If you’re an adventurous person, you might have dreamed about living in the Virgin Islands and the lifestyle, the weather, and the idea of a carefree existence. In theory, it sounds like an idyllic departure from the rat race and an escape for free-spirited adventurists. It is sort of is, but for me, it became much more.
I lived in the British Virgin Islands for close to 15 years. There are a lot of questions comments I got from tourists and family members and friends back home, whilst living in the Virgin Islands. I was asked some of these questions so many times, it began to wear on me psychologically. So much, I started making shit up. I thought I would share some of the questions I was asked and how would answer them now, after 2 years removed.
It’s not all sunshine and sea breeze.
Some of them seemed silly and cliche at the time, but now looking back, they stir up bigger memories and emotions than I would have ever imagined whilst living there.
Did you eat a lot of seafood living in the Virgin Islands?
No. There is seafood, but it’s not the selection you’d expect, especially if you want to eat locally caught fish. Also, the prices are really high when compared to the USA. Believe it or not, most of the seafood you are accustomed to eating doesn’t come from the Caribbean.
There are some species of fish, you simply don’t eat because they contain high amounts of mercury or ciguatera, a toxin that causes a food-borne illness. I know people who have it. Once you have it, it’s yours for life. Also, certain regions only have certain marine life, and in those areas, there are seasons to different varieties of fish. I stayed away from large local reef fish but had my share of local lobster and conch.
Anegada lobster, is big and quite tough, also no claws. If you love Maine Lobster, you might not like its spiny warm water cousin. But, if you’re lucky enough to snare one (which is illegal for tourists) while camping on the beach with some of the best people you know, and it finds its way to a campfire, you’ll eat it.
As for trophy fish, like marlin or sailfish, I would rarely eat it. I am not a biologist but understand that warm-water fish that are higher up in the food chain tend to contain more mercury than one should eat on a regular basis.
To be perfectly honest, most of the fish I ate in the BVI was imported except for wahoo and mahi-mahi, which I love. Snapper, seabass, sole, salmon, tuna, even crab was all imported, thus it cost way more than it should have after shipping and duty were added. Curried conch at Big Bamboo in Anegada, was my favorite dish in the BVI, by far. Next, would be smoked wahoo at friends’ houses or at anchor in the Bight at Norman Island, but it was scarce.
What are the “Natives” like, while living in the Virgin Islands?
This question was always made me laugh. It just sounded silly to refer to a BVIslander as a “Native,” like some sort of South Pacific tribesman. I usually avoided it because I didn’t agree with the nomenclature, but when I answered I always put it simply. There are good and bad things about everyone, everywhere. I would usually start my answer by clarifying their question and by identifying the intent of their curiosity. If a 20 something shirtless bachelor asked, I would assume he would be referring to local Caribbean women. To which I would say, “ask them yourself” and watch him get a drink dumped on his head.
If they were clearly talking about BVI islanders, I would keep it short and do my best to dispel whatever preconceived myths they may have already heard. For the most part, people there are like anywhere else. They care about their family, religion, and community. Everyone in the BVI regardless of whether they were born there or not has a lot of love for their home and the people who live there. I have a lot of love for my “island brethren.”
There’s a lot of diversity and ethnicities there, in terms of BVI Islanders. None of which I would say is more native than another. Afro-Caribbean British Virgin Islanders are the most prominent, of which many are highly educated, well-traveled, and super-fun to hang with. Then there are the BVI Islanders who have parents from overseas who moved to the territory in the 70s and 80s, some earlier who are caucasian, Hispanic, or West Indian. This is a smaller percentage of the population but is pretty much the same traits as the former.
Of course, there are some less hospitable groups who are threatened by outside influence, immigrants, and cultures and are quite outspoken about it. To me, it’s no different than it is in the USA but as a caucasian living in the BVI, I recognized there were fewer people who didn’t want me there than those who did. I gravitated toward those who represented the more “open to diversity”, “one love” mindset.
Don’t get me wrong, there are people who reside there, much like anywhere who you’d prefer not to mix with. They can be from anywhere. You’ll never know their story and be glad.
