Tuesday, August 10, 2010

This week: St. John, USVI

Dipping our toes into the forbidden pond of hitchhiking

As we pulled out of the beach parking lot, we noticed an older couple standing on the side of the road. They had floppy hats, gray hair and wore t-shirts and khaki shorts with tennis shoes. They looked like someone’s grandma and grandpa. They didn’t hold out their thumbs, but yet seemed to eye our vehicle expectantly. I told my husband to stop the car and see if they wanted a ride. As he pulled over to the opposite side of the road, they walked over.

“You folks need a ride?” he asked.

“Yes, please!” they responded.

They got in the back seat of our 4-door Jeep Liberty and said hello. When asked where they were headed, they said they were going to have lunch at Caneel Bay Resort. Since Caneel Bay was on the way to Cruz Bay, we had no problem dropping them off. The couple said they were from Maine and were on the island to run in the 8 Tuff Miles Road Race on Saturday. I told them I was running it too, but it was my first time. For the next ten minutes, they told us how they had been coming to St. John for the last 10 years and the husband had run the 8 Tuff Miles the last few years. It was encouraging to meet someone who had done it before. Then the wife mentioned that Caneel Bay Resort had the best lunch buffet on the island and it wasn’t crazy expensive either. She said it was tradition for them to have at least one lunch at Caneel, sitting outside sipping wine watching sailboats pass as they dined. She advised us to try it sometime. We pulled into the Caneel Bay parking lot and they thanked us as they got out. We waved goodbye and continued our trip into town. That was our first set of St. John hitchhikers.

We often saw hitchhikers standing along the roads in St. John. This was our first trip with a rental car and, due to a strange coincidence, we had a car much larger than we needed. It made sense to offer rides. So after dropping off the older couple we decided to continue the practice. The idea was to create a Karma bucket and each person we offered a ride would add to our good fortune. We needed it because for the second half of our vacation, we wouldn’t have the rental car and might need the kindness of strangers ourselves. Did our plan work? Please continue…

The next day we were returning to our resort after a morning of snorkeling on the east end of the island. Having a car was wonderful because it meant we could get away from the crowds on the northshore beaches. As we approached the top of a hill near Colorful Corner, we notice two young men with backpacks sitting by the side of the road. I tapped my husband on the shoulder and he pulled over. We all said hello as they got into the back seat. They said they were going to Cruz Bay, but we were going to the Westin, which is before town. Because it was close we offered to take them to the Westin with us, but they instead decided that the Route 104 turn off would be OK and they would get another ride from there. We asked where they were from. Both were recently graduated college students from North Carolina. The taller of the two was taking the year off before joining the “real world.” He had been on St. Thomas for the last three months, but this was his first trip to St. John. His frat buddy had come to visit him for two weeks. My husband, a college football fanatic, asked him about his alma mater and what their football games were like. It wasn’t long before the two of them were comparing football tailgating experiences. If I hadn’t pointed out the turn, my husband would have missed it. We dropped them off and waved goodbye. We were two for two.

We discovered there were two types of island hitchhikers: Locals and tourists. There was one strict rule between the two: Locals picked up locals and tourists picked up tourists. We observed this near the bus stop/trash dump on Centerline Road just outside of town. Every time we passed people were always standing there. Then one would wave and start talking to a car as it passed. The car would stop and the person would get in while another person got out. You also saw this around the island’s main town, Cruz Bay. Locals were easy to spot. They wore jeans, tennis shoes or work boots and long sleeves shirts. They often had several plastic grocery bags in one hand. And if the person was female, they usually had one or more children clinging to their legs. If we slowed down for locals, they would wave us on. They wanted a ride from someone they knew, understandably. Tourists were also easy to spot. They wore flip flops and shorts and carried backpacks or tote bags. They were also colored bright red because their skin had been fried to a crisp after a day spent on the beach. However, there were occasions when it was difficult to tell the difference between locals and tourists. Read on…

The last night we had the vehicle, we decided to visit Coral Bay on the eastern side of the island for dinner. Once we turned in the car, we wouldn’t be able to travel to this side of the island anymore. As we wound our way on the descent into town, a man in faded blue jeans and dusty denim shirt stood on the side of the road at the end of a driveway. My husband pulled over and he got in. We said we were going to Shipwreck Landing and we would take him if he were headed that way too. He said he was actually going to Love City Convenience Store, but that we could drop him off at the fork in the road near the town’s trash dumpster. As we drove down the hill, my husband asked him where he was from. He told us he was from Cincinnati, but he had been living on St. John for the last several years. He worked construction and had a brother that came to visit him a few times a year. He then began telling us about his ex-wife who left him because she didn’t like living on St. John. It was too hot, the grocery store ran out of milk every other week, the house was too small. But that was OK with him. He was laid back guy and those things didn’t bother him because he knew how to go with the flow. Then he asked us where we were from. When we said Colorado, he began to tell us about a visit he made to the Rocky Mountains when he was a teenager and what a great time he had and how much dope he smoked and how beautiful it was there and that he would live there if it didn’t snow all the flippin’ time.

Approaching the trash dumpster, my husband pulled over. As the guy opened the door, he began telling us about all the great things he found at the dumpster, things he couldn’t believe people threw away, such as the electric fan, the lawn chair, an umbrella and some work shirts. He got out of the car still talking. As we pulled away he was telling us about the lawn mower engine he found and how it worked just fine after he got it home. We could see his lips still moving in the rearview mirror as we drove away. The next day we turned in the rental car.

