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IMG00349If only I believed people really meant it when they asked, “How was your vacation?” I’d tell them about my week with no running water and the ten-flight walk to a bathroom, where pull-cord showers only ran cold. I’d show them bites on my ankles from sand fleas and mention the long flight delay. But then I’d urge them to book the same trip – before it’s too late. 
   
Pat, the adventuresome love of my life, likes to “travel.” I prefer “vacationing,” by which I mean beach-to-fridge on the Outer Banks. Maho Bay Camps, in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, seemed like a good compromise: restful Caribbean beaches for me, water adventure for her, and the idea of “eco-friendly” yet comfy camping, intrigued us both. To be honest, I’m not a good traveler no matter where I’m going. I get antsy on long drives. If I’m flying, I hate even one layover. This trip was scheduled for four: two flights, two taxis and a ferry.
   
In reality we had five, since they canceled our first flight. Saturday morning, Pat and I stood in a long slow line, juggling our wheeled suitcases and carry-on laptop bags. Meanwhile, I called U.S. Airway’s “flight irregularity line.” After a neck crick, two hot flashes and thirty minutes on hold, we found our only option would be an overnight layover in Philly. A 24 hour delay. We watched the sun rise through a thin rectangle of sky at the far side of the ticketing counter; the first day of our vacation evaporating.

The delay made our already heavy carbon footprint worse: first our son had driven us to airport; he returned an hour later with Pat’s forgotten sunglasses; we then flew from Pittsburgh to DC, where we took a bus to a plane bound for Philly. We then took another bus to the Ramada to sleep.It was back to the airport the next morning, the 5-hour flight to St. Thomas, then a taxi to a ferry, a ferry to St. John and another taxi to, finally, Maho Bay Camps – a pioneer, oddly enough, in ecotourism.

Ecotourism suggests low-impact, sustainable travel to pristine or protected areas that supports local people. The term first showed up in the 1980’s. But New Yorker Stanley Selengut, a civil engineer, thought along those lines back in 1974, when he leased fourteen acres in St. John from three U.S. mainland owners: a lease that could, regrettably, come to an end next summer.

On the northern shore of St. John, on a steep incline off Maho Bay, Mr. Selengut built a nearly invisible encampment: fourteen tent cabins on land surrounded by U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. To avoid soil erosion, he and his team hand-dug stilts for the cabins and the snaking walkways that connected the cabins to the bathhouses, store, and dining pavilion. He wanted to “provide intimacy with the great outdoors in …one of the world's most beautiful settings, with comfort and convenience, at low cost.” His camp has since stressed sustainable travel with emphasis on creative recycling and attention to water, energy, and land conservation.

At 9 x 5 miles, the island of St. John is the smallest and least developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Viewing it on Google Maps, St. John looks like an ink splat: as the ink scatters it leaves lots of indentations, each one named So-and-So Bay. Viewing it with Google Earth, one sees so much deep green its clear preservation takes priority, especially as compared to its more developed Virgin Island counterparts. 

In 1956, a local artist and a St. John elected official joined Laurence Rockefeller to buy up over sixty percent  of the land on St. John. They then donated it to the U.S. government to be kept as U.S. Virgin Island National Park. In 2001, under President Clinton, the adjacent waters became the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument – 12,708 acres of federal submerged lands. Pat, at least, looked forward to snorkeling explorations of these reefs.

It’s not easy to be the person in the Caribbean who whines. It seems so lame, surrounded by all that turquoise water and sunshine. And it’s true, our place had a great view and offered the promised “intimacy with the great outdoors.” Yet by the time I got there, read the two-page instruction sheet and Lionfish warnings, climbed 150 steps to our “cottage,” and looked at the empty five-gallon water jug, I felt a little undone.


   

Mahobay3A screened-in square about the size of a two-car garage, our cabin had four sections. One quarter opened to a deck with a clothesline. In another, the kitchen with a set of rough-wood shelves with a two-burner Coleman stove,a blue cooler, pots and pans,two plates, two bowls, a basin with biodegradable soap,and the empty water jug. The third section had a waterproof sofa, and the fourth – twin beds, six hooks, a few skinny shelves, and no drawers. Three spiral light bulbs were wired in, as were two electrical outlets to charge our phones, (which didn’t work) and our laptops, which they advised us not to use due to unpredictable power surges. Other than opaque rubber on the ceiling and lower half of the bedroom, the walls were screens and the screens had patches.

