Enjoy the Caribbean. Drink rum on the beach, splash in the surf and spend the first ten minutes navigating the airport tarmac while hot and disoriented. You’re going to need a drink.
As visitors walk into the airport proper, they’re greeted by a charming woman cheerfully handing out samples of a favorite locally distilled beverage. Glorioski, it’s free rum punch! Be warned, this is not your grandmother’s rum punch.
Typically rum punch consists of punch with a little rum added. The airport punch is more like rum with a little punch added. Powerful stuff.
The free rum punch lady at the airport is something of a local legend. While cheerful and generous with visitors, she has an unerring eye for locals participating in St. Thomas’ favored pastime – scamming free drinks.
Many a local has spent a weekend playing competitive rounds of Bluff the Punch Lady. Although not a contact sport, the game has attracted many followers who participate with gusto in the attempt to be the first local to score a free drink. It’s never been done. No matter how cleverly disguised the local, with a tropical shirt and fresh sunburn; the free rum punch lady sees through all subterfuge and withholds the sample.
We’re thinking of making it an Olympic sport. It’s that difficult.
Due to the rum punch, visitors are often halfway to their hotels before the notice one of the more striking island quirks.
Surviving Island Driving
Holy Toledo, Virginia, did I drink too much of that free rum punch? It looks like these people are driving on the wrong side of the road!
Yes, Virginia, they are. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, traffic flows on the left hand side. Drivers have been over there since the first cars hit the island. The story is that, initially, the donkeys that pulled the carts around the islands preferred to walk on the left.
When the automobile age arrived the traffic stayed on the left with the donkeys. If you’ve never done it before, driving on the left hand side of the road can be a challenge.
There are some tricks to mastering, or at least surviving, island driving. Try driving with your window down and hang that arm over the edge. If your elbow is pointing at the trees, you’re doing fine. If your elbow is in the middle of the road, you’ve either had too much rum punch or you’re on the wrong side. Or both.
Drive defensively on the islands. No one else does. It will be fun to be a trendsetter.
Don’t rely on the guy in front of you to know which side of the road is proper. The yellow lines in the middle of the road do not, as they do on the mainland, constitute a clear defining separation of lanes. They are merely a suggestion and one that is not always followed to the letter. The roads are narrow and some drivers tend to take blind curves like Indy drivers in a hurry to move to the front of the pack.
And it’s not just the other drivers to worry about. One very late night my husband and I were driving home from a friend’s house just a half-mile up the road. I’m not admitting anything but there may have been some alcohol involved in this incident.
We were carefully sticking to the left and side of the road when we came to a corner. A man was standing on the side of the road waving, so we stopped the car to see what the man wanted.
As we rolled down the window, the man leaned into the car and said one word, “pigs.”
“Right,” we said and continued around the corner only to discover, pigs. Four of them being chased madly by a handful of men trying to load them back onto their now empty truck. Pigs. Who knew?
It takes a true island driver to be able to take such limited information as, “pigs,” and be unafraid to continue around the corner.
Damn that Local Rum
Pigs aren’t the only animals a driver is likely to encounter on the road. I’ve seen trucks pulling cows on leads, lust-crazed male iguanas challenging cars for the right to do the nasty with a luscious female iguana and, of course, the goats.
The goats are everywhere. No one is quite sure who owns the goats and they’re a sneaky lot. The unwary driver will frequently round a corner only to encounter a smiling goat on the side of the road. The less experienced driver will not slow down for one goat. This is a mistake.
It is never just one goat. It is an entire herd of goats or, in the local parlance, goat dem. That’s how a local expresses the concept of more than one. They simply tack the word dem on after the multiple they’re describing. Goat dem, drunken tourist dem, Hoover dem. You get the picture.
It should be noted that school children operate on the same principle as the goats. Sure they look charming standing there on the side of the road in their little school uniforms, trying to hitch a ride into town or up that huge hill.
If you stop your car for the one cherub standing in the hot sun, be prepared for the cherub dem who will sprint out of the bushes and pile into your car. You’ll be astounded by how many of them will fit in, and even more astounded when you learn that they are not all going to the same destination.
It’s best just to let the taxi drivers handle the roads. They don’t pick up cherub dem all that often and they are just as likely to thin a herd of goat dem than to avoid them.
If you really love to drive, St. Thomas offers another kind of paradise. The best local driving is on the north side of the island. The roads are as curvy as Marilyn Monroe in her prime and they are as hilly as Jayne Mansfield was. Up and down and around and around. It’s like driving your car on a really long roller coaster.
The north side roads are clearly marked with numbered road signs. Unfortunately, nobody who lives here knows what numbers correspond to what road. Stop and ask a local for directions to 33 and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare.
You want to go where? Oh, well, turn around and go to the next left, pass the goat dem and look for the brown cow on the right hand side. The restaurant is just ahead on your left. Make sure you have some rum punch. Oh, and don’t hit the chicken dem. They’re tomorrow night’s special.
Enjoy your time in the islands. Drink up on the free rum punch while you can. If you decide to stay here, you’ll never get another free drink.
Lyssa Graham is a freelance writer who has spent the better part of a decade living in and around the US Virgin Islands.