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Story #32: Story from a New St. Thomas Resident that went back to the states
(Submitted in 2005) So, after living here 9 months, we're heading back to the states. I guess we're those people that "just aren't made for island life". There is an assumption that if you decide St Thomas isn't what you'd hoped it'd be, and head back to the US that it must mean you "couldn't hack it", when in reality we just chose not to stay here as long as we initially expected we would. We ran our course here.
We both loved St Thomas in many ways-- we never tired of the weather or the gorgeous beaches or the refreshing-yet-never-too-cold waters. Obviously there are a ton of things to appreciate on St Thomas (and the other islands we visited while living here), but it is not a place where we feel we could live indefinitely due to the lack of job opportunities, expensive housing market (in terms of buying) poor school systems and very segregated schools, and general lack of variety in most things from food to entertainment.
Now wait wait wait, before you think I just didn't explore the island enough or that I must be blind to all the happenings here, I'm not saying St Thomas is BAD for not having the things we realized we miss and value in our stateside lives. In fact I think living in St Thomas has opened our eyes to what we need from life-- things we might not have figured out had we never moved here. Such as: despite both myself and my fiancé considering ourselves very adaptable people, we realized that we don't like small town life at all. I thought it might be fun and quaint (I lived in a rural community until I was a teen, love the beach since I grew up in CA, etc), and I thought the fun island lifestyle would override the small-town annoyances, however I was wrong.
I guess both of us are city people, (whether we want to be or not!) and maybe we weren't always that way, but after living the majority of our adult lives in cities and urban environments, we somehow learned to like *gasp* dirt and noise and crowds and over stimulation and bars and museums and ethnic foods and subway rides and anonymity and tons of diversity. In addition, we didn't appreciate the job market, educational opportunities, art exhibits (thank god we'll back in time for the Basquiat show!!), the best food in the world in my humble opinion THAI and INDIAN (which St Thomas doesn't have any of) and the fact that I miss having 10 options of those kinds of food within walking distance! I miss public transportation (for any of you who've dealt with car problems on St Thomas, you can understand!), I miss public libraries and sprawling bookstores and cutting edge music scenes... I miss walking into a cafe and hearing 5 different languages being spoken and I miss the diversity of city life so much.
We thought it'd be cool to live in a majority-minority island (since we are a mixed race couple) but it is odd to live somewhere where there is such a black/white divide and not very many other ethnicities. I miss cheapo flights to the west coast for $99 and $120 round trip deals to London.
To be very honest, most of all, I miss having a cool job WITH BENEFITS (barely anyone offers benefits here) and being able to save up cash and enjoy work. That was a bummer about our move here-- he got a great job offer and we hoped that I'd be able to find a good job once we got down here. Didn't happen. Very odd job scene here and it appears to me that most employers are satisfied with mediocrity in the workplace and don't pay workers well at all (and the workers then don't work too hard). I thought that I'd be fine getting a crappy job for the sake of sun and sand and sailing and getting tan. Wrong again. Perhaps, crazily enough, living here made me realize my own ambitions, work ethic, and made me REALLY crave having my career opportunities around. We're in our late 20s, the time of our lives when we should be kicking ass and forging careers and putting away some savings so maybe one day we too could own a house in Estate Nazareth with a sailboat docked outside! Sadly, $12 an hour just doesn't cut it, despite the cheap rum and yummy Painkiller drinks.
It's hard for anyone who has never lived here to relate in the slightest to the "bad parts" about island living. I do not have one friend or family member who feels any true sympathy when I've expressed frustration ("oh poor you on your tropical island", "why don't you just sell coconuts on the beach if you're broke?", etc), and to be honest, I wouldn't have listened before I moved here either. You just have to go through it to understand. So I don't expect any of you who are reading this for advice on your upcoming moves to the Virgin Islands to really listen to me because I was in your shoes not so long ago and I know how much the enticements of paradise override any hesitations that might be in your mind. So come, enjoy, make up your own mind. I only speak for myself. By no means do I expect my experiences to reflect general experiences, although I would not be surprised in the slightest if most of you living here said, "me too" to a lot of things I'll detail below.
