There are certain things that one expects when they plan a trip to the Caribbean. Beautiful beaches filled with bodies painted by the sun in shades ranging from toasted almond to teaberry blossom red, seas of anxious islanders waiting to offer you anything from a tour to an umbrella adorned beverage, and miles of duty free shopping. This constitutes my general expectations as I made my way across Puerto Rico. Well, the beautiful beaches were certainly present, and I eventually discovered how to get my hands on the proper beverages. Beyond this, however, Vieques proved to be nothing like I had anticipated.
Vieques can be described in a number of ways. Travel guides will laud its beautiful, pristine beaches, amazing snorkeling, bioluminescent bay, and wild horses running free and unbridled through wilderness untouched by the evils of money and tourism. Those who prefer their vacations basking in the privilege of a five star resort will describe third world poverty, unreliable and inconvenient transportation and services, and wild horse feces baking in the sweltering sun. While those looking to prosper from investments speak of breath-taking beaches, perfect year round weather, and land untouched by the evils of money and tourism, ripe to be harvested by the evils of money and tourism.
I won't insult you with the obvious and overused follow-up line, "Vieques is all these things and more," because I feel that to insult the intelligence of the reader this early in any writing creates a poor foundation for any writer/reader relationship.
Vieques lies just eight miles east of the big island of Puerto Rico, which is convenient, because it makes it easy to find. As part of Puerto Rico it is, therefore, part of the US. However, were you to wash up there after a shipwreck and asked to guess what country you were in you probably wouldn't guess the US before they tired of the game and told you.
Vieques is, without question, one of the least developed of all the Caribbean Islands and provides a unique opportunity to enjoy the kind of solitude that the rest of the Caribbean promises, but so seldom actually delivers. This 34 x 6 km (21 x 4 mi) island houses less than 10,000 citizens, making it half the size of the average US town. Nearly the entire population is settled into the central third of the island primarily in the two small barrios, Isabel Segunda on the Atlantic in the north and Esperanza on the Caribbean in the south. This configuration leaves nearly forty square miles of land so deserted that you begin to wonder if you missed the apocalypse. Then you look at the empty beach you are standing on and decide you don't care.
Vieques tumultuous history has enabled its unique circumstances today. It was discovered by the Spanish in 1493 and its Taino population was killed, displaced, or assimilated entirely over the next century. While not interested in colonization themselves, the Spanish prevented other countries from successful settlement and the island existed primarily as a pirate outpost for over 200 years. Demand for sugar finally led to Spanish colonization in the 1800s, but brief momentum in growth stalled when Vieques transferred to American control in 1898. In 1941 the US Navy expropriated two thirds of the island and one third of the population was displaced to St Croix. During the next several decades the island became a bomb testing ground and training center. Many fascinating remnants of from this time abound, including the numerous naval bunkers that dot the western third of the island and the formidable looking mile long Mosquito Pier, west of Antonio Rivera Rodriguez Airport. The navy left the island in 2003 following years of well publicized protests of the bombings came to a climax in 1999 after a civilian death. The land became a national preserve and remains primarily wilderness to this time.
Due to this naval presence Vieques avoided the massive development that occurred throughout the rest of the Caribbean. Which is why you can spend an entire day trekking through wilderness to wander aimless down miles of sun kissed sand or relax in the shade of graceful palms all while never coming in contact with another living soul. However, this is also the reason you can spend an entire day waiting in line to buy gas at a gas station on the days when they have some. Fortunately, if you get bored you can drive a block away and sit at the other gas station and wait there if you tire of the view.
My point is this: Vieques isn't for everyone. Vieques isn't your grandma. It doesn't cater to you or care if your every whim is met. Vieques is your Uncle Carl who lives off the grid in Possum Hollow. When you visit Uncle Carl he hands you a hastily drawn map of cool places to see and a machete, then sits down to have a beer and watch TV. Grandma cleans up after you. Uncle Carl doesn't even clean up after himself.
Even getting to Vieques can be an adventure. Unless you are an actual marine mammal, there are only two realistic ways to arrive on Vieques. Flights on small planes can be made from Luis Munoz Airport in San Juan, from Ceiba, or from Isla Grande. Or you can elect to participate in the gambling escapade that is the ferry trip from Fajardo. The gamble was my personal selection and I would probably do it again simply for the entertainment factor. The ferries are notoriously late or absent entirely, but the view and journey a spectacular adventure providing an opportunity to make friends and find traveling companions before ever stepping foot on the island. And let's be honest, if you are going to Vieques you are likely no stranger to adventure.
Vieques doesn't consider itself off the grid in some "look how cool I am because I am off the grid" better than you sort of way. Vieques doesn't even now what the grid is and could care less whether it would be considered off it or not. Vieques is kind of like a final exam for those people who say they want to go on a real anti tourist adventure.
