Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Humble lessons in paradise

London and Lola (a.k.a. LoLo) are travelers. Traveling is our religion and so they come with us wherever we go. During their 4.5 years they’ve flown 4 times to Europe, visited 4 Caribbean islands and managed to get a frequent flier card. My husband, Geoffrey travels for work and carefully manages his reward points, so that we can stay comfortably in most places of the world for free. (A perk that is nice to have, but hardly a substitution for family dinners missed or good night cuddles).

This year, we picked the Virgin Islands as our winter gateway. We’ve stayed on St. John before and re-tell our Cinnamon Bay adventure 12 years ago, again and again. You know, when … we could not figure out how to build our brand new tent and it got dark, when we were told there were wild donkeys roaming the campgrounds and one may just wander into our brand new tent, when we realized what it meant to have “too much privacy” getting a bare site in the middle of the dense forest, the time when all horror movies came alive every and each night … and the rest of course … the stunning beaches, the 50 shades of turquoise of the water, the amazing wild life, the hikes, cactus, live reggae and the horseback ride that almost killed Geoffrey (because I did not completely believe that he is so allergic to animals).

This time around, before we booked our bungalow at Cinnamon Bay, we thought of all the advantages and disadvantages of spending 4 nights at a campground. Though we’ve been planning to, we have not yet camped out with LoLo. Our vacations were spent in the comfort of hotel rooms with crispy, white bed sheets or family homes that provided as much comfort as our own apartment in Brooklyn. We would stay in a bungalow with simple beds, a closet (I was hoping for) and no bathroom facilities. The lack of bathroom seemed to be the biggest of our concerns, so I ordered a portable potty with 5 stars review from amazon and decided that the 25 USD spent was part of our private insurance policy (“just in case we need it”). We were wondering how LoLo would react to this new, unusual environment. At the end of the day, they are children of privilege – just as all their peers at home. They have the entire world in their city, get exposed to a variety of experiences one would only find in New York, they travel, they suffer no shortage of any kind (if time spent with dad doesn’t count). We were excited to show them something different.

Weeks before the trip, we talked about the beautiful beaches, the palm trees, the islands and what we would do without mentioning even a word about our “hotel”.  Not because we didn’t want to, but because it was not important (I thought). After a short flight, a taxi ride and a boat ride we loaded our belongings into a blue rental jeep and were driving the winding roads of St. John.

The Tree Lizards restaurant stood without change, just as 12 years ago. A lady with a wide smile checked us in, we loaded our wheel barrow and were on our way to bungalow 8D. Everyone we passed by greeted us with a big smile and a “hello”. We felt welcomed. A single key on a ring and a green plastic triangle opened the lock on the door, LoLo ran ahead and did the hotel initiation ceremony of jumping on the beds, while we figured out the room set up. 4 beds on visibly rusty, old spring boxes, one table, four plastic chairs, no closet, but few weathered shelves with basic kitchen utensils and a few plates, a mini fridge and two fans at the corner of the room. Two sides of the bungalow were walls, the other two were mesh screens with curtain panels. The porch had a picnic table and a small gas cooker. As soon as I put down our luggage I went to check the mattresses for bed bugs, but before I could Geoffrey frowned at me: “Elvi, don’t!” …
… I did not …

“Can we please, go swimming” sounded the unanimous plea of both, London and Lola from below the tall palm trees full of coconuts. We ran to the beach visible from our bungalow. LoLo jumped the waves, screamed from happiness, threw their shoes to shore and ran back and forth chasing the blue water. I wish I had my camera ready … “This is why we came here”, I thought ... the pure joy of them being by the ocean and of us, parents witnessing all of it was worth a trip … LoLo wanted to shed their clothes on an instinct and run ... I often wonder why happiness in kids shines through by running … When kids run, they are happy … always!

We went back to the bungalow, changed into our bathing suits and enjoyed the rest of the day by the beautiful water, sand and palm trees. Finally, we discovered the bathroom facilities – basic, clean, with cold water showers! “I work too hard for this” I remembered Geoffrey’s words when we camped here for the first time. “Ok, this will definitely be an adventure” I mumbled to myself and turned to the kids with smile “Yay for cold showers!” London and Lola felt the water and giggled to my surprise (why are they not whining? I want to!).

There were three adorable kids checking us out all this time – an 8 years old girl, Anna, her 7 years old brother Harry and the 5 years old Holly all came to introduce themselves and offer their water and beach toys to share. I would see them the following days playing by the water, collecting twigs and leaves and going proudly with their 5 dollar bills to and from the camp store to purchase ice cream of their choice, like big kids. Melanie, their mom is a single mother and brought them on vacation. I thought about me taking London and Lola to school and how long that took and had immediate admiration of Melanie, who packed up three kids and herself in one!!!! suitcase. When I asked them if I could take a photo, Anna said she would ask her mom if it was ok; when Lola fell on the rocks, because she followed Anna, she came to apologize, though it was not her fault. These kids were the best behaved, most responsible, independent kids I’ve met. Melanie told me, that she believes in giving experiences to her kids and not material things, I agreed and liked her immediately. We matched in our philosophies, but I still need to learn! 1 suitcase! .. I kept thinking …

At night, when all four of us crawled into two single beds pushed together, I realized that it wasn’t only the four of us that shared the bungalow, but also a variety of four and multi-legged creatures that crawled under and above the bed. This time, a cockroach walked lazily across the room while I was tucking myself into the single white sheet, getting ready for story time. I wanted to scream and run. I glanced over to Geoffrey, who was comfortably hugging the two munchkins and I decided to keep this news top secret to myself fearing, that he will pack us all up and we’ll head to the nearest resort the next day. That night, as all the following nights  of our stay, we fell asleep with the sun setting, waves crushing, the sound of our fans spinning the warm Caribbean air, night birds and frogs chirping and stories from Geoffrey’s and my childhood. And every night it seemed magical. Did I say there was no cell phone or internet service? It brought us, as a family closer than ever before. To my surprise, still nobody complained. After a while I realized, that Geoffrey was fully aware of the creatures that shared our living space – what’s more, one apparently even crossed his face one morning, but somehow it wasn’t a big deal. I wasn’t even sure if LoLo noticed the change in their living conditions – they were just happy and content (cold showers, bed mites nicknamed ants, saltines for breakfast, toilet away .. etc.) The only thing London said on the first night was: “Mommy, this is not like home!” (The understatement of the year, we giggled.).

Melanie, the single mom with three kids and one suitcase, who as we’ve learnt is an attorney in “real” life recommended, that we visit another beach that’s part of a resort.  This beach is also part of the national park, so anyone can have access. We drove through the manicured lawn, walking across the hotel property to yet another stunning beach. We spent the day enjoying the water once again. Only one thing stood out – the guests at the resort didn’t smile and didn’t greet each other, just like every single person at the campground. They walked past each – other as strangers, who happen to be at the same place.

Thinking of Melanie, who could most certainly afford taking her kids to any hotel, seeing the strangers at the resort, going through our amazing experiences as a family and yes, that 1 suitcase, the well-known lines of Tolkien’s poem kept coming back to my mind again and again   

 All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost ….


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