We were lucky and got an apartment set up for us before we came due to my fiancé's job. We lived in a little apartment below a house in Mandahl (the prettiest part of the island in my opinion! wow, killer views like you would not believe). We loved our apartment, although it was small (1 bedroom), we had a nice big kitchen and huge porch with BBQ, table & chairs, hammock, punching bag... and the view was amazing. We paid $850 which included utilities which I think is a steal. The main part we didn't like about our apartment was living so close to neighbors. Always interacting with them (they were really nice, but it was a little too much togetherness), their kids coming down and wanting to play with our dog, etc. Someone else may really like that neighborliness... Overall, I think we had it great, but the "small town" neighborliness drove my fiancé crazy, he felt like we didn't have much privacy there. We realized it'd have been near impossible for us to ever move with a dog, so we felt a little trapped in our living situation.
Absolutely, 100% without any hesitation YES a car is necessary (coming from someone who lived without a car for 5 yrs before moving here) and a decent car (with 4 wheel drive) that won't break down. As we learned it takes FOREVER if you have to send your car to the shop (2 weeks for them to diagnose our Jeep's problem when it stalled out one day and wouldn't restart. Ended up just being a dead battery, but it took them 2 weeks to realize that.) don't get a beater or you'll be miserable dealing with fixing it.
Reception by Residents:
I felt very welcomed by other statesiders who'd moved down here. They invited us places (mainly people we met via work), suggested places to eat and drink, and made an effort to get to know us. the West Indians didn't pay us much attention and we never were able to make many friends since they seemed to have a "oh, they're just statesiders who won't live here long" attitude. Of course, who can blame them, since here I am moving back after less than a year. In general the people born and raised here were less friendly to us, and yes we got some rudeness from the Kmart workers, but overall the people here are fine.
Would I do it Again:
Um.... yes. I say that hesitantly because hindsight is 20/20, but overall I think this experience was great. I love to travel, love experiencing new cultures, loved the chance to live in a foreign country (believe me, this US Territory ain't nothing like the states!), loved the boats and the water and the snorkeling and the soft white sand. I don't know that I would do it again knowing that I'd be leaving so soon, because moving is a "B**ch" and very expensive and I gave up a pretty good job to come here... moving 2x in less than a year is just really hard. However, I am very very confident that I will never regret this time, never wish I hadn't done it, never tell people "don't go to St Thomas", and most likely I'll be wishing I was still sitting on Lindquist beach with my doggie all winter long.
I wish I'd had more real concrete honest advice from people before coming here though. I wish someone had told me a lot of the stuff (then again, I would probably have tuned out to all of it): about how hard it is living here, about where to take your car when it breaks down, why people are rude to you, why no one seems to give you a heads up about tough situations like the 4 hrs it took me to get a cell phone from an otherwise empty Radioshack (very much a sink or swim attitude here).
We met some people, made a few friends. But none of those "will be friends for life" kind of friends. We met a lot of people younger than us (18-20ish), and a lot of people in their 40s raising families. But not too many people our age (28) and who we felt we could relate to. We met some Antilles School grads who grew up here and lived here as adults and frankly couldn't really relate to their rich-kid, boat owning, yacht club hanging-out lives. We found the bar scene to be a bust (boring or filled with 18 yr old kids). I blame ourselves for not putting ourselves out there more though-- I've sort of burned out on the bar scene the last couple years and haven't really found a good social circuit other than bars for meeting people. I also blame myself because I was surprisingly homesick for MY parents and MY friends. I wanted them here to experience St. Thomas with me, and was disappointed that not many people visited due to how expensive it is to fly here/hotel costs, etc. Anyway, I think my attitude had to do with me when it comes to not making more friends.
This is tricky, and hard for me to detail without probably causing some offense. But oh well. I am the type of person who has never NOT had my choice of jobs-- I choose where I want to work, not the other way around! I was under the assumption that I had a ton of business related skills, that I was god's gift to any office, that my tough work ethic would blow everyone away, that I would be snatched up in a second because of my wit and charm and fabulous skills. WRONG. Dead Wrong. (Of course would never approach a potential employer with that kind of cocky attitude, just being silly here.. you know what I mean).
Seriously though, I am a great worker with lots of experience, glowing references and in fact my job in the states was begging me to come back... Anyway, my education and wealth of corporate world knowledge did me no good here. I could barely get an interview. it was either "too qualified" or "we are looking in the $7.hr range". I seriously could not believe the job scene. Many jobs are just word of mouth, it's about knowing people who say, "oh I know someone who might be hiring"...so that was hard too.
