Down in the Caribbean, it’s a ferry way of life. The ferries not only provide a fun and easy way to island hop through the U.S. and British islands, but they also provide for many transportation for their livelihood. When I first moved to St. John, I was still working at Molly Molone’s (an Irish pub) in Red Hook on St. Thomas. I took the ferry to and from work and easily rode the ferries 25 times a month. Although it sounds like a pain, it’s been my favorite method of commute from all the places I’ve ever been, from NC to NYC.
The commute was wonderful because I was on the water; the beautiful, turquoise water of the Caribbean. When possible I would always sit in the outdoor seating. The wind would be whipping my hair, the bright sun would be shining down on me, and I could see more than just a handful of islands. The best part was riding back at night, when it’s cool and the breeze is warm and the stars are so bright you are almost guaranteed to see a shooting star on a clear night. When I didn’t feel like being out in the sun, or if it was raining, there was always the choice of an air-conditioned interior room.
The White Ferries, as they are known, are the Carib line of ferries, and the Blue Ferries are the Venture line. They go back and forth between Red Hook, St.Thomas and Cruz Bay, St. John. I like the Venture line best because they have bow seating (my fav) and also because they are the most prompt for departure and arrival. (The White Ferries are known for being usually at least five minutes late departing.) Both the White and Blue ferries are typical boats with steel, well-used benches for seats (inside and out) and adequate railing and steps that have been kissed by the salt water every day. They’re nothing special, but they do the job comfortably.
Over the last week, making their debut for the 4th of July, the V.I. government introduced two new ferries to their fleet. These are state-of-the-art Vitran double-hulled ferries that look like giant catamarans (the other ones are mono-hulls). The new ferries have plush, separated seating like Greyhound buses, and T.V.s almost anywhere you look in the indoor, air-conditioned lounge. The almost-full-length windows are large and tinted for less sun glare. The upper sun deck has smooth, iron benches for seats with brightly painted railing and lots of leg space to stretch out on the roomy deck.
I’ve had the opportunity to ride them a handful of times over to St. Thomas over the past week, and what has struck the me most about them is how “standard” they would be considered by visitors and how excessive they seem in a culture that thrives off simplicity. After close to a year living in the Caribbean, I find myself awkwardly ambling around the ferry and growing angry. While these Vitran ferries (Cruz Bay I and Red Hook I) are impressive boats, they are 100% unnecessary.
The V.I. government used $3 million from a 2009 stimulus package to commission these boats and get them down here. THREE MILLION. Mind you, that money wasn’t for operations, like the physical upkeep of the boats or helping to fund the fuel and oil necessary to keep the ferry fleet healthy and therefore keeping commuting costs low. That stimulus money went solely to these boats being built and shipped down here. (At which point the boats were kept on the docks for close to a year, presumably working out kinks.)
I understand that the ferry fleet needed to be updated. I also understand that the VI needed to use all of the grant money so that in the future, they can receive more money for other projects. If using all of the money meant installing four flat screen T.V.s and other bells and whistles, so be it. However, there is something to be said about that amount of money being granted for transportation in the first place.
The difference $3 million could make to a number of struggling public programs in the V.I., especially the education system, is unfathomable. Not only could that money have gone to providing new books, computers and supplies to the schools, it could have also helped to bring in better teachers and help retain the good ones. It could have helped make programs in fine arts. If nothing else, it could have helped thousands of impoverished through scholarships and other aid.
It’s also worth noting that stimulus could have gone towards making the V.I. a safer place. The V.I. has one of the highest rates of homicide per capita in the WORLD, and has had for a number of years. The only way to change that is to help the community, to help the people with real issues by proving funds to help create constructive and safe outlets for not only the youth, but for everyone.
What does the V.I. community gain by these ferries? Not much. A more luxurious commute is certain, but for a ride that is only 15 minutes it hardly seems necessary or important. In a community where all homes, boats, and anything else that is outside is corroded frequently and unforgivingly by the salt in the air and sea, upscale ferries are excessive. We don’t see Corvettes on the island. We shouldn’t see Vitran ferries on the water, especially if comes at the people’s expense.
To see $3 million go towards unnecessary new ferries is sickening, and I don’t even really live here. Like millions before me, my time here is fleeting. I will be leaving at the end of the month, and while I am definitely coming back, my total time here tallies to a mere nine months. But leaving for not, the ferries have made a clear statement to me about what the government considers important: The V.I. government would rather cater to tourists than the citizens. They would prefer to fund a superficial issue rather than attack the heart of serious problems.
It’s like remodeling a decrepit house, and choosing to install diamond chandeliers first. Yes, the lighting needed to be fixed, but not to such superfluous ends.
The Caribbean culture is wonderful, and the people deserve better than that.