"An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered."
Gilbert K. Chesterton
Hitchhiking came about organically for us, and started as a progression. Prior to St. John, we've both respectably avoided hitchhiking. But something about the rum-infused air of the Caribbean brought us to the brink, and our low budget pushed us right over the edge.
Our first brush with hitchhiking was informative and not altogether successful. We were pleasantly tired and hungry after snorkeling and getting our camp set up the way we wanted before our second night at Cinnamon Bay. Our stomachs threatened mutiny at the thought of another Luna Bar, the sugar in them cloying after making them our primary fare for two days. We trekked up the massive hill from our campsite to the commissary to find out about dinner and were chagrined to learn it was a $20/plate affair that looked likely to occur on disposable plates and in the open feasting grounds of mosquitos in the thick jungle. At that point, anything seemed better than our only available option. Taxis waited just outside the commissary ready to charge us $7 per person each way. Nearly $30 total for transportation was unthinkable on our budget. With the roads being too treacherous to walk safely, no other restaurants within four miles, and nightfall coming, we made a bold choice: escape the campground creatively, or eat more Luna Bars for dinner. It was do or die time.
Walking past the bathrooms, we'd overheard some tourists talking about their car. They'd come to Cinnamon Bay for the day and were headed back to Cruz Bay where we'd discovered a plethora of dining options the night before. I butted in and asked them if we could ride along, and they said their car was already full, and they had to sit on each others’ laps as it was. So we trudged back up to the parking area to try to find someone else who could help us. Nervously, we eyed each group of tourists coming and going from the parking lot, and we made a few feebly awkward attempts to ask for a ride. After a while, the same group of folks arrived at the upper parking area and told us they’d talked about it and decided we could ride in the trunk area of their Jeep. A feeling of freedom washed over us as we piled in next to their beach gear. And that’s how these vagabond-hearted travelers turned into hitchhikers.
On our drive, we picked our short-term friends’ brains about ideas of where to stay, what to see, and so forth. They told us they come here all the time and they love this place. They told us that they’d just recently chartered a boat to go see a bunch of different islands. It sounded like they’d had a marvelous time, and when we asked the cost, we choked a bit as they told us they’d spent $95 per person for the boat plus $50 per person for customs on the British islands...and it was so worth it. They said they'd gotten a cheap deal. We felt sure as we listened to them that there had to be cheaper options. .
Just at the edge of Cruz Bay, our temporary friends let us out of the Jeep to avoid getting in trouble for having us in the trunk. We walked into town and all the way through to the other side stopping to request menus to peruse prices, and always moving on because nothing fell within our price range. We stopped at the much-raved-about Banana Deck to take a picture, but then moved on because of prices.
Feeling a bit concerned about time (restaurants close here promptly at 9pm and taxis stop at that time, too, we’re told), we chose a place that had food in our price range…on the appetizer menu. We sat down and found there were also burgers for *close* to what we could afford. And even still it wasn’t low enough. We walked out spending $33 on the meal. That makes today pretty wildly expensive for this trip, and it strengthened our resolve to stick to the things we brought with us or eat small even if our hunger was on a mad rampage.
We asked our waitress about transportation options to other islands since we’d planned to go to Jost Van Dyke and Virgin Gorda the following day. She told us the ferry runs a cool $100 per person round trip plus $50 for customs and it’s just so worth it. We died a little inside. Our hopes of seeing other islands vanished. The cost of passage to an island we could see from our beach (and could reach on a paddleboard if we needed to) would be a much higher price than the airfare that brought us to this epic tourist trap.
Somewhat disheartened, we tried to hitchhike our way back to camp, but discovered that the tourists in the area were either staying in Cruz Bay or were taking spendy cab rides to expensive resorts around the island. Since our campground is pretty far out of the way, we ended up having to hail a cab and pay the gouging $7 per person to ride back to camp. We rallied behind the fact that we'd only had to pay to go one way for the evening. It felt like a miniscule victory.
