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104 St Croix beach

104 St Croix
Tourist are dumb.  Now stay with me on this one, I might have to take you around the block to get to the point, but I promise I’ll….OK, I don’t promise anything…. just hang in there.
Tourists are dumb, some try hard not to be and others just glory in it.  The former have done their homework either out of an abiding interest in other places and cultures or a desire to not get taken.  The latter pay $20 USD to get their picture taken with a monkey in a diaper and a guy with dreads.   Presumably this will make its way to the mantle as proof of their adventurous spirit.  But even if they have been to the same island 5 times and they understand everything that is said and written they don’t speak the language of place.  None of us do when we are out of place and that is part of the reason we travel.  This is where you will have to grant me some license on the dumb thing because it isn’t exactly an inability to speak the language of place but a lack of fluency.  Your indulgence is appreciated.
When I was pedicabbing I was on the home team.  We were the ones fluent in place having to deal with tourists who were not.  In this case fluency means more than knowing where club Phoenix is and how to get there quickly it meant feeling the width of your cab and knowing which gaps you can make and which you can’t: it meant being in control of the negotiation and it meant being able to point people in the direction of drugs or prostitutes when they ask.  (mostly on hearsay but often as an inside joke we would point them in the direction of a gay bar and tell them to go in the bathroom and start asking around)
As ship’s crew we are fluent in the place of the ship and in most respects we are fluent in the area 100 meters in any direction of the gangway because they are all the same no matter where you go.  Some of the vendors actually follow the ships around so vendors you see in St Thomas will end up in Alaska come Summer.  But even in that area just off the gangway, we inhabit a middle space because we are largely uninterested in the tourist activities, looking more for free wifi, a decent meal or some toothpaste,  so it is easy to pretend like we are not like the tourists, but not being a tourist is different than being fluent.
Nothing brought this home more than a trip to the beach in St Croix.  I had scouted a nice beach close to the pier, it was just a couple minutes walk off to the right.  I was headed that way when I ran into a couple of the spa girls and a casino dealer.  They were looking for a beach close by and  were happy to tag along.  Then when we heard that the beach off to the left was nicer, just harder to get to.  We looked over that way and seeing no one there thought it must be because it is hard to get to and we would be the only ones there, no tourists.  After all, the girl who told us about it was crew and had been there before, she should know.
It was a bit of a slog to get there, past the caution tape, the tires and washouts, but this must be the place she was talking about, right?  Ah caribbean seas, ouch-shit, rocks, that is going to bleed…. OK, fine just keep swimming out.  I really miss swimming in Barton Springs but am getting used to the salty water.  The thing is that – even though I know that I’m more likely to win the lottery than get attacked by a shark, there is something about swimming in the ocean that makes it a middle space in its own right.  You are at the same time, part of the world you know with all its, you know, air and land but you also dangle into a world you are not rightly a part of and in that world what you are a part of is the food chain.  So I swim with my eyes tightly closed and my imagination wide open, probably not the best combination.

I was floating there on my back with my toes sticking out of the water because maybe the sharks in that area were on island time too and would only go for low hanging fruit so I’ll keep my toes where I can see them thank you and from that position I watched 4 gulls circling and occasionally diving down into the water for a meal.  They were relentless and that scene was not at all unlike what was going on at the pier right next to them.  Tourists are the sardines of that food chain, plentiful, fatty and delivered.
The water was pleasant but a bit cloudy for water in this part of the world.

Swimming was nice.  The girls swam a bit and then laid out, the dealer brought his mask and snorkel and stayed in a little longer.  I’m going to pause here for a moment because the dealer is from France and they have a  very different idea about what a man’s swimsuit looks like.  Personally, and I hope this isn’t just my American provincialism but I think that no swimsuit should be tight or thin enough to betray your state of circumcision.   One of the spa girls says that at home (UK) they call these suits “buggie smugglers”, no idea what that means, but couldn’t stop laughing and the consensus from the spa girls was that, and keep in mind this is a cross cultural opinion, those suits are not sexy and in fact are quite horrid.
OK, back to the beach.  I was back up on the shore after negotiating my way around really a lot more broken glass than I think a beach should have, in fact as the water came in and out, the loose glass made a tinkling sound on the rocks and shells.  From a distance I just thought there were lots of shells on the beach but at a closer level of zoom, it was more trash than shells.
I was getting ready to head back to the ship when I made the mistake of making eye contact with a homeless guy who was yelling at me.  Great.  He was yelling something incomprehensible and waving his arms.  I felt like the un-ulgy thing to do was to go see what he was saying.
This guy was thin, really thin and had some sort of malformation on his right cheek that when combined with a pretty thick accent and his obvious intoxication he was very difficult to understand.  Seriously, later in the conversation,   “holiday celebration” came out as “pirate party.”  I know you are trying to mouth the words to see how that is even possible, don’t even try, you can’t do it.  Imagine being high and telling someone about a Christmas party and then getting asked a bunch of questions about pirates and how they fit into Christmas celebrations.  What I understood from him, and he said this 3 times was, “NO not pirates!  A Pirate party.”  It was a wonder I could understand anything.
What he was trying to tell me at the beach was that the authorities don’t want us on the beach.  OK crazy guy, I will go back and tell my friends.  As I walked back it hit me that there was caution tape all around the beach and it wasn’t some crazy island tradition, we had seen it on the way in, ignored it and slipped through between a couple of trees where the tape wasn’t.  Oh wait, hurricane Tomas came through here about a week ago and this beach hadn’t been cleaned up yet.  As I was walking back to the ship the homeless guy started yelling more from behind me and I would have been the biggest asshole to not at least acknowledge him.   Letting him catch up got  me a partially comprehensible walking tour of the damage done by the storm.  He, Sammy, was pointing out where the high water marks were and it took him pointing all this out for me to see it because as obvious as it all was, we had missed all the signs.
He also told me that I shouldn’t have been swimming, “didn’t you see the water?”  He asked me, exasperated.  I told him that it looked cloudy, but seemed OK.  “That water will make you sick.  You never swim after a big storm.”  Oh great.  When I asked him where all the glass came from he told me about when they used to dump trash out at sea and when hurricanes come through they get some of that trash back.  “When the ocean is angry it sends some of that trash back man.”  I really felt dumb now.
I had made the mistake of thinking my sphere of fluency extended beyond the hawkers and steel drum bands.  Even just to the left of the pier was a world where I didn’t even see the obvious and had no idea about the subtle.  At what point in the thought, “wow all that glass sure looks jagged.”  do you start to think, hmmm maybe something in this picture is wrong?  Well, never if you walk down that beach and only see your idea of a caribbean beach instead of seeing what is actually under foot.  As traveling crew I will never be fluent in any of the places we visit hopefully I will start to, at least, pay attention to the caution tape.

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November 16, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

4 Comments »

  1. Great writing and great insight, David.

    Comment by Melissa Tothero | November 17, 2010 | Reply

    • that’s very kind, thanks for the encouragement, kind words and taking the time to read it. I really appreciate it.

      Comment by davidsjones | November 17, 2010 | Reply

  2. Very interesting thoughts about the insider/outsider and the allure of travel.

    Comment by Lara | November 18, 2010 | Reply

    • thanks. I think I wore out my introspector on that one. 😉

      Comment by davidsjones | November 18, 2010 | Reply


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