It is my opinion that most employers here do not value their employees-- or they don't value their good employees at least. My fiancé was stunned that it was routine for his coworkers to just not show up for work-- for days at a time without calling! They never got fired because there was no one else to hire, they never got reprimanded "oh I guess Pat's just off island or something"... no one worked hard, there were tons of mistakes made, and the employers just seem to have a 'well I know so-and-so isn't a great worker, and I know there must be more efficient ways of doing things, but this is the way they've always been done, and I don't want to pay a more qualified person to do the job". it's that simple. I went from a 50K a year job scene to $9 and $10/hr job offers with no insurance. I know 50K isn't millionaire status, but I could pay my bills and make rent and generally afford to shop or go out somewhere nice. if my fiancé hadn't had a good job, I would have been so screwed. He paid my share of the rent several times, pays for most stuff actually simply because I don't make enough other than to barely cover my student loans and bills and rent.
I've never been someone to ever rely on another person for money (esp. a man!!), so it was very humbling. I never wanted to waitress or bartend because I'm not a night person and because it would have meant I'd have an opposite schedule from my fiancé and then we'd have been really bummed. Also, there are certain institutions like the banks where I just felt like I wouldn't be hired regardless. I guess it was maybe reverse discrimination?
My coworker who also moved down here around the same time as me was actually told, "we don't think you'd fit in here, despite your qualifications. I don't think the other girls would be very nice to you or view you as part of the team"... she would have been the only white person in the banking office. My fiancé felt equally trapped because there were no other job options for him either-- he was in a better paying job, but not one he enjoyed, and since he was under contract, he was stuck too. there just aren't enough jobs to be picky.
Anyway, it's not my point to blame West Indians or mock the business standards here, but I was not impressed with the professionalism in general and the job scene sucked. Do not come here if you're career oriented (unless you have a plan for a boating company or something like that) or I think you'll be disappointed. I was. I tried to just enjoy everything else other my sad job, but when you have to put in 40 hrs a week, you can't help but feel down over it. It's not like I was chilling at the beach 24/7 -- trust me, I wish I could have! I don't think I'm alone in this experience-- most recent arrivals seem to really struggle with finding work. I told myself I'd do any kind of crap job to get by just to have the chance to live here, and I was kidding myself. although, I'm glad to have had the chance to live here, so I guess it was all worth it. (See those rosy lenses already.)
I can't speak for St Croix, but if you are moving to St John or St Thomas, the roads are soooo steep and windy and narrow that our Jeep has to chug to make it to the top. Only an insanely in-shape person, like maybe Lance Armstrong or something, could get around the island via bike. And it is so hot and humid for so much of the year that you'd be winded and dehydrated in no time. I have seen a couple bikers while living here, but it is really dangerous since there are no shoulders on the road. Even pedestrians need to watch out because cars whip around sharp turns and often go our of their lanes just enough that a pedestrian really needs to watch their back. A lot would depend where you work and live (if you lived on the east end and worked in red hook you could do it, but most roads getting to and from main areas are very mountainous and steep). In the rainy hurricane season, biking would be horrible.
I sort of have mixed feelings about Pre-move visits being as important as people say. For me, it took months of living here before I could see past the dazzle of the views and neon blue beaches. As I've said before, I was too into the dreamy-ness of living in paradise to really allow myself a better assessment of my reality. However, a Pre-move visit can't really hurt.
Here are a few concrete examples of things that can be frustrating down here that I thought of (again, just my experiences, not saying this happens for all).
-- Innovative taking weeks to set up phone or cable, not being able to call Innovative directly (bad phone system on their part) when something goes wrong. Sprint cell phones don't offer 411 information here, and my cell phone here for some reason would never recognize incoming call #'s even when the person was programmed into my phone contacts. Very frustrating for those of us who heavily screen our calls when everyone (even Mom) shows up as "unknown" (oh, btw, there is no DSL service on the part of the island where I live and it costs about $90+ a month in the parts of the island where it is offered. Not 100% sure, but this is what I hear. so keep this in mind techies!)
-- Not knowing about "Under the Lime Tree" car repairmen (locals who might not be trained very well in car repair, but seem to know some stuff and will come to you to help with oil changes and basic repairs for a decent fee) and not knowing just how hard it would be to get a repair done if needed. Not one person in either of our offices could recommend a place to take our Jeep Wrangler (despite like 50% of the cars here being Jeep Wranglers!!). Most just shook their heads in a "good luck, man, I don't know what to tell you" kind of sympathetic way. This is why I so strongly say that a RELIABLE car, not a beater, is important here. Also, I wasn't aware that the auto parts stores regularly just sell out of pieces that you'd need. Often they make you order them and ship the parts from the states -- or else you'll be waiting weeks (months?) for the parts to come in, if they ever arrive! About 3 months went by before the lug nuts we needed came into stock at the car places in Tutu Shopping Mall.
