Tourist? Resident? The Answer!
by Vivian Williamson-Bryan
Back to the ship? This is the refrain that reverberates through the narrow Main Street that is the heart of St Thomas’s famed shopping district. It is on the lips of every taxi driver – some as they slowly cruise along, scouting for fares; others lounging along the storefronts, enjoying the air conditioning filtering through the open doorways while their taxis are monopolizing the few parking spaces on that congested street. They address the phrase to one and all, few of them having learned the simple task of differentiating locals from tourists (and you’d think they would make the effort since picking up a local fare is something most of them avoid like the plague – much easier to load up their huge vans and open air buses and make one highly profitable trip to the ship than to hie all over the countryside with a solo passenger who’s familiar with the legal tariff). Ah, the wonderful world of a taxi driver (and we all know that St Thomas doesn’t have a monopoly on the breed).
But we’re not here to dis on that industrious group of individuals. I thought that I might pass along a short lesson on that subject that they’re so deficient in – namely how to recognize a Virgin Islander (or how not to stick out as if wearing a flashing neon sign reading “Tourist”).
From top to toe, there are many indicators of one’s residency status. From hairstyle to choice of footwear (or lack thereof), the clues are all there. All one has to do is learn to interpret them.
Let’s start with the hair since it’s usually pretty much at eye level and it can be studied rather unobtrusively. Local hairstyle, like many of the other telltale signs, is more indicative of the two main racial groups instead of male/female. The black West Indians, both male and female, often sport intricately coifed creations. Braids, sculpturing, gravity-defying topknots, gold or burgundy hair extensions, tiny jewellery accents – these are the popular looks. (There is another element that tends to “herb hats” and dred locks but for the sake of brevity we’re not going to include them in our style survey.) Stateside Blacks, on the other hand, usually look much more main stream, with hairdos that are non race specific.
The local white residents are definitely into wash and wear hair. Living in a hot climate with water sports being the number one leisure activity tends to influence one’s choice of hairstyle. Few are into heavy duty maintenance involving rollers and such so everyone learns to live with what they’ve been endowed with – for better or worse. So, when you see a woman with gorgeously colored hair (it is a fact that most natural hair is a truly unimpressive shade of brown and sun and sea water are notoriously detrimental to the colorist’s art), teased and waved into an airy nimbus surrounding her perfectly made up face (most residents tend to favor a more au naturel look – makeup is hot!), you can just about bet you’re looking at a visitor. Another look that screams “tourist” is the Bo Derek do from 10. (St Thomas is often preceded on cruise ship itineraries by stops at other islands where ladies – and some men – are often enticed into trying these tiny braids. A word of advice: unless you look like Bo Derek did, pass.)
Working our way down below neck level brings other obvious differences to attention. Again there are huge variances between groups of islanders. The native West Indian is a relatively formal person. This is evident in attire, speech and demeanor. Choice in clothing is almost always neat and stylish but at the same time usually bright, colorful (this is a sartorial trait common to all residents) and the more eye-catching the better. Afrocentric dressing is not as popular as one might think – stateside influences are by far the norm and very few concessions are made to comfort or coolness. It’s not unusual for this group to don long sleeves, steamy polyester, deceivingly cool looking silk, jackets or even sweaters to achieve the desired effect. The West Indian loves to dress up. Any excuse to drag out the glitter and sequins and lame will serve – and it’s not that unusual to see it at high noon either. (I’ve always found it amazing to go to an outdoor event where you’re sitting on wooden benches with the audience dressed as if its opening night at the Met.) This is not a new trend either. The West Indian love of finery goes back for many generations (everyday life might have been quite poor but somehow, somewhere, money was always found for at least one Sunday outfit that would embody as many elements of high style as possible) and is well documented. The local author, J Antonio Jarvis, in his 1938 book, A Brief History of the Virgin Islands, touched on the subject in the chapter, The Doldrum Years,”…Ostentation rather than fundamentals interested them. It cannot be said that white and black differed measurably in this feeling except white people, being as a rule more secure economically, did not pay so high a price for lavish display as the Negro.” Present day historian Geraldo Guirty has also made note of the natives’ love of military uniforms – sashes, plumed helmets, epaulets, the works – and how they’ve adopted them for many uses.
The Continental contingent (Continental is the term for the transplanted statesiders – and their children, if any, even if they were born here – actually that’s “bahn heah” – that make up the bulk of the white population), when it comes to fashion consciousness, again places comfort and convenience above style. Cotton is the preferred fabric, skirts are often long, loose and gauzy with the alternative being a skort (both allow for lots of air!), tops are tanks or shells (sleeves are anathema), shorts are worn everywhere possible (by both men and women). Most offices are fairly casual by stateside standards (the only women – or men – who wear suits here are senators and lawyers) – northern “dress down Fridays” would seem pretty formal to us.
And how to pick out the tourist in this wave of color since cruise/vacation wear in general is pretty colorful too? Simple. “Outfits”- sherbet colored matching tops and bottoms, often embellished with glittery graphics or other ornamentation would almost appear to be mandated by the cruise lines as proper shipboard (and shore excursion) attire. To be worn with matching shoes. Another look (definitely not cruise line endorsed) is a bathing suit top worn with a pair of shorts (technically illegal though I doubt if it’s enforced) – definitely not a local’s style decision. Or – and this is straight out of the Midwest – poly knit slacks (fine for chilly Wisconsin or Minnesota but swooningly hot for breezeless Main Street). And let’s not forget the other half of the population. Young guys are usually the most “normal” looking of tourist types although some seem to be quite fond of totally tasteless T shirts. Males of older generations tend towards plaid shorts worn with lace up shoes and dress socks or pristine, obviously new tennis shoes of some sort. Then there are the couples, a la Hawaiian Barbie and Ken, with matching ensembles of white shorts and blindingly brilliant floral shirts – not a chance in hell that they’re local! Add to these wardrobe choices a camera strung over the shoulder, cream cheese colored legs, shopping bags emblazoned with Main Street names and detection isn’t a matter for Sherlock Holmes.
Note that that lack of tan isn’t high on the tip off list. Contrary to what most northerners think, island residents aren’t constantly basking at the beach. In fact, for many of us the only tan we get is what we soak up while driving or walking from our cars to wherever we’re headed. The residents you see with killer tans (literally, sad to say) are usually “boaties,” a whole `nother group. Usually easily recognizable by their un-ironed (and sometimes unwashed), extremely casual (even by our relaxed standards) look.
By this point you’ve probably made a decision whether a person is or isn’t a local, or what to wear if you want to be taken for one. There are only minor hints offered by choice of footwear but for what they’re worth…
- Bright (e.g., fuchsia, yellow, turquoise) and/or high (3″ is not uncommon) heels are almost strictly the province of native West Indian women. They are also the only users of pantyhose. (Let me qualify that – there is a tiny contingent of non WI women that dress with all the panache – including pantyhose and full makeup – of the West Indian. These are the “perfume reps,” a tiny cadre of exceedingly fashionable females that represent perfume and cosmetic companies. Glamour, in all its personification, is their business and they damn well better look the part!)
- Deck shoes or topsiders are extremely popular with Continental males.
- Expensive, European cut loafers are the shoe of choice for the male suave set.
- Most older West Indians do not wear tennis shoes but the young ones do. Most Continentals, young and old, do – at least on occasion.
- Everyone lives in sandals.
Now when you come for a visit put yourself and your newly gained knowledge to the test – after this little tutorial you should score 100% (and wonder why those taxi drivers can’t quite figure it out). And with a little (pleasurable) effort that neon sign will disappear in a puff of smoke!