Virgins No More

In 1493 Christopher Columbus visited the chain of islands that he named after St. Ursula and the 11, 000 virgins.

My sister Lee, my friend Kathy, and I were all Virgin Island virgins, having never before set foot upon them.

Until last week.

We flew into St Thomas and took the car ferry over to the island of St. John.

St. John is a US territory, with nearly two thirds of its land set aside as a National Park and wildlife sanctuary.  It was a short drive from our hotel on Cruz Bay…

…to the pristine beaches of the U.S. National Park.

Big blue land crabs made their homes in the muddy floors of the mangrove swamps…

…while tiny red crabs in the tens of thousands sounded like rain on the forest floor when they skittered into hiding.

Pelicans could be seen fishing on every beach.

Iguanas frequented both beaches…

…and grassy areas.

And so many birds!  Dark hummingbirds, yellow songbirds, cranes, egrets, and many others.

Everywhere we saw ruins of a troubled past, where slaves once worked the sugar plantations dotting the island.

Who sat on the tiled veranda of this mansion sipping coffee and enjoying the ocean breeze within sight of the mill, where slaves were forced to stir boiling kettles of sugar syrup in unbearable heat?

At the Annaberg Planation, this windmill processed sugar cane.

It is a relic of a cruel past.

By 1733 slaves outnumbered Europeans 5 to 1.  Harsh laws condoning torture, amputation, and murder were enacted to keep slaves under control, but instead prompted a bloody rebellion.  Slaves rose up and held the island for six months before the French Militia helped the Danes crush the revolt.  Rather than return to slavery, hundreds threw themselves off rugged cliffs into the sea below.

In 1848, when again faced with uprisings, the governor of St. John declared an end to slavery on St. John.

This statue of a slave, sugar cane knife in hand, blowing a conch shell to sound the call to freedom, celebrates hard-won liberty.

Today 78 percent of the population is descended from African slaves.

The Virgin Islands are brimming with color, whether it be in nature’s sphere…

…or made so by human hand.

 It is a place filled with joyful music…

…and lively spirits.

They know how to live down there.

They work hard.

And play hard.

 And take nothing for granted.

All words and images 2014 Naomi Baltuck, unless otherwise stated.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Minimalist.

110 Comments

    1. Hi there! Thanks so much for the visit. It was a great time, with my favorite experience was introducing my big sister to snorkeling for the very first time and she took to it like, well, like a fish to the water!

      1. I’ve never been to Jamaica, but would like to go one day. Snorkeling is my passion–it is how I rediscovered the water. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. It’s always good to hear from you.

  1. Wonderful pictures and interesting stories about a special place. I have not been to St. John, but it looks a lot like St. Thomas, only more rugged, more jungled. I have a huge conch shell that is fun to blow. Great and good blog.

    1. HI Richard,
      Speaking of lively music, I have been wanting to thank you for sending me the CD of your music–you are a talented guy! Thanks, as always, for the visit, and for taking the time to share your thoughtful comments and stories.

    1. Ha! You’re right, Scilla, no virgin rock band here! Like so many stories involving virgins, the story doesn’t end well–they all got beheaded. Columbus named the islands after the virgins because he came upon the islands near the feast day when the story was celebrated.
      Thanks for the visit, and, as always, for one of your comments, which always either give me pause to ponder or make me smile, and sometimes both!

    1. Thank you, Letizia. I had never seen either species of crab, and was fascinated. The holes were so big that the first time I saw them I thought they had to have been made by a mongoose colony!

  2. Guess where I just came back from. You didn’t hear me breath, did you. I tagged along on your trip to the Virgin Islands. Another lovely tour, Naomi. Great pictures. Fabulous weather. I don’t recall, were there crowds? I hadn’t noticed because I was so taken with your tour. Thanks so much for sharing.
    ^^’

    1. Hi Tess,
      Thanks for stopping by! We were just on the cusp, between hurricane season and tourist season, so there was always parking at the beach, and hardly anyone around. Which is good, because the roads were so steep that in order to make a hairpin curve I would have to go into the opposite lane to be able to get the leverage for our little car to keep going. Before I learned that trick, even with the car in low gear and the pedal to the metal, I couldn’t get up the worst of the hills. Next time I will pay more and get the four wheel drive!

