Island Lullaby

St. John Night Music:

One experience I always loved when I returned to stay at Maho Bay Camps was listening to songs of the frogs and birds while falling asleep in my tent at night. It is a phenomenal chorus that starts at sunset and continues throughout the night.  I’ve discovered that there are a variety of frogs (so far I’ve found four) that are singing on St. John: 

  • the local tree frog,
  • the Antillean frog,
  • the Coqui and Whistling Eleuth from Puerto Rico.

It is intriguing that I will go all day without seeing a frog anywhere, but as soon as the last rays of sunlight dissolve, I hear thousands of tree frogs in the bush, both near and far, begin their nightly songs. I especially love driving along North Shore Road through the National Park after dark with all the car windows open, listening to all the thousands of frogs in the forest and seeing the bats swoop down and back up in front of my car.   

From what I can gather the local tree frog only sings when it is wet or has just rained. But others clearly sing every night regardless of the weather.  One sound I used to hear at Maho Bay Camp came only after the rain; either a frog or a bird made a pleasant and irregular (thankfully!) sound of water dripping.  I recall hearing it when the rain woke me up at night when I first arrived and was not used to living in a tent and hearing all the sounds around me.  I would listen to the rain, usually hearing it end shortly after it started.  Once the rain stopped I heard that “drip” sound. Wondering if there was a slow leak in the tent roof I would get up to inspect.  My inspection said no. And it quickly became clear the sound was outside and up in a tree!  I always loved that drip sound; it was uncommon and it served the same purpose of counting sheep – listening to it would help me fall right back  to sleep.

Singing in the Rain

After a rainfall the frog chorus can be phenomenally LOUD if you are surrounded by trees and bush!  Now that I am living in a house in Coral Bay (vs. a tent at Maho) I have the opportunity to watch TV again. One night while watching a movie, there was a brief shower and once it had passed the frogs picked up their singing in force. I kept turning up the volume so I could hear the movie, until it occurred to me that it might be disturbing my neighbors, even though I could barely understand what was being said on TV!  At that point it is best to just give up and turn off the TV.  Island life….

The Dog Ate My Homework!

Actually I don’t have a dog. What I have is a cat. Sweet, cuddly and non-demanding. I am house-sitting in Coral Bay for the summer.  And in addition to not having a dog, I also do not have a maintenance crew. I am the maintenance crew. It is hurricane season and primary reason I am at this house – if a storm comes I get it boarded up and safe. The rest of the time keep the house open and lived in to prevent mildew growth on the furniture, water the plants, feed the cat and maintain the yard (which never stops growing in this climate. ever.) But my current problems are typical island problems. Minus the actual concern of hurricanes, which politely give you advance warning of their arrival! They are not party-crashers.

So here is my excuse for being absent recently… WAPA & Wasps.  Last week I had edited my photos and planned some topics. An island friend was leaving for the States for an extended visit, so I was having a group over for drinks on the porch at the time of the full moon. However that was not to be. The power to the house was shut down by WAPA (Water and Power Authority) while I was in town buying food and drinks. It seems WAPA never sent the bill to the owner, so he did not pay. Since it was a Friday, that meant the earliest the power would come on, after payment, was Monday – end of business day!!  And it’s hot here.  Humid.  Nary a breeze.  And now no fans.

It has been years since I have been without power (minus 7 weeks ago when the very same thing happened while I was house-sitting! ehem.)  It’s worse now because I (we) rely on it for more than ever. And maybe because I am older and dislike the inconvenience more. My quick reminder list, since we take our power so much for granted:

  • the refrigerator / freezer
  • the internet router
  • the water pump for the sink, laundry, shower and cleaning duties such as dishes!
  • the lights – to prevent sitting in the dark at night!
  • the water heater
  • the coffee maker and toaster
  • the microwave
  • the stove (sometimes)
  • Air conditioning and Fans!!
  • Cordless telephones
  • Music
  • the TV and peripherals
  • my Cell Phone!!
  • my laptop computer
  • and no flushing the toilets (they are on a septic system which requires a pump.)

