St. Thomas Food Tours: An Island Nomad Comes Full Circle

I can’t recall the exact moment in my life when I  realized that I had grown up in “paradise.” As a child, I remember standing outside our housing project right in front of the dock watching tourists disembark from the cruise ships and make the 30-minute trek downtown instead of paying the $4 it would cost them to take a taxi. Living under constant heat and humidity year-round, we thought they were crazy.

Growing up on St. Thomas afforded us many things, among them, a pretty low-key childhood without much luxury. The highlight of the month for me and my siblings would be a visit to McDonald’s. My grandmother, like many Caribbean women, considered fast food to not be real food. The same kids in my neighborhood went to the elementary school with me all the way through middle school. We were all poor and most of us didn’t move around much. One or two would get shipped off to an aunt or uncle in New York or Florida, but for the most part, we were stuck in our perpetual paradise.

IMG: Chris Gosselin. St Thomas, Charlotte Amalie, 2015. Flickr. CCBY 2.0

Every Sunday, my father, who worked around the clock and didn’t have custody of us, decided to take everyone down to the beach. I remember being ecstatic actually having something to do. Most of the time I didn’t. But in spite of my initial excitement, inevitably I’d get that same feeling so many island children suffer from: fear of the water. We were all so scared of sharks and the other sea creatures which lurked beneath the water’s surface that eventually I came to believe our parents instilled this fear in us purposefully so we would stay close to shore. Many of us couldn’t swim. But it didn’t matter. There was something about the beach that was soothing and therapeutic. The food was plentiful and everyone was always in a good mood.

But Monday would roll around and there wasn’t much to do on St. Thomas.

The island is just 32 square miles and my father, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who arrived in St. Thomas after a short stint playing Major League Baseball, believed that feeding and housing his children was enough. From time to time, he would play in softball games on the weekends. Groups of thirty to forty-year-old men or women would start the games late in the evening which meant that we’d be up until what I felt must have been 1 or 2 in the morning at least. If they won, there was celebrating and drinking for a few more hours. I’d give up and head to my father’s car to get some rest.

When one thinks of life on an island, they probably imagine a carefree existence with no traffic, lots of time on the beach, and an overall simpler life. Well, it’s true, a simpler life it is. We have a Kmart, a few McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Pizza Huts and other smaller chain restaurants, but because almost everything we use or eat is imported, food costs are high. The electricity bill makes folks think twice before turning on the air conditioning, even on the hottest days, and property taxes have priced the typical St. Thomian out of many areas of the island. Many locals, my father included, and newbies to St. Thomas work two or three jobs to make ends meet. Not much time for the beach when you’re working from dusk until dawn.

I knew I wanted to leave St. Thomas around my senior year of high school. I’d lived two years in Florida when I was in 9th and 10th grade with my mother and felt then that the small island where I’d grown up was something I wanted in my rear-view window. I began my studies at the University of the Virgin Islands because I didn’t have the resources to look beyond it. I was in college and that was that, but somewhere midway through my first year, I grew tired of the endless days with nothing to do. I pulled out the globe which sat in the twenty foot trailer occupying my father’s transportation business. I spun it around idly then decided I would move to wherever my hand landed in the States. New Jersey.

Like many restless young people, I’d always wanted to go to New York, so as far as I was concerned, New Jersey was close enough. I looked up state schools and found New Jersey City University. Within a few months I was accepted and three months later, I landed in New Jersey with just $400 to my name. I caught a $37 cab to Jersey City and immediately, the regret sunk it. It was the opposite of St. Thomas. It was hot, but not quite like my island home. You couldn’t escape the heat. Our trade winds allow us to hang out on our porches or under a tree and feel cool breezes throughout the year, but this was far from the case in Jersey.

When I arrived at New Jersey City University, the gothic-style architecture immediately stood out. I received my dorm accommodations through a student liaison in my dorm and instantly began deciding which classes I wanted to take. It took me about a month to settle in, but before I knew it, I’d fallen in love with New Jersey and New York. I’d jumped on the PATH train and head into New York and just walk around 34th Street, taking it all in. Everyone was so unique and most importantly, they kept to themselves, minding their own business. Anyone who comes from a small town can relate to what it’s like living on an island; everyone knows everyone or is related in some way. That means everyone is in everyone else’s business. I loved the anonymity of New York, yet I was quickly able to meet new people as well. I made friends from everywhere. My closest friend, Chudi Nweke, had come to New Jersey from Nigeria to go to college. I was amazed at how similar our cultures were although thousands of miles separated our countries. I saw traces of our African roots in Chudi’s Nigerian culture – our stews, the way the Nigerians danced with their waists, and the way he spoke sometimes reminded me of St. Thomas.

