Tag Archives: tent cabins

Bringing People Together: Flat tires, Mooie and Maho Tents!

Living on a small island creates some distinct challenges.

As a small but recent example, last week as I was leaving for Cruz Bay I saw my car’s back tire was completely flat.  With no time to do anything about it, I headed down the hill to the Coral Bay “crossroads” to hitch a ride to town.  Since I was going to work I was completely overdressed for the short walk in the island’s persistent humidity.  On the way I spoke to a neighbor who told me he had an air compressor at the house. Perfect! All I have to do is buy a tire patch kit.  Reaching the crossroads, I got a ride immediately in a nice air-conditioned car with a couple from the east end.  Ahhhh…  The next morning, with the help of a friend and the neighbor’s air compressor, the car was on the road again. 

On St. John there is no Triple A to call for help, no dealer where you drop off your car and take a loaner for the day, and a tow truck might cost a week’s pay.   There is no hospital but a clinic where the doctor is called out of bed to come in if there is an emergency after hours and weekends, Internet and power is sometimes simply not there, and cell phone service is not consistent. Throw in hurricanes and what you have is an island that loves its Happy Hour! And it also makes you aware of how you need the help of others and they need your help in return. The very act of thinking who you know and seeking them out for a favor makes you more aware of this.

This is a lengthy way to convey that on St. John when people want to accomplish something, they usually do it by working with each other, not as a single entity or by working against one another other.  Perhaps it is because we never know who we will be asking assistance from in the future, or maybe it is just the friendly attitude of many of the people who live here, yet either way, we can often find someone willing to help when it is needed.

Secondly, there is the history of the island that makes many people wary when someone arrives suddenly and intends to change things, or non-residents want to make changes without any alliances with the people who live here.  No matter how needed the idea or good the intention (even assuming the best), it may be received poorly.  A important example relates to the establishment of the national park on St. John.  A brief background goes something like this:  Rockefeller wanted to help create the national park on St. John.  As most books will tell you, he bought some land and donated it to the park along with others. But before that the US Department of the Interior had intended to condemn the privately held land on the island in order to expand the park holdings.  Senator (V.I. Legislature) Theovald E. Moorehead, “Mooie” as he was known on St. John, led the protest against this amendment and won!  The St. John and Cruz Bay you see when you get off the ferry today is credited to the efforts of “Mooie”! 

This series of events occurred in the late 1950’s when tourists were just starting to visit St. John.  I have yet to find it in any books that write about the history of St. John but everyone who lives her knows that history.  I spent some time searching the internet because, without a finding the story in the history books written about the island, I was beginning to think it was an “urban legend”.  However I found numerous references online to Mooie’s hard work in saving St. John and have provided two links that discuss the remarkable history here.

With an awareness of these two island themes, I want to share some photos a friend posted on Facebook recently.  This person got a closer look at the Maho tents, shared the images and I was given permission to share them here.  By posting these images I am not trying to point out any problems or call for any changes.  My belief is that the time for “saving” Maho was in the years before it was sold.  I am sharing what I know of a place that has been a large part of the island for decades.  And I know the people who visited and cherished their time at Maho are curious.  It does not actually answer anyone’s questions other than to know their current physical state.  And I am encouraged to see what appears to be a thoughtful dismantling that is not damaging the fragile hillside or making a wreck of reusable lumber, particularly since resources here are precious.

A10 as it looks now, screens and "Stanley cloth" are gone.
A10 as it looks now, screens and “Stanley cloth” are gone.
View from inside A10 in May of this year (2013).
View from inside A10 in May of this year (2013).

I do hope that the wood that served as the tent-cabin floors is reused/donated, whatever the case may be.  It is currently exposed since the roofs have been removed and will not fare as well exposed to the tropical sun, rain and leaves that will fall, accumulate and hold moisture. There is plenty of wood that needs to be disposed of but not those pieces.

Tents at the end of the the A-Section boardwalk.
Tents at the end of the the A-Section boardwalk.
B11 and B12: Double Vision
B11 and B12: Double Vision

It might be nice to hear from the current owner, especially if the activity on the land is something locals can support.  And there are a number of island organizations that have decades of experience dealing with a variety of potentially relevant issues – from material reuse, native plantings, sustainability, to tropical design and construction – and would be a valuable resource.  Which leads me back to my introduction; that this is a community where people more accustomed to helping their neighbors because we know that we need each other to thrive on an island of limited resources.  All of our lives become entwined here in one way or another. 

Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends.  Economics has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies…”   – John F. Kennedy

A B-section tent. Without anyone there the leaves are beginning to accumulate. Seems the games of 'Leaf Golf' our housekeeping crew used to play kept the boardwalks looking great!
A B-section tent. Without anyone there the leaves are beginning to accumulate. Seems the games of ‘Leaf Golf’ our housekeeping crew used to play kept the boardwalks looking great!
A view from the A-boardwalk taken about 12 years ago.
A view from the A-boardwalk taken about 12 years ago.
Former Maho tent overlooking Big Maho Bay.
Former Maho tent overlooking Big Maho Bay.

 Little Maho beach with tiny baby Maho tress popping up in the sand already.Little Maho beach with tiny baby Maho tress popping up in the sand already.

Changes Afoot!

I haven’t had a post in the last few days because I had to move to another house. It was a bigger project than I anticipated, in part because carrying my stuff down a steep driveway required me to develop a set of brakes while still moving forward.  Besides, it’s hot here right now!  Add to that a broken bed left by the last guests, which I gave an island-fix: a hard plastic igloo cooler with its lid removed is now the fourth bed post.  Needless to say, I bought fixings for a good Gin & Tonic today!

On my way home from Cruz Bay I drove along North Shore Road and stopped to look at the Maho Overlook, as I do probably four out of five times.  It did not take long to notice something had changed: the small white tent roofs were missing in the A-Section closest to Big Maho Beach and only the framing was standing!  Even though I am fully aware that the land is now owned by someone else and that Maho Bay Camp has been closed since June, I still felt a sense of alarm. Something is happening and I don’t know what the plans are!  I rushed back home to put down my thoughts, completely forgetting about my Gin & Tonic, musing as to why this potentially anticipated event bothered me.The two main reasons I felt related to my alarm are two big reasons why Maho Bay Camps was so special to me. 

View of Maho Bay
View from the overlook of the point where Maho Bay Camps was situated along North Shore Road. If you have visited St. John, you probably have your own photo of this very view. The Maho tent-cabins (over 100 of them) are the small white specs you see on the point between the two bays.

Reason One: those basic white tents with only the essentials as furnishings allowed me to move in and make the space mine. During my stay, it felt like home.  I would put up colorful sarongs for some privacy and loved how they waved in the breeze. I would buy candles for the table and hang my bathing suits and hats on the wooden dowels around the bedroom. When I lived there in a staff tent,  I used woven grass mats as carpeting in my room, stapled down to the floor with heavy duty staples, or sometimes over “wall” space, almost like wallpaper.  Often the lights in staff were minimal or non-existent, so white Christmas tree lights would be strung around the top of the rafters to offer some light at night. I suppose not everyone did this, but anyone who felt like making the tent-cabin “theirs” for the duration of their stay could easily decorate it with a handful of thumbtacks and some sarongs.  Home Sweet Island Home!

My bedroom in my staff tent at Maho Bay Camp.
My bedroom in my staff tent at Maho Bay Camp.
I had a gigantic genip tree next to my staff tent.
I had a gigantic genip tree next to my staff tent.

Reason Two: Maho (and St. John) was a place where I came with my family and we all were interested in doing and seeing the same things.  On our first and second visit we were equally excited to discover this tropical island paradise and see it all: on land and under water!  It was great to have a place we all loved to visit together. And once home, we had great memories we shared, having seen and done it all together: finally spotting a turtle or ray at Waterlemon Cay, enjoying a dramatic sunset during dinner, and remembering our first arrival up the bumpy dirt road on Frett’s Safari Taxi and wondering if he was bringing us to the right place!  Had we stayed in a hotel or rented a villa, I don’t think it would have been the same, since too much caters to your lifestyle back home: TV and movies, internet connection, or listening to the drone of the A/C instead of the frogs and crickets and rain on the roof.  Even the difficulties of tent living created some of our shared memories:enduring cold showers on a day that it rained and was cool or waking up in the middle of the night during a downpour to put down the roll-downs and check for leaks. Yes, I am very sentimental about my memories of Maho Bay Camp.

So I look at those tents, now coming apart piece by piece, and I feel like a stranger is taking apart my home.  I suppose feeing some heartache at the sight is to be expected… I remember hearing (maybe my first visit) that the tent-cabins and boardwalks were built so that they could eventually be removed and that it would only take a year for the jungle to grow back and fill in the empty spaces, without damaging the land or the reef below. But I just never considered it would happen so soon.

Tomorrow I will heading over to Big Maho beach for a closer look.

Never stayed in a Maho Bay tent-cabin?

For the uninitiated, some basic information on Maho Bay Camp will start to fill in the full picture.

