March 11 - March 25th
We just got back from two great weeks in the Carribean. We returned to St. John and our regular gig at VIERS (Virgin Island Environmential Resourse Station) at Lameshur Bay on March 11th for the fifth time. We reunited with some of the folks we have worked with before and met some new volunteers that had worked previously at different times. Rhonda worked primarily in the kitchen, but helped with painting on my project. I was put on a project building two additions to the Kitchen/Dining Hall. One addition was a handicap restroom and the other was a new pantry. It was about 90% complete when we left. We got in plenty of swimming and snorkeling and a few hikes along with the work.
The second year we were making our plans to do our two or three weeks at the camp, we called the taxi driver, Hamilton, which the camp primarily used and made a reservation to get a ride to the camp (about $20). When were sitting in the airport in Charlotte, I looked across the waiting area and to our surprise, we saw Scott, the camp manager. I went over and asked if he was heading back to VIERS and if a ride might be awaiting him when he got to Cruz Bay and if so, could we join him for the trip to the camp. He said he was on the way back to St. John after taking a quick trip back home and we were welcome to catch a ride. We immediately called Hamilton in Cruz Bay and cancelled the reservation advising him we had found a free ride.
By 2008 we were in good with Randy so just before Easter Sunday of that year, I asked Randy if I could use the camp truck to go into Cruz Bay for church services and he was agreeable. I had driven the truck a couple of times to take off trash or pick up something in town. The first time I drove it, Randy told Rhonda to go with me to remind me to drive on the left side of the road and to remember it especially when I made a turn into another road or street.
There was couple from Michigan, Jim and Barbara Hermann, that we were working with and had been hiking and socializing with so we asked them if they would like to go with us and they said the wanted to go. Jim suggested that we sit in the back so if the service became too lengthy, we could slip out.
When we arrived the church was already almost full and we were seated on the front row. There were only three other white couples in attendance. The church was a typical tropical island structure; stucco, pastel colors, and open-air. One of the real treasures of the experience was the music. The church had a calypso band (island music) that played many of the traditional Easter hymns in the calypso style. It was different and wonderful. With an hour into the service, I leaned over and jokingly signaled Jim and Barbara if they wanted to slip out and they, without hesitation declined. The pastor gave a good sermon with the message of the resurrection and they ended the service with communion. Rhonda was amazed that with such a large crowd the serving of the bread and juice did not miss a beat.
On the return trip to camp, we stopped for lunch at a little open-air restaurant called Sticky Fingers where they had very good burgers for ten dollars. We followed that up with fruit smoothies from a road side stand. It was another great day in the place they call “America's Paradise.”
On one of the trips to VIERS we had a day off after the student groups left so Rhonda and I decided to go to town. We walked a mile and a half up to the bus stop at Salt Pond where the bus turns around. The bus is suppose to make a loop every hour, but it wasn't very undependable. After waiting at the Salt Pond parking lot for a while, we got a ride from a tourist with a rental jeep. We got them to drop us off at one of the most famous beach in the Carribean, which was Trunk Bay. We walked up the beach a ways and then back out on the North Coast Road and by Jumbee Bay, Hawk Nest Bay and Caneel Bay and Beach Resort (swanky). We caught another ride that took us into Cruz Bay. We strolled all around the shops in the a little business area and had lunch at a jerk chicken stand. Before catching the bus back to Salt Pond we spent some time at Mongoose Junction. We bought a couple of postcards and a souvenir or two. Rhonda bought some whipping cream so she could add something special to one of her deserts for the staff. We caught the bus later and was back at Salt Pond in 45 minutes. We then walked the mile and a half to camp. When Rhonda got ready to use the whipping cream she discovered it had turned to butter from all the jostling while walking and riding the bus.
Over the five times we went to VIERS, I worked on several projects beyond the normal maintenance ones. One of them was to expand the laundry/workshop area and add and appartment for John and Pam (more about them later). The park service had a rule that the footprint of the camp could not be changed. (We later figured out that Randy somehow found ways around this). Randy had the idea that if we raised the existing laundry/workshop building and put it under the building, then the upper building would be made into the apartment. This would not change the footprint. I spent some eight hour days working with Randy, Scott and others to get this done. As a result, I was able to build up some extra days off after we finished the project and somehow Rhonda benefited, timewise, also. The last year we were there I helped expand the pantry and added a restroom to the kitchen/dining area even thought the project expanded the “footprint” of the building. They year before the dining had been expanded on the opposite side of the dining hall to accommodate the larger groups.
