I'd never been to the tropics before this vacation, and I confess that I hadn't entirely believed that they were real. Brilliantly colored flowers, turquoise water, white sand beaches, perpetual warmth. . . these were things so foreign to me that I couldn't really comprehend them. Until I got off the plane in St. Thomas at the end of December, and it was suddenly summer! That was when it began to dawn on me that tropical islands might just be real.
We took a ferry to St. John, where the wedding adventure was to be held. St. John is an island of very steep hills, not much rain, and with almost no natural resources whatsoever. Just about everything has to be imported and is thus very expensive. Nine bucks for an anemic pineapple, for instance.
On the other hand, the place is just as beautiful as promised. The whole party (my family, my aunt and uncle's family, the bride and groom, their friends, and the bride's family) stayed at a block of lovely vacation condos, each family in their own little unit. The condos came with a resident kitty cat. Island Kitty was very pleased to see us, for she sensed that we were the sort of people who would feed and pet her when she meowed. There was blue sky, turquoise water, palm trees, bougainvillea (a word I'd only read and never heard before, so I had to get Mom Pony to tell me how to pronounce it -- it's boo-gun-VEE-yah, according to Mom Pony), warm weather mitigated by the constant breeze of the trade winds -- all as per spec for a tropical paradise. It was really real! We spent much of the first day marveling at the existence of this place.
It turned out that we also had neighbors. On New Year's Eve, The Family had a cookout, and the young man who owned one of the condos came to investigate. Now, the thing about The Family is that, when we party, we Party. It's a big, sprawling Jewish family, which means that relationships may not necessarily be blood relationships. Everyone's a cousin, and that goes for guests as well. Darin, our neighbor, was fascinated. Since it was the seventh night of Hanukkah, he offered the use of his menorah, and promptly became an honorary cousin. The bride's family (who are Southern Catholics and who were still, I think, getting used to the idea of being absorbed into a large loud Yankee Jewish family) had no idea that we'd never met this guy before in our lives.
Darin was very strange, and as the evening went on, it became clear that he had made liberal use of some recreational pharmaceuticals prior to his visit. Whatever, he was highly entertaining. When the bride's aunt mentioned that she had given the bride some Darvoset to help deal with a mild ear infection, Darin just perked right up. "All Sets are good!" he announced. "Percoset, Darvoset. . . all Sets, man!" Thus was another vacation buzzword born. When he began to get paranoid and started defending Timothy McVeigh against the police state of Oklahoma, we let him just drift on home. That was when we broke the news to the bride's family that we had no idea who he was. They were surprised to hear that.
The national sport of the Virgin Islands is, of course, drinking, and we did a fair amount of that, especially considering that The Family doesn't really drink. The official drink of the wedding turned out to be the Painkiller, a local cocktail of rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, coconut cream, and rum. The under-40 crowd took to this charming concoction like Hobbits to mushrooms, and for much of the event, we were Feeling No Pain. I will have to learn how to make these now that I'm back in Grad School Town.
And of course, you can't just lay around when you've got a whole week and a tropical island to explore. I did so many neat things. I went hiking twice, and I went kayaking. We took a trip to the British Virgin Islands as well, courtesy of Cousin Halbarad.
The first stop on the trip was off of a little cay to do some snorkeling. I'd never snorkeled before in my life. In fact, I'm not a real fan of swimming (though I can swim), and I hadn't actually been swimming in many years, but I was not going to let that stop me. Now, I'd grown up in New England, and I knew several things about the ocean. One, it's very murky, and two, it's freezing cold, so cold that it's not worth swimming in except in August. So I was a little nervous about the snorkeling, but I wasn't going to be left behind. I put on the gear and jumped off the back of the boat along with most everyone else.
After about forty-five seconds of sheer panic -- ohshit, I'm in Very Deep Water, with flippers on my feet and a strange breathing tube in my mouth, wait, are those fish? -- I began to figure out what this snorkeling business was all about. The first surprise was that the water was warm. I guess I'd known that intellectually, but for twenty-nine years, I'd thought of seawater as being very cold, and it was something of a leap of faith to just jump right in wearing a swimsuit. The second surprise was that the water was clear enough that you could in fact see things through the snorkeling mask. That discovery prompted me to stick my face underwater, float on my tummy, and teach myself to snorkel.
Snorkeling is not so much a sport as the nautical equivalent of croquet -- a pleasant activity that doesn't require a whole lot of effort. Mainly, you float face down in the amazingly warm, clear turquoise tropical water ogling the brightly colored fish and graceful coral that make up the lovely reefs out in the Caribbean bays. Not hard at all. Of course, Dad Pony never did get over the initial forty-five seconds of panic and returned to the boat to drink Painkillers with Uncle Pony, who didn't even bother to go in. But the rest of us snorkeled and snorkeled and snorkeled and had a blast.
Then we got back on the boat and sailed to Jost Van Dyke, a tiny British Virgin Island, where we found (for me) the highlight of the trip -- Foxy Callwood. Foxy is a calypso singer who runs a little restaurant with decent food, and a pretty thatched roof, though it does not, technically, have any walls. (Walls are optional in a climate like this.) Foxy came out about midway through lunch and serenaded us with awesome improvised calypsos about Boston, Connecticut, and current politics. It was fantastic.
The final event of the week was one of those quirky little things that turn out to be the best of fun. Cousin Jolie is living on the island for a year teaching fourth grade. In her spare time, she is a belly dancer -- in fact, she performs one night a week at a restaurant that changes ethnicities every day. She dances on Greek Night. A Jewish girl doing Arabic dance at a Greek restaurant. The world is one weird place, yes it is. Anyway, Jolie also teaches belly dancing on Thursday nights, so I got to go to her class. Since I've only ever had that one lesson, I am hardly sinuous and shimmying, but it was definitely fun.
Ah, but the wedding. . . the reason we were all there. It happened on Wednesday, on the beach at Trunk Bay, which is said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The weather was fine, the sunset was gorgeous, the bride was beautiful (all brides are beautiful), and Cousin Halbarad looked like a gangster. No, really. He had a nice silk shirt and slacks, but it was the sunglasses and the Panama hat that made him look like his name ought to be Gambino. For music, they had a steel drummer, which was just fantastic. The steel drum is a beautiful, delicate sound, and the musician was good.
It was a civil ceremony, performed by the wedding planner (she turns out to be a full-service wedding planner), and the Park Service sent a Ranger in full uniform to represent. The Ranger also ended up doing wheelchair duty for two elderly guests. The beach wheelchair has big fat puffy tires and looks like a dune buggy. Both of the elderly guests who used it thought it was humorous.
After the ceremony, we went on a sunset cruise on the same boat that had taken us to Jost Van Dyke (the wedding assembly, once again, was Feeling No Pain), and then we went to a fancy restaurant for a dinner of well-prepared Random Chic cuisine. This is the kind of food where a chef takes completely random yet fashionable ingredients -- say, potatoes, cilantro, hoisin sauce, crispy noodles, raspberries, and arugula -- and arranges them artfully into a meal. If the chef is good, Random Chic cuisine can be tasty. This chef, fortunately, knew what he was doing.
After an exciting, fun-filled island adventure, The Family was ready to roll once again. We headed out to the St. Thomas airport -- the bride, her dress, the groom, and The Family -- ready to take Orlando by storm. . .