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Travel in a rain forest, St Croix cheap travel, Eco travel in Caribbean
By: Kevin Revolinski (justin) 2012.01.09


A jungle camp in St. Croix is addressing the key aspect of sustainable living. No, not conservation - community.

THE TWO PIGS I'M DRINKING WITH want some Old Milwaukee. I opt for a bottle of Caribe, but I toss a can of Old Mil in the air.Two beady eyes follow it as one pig makes a spectacular catch with its teeth, bursts the can, and rears back to let the foam spill down its throat in a manner that would wow even a Sig Ep brother. "Watch your fingers," says an onlooker. "No kidding."

So this is eco-travel? Well, actually, yes, even though this tin-roofed pavilion of a bar - in the middle of a rain forest on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands - doesn't have any solar panels or a clever compost system. It's just one of the local attractions, and the owner of Mount Victory, the eco-camp where I'm staying, recommended I stop by and give it a little business.

Supposedly, according to the International Ecotourism Society, what I am involved in is "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." Switching the pigs to non-alcoholic Old Mil a few years ago is perhaps Montpelier Domino Club's meager contribution to nature, but the bar also plays a part in a community tied to Mount Victory Camp. And it is this community aspect of eco-travel that often gets overlooked.

The Virgin Islands are most famous for St. Thomas and St. John, cruise-ship destinations with the kind of beaches you see on screensavers and in glossy magazines. Tourism is the big business, and the travelers pass through in droves. St. Croix, 40 miles south of its sister islands, doesn't yet have that kind of draw. People still live and work here in non-tourism-related jobs, and the major industries are the Hess oil refinery and Cruzan rum distillery. It's a much bigger island, and a traveler can really slip into places that - for better or worse - are not airbrushed for guests. I wanted to stay local, find something down to earth. In the heavily wooded hills on the northwest side of the island, I found Mount Victory.

SOWING SEEDS, BUILDING BRIDGES
The campground takes its name from the sugar plantation that was here in the 1700s, when cane was king. Tropical fruit trees-mango, papaya, passion fruit - are scattered about the slope of the land where the stone walls of a 19th-century schoolhouse still stand about a mile up a winding road from the west-end beaches. Here Bruce and Mathilde Wilson make their home and host travelers in five lodges, some built into and around sprawling trees, looking for an experience closer to nature.

Mathilde is an agronomist; born and raised in Haiti, she is at home with the Caribbean. Her smooth brown skin and eternal smile radiate youth, and she is quick to laugh. She keeps a hell of a garden, with roots like the starchy cassava or tania, and fruits such as guavaberry or star apple, all native to the island and all organically grown.

Bruce is a tall man with a moustache, and his brown hair always curls up from under one of several baseball caps. He moves about the camp like someone who has just arrived that week and is still excited about getting started on a new project. He cut all the wood for his five habitat platforms himself, using indigenous materials for the construction: saman, almond, teak, and mahogany, all naturally resistant to termites.

In the bar area and along the railings, many of the cuts are free-form, maintaining the natural curves and contours and giving the place some very organic character. The white canvas roofs and the supporting posts almost make the structures look like sailing vessels. But this design is not just for aesthetics: white roofs reflect some of the sun, and the platforms are four or five feet off the ground, with wide screened verandas, to increase air flow and keep guests comfortable naturally. I fall asleep to the hum not of air-conditioning but of tree frogs and insects. In the morning I have hot water for bathing, compliments of solar power; soon the sun will provide electricity for most of the camp as well. The Wilsons are clearly doing all they can to have a minimal impact on the environment while offering a quality experience for travelers, but no matter the methods, in the end it must be sustainable.

Sustainability is a key word when it comes to eco-business. With a bottomless bag of money, of course, anyone could set up the latest solar and enviro-friendly waste-water treatment technology and employ dozens of locals on fair wages. But this is a small business, not a charitable cause, and the lack of tourists can be aggravating, if not threatening.

"Our camp is a working experiment," Bruce explains. "We have worked out our take on it, by doing the eco-lodge part as an adjunct to our actual life here on a hillside in the Caribbean. We are experimenting in whether people really want to meet locals, eat local, dance, or do they want a limbo routine or Jimmy Buffet music?" Bruce abhors Jimmy Buffet. "Orheaven forbid - weird Omega - Yogi people with that strange stare that take over Maho [a camp in St. John] every winter - Creepy!" He shudders. When I ask him what he thinks is the most important aspect of the eco-philosophy, he says it's community. "Local ownership is a big part of eco-definitions, and we are grown right from our own ground here - no investors or outside interest."