  3. I love St. John’s. I feel more comfortable there than the other islands because it’s a US territory– that doesn’t negate the horrific past, but I don’t feel there are the extremes of poverty there that are so evident on other islands. (not that I’ve been to so many). Glad you lost your “virginity!”

  4. Interesting to hear something about a Virgin Island more in depth than the standard tourist attractions. And then there is the color and beauty – thank you for sharing your trip.

    1. Hi Carol,
      I’m glad you could come out to play! I love to know the stories behind the places I visit–it helps me understand and connect with the things I am looking at. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Hi Carol,
      I am fascinated by the iguanas. In Mexico they were like exotic sluggish squirrels, everywhere underfoot. I didn’t expect to see them in the Virgin Islands, but enjoyed watching them.

  5. How wonderful to replace slavery with song and joyful music, and the appreciation of natural treasures… and there is much to consider regarding virginity too, in the context of slavery… a beautiful post with a hint of hope for the future.

    1. Dear Shimon,
      Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful conversation. Everything is not perfect there. We were there on Election Day, and I spoke in depth with a remarkable woman who had reason to believe that the elections on the island were rigged–she felt very frustrated. I know that can happen, even in the mainland US, as I still believe that George Bush was not legally elected and that election was rigged. But she seemed more capable of rolling with the punches and taking life in stride, which I suspect comes from a history of having to so.

  6. Looks like a fantastic place to visit – beautiful, full of interesting characters and history. That blue crab looks like a discarded rubber glove! Do they eat the blue crabs there? You’re going to attract a whole lot of visitors to this post looking for a whole lot of something different with your use of the “V” word there – ssshhhh!!!

    1. Hi Vanessa,
      I read that they used to collect the crabs –not always easy to do because they retreat very quickly into their holes– and make them into a kind of rice dish.
      There’s something to be said about choosing a sexy title! I almost called this post MORE Sex on the Beach, because we did indulge in that once or twice ( the peach vodka concoction, that is). But I used used almost that same title after last New Year’s Eve party, and this seemed more to the point.
      Thanks for the visit!

      1. Yes, I have been but I decided end of August to slow on the “Reader” & post less as I wanted to work harder on my paintings & try to tuck in some studies…
        see http://oawritingspoemspaintings.wordpress.com/2014/08/26/life-back-to-its-folds/
        I haven’t kept my word on the postings, it slowly crept back up on me again without my noticing but I have slowed down on the “followings” I apologize for that 😦
        the good news is that my paintings are slowly coming along which gives me a load of satisfaction & studying too.
        Thanks for your support!

      2. Real life obligations and goals must take precedence over the blog. I now post a couple of times a month, and I try to keep up with my blog reading, but there too I have to be more careful about how I spend my time. If someone is posting a dozen times a day, that is their life and I am happy for them, but I can’t read them all.

    1. Thanks for the visit, and for sharing your thoughts. I’d read a novel or two that was either set on islands or touched upon them, but it was so good to see them with my own eyes. I knew something of the history, but visiting helped me understand it at a more visceral level, and I found that aspect of my visiting haunting.

  7. What a beautiful place to relax, Naomi! Slavery is such a part of the cruel history. Hundreds threw themselves off rugged cliffs…. Thank you for the historic info.

    1. Hi Cybele,
      Those crabs are about the size of two fists, which is bigger than most of the crabs I see on my beaches. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. It is always good to hear from you.

  8. I love the sign–Out to Live. I appreciate that you bring out the history of a place so often known as a vacation paradise and little else. I find the National Park and wildlife sanctuary appealing–but I’m not sure I’d want to run into an iguana! Truly a lovely place.

    1. Hi Patti,

      The iguanas are really harmless, as far as I can tell, although they can run faster than you would expect when motivated! I appreciate your thoughtful comments. It was the National Park presence that I found most appealing. We were also there in between hurricane and tourist season, so we had the beaches almost to ourselves. It was a truly lovely and fascinating place, and I feel that we just scratched the surface.

    1. Hi Mary,
      I’ve been reading your posts about snow with a little bit of envy–we’ve had an unusual cold snap, but I would take cool or even cold weather over heat and humidity ALMOST any day. It was too hot and buggy for me to want to live there, but the night chorus was as close to the Amazon night sounds as I have ever heard, and that would almost be worth it!
      Stay warm, dear friend, and safe on icy roads!

