I never had any specific plans to visit the U.S. Virgin Islands. I had always been aware of their existence, and their Puerto Rico like murky status as part of the United States. And, every time I saw images like this one, showing the magnificently clear water of the Caribbean, the plethora of activities that are available, and the obviously phenomenal weather, it had always seemed like a magnificent place to go. However, for some reason, I just never made any specific plans to make a trip here. Maybe it was the knowledge that it would be a fairly expensive trip that kept me away. But, more likely, it was the plethora of other pursuits, other destinations, and other activities that are constantly circulating around my head.
This is why, when it comes to travel as well as general life activities, it is sometimes best to follow the lead of others. If I were to only take part in the activities that I had personally selected to be a part of, and only gone to the places I had decided on my own I wished to go, I would have missed out on hundreds of great experiences over the past couple of decades. I would never have learned activities like water skiing, or camping. I would have never discovered some of my favorite foods, like chicken wings, or Thai food. And, I would have never attended some interesting events, like rodeos, plays, and some interesting comedy shows. I would essentially be a completely different person than who I am today.
Following the lead of others, I was brought to the Virgin Islands to attend a destination wedding. After nearly an entire day of travel, I arrived at a destination that is not quite American, yet not quite foreign.
The U.S. Virgin Islands is considered a part of the United States. All of the signs read in English. There is no talk of any foreign currency. And, more than half of St. John Island is a part of a U.S. National Park. Yet, there are some major differences between how things work and operate in the U.S. Virgin Islands vs. the mainland. The first, most glaring difference that greets any tourist when they arrive on either of the Islands is the fact that cars drive on the left side of the road. For some reason, I figured this would be the case in the British Virgin Islands, but not the U.S. islands, as we drive on the right in our country.
Other major differences that become obvious right away include the taxis, which are sized and shaped quite differently than anywhere in the U.S., even tropical places like California or Florida. As opposed to basically being cars for hire, taxis here are high profile vans with several rows of seating, built to accommodate roughly a dozen people if need be. Their fare structure is also different. Most rides are a flat, destination dependent, per person fee, regardless of the size of the party. In the mainland, fees are mostly destination dependent, with the cost difference between transporting a single passenger, and several passengers differing by only a couple of dollars.
Also, a large majority of the streets here lack sidewalks, or any other type of pedestrian accommodation. Walking around Saint John Island, I mainly had to figure out a way to maneuver around structures, both natural and man-made, and live with the traffic being so close to me.
Walking in close proximity to vehicles driving on the opposite side of the road that one is accustomed to, along with significantly different mannerisms, and the extremely thick accents of the natives, would be enough to make an extremely sheltered person freaked out. For me, I felt only partially outside of my comfort zone. It was really unclassifiable. It was as if I was walking some kind of fine line, or living on the “edge”, as people used to say. I was neither completely out of my element, nor reverting to the familiar. I was neither “outside the box”, nor “inside the box”. Maybe I was on the top of the box?
Fittingly, my new activity for the weekend was snorkeling in the Caribbean. Like my experience in the U.S. Virgin Islands as a whole, this activity took me part of the way out of my comfort zone, but not completely. I have swam, water skied, and jet skied before. I have plenty of experience with water activities. The main challenge snorkeling presented to me, as a first timer, was mastering the breathing. I’d say it was also mastering the use of the flippers, but I most certainly did not master those. I still moved around quite inefficiently. However, once I was able to overcome my high elevation instincts to try to breath through my nose, and open my mouth wider to take in more oxygen while engaging in physical activity, I was able to breathe properly, and truly enjoy the activity.
It is said that the Caribbean is one of the best places to snorkel due to it’s clarity. I was able to see some coral reefs, and moving fish. Those the dove deeper down, either by scuba diving, or holding their breath, were able to see some turtles, a lobster, and view the coral much more closely. Although I chose not to go too far down, I still saw underneath the Ocean for the first time ever, and was glad that I went part of the way outside my comfort zone, in both visiting the Virgin Islands, and snorkeling in the Caribbean.