Only one thing separated the Westin St. John Resort from Cruz Bay town. We called it “The Hill.” In linear distance, it was less than a half mile. In altitude, it was off the charts. Locals called it Southside Road. Anywhere else on earth and it would have been a 20 minute walk to Woody’s Seafood Saloon from our villa. “The Hill” turned that little stroll into a 45-minute, sweat-inducing, heart-pounding, Stairmaster work out. We have walked “The Hill” at least once on each visit, however, it wasn’t something we wanted to do on a daily basis.

The Westin had special taxis that took people into town with “negotiated” rates, but it was still 10 bucks for two people. Didn’t matter where you were dropped off, whether it was at the park a ½ mile away or Mongoose Junction on the other side of town, it was still $10. A non-Westin taxi was $20. When we first stayed at the resort back in 2005, the cost was only $3 per couple. That didn’t include the tip. Did it make us cheapskates to not want to pay $10 for a trip that was less than a half mile? A more intriguing question: Would hitchhiking solve this problem? It was time to see if Karma would reward us for the kindness we showed others when we had a car. Please continue…

We stood at the main entrance to the Westin lobby along Southside Road. People leaving the Westin had to stop right next to us. They tried not to look at us as we smiled and waved. Work trucks came up and down the hill and continued past us without so much as a glance in our direction. Didn’t we look like safe, trustworthy people? Just then a Jeep Wrangle came down the Westin driveway. We could tell from the car’s shiny exterior it was a rental. We waved at the car as they stopped. The mustached driver rolled down his window and asked where we were headed. Woody’s for happy hour, we answered. The couple in the car started laughing because they were headed there too. We offered to buy them a round for their generosity. As we went up and over “The Hill” we all introduced ourselves. They were Sandal and Barry from Ohio and they had been vacationing in St. John for over 16 years, since Sandal’s boys were little, and they always stayed at the Westin. They had been coming for so long they were friends with Woody’s owners. Sandal and Barry were huge Ohio State football fans, even had season tickets. We spent the bar’s happy hour comparing tailgating stories and discussing which bowl games we had been to. After happy hour, they took us to their favorite taco stand where we talked about our various experiences vacationing in the Virgin Islands. Because we were taking a snorkel cruise early the next morning we asked Barry and Sandal if we could call it a night and they were kind enough to drive us back to our villa, right to our front door. We made plans to meet at Woody’s for happy hour the next day.

After our snorkeling day-trip to Virgin Gorda, we had showered and ready ourselves for Woody’s happy hour. We tried calling Barry and Sandal’s hotel room, but there was no answer. Thinking we looked respectable enough, we waited by the Westin entrance on Southside Road. Didn’t matter if it was a shiny new rental Jeep or a beat up old Buick, every driver avoided our waves as they went by. The sun was beating down on us and sweat was beginning to drip down the back of my neck. Just then a small tan pick up with fertilizer bags and shovels in the back pulled over. We piled into the truck’s cab with Jacques, a Belgian who lived in Cruz Bay. He was on his way home after his workday at a lawn service company. He was picking up his kids from their after-school tennis lessons at the town’s park and asked us if that was far enough. It was just a few blocks from Woody’s, so it was no problem. In the short amount of time we were in Jacques’s car we learned he and his family had been living on St. John for only a few years, but he loved it. He felt his kids were getting a great education. He said he couldn’t afford tennis lessons back in Europe, but here he could and his eldest son was turning into a bit of a prodigy. Won every tournament he played in. He was hoping his son would get a tennis scholarship someday. He also house sat for a local homeowner who split his time between St. John and the Eastern US. Whenever the owner was out of town, Jacques could use his car, which was much nicer than the work truck he was currently driving, he told us, almost apologizing for not having a nicer car to give two strangers a ride. We told him we were happy to have the ride, no matter the vehicle. The homeowner was arriving in a few weeks for his three month stay so Jacques was disappointed in losing the car. Jacques didn’t have a car himself, didn’t need one between the work truck and the homeowner’s vehicle. At the town park, Jacques pulled into the small parking lot and we could see a group of children standing around with rackets. We told Jacques if he made it to Woody’s that evening, we’d buy him a beer. He never showed, but Sandal and Barry were already there and had Presidente’s waiting for us.

Our last day of the trip and our last shot at hitchhiking. We tried getting a hold of Sandal and Barry in their hotel room, but again they weren’t around. It was early, but we were hungry and Woody’s Seafood Saloon was calling us again. We stood in our spot at the Westin entrance and watched car after car pass, ignoring us. Then a gold-colored and very old American-built sedan stopped for us. A young man with messy blonde hair asked where we going. We told him Woody’s. He said he was on his way there, but he had to stop at the Lumberyard and pay his rent first. If we didn’t mind the wait, we could ride with him. The Lumberyard once upon a time used to be an actual lumberyard. Now it was a large mall filled with Cruz Bay businesses, including a scooter rental place, t-shirt shop and bakery. One of the shop owners was the young man’s land lord. When we arrived, his two roommates were standing in the parking lot waiting for him. After paying his rent we all walked over to Woody’s. Sandal and Barry were already there along with some other new friends we met the evening before. For a buck a beer, we bought all three young men some Presidente’s, but they weren’t too interested in hanging out with us old married people, especially when there were pretty waitresses to flirt with. We spent the rest of the evening with our new friends from Ohio and Georgia, enjoying our beers and a short rain shower. Unfortunately we had a 6 a.m. ferry to catch the next morning. Sandal and Barry were kind enough to give us a ride back to our villa. After exchanging email addresses, we said good night and wished them well on the rest of their island vacation.

Hitchhiking on St. John was interesting to say the least, but we met some good people while doing it and plan on hitchhiking again when we return.

Hospitality Car Rental 340-693-9160 (Ask for Thomas!!!)
Woody's Seafood Saloon
The Westin St. John
If you go to Woody's website, click on Pics in Paradise, then under Archives, click on March 7. C_Dog and her new friends can be found in one of those photos.