IMG: Connie Ma.
Goat stew with seasoned rice, beans and mac & cheese. FLICKR. CCBYSA 2.0

But I grew tired of New Jersey.

The thought of taking on another year’s worth of student loans weighed heavily on me and when you’ve spent your entire life looking at palm trees and sand, gray building after gray building can grow old pretty quickly. I went home for the summer and decided to stay. When I returned home, I began to see St. Thomas in a new light.

On drives with friends, I began to appreciate the panoramic island views I saw at every turn. When December rolled around and friends in the States posted their pictures of snow and winter wear on social media, I relished putting on my shorts and flip flops for work and class. But I still felt trapped.

There are only so many beach days you can take (trust me). When it came time for graduation two years later, I was still unsure of what I wanted to do. I considered using my journalism background to work as a reporter on St. John – more beach days. I could go to law school and make something of myself like my father wanted, but I couldn’t stomach another day of school. An interview with an Air Force recruiter for my university paper planted an idea in my head. I didn’t want to go to Florida with my mother. I needed a way off of the island and the opportunity to see something totally unexpected… again. I walked into the recruiter’s office two months before graduation and decided to sign up for the Air Force. What I was going to do, I didn’t know. And where do you think the Air Force powers that be sent a girl from the Caribbean as her first duty station?…Nebraska. I don’t think I’d uttered the name Nebraska more than once in my life before seeing it on my assignment sheet.

I landed in Nebraska in December. The first and only thing that stuck in my head for the duration of my time there was and has always been: cold. It was permanently cold. One year we were forecasted to have snow in October and there was still some ice on the ground in May. Nebraska couldn’t have been more different from St. Thomas, but the explorer in me gave Nebraska a try.

After I separated from military, I dragged myself back home. I was destined to the beach life, of that I was now sure. I earned a teaching certification and taught middle school for a while. But the picture of those tourists walking in front of my apartment so many years before stuck in my mind. I wanted to do something different, something that would showcase our island. My slogan is… “Yes, St. Thomas is beautiful but there is so much more.” I thought of the culture bearers (as we call them) and storytellers who would visit our elementary school to tell us stories of Anansi the Spider, an African folktale told throughout the Caribbean. I thought back to when our teachers taught us about the fierce rebel leader Queen Mary, one of the Queens of Fireburn, who led revolts in the islands during the late 1800’s against the Danish government who were treating natives harshly. I thought about Edith Williams, a pioneer of education and community leader, the woman my elementary school was named after. I thought of the times we were taken to dance the maypole near Emancipation Garden in Charlotte Amalie. Maypole is a European dance that was adapted by slaves where dancers tie a rope around a pole whilst dancing in a circle. I felt as if I were a part of history even at that age. Those were the memories I was most proud of and they served as an inspiration.

My cultural tour was born.

Typically, a visitor to the island is chauffeured around the island on sightseeing tours in an open-air safari bus. What I decided to create were personal, boutique walking food tours in the oldest neighborhood in St. Thomas and the U.S. Virgin Islands as a whole. We’d share our history from the inception of the colony in a fun way and visit local restaurants to sample foods that reflect our culture and typical cuisine, dishes that are important to our cultural identity as our history.

I’d finally found my place on the island.

Our first stop serves a saltfish (or salted, dried cod) quiche. You may have had quiche before, but never like this – I promise. Our guests are surprised to learn that our seafood of choice is salted and cured cod imported from the mainland, even as far as Alaska, not fresh caught even though we’re surrounded by water. It is a hit on the tour. Other island classics such as calalloo (a spinach soup with seafood and pork) and stewed mutton are served as well. We tell our visitors the history of why we love mutton and the reason it features in many of our favorite dishes. Slaves in the former Danish colony were typically given discarded or tougher pieces of meat. They mastered the art of tenderizing a piece of meat until it fell off the bone.

We’ve hosted people from all across the world. In the end, I know I’m still learning, and so the island girl who longed to see more has finally learned to appreciate the beach life.

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