My roommate sophomore year and I were packing for another 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 Baltimore from Chapel Hill that evening instead of South to Florida the following morning. Instead of driving in a caravan 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 during Daytona’s infamous Bike Week and subsisting on cheap beer and happy hour taquitos, 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 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 Maryland within the hour.
I’d never been on a plane before and my heart pounded with fear, flying over a 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 camping trips without tents and borrowed beach trailer 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, and used our fake ids to order the first of countless rum punches. The rectangular marks of the ashtray were branded into my palm as I intently gripped the armrest during the bumpy touch down at the Luis Munoz Marin Aeropuerto in Puerto Rico. As we descended the stairs onto the tarmac, I breathed in the coconut scents 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 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. Our taxi took us over the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge on the short trip to Road Town, 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 roll-away brought in for my brother while my parents pushed two chairs together to create a place for my youngest sister to sleep. Sometimes they would 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 hide under cover of the night behind Piggly Wiggly bags stuffed full of our clothing, flip flops, sunscreen, and daddy’s vacation staples: Mountain Dew and Jim Beam.
But here, on the island, I had found paradise. At Brisani’s we ordered 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 several boozy Cruzan Confusions, we agreed to check it out with our newfound 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. Or maybe he just had crazy eyes to go with his massive head 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 had gone.
Fifteen dollars. We spent fifteen dollars on a film canister crammed full of weed. Even though they’re British, the islands’ official currency has long been the US dollar due to their proximity to and frequent trade with Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. 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.
Christopher Columbus named the 55 square mile island Santa Ana, but the absence of gold sent Spanish settlers elsewhere. Dutch colonists called it Ter Tholen, after an island off the coast of the Netherlands. When the British took control in the 1600s, the name evolved into Tortola. They cultivated the island with cotton, indigo and sugar cane.
In the early 19th century, after Britain abolished the international slave trade, the Royal Navy patrolled the Caribbean, intercepting illegal slave ships. The colonists liberated Africans from the captured ships and settled them on Tortola.
Last month the island was beaten by both hurricanes Irma and Maria. 185-mile winds and torrential rains caused colossal damage that collapsed the islands’ infrastructure, pummeling electrical and communication lines. Boats were piled in harbors like matchsticks, houses were disemboweled and vegetation was ripped from its roots. England has been sending supplies and manpower to their islands and looking toward sustainable development and economic revitalization on Tortola.
In 1986, Abby and I helped the economy in our own special way, but try as we may, we were unable to make a dent in our $15 Kodak canister from the jungle dwelling medicine man. 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, teetotaling 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.
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 strolled past security and headed toward the ticket counter. The dogs didn’t follow. Abby and I locked eyes with relief and watched from the observation deck as our bags were loaded into the underbelly of the propeller plane.
When we landed in Baltimore that evening, Abby somehow snuck our stash from her father’s suitcase and the next day we headed back to Chapel Hill with a stop in Georgetown for a couple bottles of Everclear and Bacardi, 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.