Puerto Rico & Virgin Islands: Short Hop Around the Jolly Islands of the American Caribbean and their neighbours
Short Hop Around the Jolly Islands of the American Caribbean and their neighbours
Cobbled streets, crosses and Madonnas. I arrived in San Juan , capital of Puerto Rico after more than thirty hours of flying from Singapore , coupled with a few short transits. Puerto Rico is an American territory in the Caribbean . Christopher Columbus dropped by on his second voyage to the Americas and it was settled by Spanish conquistadors and their African slaves after slaughter and disease decimated its original Taino Indians. In 1898, the United States annexed the island after defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War that also netted the US Cuba, the Philippines and Guam .
Today, Puerto Rico, with three million inhabitants plus another two million living in the Mainland USA, is an unincorporated territory of the US . The island elects its own governor and government, has an elected representative in the US Congress that cannot vote. All Puerto Ricans are US citizens but they cannot elect the US President so long as they are not resident on the Mainland. Politically, Puerto Rico always has a small pro-independence movement but it hardly get more than 10% of every referendum. The pro-Union movement in Puerto Rico wants the island to join the US as a full state, but it has failed in three referendums, getting 40% of the vote. Most Puerto Ricans seem to prefer its unique status of an unincorporated “ Commonwealth of Free Association ” with the US , rather than full independence or union. Standing on two boats are the preferred option everywhere, isn’t it?
San Juan looks like a typical large American city, full of raised motorways sardined with oversized cars, and skyscrapers and shiny towers crowding the skylines. However, this is no mean Anglo-Saxon town. There are more billboards and signboards in Spanish than English. Young Puerto Ricans may dress like hip-hop American teens and many are no less oversized with the all-American diet of KFCs and Burger King’s, but they speak and think Spanish – perhaps Spanglish, as social critics would argue. In fact, I had a surprisingly hard time ordering in one particular downtown McDonald’s, where the young girl there couldn’t take order in English, and needed help from her colleagues. Even then, I believe that’s the exception rather than the rule, as most Puerto Ricans I met speak relatively good English, although it was obvious they are more comfortable in Spanish.
I stayed at a nice hotel in Old San Juan, the Spanish old city that was once the Key to the Indies . The Spanish saw San Juan ’s sea inlet as a well protected safe harbour for its treasure fleet fetching looted treasures and exotic produce from the newly conquered Americas . They built huge bastions and walls eighteen feet thick from which they fought hostile English and Dutch fleets. Forts San Felipe del Morro and San Cristobal are today World Heritage sites and the key tourist attractions of Puerto Rico .
I walked along the cobbled old streets of San Juan , visiting fortresses and cathedrals typical of those found in Latin America . The atmosphere, coupled with the hot, humid climate, is distinctively Hispanic, but the prices North American. American and Canadian tourists overwhelmed Old San Juan’s narrow streets in daytime, most of them here on massive cruise ships that dominate the harbour, looking for a sampling of the Spanish Caribbean.
The Puerto Ricans are a friendly, musical lot. Walking along the streets in the evening, I heard loud Bomba beats and flamboyant Hispanic-Caribbean rhythms screaming from the many homes I passed. It reminded the good times I had on my great Latin American journey back in 2002. I will be back in this part of the world, I told myself.
From San Juan , I flew 50 minutes eastwards back into Anglo-America – not to the Mainland, but to yet another unincorporated territory of the USA , the United States Virgin Islands, or USVI.
The Virgin Islands – Columbus named them after St Ursula and the 11,000 virgins. During the era of the Spanish Main, when European powers contested for the riches of the Americas by occupying the islands of the Caribbean, and then using these as raiding stations against the fleets of rival powers. Private adventurers were often encouraged by governments to act against enemy fleets, thus the rose of pirates such as Sir Francis Drake (- he’s a British national hero but everyone else would call him a pirate) and Blackbeard, among numerous others. The Virgin Islands , at various points, were occupied by the British, Dutch, French, Americans and even the usually peace-loving Danish! Unlike many of the Caribbean islands which were larger and had some arable land, the Virgin Islands are mountainous with steep cliffs rising straight from the sea. As such, they were hardly ideal settlements for plantation owners. Instead, they were used as raiding outposts, i.e., pirate dens. Indeed, early colonial administrators in the Virgin Islands often adopted liberal attitudes towards pirate ships which often stopped by for supplies of food and weaponry, as well as to sell looted goods and battle trophies.
Today, the Virgin Islands are divided into two: the USVI and the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Upon arrival in the island of St Thomas , where Charlotte Amalie , capital of the USVI, is located, I dumped my luggage at Hotel Bunker Hill, then rushed to the ferry jetty where I got onto a fast ferry to Road Town , capital of the BVI on the island of Tortola .
The BVI is a smaller, poorer cousin of USVI. Caribbean states are small by world standards, but the BVI are even smaller by Caribbean standards. The BVI has 20,000 inhabitants, spread across two larger islands – Tortola and Virgin Gorda, and 50 smaller ones, with names such as Jost Van Dyke, Great Thatch, Beef Island , Scrub Island , Great Dog, Ginger Island , Pelican Island , Fallen Jerusalem , Virgin Gorda, Mosquito Island , Prickly Pear and Round Rock. I imagine Captain James Hook, the pirate chief in Peter Pan, waving his iron hook-on-arm, “Oops did I leave my pepper on that island together with that chopped up French officer?” or “Is that the island we left the Dutch sailor with the bird-size mosquitoes?”
