Monday, May 28, 2007

USVI: The Way Things Are

I’m on an airplane as I write this, returning from the U.S. Virgin Islands — my seventh visit in a little more than a decade though I hadn’t been back in four years. I had forgotten how blue the water is there — shading from turquoise to ultramarine — and so brilliantly colored that the reflection tints the white undersides of laughing gulls as they fly above the sea.

I had also forgotten the rapacity of the mosquitoes and no-see-ums. Next time, I’ll bring the cool, menthol splash I bought in Curacao, I promise myself. That helps.

On both St. Thomas and St. John, building continues with few constraints. The steep slopes of the volcanic mountains are dotted with more and larger mansions. On a previous trip, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey had told me that silt from building runs down the mountains into the sea, helping to kill the coral that sustains and protects the beautiful fish.

Easy money today trumps what will be regretted tomorrow. A familiar story.

But – the old synagogue is still there in Charlotte Amalie, with sand on the floor beneath a Baccarat crystal chandelier that has survived many a hurricane. I took off my shoes when I entered and left my footprints on the sand.

The synagogue, built in 1833, is the oldest under the U.S. flag; the sand on the floor was put there by the Sephardic congregation in homage to their ancestors who used it to muffle the sounds of their secret services after they were forced by the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions to publicly convert from Judaism to Catholicism.

And the battered fraco truck with the handpainted sign was still there, parked by Emancipation Square. I bought myself a passion fruit sno-cone with milk — which is what Virgin Islanders call the generous topping of sweetened, condensed milk that makes these sno-cones something to be remembered.

Even the shops of Charlotte Amalie mostly selling jewelry, diamonds, perfume and liquor seemed charming to me, housed as they are in old, Danish warehouses with thick stone, brick and coral walls and heavy, wooden shutters and doors. With only one cruise ship in port, the shops and narrow streets weren’t too crowded.

One day on this brief visit, I went to sea aboard a sailboat owned by the Ritz-Carlton on St. Thomas. We skirted the white beaches and secluded coves of St. John before pulling in at Waterlemon Cay for an hour of snorkeling. The turtles weren’t around on that particular day, but we saw a healthy barracuda, many starfish, sting rays, a queen conch and the remarkable parrot fish who create the white sand beaches when they chew up coral and excrete it — a process that takes many, many years.

Equally remarkable were the millions of silver and blue fish that the Virgin Islanders call “fry” — each of them an inch or two long — swimming in gigantic schools and turning in unison in response to any disturbance. To my eyes they were indistinguishable from each other, but each is a spark of life. In one hour, I probably saw almost as many of these tiny fish as there are people on this planet.

My visit has been too short. I like things the way they were, and even on the whole, the way they are. I hope to return before too many things change.


If you'd like to see more of my photos of the U.S. Virgin Islands, go to

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