"The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes 'sight-seeing.'"
Daniel J. Boorstin
As eager travelers, we have embraced the wide range of experiences St. John has presented us with. Last night was my first night in the hammock, and the rest of the day has been a day of junctions, decisions, and gypsy magic. Today we met a stunning woman named Princess and discovered the joys of bulk booze and free snorkeling pretty much simultaneously. It feels like today must have been pivotal in some way. We still don't have our lodging for our final two nights booked, but we figure we'll get that taken care of as it comes to us. Since we're not feeling confident enough to camp, we're debating between staying in a house-like structure here at the campground, finding cheap lodging in Cruz Bay, or checking out some eco-tents on the other side of the island at a place I researched before we came. We decided to think on it with some rum.
Up to the commissary we went to purchase a bottle of locally-produced Cruzan rum, a can of pineapple juice, and a can of sweetened coconut milk. We had no tools to open the cans, so Jason used the pointy corner of the grill at the campsite to ram a hole in each can, and then a rock to widen the holes enough to be pourable. We poured all of the rum into a plastic water bottle from yesterday to avoid bringing glass to the beach, and we brought a fairly wide-mouthed cranberry juice bottle for mixing and consuming our pina coladas. And we set off with sarongs and all our great intentions slathered in sunscreen.
We exited our jungle labyrinth to find Cinnamon Bay glittering in the sunshine. The exact location of our tent feels so far from any beach even though it's just a few hundred feet from the water.
The jungle springs thick and determined from the edge of the beach. How the jungle and ocean sorted out their proper places, I’ll never know, but there are no palm-tree shaded areas on this beach. Yet the beach does have a total lack of bugs unless you bait them with sugar. It's great reprieve from the jungle. On this island your options are to be on the white sand, soaking up the sun and slaking in the gem-colored water, or you’re in a densely shaded forest of mangroves, palms, mangoes, nettles, poison apple trees, and something with ghastly needles, perhaps some form of citrus.
By the end of the day, we procured a total of 8 glasses of pina colada from our arrangement with the commissary-purchased rum accoutrements.
Even though we learned from other campers that we overpaid for the rum, we still paid less for our 8 glasses of drink than the relatively “affordable” $8 per glass that everyone on this island seems to agree is the fair price for tourist refreshment. So we began our vacation-style day drinking around 9am promptly after a “hearty” breakfast of Luna bars and fruit leather. We set out our stuff so that we could easily grab the valuable things and head for camp if rain threatened, intending to leave a certain portion of our things on a sarong to mark our spot.
The beach was full of color, sun, and perfect conditions for kindling a Jack Sparrow-like relationship with rum. We secured one of the best spots on the entire beach (to our way of thinking). We were close enough to the jungle to have shade, and there was even a small alcove in the leaves to create a place to hide from small rain showers.
We wrapped one of the many sarongs around our pineapple and coconut juices and closed up the rum whenever it wasn't in use. To our knowledge, these measures prevented us from consuming any insects or sand in our beverages.
Jason took the juice-bottle-turned-mixed-drink shaker to where the waves were hitting the shore to ensure no drops of sugar or juice would hit the beach during his mixology sessions. I'd say the backdrop is unbeatable for learning basic bartending. So while the evenings have been pretty rough, at the end of day 2 (rounding in on the third evening), I can say conclusively that the days have been anything but rough and have been worth the agony of the Tent of Doom.
Rain came soon after we had shaken up our second round of pina coladas. We stuck to our code and bolted for the Tent of Doom with valuables in tow. Arriving at our campsite, we happened upon some folks asking questions about our hammock setup. I proudly beamed to this couple about our hammocks as if a night in a hammock had made me an expert on hammock living. And then they told us they live here for about 3-4 months every year and they have hammocking down to a complete art. I asked them some questions about their setup, and when it got to be too much for me to understand, I asked to see their campsite.
They led us past where we thought the edge of the campground was and through more winding paths in the trees to a campsite so grand, it was hard to entirely grasp our surroundings.
We entered the campsite through a wall of beach towels in every theme you can imagine. All of the things in the campsite, except a few essentials, are found items that the couple collects throughout their lengthy stays. They arrive each year intending to stay as long as money permits.
Past the towels, a 50-foot tarp fixed about 20 feet overhead shaded the entire campsite stretching to each of the borders where the forest encroached upon the sandy oasis. The woman, who called herself Princess, and her partner, Ray, had set up a campsite that was far beyond the imaginings of even the most ambitious "glampers."
Princess explained to me that the size of the tarp is critical since everyone rakes their campsites and the sites become bowls. A tarp functions much better than a rain fly because it still allows for ventilation and a large enough tarp prevents water from pooling around your tent.
As she told me the reasons for everything, I stood dumbfounded. It was clear that I had walked into a space filled with the magic that enchants the hearts of vagabonds. This place was something from the sweetest corner of dreams among the gypsy-hearted world.
A full cook set hung against one “wall” above the stove and suspended over makeshift cabinets. Obliging trees offered spaces for hanging all kinds of odds and ends. Their cozy site was complete with ambient lighting and even a chandelier comprised of LED lights and hand-made holders for hanging push-button lights over the dinner table.
