Tuesday, May 29, 2012

This Week: Jost van Dyke to St. Thomas

 Daylight savings and other disasters

“Do you want to update for daylight savings?” That was the message on my flashing, beeping cell phone in a very dark cabin at 2 a.m. Dazed, I reread the message. Daylight savings? Already? I pressed the update button, set the phone down and fell back to sleep. That action would come back to haunt me.
Soon my phone beeped and flashed again, but when I opened my eyes this time daylight filtered through the room. I picked up the phone; 7 a.m. All was quiet at Ivan’s Stress-free campgrounds. The complete opposite of the previous evening when a large group spring breakers decided to have a party at the cabin next door. They had the whole beach to party on, but chose to yell and scream in the cabin next to the couple that had to get up early the next day. The least they could have done was invited us.
Our beach-front cabin was situated on White Bay on the British Virgin Island of Jost van Dyke. This was the last day of our week long vacation and my husband Christian and I prepped for a really long day. We had a 9 a.m. ferry to the US Territory of St. Thomas, with a customs stop in St. John. From St. Thomas we had a five hour flight to Newark, NJ, then a three hour layover, and finally a four hour flight to Denver. After packing our suitcases, we carried them over the sand to the campground entrance and soon realized we had one major problem.
“Do you think taxis run this early?” Christian asked.
“Probably not,” I responded. Another problem was the empty main building. No one to check us out. However, they had my credit card on file so I wasn’t that concerned. After five minutes of listening to the steady surf on the beach, Christian made the executive decision to hike over the hill to the Great Harbour ferry dock. Although short in distance, the road between White Bay and Great Harbour consisted of one serious calf-stretching, butt-tightening incline. We had walked it two nights ago so we could dine at Foxy’s Tamarind Bar. Piece of cake for two people from Colorado. Walking that same hill with our over-packed luggage? Not as easy. Even the descent was tough. My own luggage kept running over me. As we descended the road into Great Harbour, we could see a boat already at the ferry dock, but it wasn’t ours. It was the “work ferry” to Tortola. As we approached a couple of taxis also arrived (where were they earlier?). A woman nicely dressed in a black pencil skirt and blue dress shirt got out. She signed her name on the ferry manifest and walked to the boat. A man wearing jeans and work shirt exited out of the other vehicle. He grabbed his lunch cooler and his young daughter from the back seat and carried both to the boat. We put our suitcases on the covered deck of the customs building just as a gentle mist began to fall. A gruff-looking man approached us, said good morning and introduced himself as the boat captain.

“Why are you guys here?” he asked.
“Oh, we’re just early for the passenger ferry,” I said.
“I’ll say you’re early. You realize it’s only 7 a.m.?” Our jaws clacked when they hit the pavement. Christian grabbed his cell phone from his belt.
“But my phone says 8 a.m.,” he said. “Waaaaaaaydaminute…it’s daylight savings time.”
“Yeah,” the captain chuckled. “We don’t have that here. I don’t know why you guys in the States do that.” We now had two hours before our ferry would show, but the captain came to the rescue.
“My ex-wife runs the café next to the dock,” he said pointing to the building across the road. Get yourselves some breakfast while you wait.” After a few more minutes and few more people, the work ferry motored away to Tortola. In the distance we could hear a telephone ring then suddenly a woman’s voice came down from a house high above us on the hill.
“I’ll be right dere! Be open in a minute,” she said wearing a pink bathrobe. Then a shorter woman clad in pink shorts and pink and white shirt began walking down a dirt trail from the house. When she got to the bottom she rolled her eyes as only a daughter could do when the woman above told her to hurry up. The young girl - once at the bottom I could see she was about 14 - waved us to follow. She unlocked the door and handed us menus before beginning her morning café chores. We picked our meals as she wiped down the outdoor tables.
The older woman arrived and took our order. While cracking eggs she asked about our stay. We told her how we’d come to Jost on a day trip six years ago and had always wanted to spend a few nights here. She handed us plates with ham, egg and cheese sandwiches and then followed us to the outside tables to talk about the island some more. During our breakfast, the clouds drifted away revealing the morning sun.
“So where you headed next?” she asked.