Another interesting thing I noticed about a small community like the BVI, people know everything about one another. The coconut telegraph is a real thing. You’d often hear rumors about Government officials, preachers, prominent members of the community, and some very scandalous dealings. Some of it is true, some isn’t. Almost all of the scandals I’ve heard have to do with greed or corruption at some level.
Do you eat a lot of local fruit, living in the Virgin Islands?
When fruit is in season, absolutely. I tried everything and liked most of it. Some of the more exotic fruit I came across I had never heard of before I moved to the Caribbean, only to find it was growing wild in my back yard. The first time I saw a dragon fruit vine on the road up to my apartment I was super excited. I never had it before. Then I tasted it and realized it tasted like sweet dirt.
Not all fruit is in season at the same time. Weirdly some varieties of mango would fruit in the summer and others in the winter. It also seemed like certain areas of the island would affect when fruit trees blossomed.
Top 10 Exotic Fruits I liked while living in the Virgin Islands
1: Fig Bananas, are small and turn bright red when ripe. They were quite rare to get a hold of and seemed to be really seasonal. To me, they actually tasted more like a strawberry than a store-bought banana.
2: Soursop, they don’t look edible, spiny green and the size of a large grapefruit, soft white flesh that’s sweet and sour. The texture is unlike any fruit I can compare them to. Makes awesome Ice cream.
3: Pineapple, local pineapple is usually a third to half the size of a storebought pineapple. When they are ripe they are bright yellow-gold. They are less tart and often have a tinge of sweet coconut already present. Don’t ask me how.
4: Mango, There are a ton of varieties of mango. Some hairy, some fleshy, some with thick skin, others like peach skin. As I lived in the BVI for 14 years, I got to know which trees had the fruit I liked. A lot of friends and co-workers had them on their properties. The best mangos I had were smaller, yellow, and pink and had very thin skin so you could eat them like a peach, so no peeling. Once you have a mango that has fully ripened on a tree, it is hard to buy an imported one from a grocery store.
5: Sugar Apple, weird as hell but quite possibly the sweetest thing I have ever tasted. It’s like soursop and artichoke had drunken sex on a beach and this little thing was the offspring. They were pretty scarce but when you could find them, it was a treat.
6: Coconuts, everyone’s had coconut in some form. Coconut water, coconut milk, coconut cream, coconut oil, coconut meat, Coco Lopez, etc. But, not everyone has had a sprouted sapling coconut, aka “Bushman delight.” When a coconut falls from the tree and sprouts, it starts growing into the ground. When that happens there is a time period where inside that nut, the white meat transforms into a foam-like ball. If you crack open the nut and eat this thing, you will love coconut and crave this little meringue au coconut for the rest of your life.
7: Passion fruit, good fruit if you know what to do with it. I would always juice it and strain it, then add a little sugar kind of like lemonade. The vines are really pretty and have beautiful flowers. They do attract some pretty terrifying creatures though. Hornets, Jack-Sparrows, and wasps love these fruit with a passion.
8: Star fruit, meh. They’re a big fancy grape. I never ate them much because they are supposedly bad for your kidneys and I liked other stuff better. They are kind of good though.
9: Guava, meh. The ones I had were kind of tasteless. Guava tarts from Crandall’s are good though.
10: Papaya, Papaya is a fruit that grows all over the islands. It’s like a weed that turns into a tall, palm-like tree. It is a tender tropical plant and cannot take cold weather. I have had it green or orange, I have even juiced the leaves. The juice was the most bitter thing I had ever tasted but I had heard, it was good for dengue and chikungunya, which I thought I had at one point. I didn’t like the ripe papaya, it smells like feet. However, I did use green papaya in a Thai papaya salad, julienned like cabbage in coleslaw.
Is it hard to make a living on the islands?
If you move to the islands you’re going to make some tradeoffs. In general, I don’t think it is difficult to make a living in the Islands. I think it is much harder to have a balanced life. Getting a job, and a salary to live off is one thing. Finding healthy ways to spend your off time was more of a challenge. To me, the BVI economy was driven by rum and finance. Depending on what you do, there may or may not be opportunities to live on an island. If you are a tradesperson with a very specific skill set and education, you have a great chance of finding work. Just keep in mind you might not get paid what you’re worth in the Islands because of the “Sunshine Tax.”