Being a bit of a bug-o-phobe, the gaps in the screens and open slats in the floorboards caused my stomach to sink as panic and dread welled up. In retreat, I went to bed early, pulling the sheets up to my chin. Pat turned on her flashlight and I used a tiny reading headlight so we wouldn’t attract insects with the brighter room light, but a gnat kept dive-bombing my face anyway. I extinguished my light and tried to focus on the sound of the surf. I hoped the chirps and cheeps between the steady low-pitched buzz came from night birds. I fell asleep concentrating on the stars between swaying trees – that’s beautiful, right?
   
I knew I had to embrace a better attitude, and knew I would. But that first day, I felt like a squeamish well-off American from the city; wishing I’d gone the way of my older sister. She travels to a Caribbean with padded beach chairs that have flags on top to notify staff when her rum-based drink needs a refresher.

The next morning, I opened my eyes to a big white spider. Really? I thought, followed by, I wonder if the Westin has any rooms, and finally, How can it sit on the clothesline like that? I put on my glasses and realized it was only a frayed knot in the rope.

We choreographed unpacking – you take these hooks, I’ll take those – and then set out for morning yoga on the beach. This had sounded lovely from the comfort of my Pittsburgh living room. But having gone without breakfast, the long hike down the rocky Goat Path to the beach and the ten-minute walk on the beach gave me the hypoglycemic shakes. The instructor had nuts, which helped, but my internal judging, always judging, even judging the judging, kept me discouraged. This place was beautiful, sure. Gorgeous. Cliché even: the feel of soft white sand, the sound of gentle surf, pelicans played in the clear green water. Still, as I worried about the climb back up to camp, my yoga poses wavered and the knot in my stomach tightened.

Working against last call for breakfast, Pat scrambled ahead on the rocky path to save me some oatmeal. On my more leisurely hike back, I tried not to lose the effects yoga may have had on my frayed nerves. I noticed the trees. New since the massive clearing for sugar plantations in the early eighteenth century, these second-generation trees had grown thirty to forty feet. None were a type found in my Pittsburgh neighborhood. Geckos sunned themselves on the rocks and boulders that jut up from the hillside between the labyrinths of walkways. I even watched one of the ever-present iguanas move in thick underbrush in the distance. We had heard that iguanas regularly fall out of trees. Some thought it happened when they fell asleep, others said iguanas underestimated the strength of distal limbs.

By the second day, I began to look around with eyes that weren’t darting from one fear to another. I made friends with the bedroom first – for reasons of familiarity and attraction to rest, I suppose – the mattress was comfortable, with clean white sheets. Slowly, the vistas and clean air quieted my soul, helped me appreciate life beyond my trepidation and discomforts. The bay turned deeper blue as it reached westward toward the Caribbean Sea. At night, the sun dropped behind the comparative metropolis of St. Thomas in the distance. Hours later, a waxing sliver of the setting moon followed. The best part? I could take in that entire vista by simply sitting up in bed.

I gathered my nerve and snorkeled off Little Maho Bay. At first I kept my head above water, preferring to track the large bird on the beach, which may have been a Brown Booby. But I stayed in, half submerged, for fifteen minutes. I listened to the rhythmic tubular sound of my breath as I swallowed against my dry mouth. Pat pointed out small but starkly colored yellow and blue fish and another one, plump with polka dots. Tangs, we found out later, and a Trunkfish, respectively. The sea urchins – basically black balls of needles – stood out as the hardiest. Pale coral of interesting shapes hugged the rocky shoreline on the side of the bay.