“Going home,” we muttered finishing our sandwiches.
“Oh, that’s too bad. Flying from Tortola or St. Thomas?”
“St. Thomas. Flight’s at 12:30.”
“Today???” she inquired. We nodded. “You’ll never make it,” She said with a wave of her hand. She continued in a fast island patois we couldn’t quite follow, “Ferry…late…crazy…no way.” Good thing I had finished my sandwich because I suddenly lost my appetite. She got up and went back into the café still chatting away. Christian scowled at me.
“But the ferry only takes 45 minutes. Even if it’s 20 minutes late we’ll still be on St. Thomas by 10:30. At the airport by 11. Plenty of time!” I stammered.
“How do you know it takes 45 minutes?” he asked.
“It said so on the website.” The woman cackled behind us. My re-adjusted cell phone said 8 a.m.
We returned to the custom’s building and sat on the deck. A couple pushing a baby stroller while carrying four pieces of luggage approached and dumped their luggage next to ours. Then a woman with shiny blond hair and surprisingly un-tanned skin arrived with a single black tote. She said good morning in a European accent and sat next to us. Since they looked like tourists, Christian decided to ply them with some questions.
“So do you think the ferry will be on time?” The couple with the baby had no idea.
“Oh, sometimes,” said the woman. “It’s the islands, so you never know.”
“You live here?”
“No, but my husband works here a few months out of the year so I’m here quite a bit,” she said. Christian asked her if she was going home today. She said she was returning to the Netherlands on a 4 p.m. flight. As if reading Christian’s mind, she then asked when we were leaving.
“Our flight’s at 12:30.”
She pursed her lips together and sucked on some air. “Today?” she asked. For a second time this morning, we nodded.
“If I can’t get a flight after 2 p.m., I spend the night before in St. Thomas,” she said.
“But the website says the ferry is only 45 minutes, with 10 minutes either way,” I plead.
“That depends on how many people the boat has. If it’s full, it could take an hour just go through customs.” We ask the couple what time their flight is and the man responds that they will spend a few nights on St. Thomas and not leave until Thursday. As we discuss our travel plans a tiny island woman approaches the deck, nicely attired in a black dress and a golden turban, her arms decorated in large gold bracelets. She chatted away on a cell phone. At nine a.m., the café owner popped her head around the corner of the deck.
“See no ferry. Yestaday dey don’t show up ‘til 9:30. Always late,” she said shaking her head. I watched the minutes go by on my cell phone, 9:05, 9:10. Then at 9:15 a boat came around the southern corner of the bay. The ferry! My relief quickly turned to dismay when I realized the bay was a no wake zone so it would only putter over to the dock and there were some people already on the boat adding to the head count at customs. The café lady also had several cases of water that had to be unloaded before the ferry could leave. The boat ropes weren’t loosened until 9:30.  
Finally moving, it felt good to be on the water this beautiful Caribbean day. Jost van Dyke grew smaller behind us as St. John grew larger and greener next to us. Motoring around the northern side of St. John I tried to remember the bays in order:  Leinster, Maho, Cinnamon, Trunk. Caneel Bay was the easiest to spot because of the exclusive resort and manicured lawns surrounding it. On the other side of the ferry was an islet I had just learned about during a sunset cruise earlier in our trip called Lovango Cay. Accessible only by boat, our captain told us that Lovango, pronounced lo-VAN-go, got its name because several decades ago, the island housed a brothel. Lov an’ go, get it? Lovango Cay was now a privately owned, master-planned community. The only way I could ever set foot on it was by winning the lottery.
After only 15 minutes we sloooowly motored around the west end of St. John and entered Cruz Bay. Another no-wake zone, we puttered toward the custom’s house only to find another boat already docked. We waited. We also watched as the captain of the small boat spoke to a uniformed man. They laughed; they shook hands. Finally the smaller boat left and we took their place. Christian and I stood at the boat entrance along with the other passengers eagerly awaiting departure. We had to take our luggage with us for re-screening, just like at the airport. As soon as the gate opened, we jumped off the boat and clumsily trudged up the entrance ramp. The uniformed man at the door held his hand out to stop us, but he was looking at a woman inside the building. She appeared to be writing at her counter. Looking up, she nodded to the man at the door and he opened it. We approached her and handed her our passports underneath the glass that separated us. She asked if we enjoyed our stay. “Yes!” Stoically, she stamped the books and returned them to us. Then we hauled our luggage to the x-ray machine at the other end of the sterile white room. The man running the x-ray machine stopped our bags halfway through.