I should say from the start, Maho Bay Camp and living in one of their tent-cabins was not for everyone.  My first summer, when working as a 4-hr Volunteer at the Registration Desk, I would greet guests and check them in. After the 10 minute process was complete, I could see the excitement of an adventure light up one person’s face, while their partner’s look seemed to say “I’ll humor you.”  In some instances, those guests trudged back up the steps within the hour, luggage in hand and informed me they were going to checkout and head over to the Westin Hotel.  This loving or running from a Maho tent-cabin was not a gender issue, but a combination of camper vs. non-camper, and whether it lived up to an anticipated fantasy of staying in a cabin near a Caribbean beach!

The tent-cabins were called such because their structural frame was constructed out of lumber: a 16 foot x 16 foot wooden platform, with 2×4’s making up the columns and beams that supported the roof, the counter space, doors, bed and sofa frames and minimal closet space. It is the enclosure material that made it a tent. All “walls” were either nylon screening or a white sheeting (or Stanley Cloth in honor of owner Stanley Selengut). The roof material was similar, a Superwhite vinyl which withstood the tropical climate and reflected the sunlight, keeping the tents a bit cooler by not absorbing the heat during the day.  Originally the tent-cabins were a green canvas, which I associate with the 70’s as being a signature material for tents anywhere! However I imagine the harsh year-round tropical sun combined with long stretches of rain and mildew made that material impractical. The white “Stanley cloth” holds up better on both accounts.

A typical interior - emptied  just before closing - of a tent cabin.
A typical interior – emptied just before closing – of a tent cabin.

The tent-cabins were subdivided into 4 equal quadrants of 8 feet x 8 feet. One was the outdoor porch, one was the bedroom area with two twin beds, and the last two were essentially combined to contain a sofa, extra cot and counter space with a gas stove, dishes and other essentials.  In the photo above, the “soft furnishings” (such as cushions, mattresses and curtains) have already been removed for the closing in May 2013 but it shows the basic structure well. The bedroom is in the back (middle) corner, the porch is on the far right, the sofa in the far left corner, while the kitchen counter space is the closest corner in the photo. You can see the mold that developed on the wood trim outside of the tent-cabin in a few short seasons. Mildew on the PVC was easily cleaned with hydrogen peroxide. But maintenance was ongoing to keep the cabins in shape.

The tent-cabins also had “roll downs”: sheets of the white tent material with a heavier piece of wood attached to the bottom. The wood piece would be secured between wooden pegs on the interior rails in the tents. Every screened section had these roll-downs making it possible to enclose it on all sides. The roll-downs were used for additional privacy on screened-in sections (a bit hot, I preferred sarongs) or to keep the rain out when the wind was blowing it in. Designing a tent-cabin to be open to catch the wind and, at the same time, keep out windblown rain can be tricky. One of the features that I liked best were the various wind-scoops. Some were traditional scoops at the roof line, allowing hot air to escape while capturing the cool trade winds. Others, as you can see along the back wall in the photo above, are simply a canted wall with screening at the base. This provided privacy and kept the rain out while letting the wind come up and through the tent-cabin.

E15 as seen from EVip when I first arrived in 2012.
E15 as seen from EVip when I first arrived in 2012.

There is very little flat land on St. John and most construction is done on a slope. The soil on the island is at most two feet deep and takes a great deal of time to develop. Removing or damaging existing vegetation causes the unsecured soil to run down into the bays during any heavy rains, damaging the fragile coral reefs and ecosystems. At Maho all the tent-cabins and boardwalks were elevated above the soil for that reason. The intention was to preserve, not disturb, the surrounding natural environment. Often the ground dropped off dramatically from one side of the tent to the other. I sometimes refer to these as tree-houses, but nothing was actually built in the trees. I simply felt like I was up in the tree canopy, with tree frogs serenading me after a rain, a view of the ocean below, the tropical trade winds blowing through my tent-cabin and the sounds of rustling leaves and wind chimes just outside.

View of Big Maho Bay from an A-section tent.
View of Big Maho Bay from an A-section tent.

Twenty-three years ago the cabins were same as when Maho Bay Camp closed this past May. ”Each cabin comes equipped with fresh linens, towels, an ice chest, propane stove, pots, pans, necessary utensils and two lizards. If any of these items are missing when you leave, we won’t refund your $30 deposit,”  was what you may have heard when you checked in.  And yes, there were always lizards in the tent on mosquito patrol!  (The link above takes you to a great basic description of Maho Bay Camp. Written in 1990 much of it would still be true, except prices!)