After-dinner lectures held each night at Maho Bay Camps helped to further orient me to this underwater world. We learned about the coral die-off and bleaching events of 1998 and 2005, where eighty percent 80% of the Caribbean coral turned white and up to forty percent died. Bleaching doesn’t actually kill the coral. It’s due to the stress-induced loss of its symbiotic organisms, zooxanthellae. Coral is clear; the hues come from these organisms within their tissues. Some say the reef depletion is due to the high rates of erosion and run-off caused by construction – yet another reason to keep Maho Bay Camps as is. Others attribute it to the warming of the waters. But one thing is clear: die-offs continue. As a reminder of the National Park status of the coral around St John, one speaker showed a slide the Statue of Liberty with Swiss cheese-like holes, and another of Mt. Rushmore with half the heads missing. “If this happened to any of our other National Monuments,” he said, “Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts would be fundraising and Congress would act.”

On day three we took a day trip with Hamilton, of Hamilton’s Taxi Service. He’s been taking Maho Bay Camp visitors on trips since the late 1970’s, when it was hard to get anyone to drive on the rough and remote roads. Now, he’s given exclusive access to visitors on excursions to trailheads and other beaches. We snorkeled around Salt Pond Bay, on the southeastern end of the island, where we found healthier coral and bigger, more colorful fish. One, aptly named Queen Triggerfish, had blue, yellow and green in its body; its top fin flowed from its neck like a dancing boa. I enjoyed snorkeling this time – until I came upon a school of octopus-type things (or they came upon me). Their wide suction-cup mouths opened and closed repeatedly. They appeared to swim backwards because a big fat dot on their tail end looked like an eye. I found this disorienting. The whole group changed direction simultaneously and quickly. They seemed to swim right towards me. Or did they? I poked my panicked head above the surface and kicked my feet so they couldn’t get at me. Pat noticed and came above water.

“Squid,” she told me, as reassuringly as possible.

“Really? I’m heading back.”

We dried off in the warm sun, enjoyed our packed lunch and then hiked to Drunk Bay. Compared to the northern, tall-treed side of the island, this southern trek offered a new sense of climate. Arid. Desert-like. Cacti and low brush in scorching sun. To the east, the large, darker, gray-blue waves appeared more like those of my Jersey shore youth. This shore was made of rocks, from the tiniest pebble to boulders bigger than me; nowhere to place a chair or lay a blanket. Here, it is customary for visitors to make designs out of broken coral and rocks: stick figures mostly, but also Zen stacks, arrows, and bird nests. We watched one mother and her seven-year-old daughter diligently collect “art supplies.” Climbing over rocks on our way out, we checked out her sculpture: stone body, coral limbs, pebble pearls, and coconut shell hair.
   
Mahobay4By midweek, I started to love the tent cottage. I even warmed up to the ‘kitchen,’ though I still missed running water. Mostly, I loved sleeping there. I felt so lucky to lie on a comfy mattress and listen to tree leaves snap against one another, and to feel the periodic breeze on my skin. It felt as if I was sleeping outside and indeed, the Big Dipper situated itself right between the treetops as I gazed upwards from my pillow; my nightly miracle.

Unfortunately, Maho Bay Camps – this safe haven for geckos, iguanas and reluctant tourists like me – is in danger of extinction. A twelve-year extension on Stanley Selengut’s original twenty-five-year lease is up this January. They’ve gotten another, six-month extension – to July 2012. Bottom line? Mr. Selengut cannot pay the asking price: thirty-two million dollars.

Enter the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national, nonprofit land conservation organization dedicated to protecting land for public use. The Trust has already purchased nearly five hundred acres of land elsewhere on St. John, which it is selling in phases to the U.S. Congress to be turned over to the National Park Service. Negotiations for the Maho Bay Camp land have not, as of yet, led to an agreement. If they can’t agree, the precious fourteen acres could turn into a multi-floored cement structure with air conditioning and a chlorine pool. As much as the Westin sounded appealing to me when I first arrived, that is not what this place wants to be.




   
That afternoon, I met with Scott Drennen, the general manager of Maho Bay Camps. In his late twenties, Scott’s soft blue eyes matched his Maho Bay “senior management” polo shirt. Like many of the Maho Bay employees, Scott began as a volunteer. Volunteers make up a sizable portion of the work force in the off-season – May to November. It’s a competitive situation; Scott told me that he had just sorted through over six hundred applications for two hundred positions. People come from all over to work for four hours a day in exchange for room and board.

I asked him about the pending end of the lease in July 2012.

