20 - 28 October 2012
Andrew and Evie were nice to drive me to Miami Airport and the flight landed on time at 8.10pm in St Thomas. From the airport I got a shared taxi – 11 people each paying the fixed price of USD 12 for a short ride; the first reminder that the Caribbean is terribly expensive. Had it been during the day I might have walked but allegedly it's not safe after dark (in some places not even in daytime).
Couchsurfing didn't work out in St. Thomas but I was lucky a guy wrote me back and suggested I got in contact with American John who had also made him a request and arrived the same day. We shared a room in the cheapest hotel we could find – Blackbeard's castle is a surprisingly nice hotel with a great location on top of Government Hill with a beautiful view overlooking the whole bay and Charlotte Amalie town. It might end up being the nicest accommodation on this trip. However, my share of USD 47 per night is far beyond my budget but in the Caribbean I probably have to get used to it when not being able to couchsurf.
A bit of history. Columbus arrived in St Croix in 1493 but the US virgin islands have alledgedly been inhabited since 2000 BC. After the English defeated the Spanish in 1588 squatters from British Virgin Islands cultivated the land but the islands was first colonised by the Danes in 1718 who introduced sugar and tobacco production as part of the triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. Competition in the sugar market and the emancipation of the slaves ended a 150-year era and later in 1917 the islands were acquired by the US to prevent Germany from claiming the islands should Denmark be invaded during WWI. In 1934 Roosewelt took initiative to improve living conditins on the islands - better infrrastructure, health, education, etc. - and since then they have developed slowly and today the main income is from tourism either the so-called “snow birds” overwintering in their houses or cruise ships of which there are many – sometimes 6 ships bringing 25,000+ people ashore at the same time; more than the number of residents in town.
John is settling in St. Thomas to work on charter boats, so Sunday we walked around town looking for a cheap place for him to stay. And since town is mainly 2 long streets parallel to the waterfront it also worked as sightseeing for me walking one street to the end of town and the other street back. Though not much to experience on a Sunday when there a no cruise ships in town – everything is closed and the streets are deserted. The locals were either in church or hanging around a supermarket drinking beer. We also meet a number of crack-heads - sadly not unusual in this part of the world....
Monday I walked out of town on the coastal road and ended up having a nice view of Charlotte Amalie from the other side of the bay. To my great surprise a woman told me that I couldn't take pictures because it was private property – though I was still on the road and there were no signs that it was private. I don't recall this ever happening before on my many travels except in holy places such as churches and mosques. Anyway, I got my picture and left with a remark “It must be terrible being so rich that you're afraid that every person coming close to you will be harmful”...what an empty life! Walking back along the main road a couple of people stopped to offer me a ride, so fortunately not everybody is like that.
Being Danish I found disappointingly little history walking around Charlotte Amalie - only a few old houses and the ramshackle fortress and then of course the Danish street names. Though, as everywhere in the Caribbean people navigate through landmarks – often old landmarks that no longer exist (e.g. a tree or a house) which makes it a bit difficult being a foreigner.
The people in St Thomas were generally very nice and helpful, but then again we didn't venture into the very bad neighbourhoods. And as it is more often the case, the intentions are good but the information is hardly factual – so ask 5-10 the same question and go with the majority.
After a couple of days I took the ”safari” (local bus) to Red Hook on the east coast and there I got a ferry to St John where I couchsurfed with Sara on her small boat in Coral Bay on the East coast. Sara picked me up at the ferry in Cruz Bay and on the way back to Coral Bay we drove around the island to look at some houses Sara were to do varnish work on later – beautiful houses with great views though not my preferred lifestyle. As it's a small islands with only a couple of roads going East-West I got to see large part of the island the first afternoon.
Most of St John is national park so there are ample hiking opportunities. One morning I got a ride to the central part of the island where I walked the Reef Bay Trail down to the southern tip of the island at Ram Head including several detours to beautiful, secluded bays – a hike mostly downhill about 20k. The early start turned out to be a good idea since it quickly got quite hot. On the way I walked through typical Caribbean nature and saw a waterfall with very little water, petroglyph (stone carvings) and ruins from old sugar factories and mansions. Wildlife comprised iguanas, mongoose. deer, countless hermit crabs, some poisonous worms and lots of different birds including the yellow bananaquit singing beautifully. The trip however also cost me a broken sandal walking on the many sharp rocks - it's now glued but I doubt the durability once it's broken.
The day after I hiked north of Coral Bay doing the Johnny Horn, Leinster Bay and Brown Bay trails – a fairly easy walk of about 11-12k. Besides the beautiful beaches I saw many pelicans, frigate birds, herons, brown boobies, etc.
When she was not working Sara was quick to introduce me to everybody in Coral Bay and I quickly felt part of the community where everybody is like family. A very laid back atmosphere where people socialise and fix their boats over a drink (or many!). Especially the picnic table at the dingy dock was an interesting place to hang out as one never knew who or what came along. Here I learned how to repair outboard motors and a bit about glass fibre work. Many interesting characters passed by with their story of how they ended up in St John – all with the common denominator of not wanting to be part of the established US system and lifestyle. In the afternoons and evenings Sara took me to several parties at friends' houses where I got to meet even more nice people.
St John is much more laid-back than St Thomas - everybody is smiling, friendly and constantly greeting each other. I had great weather in St John – only a bit of rain some nights. Most annoying were the mosquitoes biting night at day - dengue fever was fairly widespread amongst the locals in more or less serious versions. Though no reason for a priory worrying – just spray and hope for the best.