Tortola: An Expected Adventure
It all started on Thursday, December 6th. Wife and I were up early, packing our bags and squinting into the rising sun as we drove to the airport. As we rolled our luggage from the parking deck to the terminal, a gust of frigid early morning wind sent a shudder up my backbone.
Our first flight was a local hop from Raleigh to Charlotte.
"Are you excited yet?" Wife queried insouciantly.
"Nope," I replied. I had seen Charlotte before. I was holding out for the Real Deal.
The second plane bore us fifteen hundred miles to the southeast. This was new territory for me. The adventure really began when the jet dropped beneath the clouds over the blue Atlantic. Where was the airport? I could see a few lumpy green islets out the window, but none of them looked large enough (or smooth enough) to land a plane. At the last minute, with the airplane coasting over the waves at an altitude comparable to its own wingspan, a berm of riprap rushed beneath us, and suddenly there were welcome glimpses of grass, blinking lights and -- finally -- the painted concrete of a runway.
When the plane braked to a stop and the door opened, we passengers descended a roll-up staircase into a steamy tropical afternoon. A rain shower was ending as we filed around the side of the terminal building to the baggage claim area. My first act was to drain a shot of rum. Welcome to St. Thomas! Then I took off my long-sleeved shirt and stuffed it into my carry-on bag. It had failed to block the chill that morning, and it was too hot for comfort now. Won't be needing that till I get back to Raleigh!
We were a party of four. Wife and I were accompanied by another couple, friends who had made this trip before. They knew the drill. Throughout the journey they would act as hosts and guides. They introduced us to a couple of local libations as we waited for our luggage to rumble around the conveyor. One, the Painkiller, was a tasty concoction of rum, tropical fruit and nutmeg.
But first I was induced to try something called a Bushwhacker. This beverage is mixed with pureed ice like a daiquiri. I slurped it down too quickly. My carotid arteries pumped instant chill from my esophagus directly to my head.
"Brain freeze!" chuckled our hostess.
"Ow!" quoth I. Thus did my vacation officially begin.
Charlotte Amalie (a-MAH-lee) is the capital of the U. S. Virgin Islands. We rested there overnight, but we were not done traveling. Next morning we rode a taxi to the harbor. Sights and sounds along the street were typically American, except that the bustling traffic whizzed down the wrong side of the road. The taxi driver was at home here. I was glad he was doing the driving.
Like an airport (or Janus) the ferry terminal presents two faces. The public side faces the road. There is a parking lot and a view of the busy town.
The working side faces the water.
In order to cross from one side of the building to the other you need a ticket and a passport. You need a ticket to board the ferry. You need a passport because this boat ride is international. Somewhere out on the ocean there is an invisible border.
The ferry roared and splashed across the waves for about forty minutes. When we reached our destination we debarked onto a different island in a different country. There were customs forms to fill out, and our luggage had to pass inspection. It didn't take long. Her Majesty's customs agents were courteous and good-humored. The mood was infectious. We were wearing smiles when we stepped through the door on the landward side.
Why go through customs hassles to reach a similar island only fifteen miles away? I was wondering that myself. The answer would come to me slowly, though some clues were immediately apparent. One was the grin on my face. I heard chickens clucking among the parked cars outside the ferry terminal.
Everywhere dark skinned islanders went about their business, while we pale tourists gathered our baggage and blinked in the sun. The language was English, but the accent was decidedly Caribbean. The pace felt more relaxed. I learned a new phrase, "island time". The time zone was only an hour ahead of Charlotte, but we were now clocking island time.
Soon we were checked into our villa. (That's what the sign said. It was like a small hotel; our friends moved into an adjoining suite.) Here's a view of Cane Garden Bay taken from the balcony.
The crescent-shaped beach stretched to either side.
Ahh, that's better.
The azure water was clear as crystal. To me it was perfect. I overheard one or two Tortolans complain that it seemed a bit chilly. I noticed a few folks wearing sweaters. It was, after all, the middle of their 'winter'. I tried to empathize, but it wasn't easy.
Easier to imagine what a disaster it would be, if all those steep roads were covered in snow. It probably never will happen. At a latitude of 18°25' Tortola is truly tropical. The trees were green, and flowers were blooming in December.
"It's a blessing," said one native, whom I interviewed briefly after we met each other on the steep, narrow driveway outside the gate. He understood what I was saying. He had lived and worked in Detroit, so he had seen his share of snow. It turned out that we were exactly the same age. Before we parted, we shook hands to cement our membership in the International Brotherhood of Sexagenarians.
There are a lot more than two Virgin Islands. If you count every rock big enough to grow a tree, there are dozens. Most of them lie within sight of each other. It's a place made for boats.
We saw a lot of boats. Each night a score of them would come to anchor below our balcony.
Our preferred mode of transportation was the automobile. Our host had made arrangements to rent one. Unfortunately Tortola is not nearly as friendly to the motorist as it is to the mariner. It's a matter of topography. The Atlantic is flat. Tortola is anything but. The vehicle we acquired was a Japanese SUV. Its four-wheel drive, hefty suspension and high ground clearance took the steep grades and frequent speed bumps in stride. Like most of the cars we saw, ours was outfitted American-style with the driver's seat on the left. I guess that makes it easy for American tourists to operate the controls, but it was the wrong geometry for Tortola. I mean, presumably there are good reasons why the driver of a car normally sits near the center of the road. I thought it was a curious thing, because in both Britain and Japan people drive on the left. Looks like a Japanese manufacturer could ship a car with proper handedness to the Virgin Islands. It could be a question of peculiar islander preference, but I bet it's a matter of economics. Do vehicles destined for the B. V. I. pass through Seattle or Houston?
The choice of driving direction may be British, but almost everything else is American. Currency is the U. S. dollar. Electricity is 120 VAC, 60 Hz. The market was full of familiar products. One exception was the butter, which was imported from New Zealand. Another was gasoline. We only had to fill our tank once, but the price was five dollars per (U. S.) gallon. A nice round number, to be sure.
But I digress. We were on vacation. No worries.
Actually, not every day was sunny and bright. Each floating cloud cast a different light on the islands and water. Most days (or nights) included passing rain showers. We heard no thunder and saw no lightning. The rain was part of the ever-changing scene. If you were swimming in the sea, you were already wet and so had nothing to lose. The admixture of fresh water only made the experience more piquant. Those who were dry (and determined to stay dry) huddled beneath a beach umbrella while the rain drifted overhead.
Each day ended with a glorious sunset.
Before we knew it, a week had passed. On our last morning in Tortola a shower bestowed a marvelous rainbow, which shifted and shimmered for the duration of a leisurely breakfast. Our friend captured this moment with the camera in her cell phone.
When the last slice of toast had been buttered and the final cup of coffee gulped, it was time to go. Reluctantly we turned in our vehicle and boarded the ferry back to St. Thomas.
That's when I understood the difference. In St. Thomas customary American concepts apply. The island is covered in real estate and infrastructure. There are no scurrying chickens in Charlotte Amalie, no roosters crowing. Horns were blowing, engines revving. Those of us with smart phones had internet again. The clock was ticking. We had a plane to catch.