“It’s hard that I always have to opt for safety, never aesthetics,” he said. “The short lease only allows us to maintain. If it’s not safe, it gets fixed. Otherwise, no upgrades. I mean, look at that water station.”

He pointed to a wooden table with a garden-hose spigot at the top and clear plastic tubing in front. One of only three across the compound, its faded sign read “potable.” This was where Pat or I brought our five-gallon jug every few days.

“We collect rainwater in cisterns and use that for toilets and laundry,” he explained. “When it runs out, we have to use delivered water. We use three to four times less than the local Westin. But still, that’s 8,000 to 12,000 gallons per day. And it’s expensive; delivered water costs 8.32¢ per gallon.” The cost in the US is well under 1¢ per gallon.

Continual interruptions halted our conversation, mostly with a “Hey” or “What’s up?” Scott stopped one woman that walked by with, “Hey, Jana, how was that hike?” They all seemed to know one another, which might be explained by (or explain) their fifty percent visitor return rate.

“Water’s a finite resource,” Scott said as he faced me again. “For us, it’s not an idea; it’s practical. ‘Think tanks’ in the US discuss using resources efficiently; but here, we’re push-comes-to-shove. When the water runs out, it runs out. Not everyone can buy more.”

Pat and I had noticed the night prior that neither of our toilets would flush. My guess: someone had to flip the switch from the rainwater cistern to the delivered water cistern.

Recycling and reusing have always been part of the mission at Maho Bay Camps. Sustainable living. They don’t like to throw anything away. In fact, visitors can take classes to tie-dye or batik worn linens into sarongs, or create paper with a blend of discarded office paper and dryer lint. They can even blow glass sculptures with recycled glass.

“We see our dump here. Do you know where your trash goes?” Scott asked. “Most people in the U.S. don’t.”

I had to admit I didn’t. But like him, Pat and I take a bit of pride in how little we take to the curb every week. Decent programs in Pittsburgh enable us to recycle more than we trash.

“Really, it’s all about education,” he said. “We can’t fault those who weren’t taught. You have to be given an opportunity to recycle a can.”

Scott seemed to love his job and enjoyed talking with me. He was even gracious about my preferred flag-a-drink-from-my-chair style of vacations, a variation of which is available in St. John: just beyond the $300 per night Westin lies Caneel Bay, a luxury resort that runs $600-$1000 per night. But Scott honored the desire for luxury.

“Wouldn’t that be great?” he beamed. “Everyone works hard and deserves to be pampered. That’s what I’ve been trying to teach my staff: the cost of Caneel Bay or the Westin fits in their budget in the same way our cost [$135/night] fits for our folks. Each one deserves a vacation of a lifetime. I don’t want my staff to treat our guests like they’re saving money by staying here. For our folks, this is their big vacation, usually their only vacation.”




   
   
Maho PavilionAnd he’s right. While $135 per night was far less than the Westin or Caneel Bay, it was still a costly trip. Accommodations for Pat and I to stay seven nights ran approximately $1000 with tax. Transportation there and back, what with the flights and ferries and taxis, cost around $1500. We ate all but one breakfast and all but two dinners at Maho Bay Camps. They had a limited menu, understandably pricey, but the food was delicious. Together, our food bill totaled nearly $300. The taxi for each trip to town – Cruz Bay – cost $40. We went twice, once for breakfast (at Mojo’s for scrumptious huevos rancheros) and once for dinner (at Woody’s Seafood Saloon, for half-price happy hour and a delicious fish sandwich). We took two day-excursions, one on the Herron Schooner, which included lunch, and one to Salt Pond Bay, which included a delightful, though unplanned, stop for homemade ice cream. Add to that daily yoga on the beach at $15 per person per class, snorkel gear and chair rental: a grand total for two: $3300.
   
