03/22/2008, St John, USVI
Sima and I have been thinking about where to go next. When we first set out, we were careful not to set any goals in stone. (Sail around the world! Twenty four countries in 24 months!) That one-day-at-a-time strategy has worked well for us so far. You can’t really get to know a place in a week, or even two. We find that it takes one week to settle in, one week to be a tourist, and a third week to begin to get to know the people you find around you.
Here’s what I’m talking about.
When we stayed in Bermuda, we started to get to know some of the locals only after settling in for several weeks. We had the great fortune of meeting Ed Harris, who took us under his wing and introduced us to some fantastic people in Bermuda. And that’s really what it’s about, isn’t it? People, not places. I suppose that this can be overstated a bit, as it has been cool to see, oh, say, the Midnight Sun from a hill in Lapland, bulls thundering along the streets of Pamplona, the Tour de France rolling by a sunflower-drenched field, or ancient Cappadocia from a hot air balloon.
But those are only a fraction of the experience. People flavor places, and you only start to get to know them by sharing stories, food, drinks, and experiences and getting together two or three times.
Our experience in St. John, USVI, has been similar to Bermuda, as we’ve started to get to know the locals after our third week here. “English” Mark and his wife, Lee, who have graciously introduced us to their circle of friends. On Sunday, the day before St. Pats, Mark and Lee picked us up in their pick-up truck, and we thundered across the islands twisty, narrow, and steep roads to Francis Bay. Sat in the back we were, soaking in the views and trusting that the engine would get us up this incline and the brakes would slow our descent down the other side. We spent the morning on the beach, sipping beer, and eating our St. Paddy’s day meal of corn beef, cabbage, and soda bread under the shade of some trees, while watching fish jump and, turtles surface. The gang we met was completely relaxed, easy-going, and friendly; witness Doug, aka “Crabby,” the owner of a local shop of the same name, as he nursed a cigar while sitting in the water up to his shoulders.
In the afternoon, Mark and Lee took us up to the home of Joe and Laurie. Joe, a former stock car driver from South Carolina, gave us an education on NASCAR as we watched the Bristol 500. (And also helped English Mark replace the brakes on the pickup – glad we didn’t know this was on the agenda when we first got into the truck!). More folks wondered in as the day went on. While telling us about racing, Joe and Laurie prepared a southern banquet that would make Colonel Sanders blush. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, greens of several kinds, rice, sauces, biscuits, and more, more, more. All of it scrumptious. Joe told us that was a tradition that he grew up with in South Carolina, where his grandmother made a similar feast for his extended family every Sunday afternoon. I ate ’til I was about to burst. Then I had desert. Twice.
Two days later, we dined with Mark and Lee on their boat. Mark has become a good enough friend that he felt comfortable banging on our hull just as we were waking up this morning, asking if we’d seen the weather. “Big swells. Don’t go today.” We told him we wouldn’t. We’d go Saturday. “You can’t go Saturday either. That’s the day of the big Jazz fest!”
It’s going to be hard leaving this place.
Let me share another vignette about St. John hospitality. This morning, I walked half a mile to the gas station to get ten gallons of diesel to top off the tanks. A big, burly native walking the other way broke out a big toothy grin as he neared. “Mon, what this day really needs is a someone singing, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, eh?” “Yeah,” I chimed back,” From speakers mounted on the telephone poles!” “Yeah mon!” he shouted, and sauntered away laughing.
I continued along. I needed to get cash at the convenience store next to the gas station. But I despaired to find the ATM kaput. A fellow standing ten feet away in the midst of the checkout line saw my shoulders sag (I hadn’t said a word!), and said, “Hey, I saw you come in with the gas cans. How much cash do you need?”
Huh?! “Well, I dunno,” I said. “I’ve got twenty, but probably need another twenty. But how the heck will I pay you back?” “I live over there.” he said, waving vaguely, “The only white house on the hill.” He handed me a twenty out of his wallet. I asked his name. “Jack Brown,” he said.
Before I leave, I ask the fellow behind the register if he has any machine oil. “It comes in little cans. Like you use on a bicycle chain.” Nope, he doesn’t.
I turn to leave the store. Someone calls me back from inside. A couple on their honeymoon from Atlanta, Phil and Evelyn, I find out, say “Hey, did you say you needed machine oil? I see some here on the shelf.” Sure enough, there it is.
I pay for it, and walk out. Wouldn’t you know, there’s Jack Brown. He’s already gone home and back. He has a small can in his hand. “Did you say you needed some machine oil . . . .”
When I got back to the parking lot near where we tie up our dinghy, there was English Mark, with a sour look on his face. “Hey mate, why didn’t ya’ tell me you needed to go to the gas station? I woulda given ‘ou a lift.”
When I returned the twenty to Jack’s house that night, we spent forty minutes talking about our life stories, and made an appointment to share dinner with our spouses.
People here have been like that, intensely open, friendly, and nice.
But leave we will, which is a good lead in to what this entry was supposed to be about, next steps.
Sima and I have been thinking long and hard about where we want to go next. Do we want to travel down the Lesser Antilles, St. Martin, Guadalupe, Antigua, Barbuda, and such, to Trinidad, where we’d wait next until next Fall for the hurricane season to pass? Or go to Guatemala, to see some friends there? But that is nearly 2,000 miles away. What about South America? Brazil and Argentina? Or a crossing to Europe? Are those distances too much?
We’ve approached the decision-making process by eliminating what we don’t want to do. We eventually eliminated the route south along the Lesser Antilles leading to a summer in Trinidad both because we want to get out of the sun and because we like getting off the beaten path. The trip down islands is easy and safe, but those attributes also cause it to be the beaten path. What about Brazil? Nice, but the prevailing winds don’t let you. Venezuela or Columbia? Too many bad guys on land and sea. How about Guatemala and Belize? Easy trip West to get there, riding the easterly trade winds due west, but then you can’t get out, as those same easterlies pin you there.
What’s left? Following the advice of Horace Greeley and the Pet Shop Boys, we’ll go west, just not all the way to Guatemala and Belize. Our current, tentative, not dyed-in-the-wool plan is to leave here on about Saturday, March 22, and sail to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica. In Jamaica we pick up Hugh, Sima’s desk-mate from Parthenon in London, who joins us as crew for two weeks. We’ll explore some of the islands near Jamaica, and are looking forward enjoying another friend’s company.
After that? Not sure. We’ve got some thoughts, but the day-by-day plan has worked well so far, so we’ll follow that path. We are on pace to be out of the hurricane zone by the middle of June, and will be putting ourselves in a place to move on to our next opportunity.
One comes to realize, sailing, that there can be no fixed schedules, just rough sketches and tentative plans. Only by planning tentatively can one allow for bad weather and broken equipment, on the down side, and the enjoyable if unpredictable slowness needed to get to know people and places, on the upside.
With charts and prevailing wind maps on the table and cruising guides in our laps, we try to weigh these variables, and make plans that will lead us to places we’ll enjoy. And we also try not to avoid places or visit them just because everyone else did, without understanding why. Sometimes we come to different conclusions than the pack. And that’s half the fun.