The donkeys used for labor were also set free. Around three hundred now roam the land as wild animals grazing on the side of the road the way deer do here. Some are shy while some pester tourists for snacks like pet dogs. I saw one bold donkey reach his head and long neck under a man’s arm as he sat sunbathing to pilfer a cookie.
Adding to the cacophony of volcanic rock, pipe organ cactus, palm trees and tourists in jeeps on surprisingly steep and twisty roads are beautiful orange and black roosters and chickens. These birds are also descendants from populations used during an earlier era. Finding the island a nourishing habitat, they can be found everywhere, and like the donkeys, can pester the tourists. One especially handsome fellow with feathers of orangey peach and a blue black tail found our potato chips to his liking. Ambivalently I succumbed to his flashing eyes and bold demeanor and tossed him a few. Then guiltily, I remembered the salt in the chips and worried that I had done him harm.
St. John’s is dominated by a national park. It’s white sands and gorgeous aqua and blue waters and volcanic hills are mesmerizing. But just underneath the surface we snorkelers find evidence of unhealthy coral and reef. Unlike the teeming reefs that I have seen in the Bahamas, these reefs are dusted with powdery white sediment. While we witnessed beautiful sea turtles grazing on sea grass underwater with a grace no tortoise could display, we also saw sickened coral and predated sea fans. While the vessel shapes that nature displayed filled my artist’s mind with inspiration, I simultaneously tried to push aside a sense of heaviness that was dawning within me.
Coral Bay, one of the two “towns” on St. John’s, is beginning a battle not unlike our own battle with fracking. There are plans underway to build hundreds of boat slips and a huge marina. Cruise ships coming by dump tons of waste. More large boats want to stop at the island. Building on the steep terrain contributes paths for soil to flush down into the clear blue-green waters during the tropical rains. In time this gorgeous bay will be ruined unless the small group of locals can stop it. While the presence of the national park prevents destruction on much of the island, each side of St. John’s has its own special character.
So as I think on our tropic voyage, I am brought back to the truth that paradise is a vision of freedom and not a location. Both the painful history of St. John’s with its modern residues and inheritances as well as the assault its beauty now endures speak to the necessity of mindful action in the world in daily life. Indulging in the notion that by going somewhere one can have the good without the bad for a brief time is self-deceptive. There is hardship below the surface. The only true paradise is free awareness, and free awareness spawns its own obligations to others and the world we share.