In fact, I found this writeup online: “Pirate fans will find the tiny islet Dead Chest huge in skull-and-crossbone lore. A Pirates of the Caribbean major scene is based on what happened on Dead Chest. That's where Blackbeard supposedly marooned 15 rebel pirates who had to make do with only a most inadequate survival kit that comprised only a cutlass and a keg of rotgut rum. About 15 miles north of the main BVI archipelago is another island with a depressing name: Anegada. It's Spanish for The Drowned One.”
I pity colonial officers who were posted to the BVI – this must have been an exile for non-performing sorts. A miserably boring, featureless island with humid, green hills and little else. Its main island of Tortola is most uninspiring, with unimaginative place names like West End and East End for its westernmost and easternmost tips. Nearby tiny Ginger Island has a Great West End which tells a lot about the mentality of these places.
The people of BVI (- do we call them Virgins? Or Virgin Islanders?) are predominantly descendants of African slaves and they speak English with a slow draggy monotone which I found difficult to comprehend. Unlike the US Virgin Islanders whom I found friendly, flamboyant and open, I seemed to have a few less than friendly encounters with the BVI’s, whether is it the passport officers who found my voice too loud, the lazy post office officers who called for each other to serve me while having nothing much ado to do, or the souvenir vendor upset with her photo taken (- I thought she said ok earlier but we probably misunderstood each other).
Road Town , the BVI capital, must be one of the most boring capital cities I have ever visited. The name is unimaginative but certainly appropriate. It used to be an one street town – and not a very impressive one, though it is picturesque, that is, if you consider colourful run-down houses attractive. This is a town with hardly any heritage building. No typical Caribbean fortresses, no fancy colonial governors’ mansion. Some land has been reclaimed by the jetty to serve mega cruise ships. A multiple storey building serving as the Government HQ is just about the most impressive building in town.
The BVI is renowned for being a tax heaven and registrar of companies. Many corporations and individuals – including perfectly legitimate ones - set up companies here so that they do not have to disclose shareholder details and financial information. As of 2004, 550,000 offshore companies were registered here, about 40% of the world total. The BVI company is particularly popular among Mainland Chinese businessmen who use BVI incorporated companies to invest in China , which could be why the BVI is officially among the top 5 foreign investors in China , despite being a miserably small “country”. The BVI has also drawn up attractive laws for insurance and offshore banking, and sells itself as an international financial centre.
What international financial centre? I walked along the streets of Road Town . Hardly many banks and offices of the sort one would expect to see in a financial centre. I have been to other offshore centres such as the Channel Islands and Isle of Man , and one would see many banks, insurance companies, law firms and accounting firms. Here one sees mostly dusty streets and young people sitting around doing nothing. It’s obvious the BVI is a lot less financial and more a centre. Perhaps most BVI registry work is done in austere legal and accounting offices in cities such as Hong Kong, London and New York . None of that filters down to even the minimal professional work in BVI itself. I asked around for the registry of corporations and the Inland Revenue office directed me to the wrong place. It tells a lot about how important the business is.
Tourism is perhaps the more important industry in the BVI. It attracts 350,000 tourists despite having a population of only 23,000, i.e., each local welcomes 15 tourists. Not many countries/territories in the world has such a high tourism saturation ratio, and the Chief Minister is also the Minister of Tourism.
The BVI doesn’t hold a lot for me, and I returned to USVI after only a few hours stroll in Road Town . The USVI, with about 100,000 inhabitants, has three main islands with the most religious sounding names – St Thomas , St John and St Croix – and dozens of small ones. Tourism is the main business here. Gigantic cruise ships bring wealthy tourists from North America to the countless duty free shops here selling luxury watches, perfume and branded handbags. Activity starts the moment cruise ships landed their passengers who rushed onshore to shop, and shutters come down at 5pm, when passengers return for on-boat dinner while the ships sail away to yet another isle.
The USVI has a more interesting history – it was Danish for a long time before they were sold to the US in 1917. Although the Danish had ruled for a long time, their influence does not extend beyond the odd old Danish red-and-white houses, Lutheran churches and family names. In fact, the Danes used to run the place through English and Scot plantation owners (which explains the predominance of the English language even during the Danish days), and adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards pirates, sin and vice. And they sold it to the Americans when they found the whole colonial venture unprofitable. Legends abound about lost treasures and pirate hideouts, which the tourism authorities exploited to attract the 2 million cruise visitors who drop by every year.
There is one more thing that links the islands closely to the US – religion. The moment I landed in USVI, I heard Christian preaching and sermons of heaven and burning hell. The taxi’s played them; my hotel reception TV was permanently switched onto American TV evangelical channels; the neighbourhood was full of mini churches and Christian centres. The whole place looked more Bible Belt than America ’s Deep South – oh yes, the USVI is certainly more southern geographically than anywhere in Mainland America .
I found the USVI a slow, friendly place with a few old photogenic buildings and chatty people who say good morning/afternoon/evening all the time. This is also a journey where I entered and left the US customs zone several times. Despite all the nasty news reports about Fortress America, I have found my Singapore passport hardly any problem – yes, I was the subject of profile checks at airports (what do you expect of a dodgy looking Asian with a laptop) but the US “agents” - that’s what passport officers of the Department of Homeland Security are called – were always friendly and often engaged in small chat that made me forget the inconveniences. Even then, perhaps I should consult my lawyer if there was a case for a discrimination suit. Maybe a chance to sue for a few million bucks.
With that, I flew to Mainland America , and here I am, in the Au Bon Pain café at New York ’s JFK Airport , waiting for my flight to Bermuda . More next time.