-- Knowing about all the DMV fiascos now, I had to laugh out loud when I overheard a West Indian employee in my fiancé's office said to a recent island newbie arrival "the problems at DMV are exaggerated. If you just go down there early in the morning, there are no problems, it'll be fine". Simply not true!! For some reason, the locals here seem to downplay the frustrating aspects of island life or even deny that certain issues exist-- maybe it's a pride thing. Like if they admit their government is totally corrupt then it reflects on the people who live here. Most of us newcomers just want to get a straight answer and not deal with runarounds, but locals seem to think we'll judge St Thomas as "backwards" if they admit to those problems. Again, if others disagree or think I'm totally off here, that's fine. By the way, the DMV study guide is written with tons of double and triple negatives so you often have to re-take the test a couple times in order to pass just because of the poor grammar and spelling errors. Last person I know who attempted to get their license was told there are now only 2 booklets for the whole island, and they were put on a waiting list. 2 booklets??? Again, I feel most locals would deny that the DMV is any worse than on the mainland, and despite the horrors of mainland DMVs, they are very organized compared to here.
--My fiancé lost his glasses about 2 months ago. OH MY GOD, the glasses stores down here have styles from the early 1990s and that's about it. He was horrified and I went with him to make sure he wasn't exaggerating about the selection, and I refused to let him buy any glasses because they were so hideous. Ok, perhaps I'm a little vain, but he agreed that he'd rather wear his old pair that are scratched for the next few months until he's back in the states to get a decent pair. The shopping selection is pretty bad here with shoes too.
-- At my job, we have a water cooler. It's hot here, so we drink a lot of water all day.. the staff, the clients, the walk-ins... we all drink water. So, when the water cooler started only dispensing boiling hot water, we called right away for a new cooler or a repairman. Well SIX appointments with Crown Mountain Water (all no shows) and 2.5 weeks later, we got a new cooler. Begging didn't hurry it up, being mean wouldn't have helped, calling repeatedly every day didn't seem to help. It's not like I could have called another water cooler service and given them our business, because to my knowledge, Crown Mountain Water is the only one. Very frustrating and never have I appreciated a working water cooler so much! We were getting very thirsty for a bit... just one example of how these minor inconveniences can become maddening. I know, I need to be more Zen.
-- Insurance. Sorry to beat a dead horse, but professional companies not offering insurance as part of a salary deal was a shocker. My fiancé was offered his salary, "full benefits", etc. I guess he should have looked into the insurance package first (his mistake), but when someone tells you full medical coverage, one would assume you could go to the doctor if you needed to. Not so! His "full benefits" meant emergency hospitalization coverage ONLY. No doctors visits, no annual exams covered and even if he were in the hospital, they wouldn't cover anesthesia or post-op needs. Forget about prescription coverage. He was so upset when they gave him his booklets to look through and went to his HR person who played dumb about how he felt misled about his coverage and said, "well unless you've got some problems or something, you usually only go to the doctor maybe once a year, and you make enough to cover that visit anyway"!!!!! Sorry, but what the hell is that?? Um, maybe he has allergies and needs to go regularly, maybe some unforeseen issue will come up that requires multiple doctor visits, ANYTHING could happen, and this is why we ask for insurance as part of the deal before we take a job. And besides, he shouldn't have to explain why he might need to go to the doctor whenever he needs to.
Most locals in his office were in awe when my fiancé explained the standards of co-pays and stateside insurance, which made us realize that it wasn't just this employer who gives crap insurance. His poor coworker was in a car accident and had to spend thousands of dollars at the chiropractor due to her back and neck injuries. Her "insurance" offered by her employer of course didn't cover it, which sucks. This is part of a larger nationwide health care problem, I know, but it seems like his employer could have mentioned that medical coverage down here is different than the states rather than saying they offer "full coverage".
I must confess that I have not always been positive and self reflective while living here-- many a moment of total frustration and cursing and feeling sorry for myself (I guess we all get like that at times). But, like I've said, those bad moments were usually countered by the sheer bliss of sitting on a beach on St John, or snorkeling at Coki, or living in a very romantic setting with the one I love. Too bad beach-going isn't a job here, or I'd be a millionaire!
