Tag Archives: quiet

A Darkened Bay

The area around Maho Bay was always quiet, but now as the island gets ready for “the busy season” it seems eerily lifeless…

September and October are the slowest months here on island. It is when we are most likely to get a hurricane, it is when the cooling trade winds die down and the humidity seems to rise, it is when many business close and spruce up their shops or take a much needed break before the busy season starts. And this year the government shutdown tried to close almost the entire island! (Thankfully the beaches are open again.)

September/October is also when the grocery stores don’t carry as much variety in produce as during the tourist season, or what they have looks like it has been sitting there for a month. Last week I saw that a carton of strawberries costing $10 and they were all rotten. All these issues mean that September & October are good time for locals to take a vacation elsewhere or get creative. Nevertheless we have had a lot of visitors to the island this summer, I would say more than usual. I can recall going to the beach and having it to myself last September! (Big Maho Bay & Cinnamon.) This year the beaches seem to have stayed consistently busy as more people are saving money to visit when it is less expensive to travel here.

The nearly deserted beach at Big Maho Bay in September 2012.
The nearly deserted beach at Big Maho Bay in September 2012.

A vacationer approached me while I was waiting in line at the post office last week. He wanted to ask some questions about living here and I was happy to oblige. He asked the usual questions regarding costs of homes or rent, with some comments that the island needed some other stores. Then he mentioned the cost of groceries and wondered where the locals shopped? Is there a secret store where locals go to pay a better price on their food? I almost laughed out loud, but said “No, we pay the same high prices that you do. Have you filled up your rental car with gas yet? We pay that same high price too!”

Sometimes it takes a while for visitors to understand that everything must be shipped here: food, gas, lumber or concrete for building, cars, clothing, and furniture and as a result they cost more. St. John has the same problem with trash: everything has to be shipped off island to a landfill elsewhere, at great expense. “So you’re saying there are no secret stores that have cheaper goods for locals?” he asked.  I think that would be every islander’s fantasy!!  However the people who live here love the island despite the lack of amenities and even basic goods that most take for granted back home. And we share equally on the things that are inexpensive: locals and visitors pay the same price at Happy Hour, as alcohol is the one thing on island that is not expensive….

This conversation got me thinking about Maho Bay Camp and the people who loved to stay there when they came to St. John. Many of them arrived already understanding that they were living differently than they do at home.  They spent their time in a sort of screened-in porch for the duration of their visit. And that was why many people came back to Maho to stay – for the entirely unique experience that is possible in this climate. It rarely occurred to me to wonder why this minimally developed Caribbean island was not just like where I lived back in the States.  I certainly have missed some of the conveniences, but I came here because there was nothing like this back home. So I expected some differences and made whatever accommodations were necessary to enjoy my time here.

Maho Bay Camp was a great way to visit St. John in an economical way. If guests were willing to sleep listening to the tree frogs and the crashing of the waves (which I preferred anyway) they could save money, and have it for other fun activities or for another visit in the future.

St. John does not need a secret grocery store for locals, or a Marshall’s or Best Buy (I’ve heard that comment), or a fast food joint.  What we need is a diversity of options for people who want to stay here and enjoy the National Park and the rest of the island. One like Maho Bay Camp, where visitors were enveloped in the natural environment and understood more readily the dynamics of living on an island. You might sleep though the rain and thunderstorms in an air-conditioned room at the Westin or in a villa, but not at Maho! And in the morning at Maho you might wake to the pink clouds reflecting the sunrise from the west, later to watch bananaquits eat their breakfast of bowl of sugar near the Dining Pavilion.

So here we are at mid-October. I am noticing small signs that the island is perking up: people are arriving to look for jobs, cars and apartments; business are reopening; I hear live music traveling up the hill to my living room more and more nights; the parking lots in town and at the beaches are getting full; large yachts are showing up out in the bays again, even if only passing by. There is a general buzz beginning as everyone starts getting ready for the arrival of winter.

It was sad to drive home recently along North Shore Road after dark. I stopped at the Maho Bay Overlook.  There was nothing to see. It was pitch black. There was not enough light from the moon to even illuminate the hills around the bay. It was sad to feel this beginning buzz of the upcoming season and see no life whatsoever where Maho Bay Camp lived for so many decades. And all the more so when so many people wanted to keep visiting.

Someone found a hiding place for spare shoes in the E-Section?
Someone found a hiding place for spare shoes in the E-Section?