To illustrate that point, on Sundays the camp often hosts a community hog roast. I cast a wary eye at the pig on the spit. That whole beer-drinking thing wasn't some kind of innovative marinade method, was it? (Different pigs, they assured me.) This is not just a show for tourists; it is a local social event serving up delicious homemade food and Bruce's spiced rum from a recipe from Mathilde's family. Jouk-li-jou, as it's called, reputedly has certain "medicinal purposes." The night's entertainment is a band led by Jamesie Brewster. At 76, he is the king of "scratch," the official music of the USVI and somewhat similar to calypso, and he gets the crowd dancing beneath the massive mango tree between the bar and lodge. The whole scene makes a point; it is not enough to live in an ivory eco-tower cut off from the people who live below it, any more than it is okay for a locality to let the environment go to hell.

INTO THE BUSH
The next day Bruce, true to his commitment to community, sends me out on a hike with a local guide, Ras Lumumba. He shows up at the camp wearing a straw hat and tie-dyed tank top. His hair spills down in narrow dreadlocks dappled with a bit of gray, and the crow's feet around his eyes reveal he's a bit older than his spry step and taut muscles would suggest. Lumumba's mother was a bush woman in a small village in Haiti. "There was no doctor, no hospital," he tells me. "She learned from her mother what plants could be used as medicine." Ras takes me through the bush as if it were an aisle at a pharmacy, listing off the ailments that can be cured with this root or that leaf. A surprisingly high percentage of them appear to be Viagra substitutes.

We climb to the top of the highest hill for a view of the rolling landscape and some cliffs overlooking the crashing waves at Annaly Bay. Remains of 19th-century sugar mills stick out of the foliage like Mayan temples. At the summit, we find a group of "off-islanders" with an SUV trying to make a clearing for a picnic. Ras smiles at a red-faced man with a weedeater. "You're much better off with this," he says, brandishing his machete, then hacking out a large bush that is blocking the group's view. Perhaps it's the look on my face that compels him to add, "Tantan. Not native here but taking over. Look." At one time, the area he shows me had been clear-cut for cattle, and tantan was brought in as feed and firewood. Rivers that were once sustained by the rain forest had long ago dried up.

JOINING THE CROWD
The longer I am on St. Croix, the more I can see that community aspect that Bruce swears by. St. Croix has the first protected area in the Virgin Islands that is governed locally and not by the U.S.: the East End Marine Park, a wonderful stretch of beach and reef at the opposite end of the island, surrounded by natural landscape quite distinct from Bruce's neighborhood. The island's seven competing dive shops collaborate to protect sites by putting in mooring buoys and use multi-shop dive packages to attract and share business. And for the Sunday pig roast, the handful of campers blends into the much larger crowd of locals.

"We try to help them make contact with Caribbean people they came to experience," Bruce says of the visitors. "It takes a little bravery or curiosity to walk across a cultural bridge, but the real rewards of travel are on the other side."

And every time the Wilsons send a guest down the road to the local woodworking artists or connect someone with a guide, they also bring revenue to their neighbors. Everyone wins, and this small eco-camp and the humble businesses around it remain sustainable.

But the eco-experience is not always such a sober matter. On the next Sunday, when one of Bruce's barkeeps cancels, I find myself an adopted Crucian, behind the bar doing my best to mix a Painkiller. Hungry partygoers line up with plates at the roaster, the jouk-li-jou makes my head swim, and no one is concerned about minimizing impact on the dance space beneath the mango tree. Keeping traditions and indigenous plants alive is serious business, of course, but as Jamesie bangs out another tune on his guitar there in the rain forest, it's clear it can also just be fun.


LOWDOWN ON MT. VICTORY
Each of the three standard tent platforms ($95 a night for two, $10 for additional folks) comes with two single beds (extra mattresses are available), and the Danish schoolhouse and two-story bungalow are for larger groups ($110 a night). All come with pots, pans, a propane stove, cold water sink, and a cooler - everything you'd need to camp except your bug spray. They are fully screened and have basic electricity and ceiling fans - though at night most people won't need them as the forest is generally cool and breezy. You can also bring your own tent and rent a site, starting at $30 a night. For more information, visit mtvictorycamp.com, or call 866-772-1651 and 340-772-1651. Delta, American, and USAirways fly direct to Henry E. Rohlsen International Airport (STX); several others connect from St. Thomas and Puerto Rico.

Photos courtesy of Mount Victory Camp; Kevin Revolinski

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