On our way, we rode with a couple who was staying at the Westin, and a couple who was staying in a house-like structure in our campground. So far, everyone we’ve met seems to be serious regulars on this island. Our fellow cab riders also talked about how many years they've been coming to St. John, about returning in a few months, and then again one more time before this tourist season is over. And none of them mention flying on Spirit. All we knew is that these were not our people.
The people in our cab looked at us like we had just proclaimed allegiance to North Korea or announced we were doing research to try to grow a third arm when we said we wanted to hike to and from town. Jason tried explaining that there were trails, but everyone was too busy gasping about how dangerous it would be on the roads, so no one heard.
We dropped off the folks from the Westin and then we began to ask questions of our fellow Cinnamon Bay campers. They told us they come here all the time and they do it “cheap.” They explained that they can’t stomach the hotel prices which range from $300 per night to $600 on average, so they "camp" in the hotel-like rooms which cost double what our tent costs per night, but well under the average for this crazy island.
They told us Salt Pond was well worth the visit and there’s a bus that runs to that area. The bus costs $2 to cross the entire island. You just have to get to a different road several miles away through dense jungle. We didn’t tell them we’ll likely hike to most places we go after that cab ride. They proudly declared that they use the taxi service on days when they want to be "cheap" and that they rented a Jeep for a few days before today and it was just so worth it. It cost them a cool $75 per day. To them, the cost seemed agreeable. For us on this trip, it's close to our entire daily budget including airfare, meals, lodging, transportation, and entertainment. But we just tried to look like it made sense to us so they didn't have to look at us like mutant beasts.
The taxi rounded straight-up hairpin corners that made me sure it would tip backwards from the extreme grade of the corner/hill combo. But we made it to the campground in a downpour and said goodbye to our friends who think they're traveling cheap. Then we turned in for the night ready for a glorious night in our hammock.
Two days later, we'd eaten copious quantities of Luna bars and fruit leather, met Princess and Ray, talked to other vagabonds at the campground, and made some important decisions about lodging and were readying for the next leg of our adventure. We'd tallied our mosquito bites and each of us had quit counting when we reached 150. Wheezing from the mold in the tent, we didn't want to take our chances on the house-like structures at Cinnamon Bay. For $10 more per day than the houses at Cinnamon Bay, we could go see another side of the island (which was fabled to be much drier and less mosquito-laden) and stay in an eco-tent resort I'd researched and found fascinating. I'd called Concordia, the eco-lodge, to reserve a tent for the final two nights, and a sense of relief washed over both of us on our third night as we bedded down knowing that in the morning we could gracefully bow out of our role as hosts for Dracula's feast of minions.
As we departed on December 6, hitchhiking got real for these 2 Royal Vagabonds. We bid farewell to the Tent of Doom excited to exchange it for the eco-tents of Concordia on the southern tip of the island where I'm now pleased to be writing this post. These eco-tents are high above the sea with delicious breezes. The view from our windows is the confluence of the Atlantic and Caribbean. There’s an angry ocean on the Atlantic side and the cool, jewel-colored waters of the Caribbean on the other. In the middle is a view of a place called Salt Pond. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Getting here was an exciting and fun series of mini adventures in which we were called “earthy,” assumed to be migrant workers, and were treated like cargo all in the span of a few hours.
We packed our bags this morning and took some food we don’t expect to eat by the end of our trip to Princess and Ray. We said goodbye to them and exchanged kind words, hugs, and email addresses. This beautiful, freckled, bald woman has made a lasting impact on me in the span of a few hours.
Coming out of the campground felt a bit like surfacing from a very odd, slightly pizza-induced dream. The air felt more open and alive with possibility. Light rain was our companion for most of the walking we did today and we marched happily through it.
We’d asked the receptionist at Concordia how much a taxi would cost and her best estimate was between $15 and $30 per person. In my opinion, there are far better ways to blow that kind of cash, so we opted for hitchhiking. We'd continued to hear how some of the locals use that as a primary mode of transportation.
We walked a short distance and came to some ruins of a sugar factory. There are ruins all over this island from the days of sugar production, including graves and all sorts of machinery.