  9. Your storytelling made me feel I was right there with you! Captured great images too. A neat history lesson for us all, Naomi. You help me see the world as an amazing place. Love M

    1. Dear Meg,

      Thank you for your very kind thoughts, Meg. Just sitting down and talking to you over a cup of tea always helps me see the world as an amazing place. I am looking forward to more photos of your European tour!

      Love,
      Naomi

  10. Sorry…out to live! Love that!!!

    Great post, Naomi. Thank you for showing the real side of every place you visit, sprinkling what we are used to seeing with culture, history, and people.

    1. Hi Britt,

      Thank you for one of the nicest things you could possibly have said about this post and this blog! It’s what I try to do, but could not have articulated it nearly so well or concisely. It’s wonderful to have writer friends!
      Warmly,
      Naomi

  11. I live in a sugar cane area and know how hot it gets. I couldn’t imagine how awful it must have been for those poor people. I’m so glad their descendants know how to live the life now and appreciate the beauty of the islands 😀

    1. Dear Dianne,
      Well said! As I walked in that heat and humidity, I thought of the poor people who were bent over steaming boiling vats of sugar syrup, or those who labored in the fields with no shade or relief.

  12. It must be Caribbean time of year! (and why wouldn’t it be? 🙂 ) I’ve just come here from Seonaid’s and she’s in Barbados. It all looks and sounds fabulous, Naomi. Now, at any rate!

  13. I love the wildlife, especially the blue crab. Tragic about he slavery. It doesn’t bear thinking about, people being torn from their homes and families, and manacled in the stinking holds of ships to be taken to some far off land to serve the whims of foreign masters. Thank heaven for the heroes that fought for the slave’s rights and freedom.

    1. Dear Sarah,
      I was fascinated by such different wildlife, although I recognized many of the fish species from snorkeling in Hawaii. But I was haunted by the history of the island. I know that everywhere we go, if we dig deep enough we can find shameful and cruel histories of slavery, genocide, and oppression. It helps, as you say, to look back and see how far we have come, and it is because of the heroes and heroines who have fought and sacrificed for each tiny forward-moving step.

  14. You took some really beautiful photos on your trip Naomi. They really make me want to go to The Virgin Islands. I like your written descriptions too. Your Nephew Canyon.

    1. Hello dear Canyon! I am so glad you came by to visit! I hope you go to the Virgin Islands and see them sometime. I know you have been to some stunning tropical places. Do you like to snorkel? That’s one of my favorite things to do, and the snorkeling is wonderful on the Virgin Islands.
      Love,
      Auntie

    1. It was certainly a very special place. I would like to go back and explore some more, but I have to tell you, I will bring bug repellant because there were mosquitoes in paradise! Thank you for the visit!

  15. Beautiful paradise! A perfect place to haves a relaxing, very enriching vacation. Always been one of my travel dream bucket list. Peaceful and very laid-back. Fun, fun, fun. It is sad though that it once hold a painful past of man’s complete disregard for human rights. Of man inflicting pain and abuse to another person because of color and social status. It reminds us what people have to pay for freedom and justice. That it should never happen again in the present times. A visual Journey of the heart and soul. Thank you. Regards to your family. Have a blessed weekend!

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. It was very interesting and a natural wonder, but I was constantly aware of the painful past. I hope you do make it there. I know you would love the warm water, and your little guy would have a blast crab-watching. Best wishes to you and your family!

  16. Great post Naomi, and an educational tour of the USVIs. Again the violent, vicious past is horrifying, especially when set against the present-day idyll. I see over to the east the BVIs, a relic of the Brit Empire and better known for being a dodgy finance centre.

  17. Thanks for transporting me to paradise Naomi!!! Had never seen a blue crab before…it is gorgeous. There is a lesson in that “Sorry …out to live sign” 🙂

    1. Hi Madhu,
      Thanks for the visit. The blue crabs were a surprise to me too–bigger than the ones I usually find on the beach, and they were EVERYWHERE! I loved the sign too. 🙂

  18. I cannot help myself, the title makes me say this… I bet those drinks aren’t “virgins,” Naomi! ha ha! I sometimes enjoy in the summer a virgin strawberry margarita!
    Also, so wonderful seeing you and your sister enjoying such a lovely place, back in December? Also, good to have your friend along, Kathy. I have a wonderful sister in law, Susan and a great couple of friends, one day I hope to go to a warmer climate and enjoy together, like you did here! Photos were fantastic, I felt like I had an ‘escape’ from reality tonight! Smiles!

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