Thursday morning blossomed slowly. I woke before dawn and enjoyed the cool breeze as I walked to and from the bathhouse. Gentle morning sounds came from other cottages: inaudible questions asked, and answered; a spoon tapped on the side of a pan on a Coleman stove; a bathing suit and towel taken off the line. Pat read and I typed quietly on the deck as we sipped our coffee and listened to calm waves. Birds landed on our railing. We could identify the high-pitched tweets of the Bananaquit, but not the long slow vibratory sound from another bird; it sounded like “yes-in-deed!” through a kazoo. The smell of our neighbor’s pancakes wafted over. As the sun rose, we watched it fall like warm butter first on St. Thomas, then on the land opposite our bay. Sailboats and schooners rocked gently in three rows mid-bay. Winds gusts blew periodically. Fresh. Thin. Generous.

The frayed knot feeling in my gut had gradually dissolved and was replaced by a curiosity, a yearning to go deeper and find out more about this gem of a place tucked away in the Caribbean. In fact, later that morning, as I stood barefoot, filling our water jug, I saw the head of maintenance, Tom Sheets, who Scott had suggested I speak with about infrastructure. A large, robust man with a red bandana and long beard in hues of grey and brown, Tom wore a sleeveless Maho Bay T-shirt revealing surprisingly burned and shedding skin on his upper arms. His passion for Maho Bay and the island shows all over his face.
   
“It’s all about the people,” he said. A resident of St. John since 1989, Tom started out in a tent at Cinnamon Bay. He had worked construction and heavy equipment and, like Scott, his first encounter with Maho Bay Camps was as a volunteer. He was promoted to assistant manager of maintenance within months and still lives on the grounds.

“There was a camper a few years back that knew all about horticulture,” he explained. “She helped us understand which trees to cut and how. Then Woody, he’s one of the volunteers who came back this year, he’s like a monkey; he can climb anything with a chainsaw. These two will continue to have a great effect on giving guests the best views. Otherwise, it’s just a jungle.” 

I asked about a usual day.

“First we pick up garbage and recycling from the collection stations around camp. Then we sort it and drop the glass at the art hut, where they’ll bust it up and separate it into colors for blowing.”

Pat and I had enjoyed a glass blowing demonstration the night before. The artist and his apprentice performed a dance of danger around hot ovens and sizzling pokers. They made Grecian vases and scallop-rimmed bowls – glass wonders they’d later sell in the gift shop.

“Then we follow-up on work orders,” Tom continued. “We fix boards on steps and walkways, repair tents, whatever needs to be done. Then we check the daily water supply.”

“Ah.” I said knowingly, “Is that so you’ll know when to change from rainwater to purchased water? We ran into that the other night, neither of our toilets would flush.”

“No,” he said. “That turned out to be a foot valve problem.” 

We walked to the maintenance closet: a long skinny space between the men and women’s bathrooms with meters and valves at the far end. He explained that St. John desalinates water at plants in Caneel Bay and Cruz Bay. But it’s costly: $450-$500 for 4,200 gallons.





“When we have it, we use pure rainwater, for laundry and toilets. The rest is trucked in. The cistern is under the trap door in potato chip aisle in the store.”

“Amazing what’s right under our feet,” I said, and then asked, “Where do the sewers run?”

“We have our own treatment plant. You know that group of banana trees up on the hill?” he pointed over his shoulder. “They soak up seven times more water than any other plant. Whenever you see a bunch of banana trees they’re probably hiding a septic system.”

He leaned towards me and lowered his voice.

“You know, I wouldn’t eat those bananas for years. Until one day, one of the young volunteers from, oh, I can’t remember where, took a few green ones and let them ripen.”

He straightened up and gave a hardy laugh. “That there was the best banana I’d ever eaten.”

That afternoon, Pat and I took a sailboat trip on the Herron Schooner, a handsome hand-built sixty-five-foot vessel made of five types of wood. We sailed around Tortola, a British Virgin Island, then to Waterlemon Cay to snorkel (yes, Waterlemon). We were shown a picture of the Lionfish but told not to worry; they weren’t aggressive. The captain called them a “poisonous nuisance” and told us that none had been spotted there, but we should let them know if we saw one. Fortunately, we didn’t see any Lionfish. But we saw many others: green fish, white fish, blue fish, striped fish. One, over four-feet long – a Tarpon perhaps – was the largest I’d ever seen. As we swam around the tiny island of Waterlemon Cay, we found it equally rich with coral. Big purple lace fans. Brain coral the size of a large load of laundry. Black coral. Red coral. Soft coral the shape of a hydrangea bush swayed like willow in a changing wind.

