Crossing into Paradise

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A Christiansted watering hole

In August, we flew from crisp, squeaky clean Switzerland to lushly humid and cheerfully ramshackle St. Croix. The largest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands is exactly unlike Switzerland. Let's generalize, shall we? In my five days in Switzerland, I saw roads and trains and public utilities that seemed scrupulously well-maintained; trim, chic and sturdy architecture; immaculately maintained parks and vineyards; and a mood of cheerful efficiency.

Forty-eight hours later, my cousin Perry picked us up at the airport in St. Croix. The Cruzan Rum stand by the open-air baggage carousel was open for business. However, it took some time to find the luggage attendant and determine that our bags had not been loaded onto the prop plane that flew us in from Puerto Rico. As we drove into Christiansted, I noticed jungly undergrowth threatening to creep across the road and swallow it. We stopped at the market for some groceries and picked out single beers from the cooler by the cash register, because the island has no law against drinking and driving.

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A roadside plea to the power company

On the way to my cousin's place, we saw a sign tacked onto a sawhorse next to the road. On it, a homeowner had scrawled a desperate plea for the power company to help them because their electricity had been knocked out by a big storm that happened months ago. I was told the power company doesn't generally answer the phone. 

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Christiansted back street scene

Back home on the estate property that Perry's husband Chad manages, we punched in a code to open the heavy iron gates, and drove up the hill to a beautifully maintained and completely self-sufficient resort. Estate Belvedere, like other well-managed island properties, has back-up plans for power, water, and security. That's the way it is.

The juxtaposition of these two places within such a short period of time was an eye-opening illustration of what different social contracts can look like. I'm not here to make a value judgment; I'm just noticing the difference. In Switzerland, taxes are high (though the difference in tax rates between Switzerland and the U.S. was not as significant as I would have guessed), but citizens expect clean, efficient, good-quality public utilities and services. In St. Croix, citizens pay U.S. federal taxes but no local taxes. Here, the people who can afford it have a back-up plan for even the most basic of services, because, well, the power company doesn't generally answer the phone.

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The view from Estate Belvedere

Armchair social commentary aside, St. Croix is a paradise, even in the "off" summer season. It's humid, but the air is sweet and soft and the ocean breezes are ever-present. It's hot, but the pace is leisurely. The roads are iffy, but the radio's got plenty of old-style reggae on it. And the land is lusciously green and the water is turquoisey blue and the clouds put on a show across the wide sky. It is beautiful, so beautiful that the pictures of it don't look real.

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The view from Frederiksted

Michael and I spent about a week in St. Croix, diving and snorkeling and boating in the warm Caribbean waters, and exploring the island. Perry and Chad are both certified as dive instructors. So I felt like I was in good hands, even though I got dive certified just this last spring and this was only my second dive trip. We explored the canyons at Salt River, and Chad and I saw a blacktip shark. Chad spotted it, tapped my arm, pointed off to our right, and then placed his hand perpendicularly against his forehead, like a kid playing "shark" in the swimming pool. The shark was maybe 50 feet away from us, and turned and swam in the other direction. Wow!

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Note to potential travelers: rent a Jeep in St. Croix. The stone facade behind the Jeep is a remnant of a wall from the sugar plantation that once stood here.

We rented this snazzy red Jeep for the week. When I was making the travel arrangements, I thought I was being kind of silly by choosing this Jeep instead of a normal econo-rental. However, now I understand that parts of the island would have been impassable without it.

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Rainforest Road

We spent an afternoon at an organic farm in the mountainous rainforest area of St. Croix. We were in search of vegetables for the family dinner we were going to cook that night at the estate, so we followed the road as it narrowed and went from paved, to gravel, to dirt, finally winding its way to the Ridge to Reef Farm.

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Community house at Ridge to Reef Farm

They were packing up and preparing for the farmers market in Frederiksted when we arrived. They did have a few things to sell us, though: bananas, and some homemade jam.

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Bananas ripening at Ridge to Reef Farm

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The porch at Ridge to Reef's Community House

We had to wait a little while for someone to help us with our purchases. We walked around the farm, and then kicked back here on the porch. Not a bad way to spend some time. That evening, Chad made dessert. He chopped up the bananas and browned them quickly in a skillet, tossing in some Cruzan spiced rum and lighting the whole thing on fire! Delicious.

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You put the straw in the coconut and drink it all up!

Perry told me her sister once asked her when she was planning on moving back to the States. "Never!" Perry said. She lives in a Caribbean island paradise. Why would she go back?

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Cousins, reunited after 25 years