One of the greatest adventures to be had here takes place in the dark of night. Vieques boasts the world's brightest bioluminescent bay, Mosquito Bay, where you can experience a truly surreal night floating in an aquatic version of Van Gogh's Starry Night. 750,000 dinoflagellates inhabit each gallon of water in Mosquito Bay, each one of which gives off a mysterious bluish glow when disturbed. The overall effect created is more subtle than the enhanced photographs you will find on line, but, in fact, more phantasmal and inspiring. I felt as if the stars were dropping into the bay behind us and melting away into liquid sky. Watching the seductive dance of the millions of dinoflagellates becomes hypnotic, and when you awake the next day it takes a while to convince yourself it wasn't part of a chemically induced dream.
It seems the island's most spectacular draws reside under the surface. Snorkeling and scuba diving seem different here. One gets the sense of being an invited guest dropping in to participate in the lives of its residents, rather than a gawker at an underwater zoo. Mosquito Pier would be worth a visit all by itself even if it weren't for the sea turtles who live and frolic within its formidable columns, encouraging you to play tag with them within this mysterious underwater forest. Along this mile long pier you will encounter spotted eagle rays, bloated puffer fish, and striped parrotfish as curious about you as you are them all under the watchful, but rather disdainful gaze of sinister moray eels. The occasional manatee lumbers through, but doesn't stop to partake in the festivities. At one point an odd looking rock resting upon the sea floor winks at me. I wink back at the flounder to let him know his secret location is safe with me. With underwater visibility up to 100 feet in many areas of Vieques it is not uncommon to see sharks, dolphins, or octopi exploring with you. All of this activity takes place within the somewhat perception altering backdrop of a canvas of stars as starfish cover the rocks, coral, and sea floor requiring you to consciously remind yourself you are swimming, not flying.
Nevertheless, with all this aquatic activity to entertain, when you look back upon your memories of Vieques you may be surprised at how few of them depend upon any of those rare physiological gems of the the island itself. In my fondest memories the beaches and bays become mere bit players. All this impossible beauty is but a setting in a story in which my life became irrevocably altered by the incredible and brave people who I met there.
I began my journey into Vieques in perhaps not the most brilliant of ways by confusing my dates and arriving at midnight, homeless and helplessly lost, a day early and at the mercy of locals who went out of their way to be kind and helpful. From the local bus driver who leaves his scheduled route to drive us across town to help us find lodging to the staff at Duffy's who were determined to help find us a place. Esperanza is a town where you can walk into any place of business and ask anyone there if they know where Steve is, and get an answer. My first interaction with Vieques involved an entire village working together to help a buffoon who failed to correctly keep track of his days of the week find a place to stay.
From Duffy's we were sent down the street to Lazy Jack's. A large, liberally tattooed man, who would be frightening were it not for the kind and genuine smile on his face met us as we walked through the door, "I understand you're homeless." His equally tattooed and charming wife laughs jovially and invites us to sit with them and have a drink. They have closed on their new guest house just today and haven't seen it yet. This is Vieques: A place where you give up everything to invest in a new future and the day you get it you are so excited that you decide to rush over to see it . . . as soon as you finish your drink.
I speak with C_, a pretty young woman from Atlanta who tells me about having a six figure salary job back home and lots of stress and misery. She brings me my drink then sits down and tells me a story of searching and longing. A tale in which the ending remains a long way off and undetermined, but the narrator seems at peace. Hers is but one of several stories with a similar theme. Financially successful, but unhappy people finding a new beginning in a land where success is measured differently.
At one point a joke turned unintended insult about the dusty, dirty streets of the island brings to its defense a woman who makes and sells sea glass jewelry. "This isn't the W resort," she tells me, "Real people live here." The people here are loyal. Loyal to one another and loyal to their home.
For awhile I am not sure what to think of all these ex pats. They either have contracted some contagious mental illness or perhaps really have discovered some absurdly simple secret for happiness. I wander around the island, spending an entire day walking down a seemingly endless beach that was apparently created as a showroom prototype - flawless and unused. I snorkel off the beaches and piers making unlikely friendships with creatures who barely share the same phylum. I enjoy five star quality food in the open air, sand laden seats of Bili or El Quenepo, while staring out upon the waves of the Caribbean. Then at the end of each day I come and relax and have a drink while swapping stories with the locals and ex pats who call this odd, marred paradise home.
A few days later I am home. The sun is duller here, the flowers less colorful, even the snails seem to leave a thinner slime trail. Everything appears diminished. I had tasted a kind of freedom, and liked it. Next thing I know yard sales are held and signs go up. Not long after I find myself on my own pilgrimage of searching and longing. I don't know if Vieques represents my future or not, but it will always hold a special place in my heart as the place I learned that each of us has to write our own story and the measure of a happy ending can only be determined by ourselves.
Vieques - The Uncaribbean