Also, things are expensive scarce on the islands. It was very rare that I would make a trip to the grocery store and finding everything on my shopping list. 99% of the items sitting on shelves, arrived by boat. So milk, fruit, meat, and veggies all sit on a cargo ship and in port for days before they hit the shelves. All of these items are about double what you’d pay in the USA and will spoil much faster. It’s something that you get used to, but can be super annoying to buy a pack of spaghetti only to realize something else has already been eating it by the time you open it.
While living in the Virgin Islands did you go to the beach every day?
Yes and no. I went to a beach bar, which was near a beach. I hated getting sand in my car, so I rarely walked down to the shore. If I ever went to a beach for a “beach day” it was usually by boat to Jost van Dyke for a few hours. The only time I would get in the water was to get on and off the boat. I don’t know why, I didn’t really like saltwater either. It doesn’t matter where you live, over time the novelty wears off and you care about the people you’re with more than where you are.
There are some really pretty secluded beaches in Virgin Gorda, Anegada, and Tortola which I would go to for “quiet reflection,” but rarely would I get in the water.
When I did go to the beach for “beach life”, it was usually with a group of great friends and we’d bring food, booze, and games. It was rare, but that’s what made it special and worth going to. On occasion, we’d pack up a boat and head to a neighboring deserted island for a night or two. We’d bring tents, grills, and packed coolers, then go fish from the shore in the morning and evening. We’d find conch, reef fish, whelk, and lobster for a fireside feast. This was a once-a-year thing because the weather window and work schedules were a challenge to work around for a group of 10 – 20 people.
What did you miss the most while living in the Virgin Islands?
At first, everything is new and wonderful. Little things over time, wore me down. By the time I was about to leave knew it was time. Living in the Virgin Islands is not a convenient lifestyle. You have to accept things are what they are and aren’t going to change. It sounds depressing now because there were many times I made an effort to enact change but never made the impact I hoped for.
Without getting too philosophical, I obviously missed my family, movie theaters, baseball, nice roads, stable electricity, running water, cheap gasoline, and decent variety at the local grocery stores.
This will sound weird, I missed the way people treated animals with love and compassion. My uncle is a cattle farmer in Odessa, Missouri. These are animals that are being bred for food, and he treats them like family, even names them.
I was constantly disappointed by the way the BVI Government allowed animals to be treated. It was and still is, incredibly sad and shocking. Several of my friends and neighbors have watched their pets suffer and die in agony after some twisted individual planted poison in a “dog-friendly” area. I won’t get into it any more than that.
It is an extremely small group of people who find this acceptable, and they most certainly fall into the category of “people I do not mix with.” As long as I lived there, no one was ever caught or brought to justice even though, people knew who was doing it.
Is it safe to live in the Virgin Islands?
There are two potential dangers of living on an island. Crime and Hurricanes.
I’ve been in 3 minor hurricanes and one major. On the spectrum, the major hurricane was life-altering. Hurricane Irma was a category 5 storm and I witnessed the eye first hand. It’s a series of blog posts all its own.
Smaller storms are like party storms. They are a spectacle and can be fun. A day off work to watch mother nature sneeze. These storms are rare but are getting bigger and more frequent but would not sway my decision to live in the Virgin Islands.
What about crime while living in the Virgin Islands?
Could there be less crime? Yes, I think so. If you have common sense, you’ll be just fine. In the BVI, there is far less crime than in the USVI. While I lived in Tortola my car got broken into, once, and it was unlocked outside a restaurant. They stole my laptop, and I felt like an idiot who bought a car without door locks. Other people had their houses broken into by a local thief called “Lightning.” He gets caught and released after he does his time.
There have been crime sprees, armed robberies, muggings, and murders but they are extremely rare and usually occur in places you should not be anywhere near in the first place. When I lived there, we’d hear about restaurants being held up, homicides outside of strip clubs, and drug dealers getting capped in their cars. Unfortunately due to the nature of these crimes, there were rarely any suspects or witnesses willing to offer up information to the police.