It was profoundly peaceful and it was also evident that the magic behind this place was in the people who’d lovingly built it. They told us they’d been coming to this spot for 35 years. And over time, the length of their stays has been able to increase proportionally with the freedoms life has afforded them. We talked about how to properly hitch a ride on this island, our shared experience of working with kids in difficult situations, and the ins and outs of their personal island paradise.
Across the dinner table from us, there was a larger-than-life hammock made for two people and long enough to just about fit both of those people end-to-end (though I’m sure that’s not the way it was meant to be used). Since Jason and I have a penchant for hammocks, it seemed so fitting that it was our hammock and theirs that brought us into this magical place. Under the hammock was a series of food storage containers arranged to enable sustainable living.
I was amazed standing in this homey space how much it had been transformed by creativity and unconventional uses for things. They told us how they find most of the things they display in their campsite. They locate these treasures in the campsites of departed campers, or even the trash containers around the campground. From the wine bottle windchime, and the hat tree, to the Nemo and their beloved “Shark-ass” squeaky toys that hung perfectly displayed, everything had a function, a purpose, and was a found object.
The campsite was a living work of art that displayed these two incredible people perfectly. Over their 35 years coming to Cinnamon Bay Campground, they usually come without a tent and frequently happen upon one that someone else has thrown away. Even the extra tent that they keep for day trips to other islands is something they've found left behind by other campers.
We talked with Princess and Ray having simultaneous conversations that were beyond enthralling for over an hour, I think, and then I asked for permission to photograph their campsite.
We went back to our site and grabbed our camera, talking excitedly the entire way about how inspiring, encouraging, and remarkable it was to talk to them.
We had learned a proper hitchhiking gesture for the island and practiced it together as we walked through the jungle. A thumbs up in this area means "F you," but tourists don't know that pointing at the ground means you want a ride. So, Princess had taught us a hand sign that solved the problem by combining the two gestures so suavely that it avoided offense and lent clarity. Excited at the thought of hitchhiking, we determined to use our newly acquired skill as soon as possible.
We returned to their camp and saw pictures of her son’s graphic design work as well as taking our own pictures of their charming home. We said goodbyes and returned to our spot on the beach. Probably our greatest take-away from our conversations with our newfound friends was the wisdom to bring our own tent and always pack a tarp.
After meeting Princess and Ray, everything about us felt so green and novice, but we were inspired. In a state of happy bewilderment, we wandered back to our spot on the beach to spend the rest of our day sipping on pina coladas and snorkeling. We paid the $20 deposit per person (refundable) to rent
flippers, snorkels, and masks as well as $5 per person for us to rent the gear. We snorkeled our first day on the island, as well, and today, we went back to cover the side of the bay we'd missed the previous day. That right side of the bay is considered some of the best snorkeling in the USVI.
Over the first two days, we explored the entire area of Cinnamon Bay's underwater treasures.
I always feel so much more alive when I can be immersed in water.
Since we couldn't do any SCUBA diving because of our budget restrictions, we contented ourselves with 20'-30' free dives from the surface, testing the limits of our lungs. I stopped many times along the way to dive down and examine things, pester parrotfish, and enjoy the feeling of so much water. I’m a waterbaby to the core.
Along the far wall of the bay, we found immaculate reefs with vibrant fish populations. I bothered all of the sea life like an over-excited dad at a kid's soccer game (don’t worry, I never touched anything, but I did take tons of pictures) and choked on water a number of times. When we got back to our tent for the evening, I realized I’d overdone it. I had cramps all over my body, but I was deliriously happy. It took hours to relieve the knots and stop hurting. But it was totally worth it.
We congratulated ourselves on keeping our costs down: The total cost for the day's entertainment ended up being nothing because the rental shop actually returned the $10 rental fee. After our snorkeling adventure, we headed to the outdoor showers and cleaned up.
Because our camera is waterproof to 100', we take it on all of our underwater explorations. After immersion in salt water, it has to be rinsed, so we washed it off in the shower, too. The outdoor showers are lovely. They are quiet and serene, and very clean with the sound of tropical birds overhead. Of course, since I'm the Lizard Empress, I was accompanied by a couple lizards, but I didn't mind since they kept a respectful distance. The walls are set up so we could set our shared shampoo and soap on top of the wall between the men's and women's showers. After our shower, we prepared for our third and final night in the campground.
Before bed, we decided to go be social on our final night in the campground, but we were totally distracted by the beach.
It was gorgeously dark and mysterious in the moonlight, so we took a stroll along it.
As we walked, the sky took our breath away. We could see more stars than we’ve seen in quite some time. While we stood staring at the vast array of light in the sky, we started to notice stars seemingly washing up on the shore. Bioluminescent microorganisms in the water from a nearby bay had been washed into Cinnamon Bay. When the water churned, they would light up, and as they washed ashore, they stuck in the sand. Walking along the beach felt magical. We left a trail of twinkling fairy dust in the sand as the microorganisms lit back up from the movement of our feet. It was breathtakingly beautiful.