Then we tried out Princess’ hand signal for hailing a ride. I highly offended one local who signaled back with the middle finger salute, so I modified my gesture a bit more. We encountered a number of Americans who drove right past us, almost too close for comfort, pretending they couldn’t actually see us. I determined to be more courteous to hitchhikers in the future, even if I don’t offer them a ride.
After a little more walking, a Jeep with 3 American women stopped for us. We didn't have a proper map with us, but the island is simple enough to get around and we'd studied a few maps, so we helped navigate the ladies to Watermelon Cay where they were headed.They insisted that we ride in the main part of the car despite how rainy we were. One woman squashed to one side of the car to make room for us and our bags. They were reviled at the thought of asking us to ride in the trunk. These ladies were ridiculously sweet. As we talked, they figured out we were also American tourists here on a short trip. They were equal parts baffled and intrigued by our travel choices and kept asking questions. At one point, after explaining that we’d camped three nights and wish we’d brought our own tent, the youngest of them turned to us and admonished us, “Man, you guys are just so earthy.” Her tone of admiration was a deep compliment. We wound around a bit and arrived at Watermelon Cay, an area slightly off our beaten path.
In the parking lot, we parted ways with the American women and headed back to the main road. On our way, we passed trees bearing fruit that looked like apples and a sign informing us not to touch the fruit or the trees.
We passed mangrove trees with strange growths on them and we're guessing they might be termites. This island is a tricky mistress looking to get you when you’re least expecting it. And it’s deceptively sweet sounding with names like Watermelon Cay, Chocolate Beach, and Cinnamon Bay.
Seriously, I think this might be the place that Mario Kart named all their beaches for. We walked past ancient ruins of a Danish Road and more sugar factories. This island seems to be a patchwork of old stories asking to be pieced together. We worked together to piece together our rudimentary maps and my memory for directions to get us back to the main road.
We congratulated ourselves for teamwork, and from there, we began our hitchhiking in earnest again. It was still raining, but didn’t take long for a black truck with three local guys to pull over. We told them where we were going and they said they could get us closeish, so we hopped into the back of their pickup with bars around the top. Once we were situated, we gave each other knowing glances of pure excitement. This was exactly what we were hoping for.
This was the quintessence of hitchhiking for fun. We were actually bumping along in the back of a truck. In a weird way, we both felt a sense that we’d just arrived in our lives for the first time. The truck climbed higher and higher up mountains, the tires sometimes spinning out just a bit on the tight, tall hairpin turns.
They dropped us off near a coffee truck on the side of the road. Even though our maps were incomplete and this spot was literally nothing more than a food truck off the side of the road, it was marked on the map. Gives you an idea for the population of this island. The sign said they sold smoothies with rum.
The setting looked like it had been borrowed straight out of an iconic picture of a high-mountaineous area somewhere in Asia. I half expected there to be little colorful flags hanging on ropes. The clouds rolled in and the rain fell in sheets, so we hung out under the awning until it cleared. The couple running the shop were quiet, but so was the weather. Our wedding song played, and so did some Christmas music.
The area was mountainous and rainy. It was stunningly beautiful, but nothing about it conjured the cold-weather memories that go with either Christmas or our wedding day. Neither did it seem remotely like Cinnamon Bay, or the things we'd heard about the side of the island we'd yet to reach. It was an entity all its own.
When the rain cleared a little, the couple running the food truck pointed the way to Coral Bay, the main "city" on the east side of the island, and we went on our jolly way.