For a number of years the camp was financially in the red and was sustained pretty much by large corporate donations. Randy was always trying to find ways to bring in more revenue. One of those ways was use solar energy. He got the St. John Ruitan Club to donate money to build a solar power unit which help greatly on the power bill. Another plan was to convert some or part of the cabins into eco-tourism lodging. In doing so we put toilets and running water in several of the rooms already being use as tourist rentals. We tried to do this by making the toilet composting, because the septic system was right at full capacity.
There were several volunteer couples that we'd be there every time we went to VIERS. Two of them were Willie and Debbie Moores from New Hampshire and Pam and John Gunter, military retirees. John and Pam lived on a sailboat out in Greater Lamshure Bay and came to camp each morning to have coffee and do their half day of work, even though they were not staying in camp they at lunch there and it gave them something to do and provided socialization. Both couples were the long termers; usually as early as Christmas and staying until May.
John and Pam had bought the sailboat in South Africa and sailed across the Atlantic to Puerto Rico. During hurricane season they had to move the boat to a safe harbor or completely out of the hurricane zone for insurance purposes. The last year we were there, they were staying in the apartment (cabin) above the laundry/workshop. John was originally from California and Pam was from around Rochester, NY. John was an engineer in the army and Pam was a teacher for military children. They eventually sold the boat and bought a house on Lake Marion in South Carolina.
On this our last trip to St. Johns, we left St. John on Tuesday the 23rd. We took the ferry from Cruz Bay to St. Thomas and flew a small commercial Cessna (Cape Air) to San Juan, Puerto Rico. After arriving and renting a car, we drove to our hotel in the Condado section of San Juan. It was between the main downtown (Carolina) and old San Juan. From the hotel. we took the bus down to the Old San Juan and the old historic fort (San Cristobal Castle). It was very beautiful and had a festive atmosphere. There were Latin dancers and musicians on the main plaza and lots of tourist around from the cruise ships docked near by.
On Wednesday, we drove down to the El Yunque (pronounced L JuneKay) National Forest. It was a gorgeous, lush rain forest. There were waterfalls, beautiful flowers and all kinds of vegetation typical of jungle rain forest and really quite unlike of what we had been seeing in the Virgin Islands since it is dry tropical growth. We hiked a number of the trails and picnicked out of the car. Mid afternoon we drove to Fajardo on the north east coast. Almost at the last minute, we had booked a night kayak tour that went out of the bay there in Fajardo. The first excursion was already booked, so we took the second one which started at 7:30. The orientation started at around 7:45 and we did not get into the kayaks until almost 9pm.
The tour was to a lagoon that had bioluminescent organisms that glowed when you agitated the water. The glow was a kind of greenish-yellow much like you see with those glow sticks you can buy for camping. We got back to the shore of the bay in the park after 11 and arrived at the hotel after midnight. It was quite interesting and Rhonda and I really worked well together navigating the kayak across the bay, up a narrow channel in the Mangroves and out into the very large lagoon in the moonlight. (Maybe 300 acres); in the moonlight. There were about 15 kayaks in the group.
Thursday, we drove west to see some caverns and the world's largest radio telescope at Arecibo. When we arrived at the caverns, we were told that they were short of guides and there would be up to a 3 hour wait, so we decided to go on down to the telescope. It was a 15 mile trip to the south through the countryside. It was quite impressive,. Scenes from two movies were filmed there (James Bond "Golden Eye" and one with Jodie Foster "Contact". We drove back to San Juan and parked the car and walked to the art museum and the beautiful gardens around it. After supper, I went for a swim in the hotel pool on the roof.
Friday morning, before returning the car and going to the airport we walked on the beach a block from the hotel and took some pictures. Puerto Rico is a great place to visit. I recommend for a vacation trip. We found the people to be very friendly and helpful, except when driving around town. If you are not doing it right, many other drivers do not hesitate to use the horn.
It was another absolutely wonderful trip to the Caribbean and we were glad that we added Puerto Rico to the itinerary. We just should have added a few more days.