The only journey is the one within ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
Remote and pristine, Virgin Islands National Park keeps its secret of being one of the last earthly paradises. A stretch of white sand, tall wavy palm trees, and as many shades of turquoise and blue as your eye can see welcome us with tropical warmth. The breeze carries sweet scent of jasmine, rainbow of flowers colors forest-green hills, but it must be the sapphire of the sea and the wind in palm trees that makes us feel so peaceful and at ease.
Apparently one day in Paradise was all that we’ve deserved, but if you have a choice, it is worth to drop your anchor there for longer. We traded our New England snow shoes for sandals for a few days, but the majority of that time was spent wandering through the maze of colorful Charlotte Amalie streets and indulging in white beaches of Saint Thomas.
On small emerald Saint John Island your eye level is mostly above sea level. One almost always looks downward, into the green hills, at the reflections of light onto mirror of the Caribbean Sea. The bright-colored blocks of buildings seated peacefully among the lush greenery give you a sense of being abroad. Only when you are on the beach, you look up in the sky as well, tracing cormorants that dive into turquoise waters one by one in their endless sky-water-sky ballet.
Two-thirds of St. John was donated in 1956 to the United States by Laurance Rockefeller for use as a National Park. Today you can hike along the most popular trails, and there are 20 of them on the island, but you can also head out to Virgin Islands National Park on your own. We were advised (by a Park Ranger) to take a taxi, and that advice was politely ignored. But we were also advised by the owners of a beautiful B&B in Charlotte Amalie (At Home in The Tropics) to visit the annual Folk Festival on Saint John first, and that advice was welcome. Plan to attend one if you can.
The park itself extends over 60 percent of Saint John Island. This is the place which is truly America the Beautiful. Tranquil beaches, moist forests, sleepy lagoons, scenic roads, archeological sites, mysterious ancient petroglyphs, underwater coral gardens… We started at Cruz Bay Visitor Center and took Lind Point Trail to Salomon Bay and Honeymoon Beach (“exclusive & secluded” according to the brochures). Hiking in the rain forest was a new experience for me. We stopped at vista points. We admired the plants. St. John is supposed to have more than 800 subtropical plant species. The island is also supposed to be home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
I almost hurt myself when I take a dip in the sea. Invisible coral is sharp. I swim in the emerald water – clear, barely touched with salt. We watch a regatta in a distance. Sailboats silhouettes against the sun align under the clouds that look like giant white balloons attached to the boats by invisible strings. Quiet, peaceful afternoon passes slowly, there is sweetness in the air and in your heart that feels like honey. If you took this trip to the Caribbean to reset and recharge, this is your sequence of moments. Office is a world away.
After dusk Saint John starts to sing a more mysterious and melancholic tune. A dreamy counterpoint to the daytime rainbow of colors and festival crowds. We visit Mongoose Junction shopping plaza (north of the pier) for a quick meal and a stroll through galleries. The beauty and tranquility of the island attracts artists and other free spirits, and you can find a few galleries with artwork of local artists here. Caribbean inspired original art, prints, jewelry, ceramics… bright colors and intense, bold patterns. As usual, we buy something from a local ceramics artist. Being a ceramics artist myself, I feel that this kind of mutual support among artists is a special way of giving back. Carefully chosen by my husband, a mug with a blueish wavy pattern and a golden rim has a lightness to it that represents more than its physical weight
Then we go to a ferry dock where a few steps from the sea an old man weaves palm tree leaves into crosses, baskets, and birds. He says that these birds are Phoenixes, mythical creatures that burn and rise from their own ashes.
Like on a strange symbolic pastoral painting, death appears in paradise in a memory of hurricanes Irma and Maria that swept through the Caribbean in 2017. And the memory of the times of plantations and waves of colonialism. The world hurricane comes from the indigenous Taino Indians word hurakan that means “a god of the storm”. Both Category Five storms flogged St. John, ripping apart structures and flooding what remained. The hurricanes brought to light the climate crisis threat and the region’s deeper issues with economies overly dependent on tourism. The island suffered damage to its housing, businesses, beaches, and the national parkland. Found in Virgil's fifth eclogue, Latin phrase that translates literally as "Even in Arcady, there am I” comes to mind. Some say that there’s a secret message behind the source of that phrase that speaks of necessity to change in order to be able to enter ‘Arcadia’ (state of being or place). It could be the necessity of change within.
The phrase “Et in Arcadia Ego” is also present for explorers like Claude Levi-Strauss (Tristes Tropiques), as a theme. A melancholy - being far from home - distracts the author from being in archetypical tropical paradise. He has a feeling of having lost something that cannot be found. Today, in our modern life lived through and based on electronic representations of reality, we lose touch or deep connection with ourselves, nature, Mother Earth, and we feel that we cannot find, rebuild or restore this vital connection on a global scale.
Some lost things can be found only within. Yet this, sometimes, is the furthest and the most remote place to travel to.
I never underestimate an opportunity and a joy of visiting new places. Gratitude comes naturally as our reality is so rich. I hope that my images reveal something of this richness, in a meaningful way.