Having no power changes all of one’s plans. It also meant I was on the phone with the owner and power company getting things squared away. Hauling food to a refrigerator that could be supplied with power. Then Monday evening arrived. No Power. I called WAPA in St. Thomas and they said my power was reconnected. Go check your fuse on the meter (down the hill and up high on a pole!) Nope, it’s fine. “Okay, someone will come out and fix your problem tonight.”  Admittedly I was skeptical. If you have lived on St.John you can understand my skepticism. Besides, the bill was paid over the weekend, so why don’t they turn on the power in the morning? why wait until the close of the work day. Thankfully, someone did fix it and the power came back on about 4 hours later that night!

My thoughts after this ordeal: “If I could afford a $1,000,000+ home on St. John (as most of them are), I would have solar panels. It seems absurd not to have them here. It is almost always sunny and electricity costs are 5x higher than in the States.”

With the power back, I spent the next morning returning a power cord and fan the neighbor loaned me (to keep my food cold and my nights mosquito-free), moved my food and belongings back to where I was staying, and made sure all was working. Nope. Spent another morning trouble-shooting the Satellite TV receiver that now did not work, ending with a series of calls between companies trying to get a new one sent to island in time for the arrival of the first guests this season.  Finally things calmed to a dull routine again and I was able to actually spend time on work. (I am working from home, so the power outage put me behind.) Last night I was one hour from being caught up with work, preparing to finally work on my blog again! But in flew a small hummingbird…

No, actually it looked like a hummingbird when I saw it out of my peripheral vision while working on my computer. It was actually a big freaking Wasp!! I quickly got up to see if the screen door was open and get out of the room. Smartly I grabbed the electric mosquito swatter on my way!  Ha!  But the more I watched it swoop quickly around the entire living room and kitchen, the mosquito racket seemed useless. It really needed a 10 foot handle and a huge racket head!  It landed briefly on the livingroom wall so I was able to get a good look at it. It occurred to me this wasp might be mad enough to sting. My creative thinking kicked in and I decided to open the doors on the screened-in porch, duck and dive and turn out the lights inside, leaving only the porch lights on. My hope was the wasp would be attracted to the lights on the porch and find its way out one of the doors…

Instead another one flew in!!  Ughh. You know, it may be only 8pm but I am going to bed.

Once in my bedroom – thankfully on a separate floor from these monster wasps – I used up all the battery in my iPhone researching them online. I’ve seen them before while hiking and they were much smaller, like a regular size wasp. They are actually quite beautiful. The body is all back, the antennae are a bright orange and the wings are an iridescent blue the color of the water here on St. John. (more turquoise than the one in this photo.)

Source: Scientific American Blog /Dumb Yanqui Photo
Source: Scientific American Blog /Dumb Yanqui Photo

Turns out that my flying house guest is called a Tarantula Hawk! (the descriptions are worth reading!)  A photographer has some great photos of them here.  And This photo can give you a feel for their size. I can honestly appreciate this wasp being named after a bird! Apparently it is solitary, not aggressive, the female is much bigger than the male, but as it turns out, if provoked it will sting. A Travel + Lesiure article wrote that it is the second most painful insect bite in the world.

Commenting on his own experience, Justin O. Schmidt, entomologist and creator of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, described the pain as “…immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations.”  The wasp’s sting is rated near the top of the Schmidt index, second only to that of the bullet ant, and is described by Schmidt as “blinding, fierce [and] shockingly electric,” similar to dropping a live hairdryer in the bathtub with you.

After reading that I felt reassured that my intuition told me not to get that wasp any more upset that it already was! However, as I lay in bed, thinking about my computer and phone charger sitting upstairs on the table, I was wondering what I was going to do about that wasp (or wasps) in the morning.