At one point, Pat poked her head up, “If I found an octopus would you want to see it?” She asked hesitantly, knowing I might flee.

I realized I felt more confident. Meeting each day’s challenge had only led to new delights. So after a moment’s pause, I said, “Sure.”

“Over by those rocks.” She plunged in that direction. I followed.

And there it was: a brown and white ten-inch glob-of-a-body. It leaned on a rock, legs curled underneath. Since it didn’t come toward me, I remained comfortable, even excited to see it. Pat shrugged her arms, signaling (I thought), “Awh, it’s nothing, just another day in the Caribbean,” before she swam away. I stayed to watch. After a minute or so, he sprawled three of its long tentacles towards another rock and pulled himself over leisurely, uncoiling the rubbery legs on the other side in the process. Then he rolled these back under and sat taller, as if to slowly say, “I was there, and now I’m here.”

On the way home, when Pat and I talked about what we’d each seen, I mentioned how cool it was to see the octopus move.

“It moved?” she asked, incredulous.

“Yeah, didn’t you see it?”

“No, I couldn’t find it when I swam back to show it to you.”

“Oh, that’s just sad.”

We shook our heads and laughed. She deserved to have seen that.





That night, I simply shooed a bug that crawled down my wrist out the screen door. The next morning, another, the size and shape of a watermelon seed, walked over my computer screen. The first day I would’ve jumped urgently: Really? A bug right on my screen? How can I concentrate? Maybe if my trip were longer I’d not even notice that I was noticing.

Just as I began to see nature as accessible, I had to add another threat to my growing list. So far, I worried about the loss of the lease, the difficulty maintaining water and the coral bleaching and die-offs. Now, an after-dinner presentation on venomous Lionfish raised my awareness about another danger facing the Caribbean. This invasive species has infected coasts all along the islands and the southern shoreline of U.S. mainland. While not fatal, its venom – delivered through as many as eighteen needle-like dorsal fins – can cause extreme pain, nausea, and shortness of breath. Hoteliers and boat captains showed every tourist the Lionfish picture. When found, they’re removed from local waters in a constant battle to keep their numbers down. According to Karl Pytlik, Lionfish expert from CORE (Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education), they’re well beyond a “poisonous nuisance.” They could ruin the ecosystem and devastate the economy. With poisonous fish around, no one would want to swim. No more snorkeling or other water sports. This could decimate tourism from top to bottom: transportation, hotels, restaurants, and shops. Not to mention, the fishing industry. And like it or not, this Lionfish is here to stay: it multiplies quickly, eats 75% of its own body weight per day, and has no significant predator. The only hope is to limit their numbers by individual capture.
 
I hated to see the week come to its end. I felt braver than when I had arrived; snorkeling began to feel beautiful in a way that a hike in Pittsburgh’s Frick Park was beautiful. If something stunning caught my eye, I stayed to watch. I wondered at the splendor of it all. I grieved the losses. When we snorkeled across the bay instead of hugging the rocky fringe (where the coral has the best chance), the sea bottom was covered with dead white coral. Like bones. There’s a suspicion that the Lionfish that have populated the Caribbean waters were once in hobbyists’ aquariums. As in so many areas – the Gulf of Mexico, the waters off Japan – humans were wrecking the place. We’ll all have to adjust if we are to move towards sustainable living. We need more places like Maho Bay Camps, not fewer.   

Before we checked-out to begin our trek home, we donated to the Friends of the Virgin Island National Park and obtained contact information for CORE. We also signed up to get updates on the lease dilemma with the hope that the Trust for Public Land would be able to negotiate the deal to keep it open for years to come.

In the open air taxi on the way out of town, I held my camera at arms length, leaned over to Pat and took our picture with the turquoise sea as background: happy tourists sad to be leaving. In fact, I snapped as many photos of the threatened crystal waters as I could, trying to capture something I had just barely found. I kept at it until the islands were mere dots in the green sea below our plane. One of those dots, St. John, and on St. John the treasured fourteen acres, and somewhere under the surface of Maho Bay an octopus moved: slowly, deliberately and with pride.



©Janice Anderson





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