Maho Morning Walks

One activity that I absolutely enjoyed was something I only did when I worked and lived at Maho Bay Camp and that was taking early morning walks that ended at Big Maho Bay. When I first arrived at Maho Bay Camp for the last season I was in a tent with an nearly full length screened-in “wall” in the bedroom, so I had much more light coming in than I was used to each morning. I found myself waking up at 5:30 am, yet I can assure you I am not a morning person, and did not have a morning routine for that hour! However what I did have was a beautiful view of Big Maho Bay from my porch. Considering the afternoon sun, heat and humidity was at its worst at that time of year, I took up walking before breakfast.

The part paved, part dirt entry road up to Maho Bay Camp taken in the unrelenting heat of September 2012!
The entry road up to Maho Bay Camp taken in the heat of September 2012!

The scenery at the end of my walk was a strong motivator. Maho Bay in the early morning is possibly at its best! The water is crystal clear and calm, such that I could watch the fish swimming past in the shallows. Someone might be out swimming or walking on the beach but it was often deserted.  Usually the pelicans would gather, fly around in circles and dive in for their breakfast of silversides and whatever other fish they like to eat. And during all of this the sun would be rising in the east, behind the tall coconut palms on the beach and casting their cooling shadows on the water – something you can only see in the early morning hours.

Early morning view of pelicans at Maho Bay beach.
Early morning view of pelicans at Maho Bay beach.
Early morning at Maho Bay beach with the shadows of the palm trees on the sand and water - So Lovely!
Early morning at Maho Bay beach with the shadows of the palm trees on the sand and water – So Lovely!

The beginning of the walk also had a distinctiveness to it, perhaps more than the view of the beach. Usually I would pass someone else coming back from an even earlier run as I started down the drive from Maho Bay Camp. And once the road turned to dirt and gravel it would hit me just how quiet it was. Have you ever heard that sort of quiet that would almost hum? Nothing but the sound of your own blood rushing in your body. I would notice how loud my footsteps sounded, crunching, crunching, crunching on the gravel in the dirt road. Sometimes I would hear a deer take off in the woods. Maybe a stray rooster crowing. And as I rounded the curve in the road I would start to hear the birds. Not a few. I could hear a hundred, maybe more, all chirping their morning wake-up song. Some were close, others ahead or behind or back in the woods. Island bird song in surround sound!

Dirt road heading out of Maho Bay Camp that began my morning walks.
Dirt road heading out of Maho Bay Camp that began my morning walks.

After the rains of passing tropical storms, the island was lush and green and the road to Maho Bay Camp was covered in coral vine in full bloom! When I had time I would take the extra time to walk the road to the Annaberg Sugar Plantation Ruins. The road goes along a mangrove swamp (or through,depending on the amount of rain the island was getting) with the roots growing out if the mangrove trees as high as I am tall, and the leaves creating a canopy over my head. At the end the was a view of the British Virgin Islands and a dependable cooling breeze, which was why the plantation was located there. A windmill on the top of the hill helped crush sugarcane in order to make to molasses, sugar and rum.

Delicate pink coral vine blooming along the dirt road up to Maho Bay Camps.
Delicate pink coral vine blooming along the dirt road up to Maho Bay Camps.
Road heading past the mangrove swamp to Annaberg Sugar Plantation Ruins.
Road heading past the mangrove swamp to Annaberg Sugar Plantation Ruins.

No air conditioners humming, car engines running or whatever generates the background hum that we consider quiet anywhere else. (The water delivery truck was the antithesis of this quiet but thankfully rare when I walked.) The roads around Maho were a fantastic place for this amazing quiet because it was surrounded by the national park. It also had more “flat” land for running, walking or biking than anywhere else, except maybe around Coral Bay. My favorite walking companions were the feral island donkeys. They are the ones who discovered the best way around the island in the first place and seem to walk the roads as if the knowledge of them is in their genes. The seem to know to stay on the side of the road, unlike the deer and chickens who always see a car and decide it is a good time to cross the road. Living here I came to understand the joke about why the chicken crossed the road! The donkeys seem to know to walk along the road but often seem to be found walking on the left side. (We drive on the left side here, with the steering wheel on the left too.) Legend says that driving on the left allowed islanders to stop and and have a friendly chat with those walking, I felt it was because it made it easier to see the edge of the road since we have no shoulder and often no guardrails, but now I am beginning to think it might have been that the donkeys passed each other on the left all those years ago when the only way from Coral Bay to Cruz Bay was on the back of a donkey on a donkey trail!

 

Island donkeys walking along the road at Big Maho Bay while out on one of my morning walks.
Island donkeys walking along the road at Big Maho Bay while out on one of my morning walks.
View of Whistling Cay from Big Maho Bay beach!
View of Whistling Cay from Big Maho Bay beach!