The police are pretty relaxed but when they want to arrest you for something, or just ruin your day for no reason, they will. Or, if you’re in a car wreck expect the next 2 hours of your life to be ruined. The way the police “investigate” auto collisions is like watching an amateur youtube CSI spoof. The police get a lot of flack, and I don’t envy their job and what they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Also, people drive like maniacs. Do NOT buy a nice car and expect it to stay nice. A ding a day is almost guaranteed. When you see how people park, you’ll think they are nuts, until you have a car and see how many times it gets dinged in the first week of owning it.
My run-in with an RBVIPF Forensic Investigator living in the Virgin Islands
One Sunday morning at 6:30 am, there was a knock on my apartment door. I was hungover. The policeman asked me to come outside to look at my neighbor’s car. The neighbor said that when I parked my car the previous night that I had somehow hit his car. The area I lived in was pretty ghetto, and this guy was not someone I would be neighborly with in the first place but I came outside and said, “When I park my car, I don’t need to back up. I just drive into my parking spot going forward.” It’s a tight spot, but I’ve done it every day for a year so I knew the angle and it was not a big deal.
On the bumper of my car, there was clearly a spot where there was a minor collision, but I didn’t know where it came from. And, on my neighbor’s car, there was a corresponding dent on his car. So, he decided to call the Police and say I backed into his car.
I said “No, would you like me to show you how I park my car?
“Yes,” replied the man and the police.
I backed out, drove down the road, and parked my car, exactly where it was, with no incident or hesitation. Got out of the car and immediately hear.
“Noooooo! That’s not how you park, from the neighbor.
By this point, a forensic investigator arrives at the scene and tells me that he will be taking paint samples to the crime lab. Again, I want to emphasize, it’s 6:45 am and I am hungover, maybe even still drunk. I know I smell like Mount Gay and coke. The police just asked me to get in my 1996 Suzuki Vitara with a rusted-out floor and demonstrate how I park my car every night. Which I did barefooted and half-drunk, in my boxer shorts.
I then tell the paint sample man, “if that paint sample matches his car, it’s because he hit me before he backed into his parking spot.” I literally have never seen someone’s mind being blown until this moment, at roughly 6:46 am on a Sunday, whilst stinking of rum and bed sweat because I was too cheap to buy an AC unit for my apartment bedroom. I caved in when I got a girlfriend, now wife.
Officer “CSIBVI,” tells me that he needs me to take my car to Road Town 30 minutes away and leave it there for them to test the samples.
Long story short, I sat on a curb in Road Town, Tortola for 4 hours on a Sunday, everything is closed, still hungover, and smelly while paint chips from any car on the island are being tested. The result was negative and I was free to go back to bed at 3 pm later that afternoon. The case is still under investigation.
To this day, the neighbor has never apologized.
What did you miss the most after living in the Virgin Islands?
1. I will keep this brief. Always the people. I met some amazing people, and consider a lot of them as a family even after leaving. Campaign trips, regattas, and festivals were awesome but it was always the people attending that made it special. Places like the Virgin Islands seem to attract a very unique breed. In order to survive or thrive, there you have to be a little crazy and willing to take risks. It’s not for everyone.
2. Sailing and racing, I love it. It’s like meditation, challenging both mentally and physically. But the biggest reason I love sailing has always been because of who I am sailing with. So, people again. Some of the best friendships I have made have been with people who share a passion for sailing or boating.
3. Hiking in the BVI is legendary.
4. Camp Freddy. If you know, you know.
5. Full-moon nights and spontaneous Friday night boat trips to the Willy T.
The biggest takeaway from living in the Virgin Islands
No doubt, the Virgin Islands are a tropical paradise with beautiful beaches and breathtaking views. There are definitely pros and cons to moving anywhere. At the end of the day, do I regret moving and living in the BVI for nearly 15 years? Absolutely not! It was more than I could have hoped.
Would I ever move back? Never say never! I wouldn’t expect to make it a permanent residence ever again but I could see moving back for a year or two at a time to get it out of my system. I have a lot of great friendships and family, there.
Was moving there good for my career? Probably not at the time, but the perspective I gained helped me start something new which I am really passionate about and love today.
If you can put up with the cost of living and terms of immigrant employment, you can have a happy life on an island. That’s, living in the Virgin Islands, in a nutshell. I hope you learned a little bit more about what it is like living in the Virgin Islands.