Most, most, most of all, I will be forever grateful because we got our little baby doggie here, from the Humane Society, who is such a joy in our lives! She'll soon be a jaded New Yorker and will trade lizard chasing and sunbathing for squirrel hunts and slush puddles, but hopefully she'll do fine. I think now that there is an "end in sight", we will appreciate and enjoy St Thomas more than ever and take full advantage of the remaining weeks we have here. And yes, I can't wait to drink a Starbucks latte (2 yrs ago I would have never ever believed such a statement could come out of my mouth-- support local coffee shops!), get some new stuff at the Gap, order Thai food that will be delivered to my door, visit with friends, and look through the photos of our time on St Thomas.
I THOUGHT I was in the right mindset to move to the islands. I was totally burned out on NYC, city life, hustle and bustle, rat race, you name it. I hate winters, I was being bored and staying at home and not taking advantage of city life, wishing my rent was lower, wishing i had more simplicity in life. I've never been a huge shopper, not really a late-night kind of person, as a child I lived in a town of 693 people so I knew what small-town life was like. Trust me, growing up as a beach bum in Southern California, I THOUGHT I was ready to return to that lifestyle. I was sick of my job, ready to just relax and enjoy nature and beauty, didn't want my life to revolve around a job, never wanted to see another Starbucks (I don't even drink coffee!) or designer store again! I'm also extremely easy going, very "go with the flow", and I've moved a lot in my life, and traveled to tons of places, so I THOUGHT I knew what I wanted when I decided to move to St. Thomas.
I would never have moved here if I thought I'd miss all those city "annoyances"... I realize now how naive it is to think one's work environment won't matter just because you live in a tropical setting. I think I had these notions in my head that stripping my life down to live more simply in a beautiful environment would somehow make me forget the fact that I have student loans to pay off, credit card debt, rent to pay, expensive groceries to consume, etc. I was completely unrealistic with myself about how horrible it is to not have medical insurance, how much I resented being paid what I was making 10 years earlier in college, how little my education and work experience mattered on St. Thomas, how lonely I found myself much of the time.
I think perhaps I was unaware just how much personal growth I'd had over the last several years; I mean my 20s were pretty hectic and intense (not that I can compare it to my 30s or 40s or 50s), and I'm very different now than I was when I was frolicking on the beach as a teen (despite beach frolicking still ranking at the top on my list of joyful things to do!). My "I've got to get out of this rat race" feelings that seemingly made it obvious that we should move once we had the opportunity to relocate to St. Thomas were perhaps more just general frustration with my job, with working in general, with never feeling like I had enough. Grass is always greener. None of those frustrations went away for me once I lived down here. In fact, they only became more enhanced. The beauty here can be overwhelming and blinding; it can almost hypnotize you into thinking you're happy when you're not. The beauty makes it that much HARDER to show up for work, to handle a work week, to remember to pay your bills. For some reason I want to quote "Beauty is only skin deep" but I'm not sure if that quote really even describes what I'm trying to say.
I think I just had the classic case of hoping St Thomas would be the place for me and then realizing it isn't. It happens to tons of people regardless of where they move to. I don't regret living here at all. I know I'll be the envy of all my friends and family for the rest of my life because of the time I lived here. Island life isn't for everyone, and I thought it was for me, but it's ok that it isn't. It's more of a joke that I miss the Gap or 7/11 slurpies, those superficial things are just little tangible items that are easy for me to grab onto to point out my homesickness. However, my desperate need of Thai food is no joke whatsoever, and the 10 or so mosquito bites I get each day will NOT be missed.
I never ever in a million years expected to think of NYC as "home", yet this is where I find myself. I never thought of myself as a major "career woman", yet I guess that's what I've grown into. It surprises me that I find myself smiling at the idea of working in a stressful yet meaningful job while also going to grad school. I must be crazy. And I do worry sometimes that I'll get back to the states and wish I had never left St. Thomas -- however at this age and this point in time, I know NYC has much more of what I need. Besides, I can still come visit (and crash with the friends we've made here so I won't be paying outrageous hotel costs) and now I've become ambidextrous with my driving skills so suddenly renting a car in London doesn't sound so scary.
We have loved our time here for the most part, we plan to take a month and "vacation" and travel around these lovely islands to enjoy our remaining time here before we're back in the rat race, balancing grad school schedules, checking out the latest MOMA exhibits, eating Ethiopian and Korean and Thai and Indian dinners, and when St Thomas will only seem like a dream.
I know very well that we'll only have rosy-colored lenses when we think back about this place, that we'll forget the annoying inconveniences, that we'll ask ourselves a hundred times "we left St Thomas for this??", that our view of the apartment complexes will never compare with looking out on Thatch Cay, and that my lovely lovely tanned skin will get pasty again... but, nonetheless we think it's worth it. So long St Thomas, it's been fun! xoxo
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