started off on this 6 mile excursion heading downhill. This will be an important piece of information when I get around to talking about the trek back.

Since it was such a wet, cloudy day the trail was actually dark and misty in places.  In fact, it seemed more like dusk than midday.  I spent the first mile or so taking on and off my rain coat, trying to figure out if it was raining, or not because the canopy of trees was so thick that it covered us from most of the rain.  However, if a breeze came through, then the rain from the leaves would shake off on us. Either way, I was enjoying the hike down the trail, as I took in the fresh sent of tropical rain and the calm sound of a stream flowing next to our trail along the way.
About 2 miles into our hike the path we were on met another side-track that led to some ancient petroglyphs and a waterfall, so we went to check it out.  After trekking forward about ¼ a mile, we discovered an opening in the trees where the most beautiful waterfall plunged down into a pool of fresh water, then trickled off into a stream.  Since it had rained so much, the waterfall was coming down forcefully, which made it all the more amazing to see.  Right next to the waterfall, on some rocks, we found the petroglyphs that were carved by an Indian tribe sometime between 900-1500 AD.  It was truly unbelievable, and I felt like a regular Lewis and Clark upon taking all of this in.

After resting by the waterfall, we decided to move forward to complete the first half of the hike.  The rest of the trail provided some pretty interesting things.  Mainly, we saw several sugar plantation ruins.  Back in the late 1800 - 1916 sugar was a main export for the island, so there are sugarmill ruins all over the island.  We also saw a few deer and several interesting trees.  The Kopak tree that we came upon was the most interesting of them all, as the bottom of its trunk was considerably wider than most big trees.  We also saw some lime trees, a pineapple tree and a mango tree.

In front of the Kopak Tree.

At the end of the trail you could see the ocean through a gap in the trees.  We decided to cool off by taking a quick swim, which was especially nice since we had the beach to ourselves. 

Of course, the way back wasn’t as exciting, since we had to retrace the steps we had already taken, but we moved ahead at a good pace, and I couldn’t help reminding myself that this day hiking was one of the reasons why I moved here.  Hiking down a beautiful trail in the middle of the rainforest, seeing a waterfall and swimming in the ocean was all I needed to feel fulfilled.  It made me feel like I was living life.
And then, we started the final incline back up the trail.  This part of the trail took feeling alive and living life to another level, as the last mile was straight uphill, slick and rocky.  I didn’t remember it being this steep on the way down, and I could feel my heart beat faster and faster on the way up.  We continued on climbing up and up…panting all the way.  At times I thought we were almost there, only to make a turn and see more uphill trail.  Finally, we got to the top of the trail.  I was exhausted, wet, hungry and thirsty, but I felt accomplished and slept peacefully that night when we got home.    

Saturday, July 2, 2011

It's Hurricane Season!

Hurricane season is upon us down here in the Caribbean.  In fact, for those of you that don't know, Hurricane season runs from June through October, so hurricane season is nearly half the year.  There's been a lot of hubbub about hurricanes since the season began last month.  Mainly, I think the local islanders like telling the 'new girl' all of their hurricane stories.  So, I have heard quite a bit about the after-effect of these tropical storms.

In particular people love telling stories about Hugo and Maryland, which apparently were two of the worst, relatively recent, hurricanes to hit the VI.  My trusty Lonely Planet book said that Hugo destroyed 90% of St. Croix when it hit.  And, since I'm in the insurance industry you can only imagine the Property and Casualty 'horror stories' I've heard from my co-workers.  Apparently, there were no insurers wanting to offer P&C coverage after Hugo because the damage was so bad.  However, prior to Hugo the islands hadn't been hit by a hurricane for years and years, so developers got lazy, which was part of the reason for so much destruction.  Now buildings are built within hurricane code to prevent such a disaster.

I've heard several stories about how long the power was out after Maryland hit.  Depending on who's telling this power outage tale, it was out anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months after Maryland.  And, I actually believe that a hurricane could send WAPA into a complete tailspin (see "Lights Out" posting), so 2 months without power is feasible, but hard for me to imagine.  Keep in mind that there is no water if there is no power, so showering and washing dishes is out of the question.  Can you imagine going to work with a bunch of people, including yourself, that haven't showered in weeks?  I'm picturing us all turning into a bunch of hippies with stinky B.O. and long armpit hair.

There are countless other examples of post-hurricane life on St. Thomas.  People have told me about mad rushes on delivery trucks carrying ice after weeks without power left islanders desperate for cold drinks.  And, there are similar stories about gas, so I've been warned to keep my tank half full this time of year.  ATM machines don't work if the power is out, so many have cautioned me to keep a good quantity of small bills on-hand.  Flat tires are common since hurricane winds can blow all kinds of sharp objects into the roads, so it's important to have the right tools on-hand to fix a flat when necessary.  Considering all of this, it's clear that life after a storm can leave people somewhat desperate.  With this in mind, the local island government does impose and strictly enforces curfews to keep people safe and orderly during and after a storm, which is reassuring.

However, what's most surprising to me is that nobody ever talks about the actual storms.  I haven't heard one person talk about how powerful the winds can get, or how high the ocean waves can be.  Nobody has ever described any rain, lightening or thunder that these forces of nature bring.  And, I can't help but wonder what the atmosphere is like before and after the storms.  Is there a calmness before and/or after the storm?  I don't even know if a hurricane blows through quickly, or if they last for a few days.  So, while I have some idea what to expect after the storm, I have to admit that I'm a bit curious about the actual storm itself. 

Recently, my favorite blog (see my favorite St. Thomas links) posted a checklist of all the items one should have on-hand this time of year.  Some of these items include, a battery operated radio, plenty of non-perishable food, enough water, blankets, cash, candles, a generator, extra gas for the generator...and the list went on and on.  Considering this list, I took it upon myself to buy a radio, some canned food, plenty of Ramen Noodles and some cash.  Call me a naive, but the blog list seemed overly extensive.

In fact, the odds of us getting hit by a storm are shockingly unlikely.  This morning when I started panicking about my boyfriend being away on a business trip during a time of year when a hurricane could hit at any moment, he calmed me down by sending me to a St. Thomas sponsored website that reported only 14 hurricanes or tropical storms have impacted (not necessarily hit) the island since 1900.  These include storms that may be approaching the island, but don't in fact hit the island.  This breaks down into only 1 storm every 8 years.  Since Ivan hit the island last year, it's highly unlikely that I will experience a hurricane this year.  After all the hype, I'll admit that I'm somewhat disappointed by this statistic.  It's likely that I'll never have the privilege of experiencing months without a shower.