I woke up at 5:00 and tossed and turned until I could not delay this confrontation any longer. I went upstairs and stood at the screen door, peering around the interior of the screened-in porch to see it the wasps were around. I was too sleepy to have good running reflexes at that hour of the morning so I tiptoed slowly from place to place and looked for any sign of the wasps. I had just purchased a bag of my favorite coffee in town yesterday and really wanted to make some coffee but the kitchen was the last place I had seen the wasp. I stood at the entry to the kitchen for a while, waiting. Nothing. I decided to take my computer and work to my bedroom downstairs, in case this turned into an extended occupation. When I returned the wasp was hanging on one of the screens on the porch. I quickly opened the doors so she could fly out.

But she didn’t fly out.

So I removed one screen panel hoping she would notice her freedom. Then another panel. then another. She seemed to keep her eyes on me and did not fly when I took out panels, but maybe she was exhausted.  After that I just stood back and became her ‘Pep Squad’ – giving her directions on which way to fly, not to give up, she’s getting warmer! You’re Hot! Go. Go. Fly out. Please! And that’s how it ended. She is out tarantula hunting again.

It might be easier to tell you the dog ate my homework, but I feel the need to dispel the misconception that many people have of life on the island. I am not sitting on the beach every day sipping on frozen tropical drinks unfortunately!  I feel lucky when I have had chance to go out snorkeling. When things are quiet I am usually dealing with some oddity of island living that I don’t have to deal with back in the States. And… wondering what happened to that second wasp!  (But it makes for a good blog post!)

Never Miss the Opportunity to Sleep in a Screened-in Porch!

View of Francis bay from tent-cabin A20.
View of Francis bay from tent-cabin A20.

Camping at Maho Bay was not the version of camping where you pop-up a dome shaped structure, climb inside and roll out your sleeping bag; It was more like staying in a large screened-in porch.

One experience that drew me back to Maho Bay Camp time after time was the so-called “tent”, tent-cabins”, or “cabins” (for lack of a perfect description) which were more like vacationing in a screened-in porch. There was a roof over your head and strategically placed screens around the tent allowing for cool breezes and beautiful views.I grew up in the South in a house with a screened-in porch and always loved the in-between-ness of that space. As we say in architecture: I am inhabiting a threshold, a place that holds the attributes of what is on either side of it (inside the house & the outdoors), joins the spaces, but is its own defined space. The beaches where everyone spends so much time are similar; they are the thresholds where the earth’s land joins the oceans, and walking along the water’s edge I again inhabit a threshold. So it appears that staying near places defined as thresholds, in-between places, are a popular vacation destination.

Maho Bay Camp tents were more than a pop-up tent with a sleeping bag rolled out on the floor, but more like sleeping in a screened-in porch.
Maho Bay Camp tents were more than a pop-up tent with a sleeping bag rolled out on the floor, but more like sleeping in a screened-in porch.
Living room area of an F-section tent, stripped bare just before closing.
Living room area of an F-section tent, stripped bare just before closing.
The slope of the hillside meant many tents were elevated high above the ground below them, feeling much like they were built in the tree canopy
The slope of the hillside meant many tents were elevated high above the ground below them, feeling much like they were built in the tree canopy

The boardwalks were appealing to me as well. They held a space that was defined, outside and yet not walking on the ground. They also served the great benefit of preserving the integrity of the very fragile tropical soil from degradation during construction and habitation, as well as serving as the conduit for the water pipes and electric lines that feed the tents and bathhouses.  Walking under a continuous tree canopy, with a turn in the boardwalk to make way for an immovable volcanic boulder or stately tree, I sometimes felt like a kid again in part because I became more aware of nature and my surroundings.  As I walked the lizards would quickly scurry out from under my feet, always able to be faster than I would expect for their size. Passing by the numerous screened-in porches that visitors were populating in order to commune with the nature around them, I assume somewhere Althea was picking a spot to keep an eye on the daily activity.

Tents and tropical plants along the boardwalk through the C-section of the former Maho Bay Camp.
Tents and tropical plants along the boardwalk through the C-section of the former Maho Bay Camp.
Tent-cabin in the D-Section next to volcanic boulder.
Tent-cabin in the D-Section next to volcanic boulder.