Thursday, April 12, 2012

To Cruise or Not To Cruise - Day 6

             St. Croix is the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was "discovered" by Christopher Columbus during his second exploration in 1493. When he and his crew came ashore to get fresh water they were immediately attacked by the local native inhabitants. They named the island St. Croix, Holy Cross, and headed north in search of friendlier watering holes. The Danes bought the island from the French in 1733 and turned their capital city of Christiansted into the hub for their Caribbean operations, mostly centered around sugar cane and slaves. The British booted them out a few times, the sugar beet industry made them superfluous, slavery became illegal, and a earthquake and a few hurricanes laid waste to the island. By 1916, the Danes had finally had enough and they sold all of the islands comprising the Danish West Indies to the United States for the tidy sum of $25 million. At that point, the only money-making enterprise left was the rum industry. Prohibition in 1922 pretty much destroyed that trade and it wasn't until the 60s that tourism began to transform the island into a vacation paradise.

            Our ship landed just after sunrise on the island's west coast, at the second largest city of Frederiksted. 

            We met Peter and Esther at a tidy palm tree park at the end of the dock where yet another bored steel drum played under a white tent and tour guides dressed in matching tropical shirts greeted the hordes of boat people, offering a wide assortment of island tours, from dive trips to golf outings. Unlike the other countries we had visited, these vendors were strictly middlemen. They were not taking you anywhere. Their job was to find out what you wanted to do and then match you up with the actual guide who was waiting quietly under the manicured palms along the walkways. There was a relaxed atmosphere. And the goal was not to fill each van. So the drivers were essentially part of a lottery. If eight people wanted to tour the island, then the driver had a full load and made good money. But if there were only four, as in our case, then the driver had to leave with empty seats. 

            Our driver was Angry Felix and he didn't like the fact that there were only four of us. He immediately started bitching under his breath. I was entirely captivated by the sights and sounds and it wasn't until we started walking toward Angry Felix's red van parked near a handsome red stone fort along the harbor that I picked up the hostile vibe. Peter and Esther told him that if he was going to cop an attitude then we would be happy to go with someone else. But he had already punched his daily ticket and he couldn't go back and recruit a different group. So, he had no choice but to take us where the dock boss told him to go.

            We spread out in the roomy van and proceeded east on the Mahogany Road, having no idea where we were going other than our final destination of Christiansted. As we drove through small enclaves of activity, it was obvious we were out of the real Caribbean and the influence of the U.S. reared its majestic head in the form of Home Depots and more upscale housing. It was like a really rundown old Florida.

            Angry Felix was an able guide, pointing out the places of historic significance, but everything he said was laced with unbridled contempt for the island's sad state of affairs. He went off incessantly about the political "rats", cutthroat Palestinian businessmen who controlled the economy, and a U.S. government that turned a blind eye to the horrific state of affairs.

From our perspective, things looked pretty good on St. Croix. The standard of living was obviously much higher than the other islands to the south, who were not embraced by the American eagle's mighty wings. 
We passed small roadside shopping malls and industrial parks with few cars, and as we began climbing into the mountains we passed gated subdivision mansions nestled around a lush golf course in the hills.

We stopped to hug a trio of giant Baobab trees about 200 inches in diameter.

And at the Cane Bay beach we watched teams of divers start their swim right off the beach, so there had to be an inviting reef nearby.

Expansive houses with inviting porches clung to the high desert terrain which reminded me of the foothills around Tucson, with sparse brown hillsides of exposed dark rock dotted with prickly pear cactus. Clearly, there was money in them thar hills.
             But Angry Felix said the whole economy was in shambles because "Obama has the padlock and won't get rid of the rats."
            The island seemed a tad disjointed and unsure of itself.
            We passed a very diverse mix of protestors with handmade signs, standing on the side of the main drag into Christiansted. They were angry at the government for not allowing a resort to take over the grounds where some government study facility had once been housed. The long arm of the Environmental Protection Agency had squashed the project because of environmental concerns and the protestors were bemoaning the lost jobs.
             Angry Felix dropped us in the city center, right across from the ornate Government House that looked like one of the fancy embassies in Washington, D.C., and said he would return for us in two hours.