Trekking down the wet mountain road, we continued our thumbing (well, pointing, so as not to offend anyone) and we’d agreed that if no one came to pick us up by a certain point, we’d just veer off the road and take a trail that dropped off almost directly into Coral Bay. But since the people on this island are accustome to picking up hitchhikers, we didn't make it that far. Within a few minutes, a local man with a colorful mesh shirt and a big, toothy grin pulled over and got the particulars of where we were going. We got in his car, a van that smelled faintly of cigarette smoke. He signaled his "laid back" ness in every way he could from the attire he wore, and the fact that he wore no shoes and kept one foot on the seat he was sitting on, to the seat itself which was reclined so severely, it was actually laying in the back seat beside me, though he sat up. As he drove, he told us lives here now, but a large volcano forced him to leave his home some 20 years ago and he’s lived here ever since because his mom was here. He was drinking a beer as he drove, and laughing a belly laugh as he turned the hairpin turns. He was driving well, so we decided not to worry about it. He wasn’t drunk, but was drinking. It was in this moment that the rules of the road we’d heard about came into focus for us. Here, it’s perfectly legal to drink while driving, but not to be drunk while driving. It is also illegal to drive without a shirt on. So this man was obeying all the traffic rules we knew. He was a law-abiding citizen on his way to fix his boat for the day. With a beer in his hand. And hitchhikers in his car. No big deal. I genuinely wasn't worried. The views on our drive were spectacular.
As we chatted and he drove, he told us that if we’d buy him another beer, he’d take us all the way to Concordia instead of just to Coral Bay. It was an extra three miles, so we agreed. In Coral Bay, he stopped the car in front of a liquor and convenience store and we all went inside. The man behind the counter was from the Dominican Republic and wanted to have a real lengthy conversation with us about his roots. Our driver friend left the store, beer in hand, as the store owner waxed eloquent about how he’d lived here for just over 80 days and he was loving life on this island. He venerated island life enthusiastically and insisted on showing us a picture of a waterfall here on the island. Interrupting several other customers, he found the pictures on his phone and showed them to us. The waterfall was beautiful. Finally, we let him know we were ready to buy a beer for his friend, the man who was driving us, and we explained the arrangement. He told us we had no need to pay for him and the drink was comped. So we piled back in the car and pulled away from the store as our driver popped the cap on his second beer.
Our chatty driving friend stopped a short while later to pick up another local who was hitching her way to church. The driver set his seat upright so she could sit behond him and the woman climbed in the back seat with me. And there we rode along in perfect irony: the only person with alcohol in his hands was the driver who also lit up a cigarette as he drove, his passengers were perfect strangers, one bound for church, and the other two off to adventure on the map.
We dropped the lady off at her church, and our friend asked us more questions about our trip. When we told him we’d been staying in Cinnamon Bay, he howled with laughter. He kept repeating that we must have had a "great" time with the mosquitos, and he reassured us we had much fewer of them to worry about here. As we rounded our final corners, he pointed out his home on our route. Then he asked if we were the seasonal volunteer workers coming to the place, and we told him we wished so, but not this time. It was the first we’d heard of a volunteer program at this place.
He dropped us right outside the check-in desk for Concordia, and he drove off, beer in hand, still laughing out the window about mosquitos and Cinnamon Bay.
As we walked up the steps of Concordia, we saw signs requesting silent respect for the yoga class in session. Sunlight and ocean breezes poured over us in abundance. It was the exact opposite of the place we’d just come from. The sun was almost searingly hot and bright. We could see Ramshead Point, Salt Pond, and the place where the Caribbean meets the Pacific on this island. The staff were friendly and the place was immaculate. While we waited for our tent to be ready, we ate breakfast and listened to this family sing.
We went in to check in and asked about the volunteer program. A man named Matt who runs the program stepped around the desk and told us all about it. Apparently, every summer from June through October, Concordia takes on volunteers who can come spend a month here working on projects. The volunteers receive free lodging and discounted meals (but the tents also all have a full kitchen setup, so cooking is a viable option as well) in exchange for about 35 hours a week of work. They try to give about 2 days a week off so people can explore the island and see this ama
zing place. They take about 5-6 volunteers at a time, so the group becomes very tight-knit and the application process is fairly competitive. He seemed to really want to impress upon us that they require hard physical labor and that it’s very hot. He encouraged us to apply to the program and told us we can check out the website in mid-December for the Volunteer section.
This is their version of an eco-tent. We'll write more about it later, but it was unbelievably impressive to us.
After breakfast, we went, grinning ear-to-ear, to our tent on the mountainside and were elated to find a 2-storey house-like tent built on a deck high above the trees and receiving glorious ocean breezes. It was such a welcome relief, we took a nap.
These are two of the six beds available in our tent. We rented a basic tent.