“Do you have any food in your luggage?” Yes, we replied, we have some candies, jelly beans and chocolate-covered coffee beans to be exact.
“Is that all?” Yes, we said.
“Are you sure?” Yes, we’re sure.
“Are you carrying any meat?” Ah, no, no meat. But we do have a package of Twizzlers.
“Ooooh, that’s what that is!” He turned the conveyer back on and we grabbed our luggage. Scurrying out the exit door, the woman in a black dress followed behind us still talking on her cell. I couldn’t hear all of her conversation, but several words were loud and clear: “Fucking!” “Shitheads!” “Dammit!” Rather garish language from such a smartly-dressed woman.
Soon everyone had returned to the boat. Not bad, I thought. Then the captain stepped off the boat and began talking to the uniformed man. We could see them laughing and gesturing. The black dress woman yelled at them from her seat on the boat, cell phone still pressed to her ear. Without a glance in our direction, the captain reboarded and the ferry slowly sputtered away. In front of us, St. Thomas was so close I could count the window panes in the houses along the coast. A shipmate came back to the passenger seats and was immediately accosted by black dress woman. In her anger, her voice carried high above the boat engines.
“What the fuck is taking so long? I have to be work at 11. Where is the captain? Tell him to get his ass out here so I can give him a piece of my mind. I’m losing money!” The shipmate said something we couldn’t hear above the engines and left. My cell phone read 10:35. Just then the Dutch woman sat behind us.
“You know, if you can find a cab to take you straight to the airport, you might be able to make it.” She explained how taxis on St. Thomas usually take as many passengers as possible and make several stops before airport. However, for some extra money, drivers will take people straight to the airport.
“It costs a lot, but you’ll make your flight,” she said. What did she define by a lot, we asked. She said $15 per person. We agreed $30 for a straight shot to the airport was a small price to pay.
The ride across Pillsbury Sound to Red Hook took only 10 minutes. As we grabbed our luggage and disembarked the ferry I could hear black dress woman yelling at the captain through the window of his bridge. I smiled for the first time that morning.
Outside we found a whole row of taxi vans parked around the ferry terminal. We yelled, airport! A driver talked on a cell phone and didn’t look up. Another driver turned around and walked away from us. Airport! Airport! A gentleman a ways down the block waved at us
 “We need to go straight to the airport or we’re gonna miss our plane!” we plead.
“No problem, mon.” he said with a smile. Confirming the $30 price tag, we loaded our luggage. As we left the driver said he was actually glad to give us a ride. He said he was waiting for some cruise ship passengers, but they wouldn’t arrive until noon. Plenty of time for him to drive us to the airport and back. The driver also said he would take the “back road” to the airport. He explained it may be longer in miles, but it avoided downtown Charlotte Amalie, the US Virgin Islands’ capital and largest city, where traffic jams were a regular occurrence. But first our driver had to pee. We sat in the taxi while he stopped in a church parking lot and ran behind a tree. What more could happen to us this morning? I glanced at my cell phone; 10:45.
The “long way” turned into a hill-top scenic tour of St. Thomas. I almost considered taking out my camera. From the hilltop road we could see the giant cruise ships in the Charlotte Amalie harbor. Brightly colored homes hung on the cliffs next to the road. On the other side of the harbor the Caribbean Sea opened up before us, sparkling in the morning sunshine. Too bad we were in a hurry.
The driver pulled up to the airport terminal at 11:15 a.m. He helped us retrieved our luggage and we tipped him generously. We then trudged 25 yards to the United Airlines ticket counter.
“Hello!” said the smiling ticket agent. “Checking in?” Yes! “Last name?” Dow. “Oh, I have some bad news for you.” Our hearts dropped into our stomachs as we imagined the aircraft we heard taking off was our plane.
“Your flight has been delayed an hour. Sorry for the inconvenience.”