            Christiansted is all yellow and red Danish colonial buildings that line the upscale waterfront like bright flowers. Attractive homes with red roofs clung to the steep green hillsides like candy.

              We walked along a boardwalk lined with funky bars and restaurants. Small sailing craft were moored in the blue green harbor and a breakfront of sparkling white waves danced along the beaches at the mouth of the sheltered bay. 

We stopped at a cabana bar where they served their own home-brewed beer and the happy Anglo bartender blew a pink conch shell to attract customers.

Drinking in public was okay, so we continued our waterfront walk, passing old cannons and other relics from the past that were now serving as lawn ornaments.

            The National Park Service runs a historic site that juts out from a bulkheaded point where a large yellow fort once guarded the city inhabitants. Green wooden hurricane doors and windows with white trim gave the place an almost carnival-like appearance. A red, guard booth stood somewhat almost comically by the front gate. This was definitely a happy fort.

            On a side street we stumbled upon the Annapolis Sailing School, which is headquartered in our hometown. It is a small world indeed.

             We met Angry Felix after lunch and continued on our tour of the island.

The Southside Road led us along the southern coast that sported several secluded resorts with inviting white sand beaches.

             As we came over the top of a hill we were suddenly looking down on Hovensa, one of the ten largest oil refineries in the world, operated by Hess Oil and Venezuela. They supply heating oil and gas to the Gulf states and the eastern seaboard of the U.S.
            Angry Felix began ranting about the impending disaster awaiting the island come October.
            Once again, one of the main villains was the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency had recently hit Hovensa with a $5.3 fine for Clean Air violations. Hess paid the fine and then announced they were closing the refinery, the largest employer on the island, and moving the whole operation down to Venezuela where crazy Hugo Chavez was welcoming them with open arms and a promise that they could pollute to their heart's content.
            "That's the end of cheap gas and good jobs," spit Angry Felix.
            The refinery looked ancient and dangerous. It was a rusty pile of tangled metal pipes at the edge of the ocean. No good could come from that.
            We drove past a renovated section of the sprawling facility and Angry Felix said it was the new Captain Morgan spiced rum distillery.
            We came to a tidy complex of cinder block houses without windows dotting the surrounding grassy hills. This was the largest public housing community in St. Croix. The structures reminded me of bus shelters and they looked like they would be a hot and buggy place to live, especially given that they were literally right outside the barbed wire fence that encircled the oil refinery.
            "Do they have any health problems living so close to the oil facility?" I asked.
            Angry Felix went off like a gun. "The air smells like crap and they have cancer and asthma problems like you wouldn't believe."
            "So, the government was justified in ordering the plant managers to clean up their act," I remarked.
            "Of course they were," barked Angry Felix. "The bastards are killing us all."
            "I don't get it," I said.
            Angry Felix scowled at me before returning his attention to the road, which was now a fairly deserted dual lane highway. "John Hess and his fellow thieves can move to Venezuela, or hell for all I care. But the government has a contract with these blood suckers, and they should not be allowed to move their operations. The refinery is for the people of St. Croix. To hell with John Hess. But leave the refinery for someone else to run. That's only fair. Otherwise, what are we going to do?"
            We felt sorry for Angry Felix. He was an educated man who was caught between powerful worlds that had eventually turned him into a bitter man who watched CNN and bristled at the crazy news from the mainland each day. 
            Tourism masks the boiling under currents of Caribbean island life. Those currents run strong on every island, but I think the people of St. Croix would have probably gotten a better deal if the Danes still managed the place, rather than their absentee American landlords.

            When Angry Felix dropped us back in Frederiksted, dark rain clouds were rolling in from the south and we were tired of sight seeing around St. Croix.

There was a nice public beach right next to the boat dock. Sea horses were rumored to be found in the green waters.

But we were hungry, so we headed for the comfort of the ship where boat drinks awaited us at the pool and the troubles of the world were reduced to thunder storm rainbows.

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