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Medicine Man

My roommate and I were packing for Spring Break in Daytona Beach when Abby’s parents called. “Listen,” her father said, “Fred has to have surgery on Monday and we’ve already got plane tickets and rooms lined up for a trip to the British Virgin Islands. Would you two like to join us?”

What this meant was we would have to head north to Virginia from Chapel Hill that evening instead of South to Florida the following morning. Instead of driving in a caravan of twenty teens listening to mix cassettes bootlegged off of Casey Kasem’s Top 40 en route to a Quality Inn along Atlantic Avenue, sleeping six to a room and subsisting on cheap beer and happy hour taquitos, instead, we’d be flying to an island in the Caribbean. We’d jam to reggae music, stay at a luxury resort, and drink rum punch while eating plantains and pasteles (pa – stell – lus) in restaurants with ocean views.

Abby and I talked about letting down our friends who were counting on our gas money and contributions to the kegs. We discussed how much we’d miss the biker gangs revving their engines on International Speedway Blvd. just outside our motel window at 4am, and the cars cruising across the sand on Ormond Beach just feet from our towels. We wouldn’t get to dance in a swirl of beer spray and tanning oil with college kids from across the Eastern seaboard while Eddie Money croons “Two Tickets to Paradise” in a rumpled white linen suit without a shirt on a stage by the Main Street Pier. We weighed the pros and cons of joining her parents on a tropical island….NO WE DIDN’T. We said YES immediately and took off for Alexandria within the hour.

I’d never been on a plane before and my heart pounded with fear as we soared over the vast ocean with no place for an emergency landing. And it raced with excitement over this important step for – not mankind, but my kind - the kind whose family could only afford borrowed beach trailer or Howard Johnsons vacations. And while Abby’s parents settled into First Class, their friend’s non-refundable tickets seemed to have been downgraded as we made ourselves comfortable in the Eastern Airlines “smoking section” at the back of the plane. We downed the first of countless rum punches, and before long touched down at the Aeropuerto in Puerto Rico. As we descended the stairs onto the tarmac, I breathed in the scent of coconut mixed with jet fuel, a welcome relief from the Carlton 100s our seatmate puffed continuously for 1400 of the 1500 miles between our nation’s capital and the gateway to the British Virgin Islands.

Next we boarded Air BVI to Tortolla. This plane had just ten seats and we had to duck our way down the narrow aisle to get into them. The tiny vessel roared to life like a collection of tin cans being dragged behind a jalopy bearing a JUST MARRIED sign, and I reinforced my grip on my arm rests as we rose into the cloudless blue sky. When I dared to look out the window, I saw the cerulean sea dotted with reefs and tiny scrub islands speckled with palm trees. We glided over Sir Francis Drake Channel and landed on Beef Island forty-five minutes later. Not long later we crossed the bridge to Tortolla and, as we wound down the bougainvillea-lined drive to Prospect Reef Resort, I thought perhaps I was in a dream.

When we walked into our room overlooking the lush gardens, I was fairly sure my plane had indeed gone down and I’d gone to heaven. I’d never had my own bed on vacation before. My family of six would stay in a single motel room with my parents in one bed and me and my middle sister in the other. We’d have a rollaway brought in for my brother, while my father pushed two chairs together, strapping them into place with his belt to create a place for my youngest sister to sleep. Sometimes they’d make my brother and I duck in the back of the Ford Aerostar so they’d only be charged for a family of four. Then we’d sneak into the room under cover of the night, hiding behind Piggly Wiggly bags stuffed full of peanut butter, jelly, Wonder bBread and daddy’s vacation staples: Mountain Dew and Jim Beam.

But here, on the island, I had found paradise. We ordered a constant stream of Pina Coladas in coconut shells. We spent our first few days sailing to St. Thomas and Drake’s Anchorage in Virgin Gorda with Abby’s parents, snorkeling in Loblolly Bay and dancing at the hotel club where Abby’s mom was crowned Limbo champ. It was lovely. But we were nineteen, and this was Spring Break. We decided to venture out of bounds, because, fun is generally never found within boundaries.

Walking along Waterfront Road, we came upon a thatched-roof bar with a live reggae band. There we found ourselves surrounded by college students all the way from Iowa and Missouri and others from Yale and Harvard. A group of Aussies mentioned a “medicine man” living in the hills overlooking Sea Cows Bay and, after drinking several Cruzan Confusions, we agreed to check it out with our new-found friends.

We piled into Sebastian’s rust orange Chevy Chevette and headed up the rugged dirt road. Sebastian was from Sydney and had lived on Tortola for six months. He wore early stage dreadlocks in his dust-colored hair and he smelled of cigarettes and sun-dried sweat, but his accent was enchanting and I bumped along in the backseat, hanging on every word.

Amani, the medicine man’s home was part shack part tree house. He sat on a wooden rocking chair under a guava tree, clearly stoned out of his mind with his crown of wild boa constrictor–sized dreadlocks. He made Sebastian’s dreads look like gently wound spaghetti. Abby and I shared glances, trying to play it cool, as Sebastian and his friends casually chatted with the mildly deranged drug dealer. Our antennae were up and we sobered up, fake sipping the guavaberry wine he offered us as we came to realize how stupid we were to accompany guys we didn’t know to a remote home without telling anyone where we’d gone.

Fifteen dollars. We spent fifteen dollars on a film canister crammed full of weed. Having never personally purchased pot before, we considered our money well spent. Thankfully, with the transactions complete, the Australians were ready to leave.

As we rode down the mountain with its spectacular view of the sun setting beyond Nanny Cay, I breathed a pot-filled sigh of relief. Abby and I spent the last few days on Tortola trying to use as much of our canister of cannabis as we possibly could, while hanging out with our new Aussie friends on the beach in Smuggler’s Cove.

But try as we may, we didn’t make much of a dent in our stash of hash, and as starving college students, we hated wasting our money, so Abby contrived a plan. As we waited for the taxi to take us to the airport, she hid the container in her father’s suitcase, buried amidst his boxer briefs. What were the chances, she reasoned, that anyone would think her jovial, bald, tetotaling father was a drug smuggler? My fear of flying was somewhat abated by my fear that our reckless scheme would be thwarted and her poor dad would be sent to Rikers Island, all for about ten bucks of pot.

As we approached the airport, there were police officers with menacing dogs on leashes by the entrance of the tiny terminal. The cab driver piled our bags on a luggage cart and Abby’s dad smiled and nodded as he casually strolled past security heading toward the ticket counter. Our hearts were pounding and surely our eyes were darting behind our cheap sunglasses, from dog to officer to gun holsters to overhead cameras. A determined German Sheppard pulled his gun-weilding handler toward Abby’s parents. “Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.” The dog sniffed at my suitcase, then Abby’s mom’s before abruptly changing direction. Abby and I locked terrified eyes with relief. Moments after we were all checked in, we watched from the observation deck as our bags were loaded into the underbelly of the propeller plane. No dogs in sight.

When we landed in Dulles that evening, Abby snuck our stash from her father’s suitcase while we waited for our cab. The next day we headed back to Chapel Hill with our souvenir stash, but first we made a stop in Georgetown for a couple bottles of Everclear, afterall, the drinking age was 18 in that college town and we were feeling invincible.

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As shared at Story Salon's Benefit for Puerto Rico October 18, 2017 and at the Virtual Show with the theme "My Walk on the Wildside" on August 25, 2021.

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