Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Peace Out, Dude

Every year my family and some friends board planes, other planes, swerving-hairpin-turn-loving taxis, ferries, and anything else that is required to get here, until we wash up on St. John in the U.S Virgin Islands. (The name of my blog honors one of my favorite bays here, Reef Bay.) Frankly, it's a pain to get here. And it's an even more long and uncomfortable journey to get home. Inconvenience, however, breeds a remote peace and, in this case, enduring natural beauty.

In the Caribbean, an island without cruise ships is literally like a day WITH sunshine. And St. John has none of the former and a lot of the latter. Along with floating virus-breeding hotels, St. John lacks Starbucks, shopping malls, stoplights, and reliable cell phone service. Of course, it's hard to notice the island's shortcomings in civilization. What with it's beautiful, pristine beaches and and being able to share an ocean with schools of fish, the odd eagle ray, and even the more rare green sea turtle, not being able to get your voicemail is a problem that quickly loses urgency.

Feeling stressed? In our family, you'll be advised to go "spend some time with the fish." In New Jersey, that might mean something more sinister, but down here it means donning a snorkel mask, floating off the beach, and looking down into coral. Unlike life at home, the slower you go, the better things get. You begin to hear the parrotfish pecking away at the coral, you notice little shrimp that live betweens the rocks, you hear yourself breathing in and out. You get to see all the things you can only see without looking for them, like a moray sticking it's head out of it's home or a barracuda cruising by to make sure you are behaving yourself in the neighborhood or an octopus chucking out the clam shell it just emptied for breakfast.

Besides the snorkeling, we relish other kinds of peace here. Rather than impatiently leaning on the car horn, we turn into people who patiently look at the countryside as the guy up ahead stops his jeep in the middle of the road to talk to his uncle. We make big breakfasts and take ages to cook dinner together. We don't care that a bird comes in every day to clean up the crumbs on the floor. We welcome incoming lizards and thank them or eating the bugs. And then we go off to float with the fish some more.

Over the years, we've come to love it here so much that we are careful not to recommend St. John to just anyone. On such a small island -- that's nearly all inside a national park -- it's unwise to welcome those who want a faster pace and services like, let's say, rental cars that can make it up mountainsides without having to turn off the air-conditioning. So please, if you like floating with the fish, come on down. But if you are someone who can't live without a fax or a latte, stay put. There's nothing for you here.

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