Monica Axelsson | Voluntourism in St Thomas

After spending the winter recovering from a motorcycle crash on her Sweden-to-Sicily road trip, Monica Axelsson headed to the Caribbean.

Her first stop was Puerto Rico, to help with storm cleanup just five months after Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

The next destination in Caribbean was St. Thomas. The distance between Puerto Rico and St. Thomas is not far, just 30 minutes with a little airplane, with an emphasis on little. The airplane was unbelievably small, the smallest aircraft I ever flown with. There was only room for a group of ten people so it felt more like we were boarded on a small bus in a corner at the airport. Also, it was a special feeling to land with such a small aircraft at St. Thomas tiny little airport, just in line to the sea. For a while, I thought we were going straight into the ocean.

Two US Territories, two different lifestyles

We were around fifty persons at my new All Hands and Hearts camp in St Thomas which was located just a 15 minutes walk from the centre of Charlotte Amalie. Everything looked differently compare to Puerto Rico, the people, the nature and the vehicles. They spoke English instead of Spanish and the cars drove on the left side of the road. Most of the volunteers came from the USA, like they did in Puerto Rico. It made me feel like I was traveling in America, and I did actually, because both islands are territories of the USA where the residents have US citizenship. However, the inhabitants are unique with their own styles and on St. Thomas the majority have African origin.

There was a market close to the huge tourist boats that arrived regularly, the floating cities that belong to the cruise industry. Tourism is the largest source of income for the Virgin Islands. The proud black vendors had a tired look. Especially the women and the style was generally harder than in Puerto Rico, at least at first sight. But also so much love, as here it was more of a Rastafari culture.

Frog patrol

Another big difference between Puerto Rico and St Thomas was the sight of frogs. In Puerto Rico, frogs are respected, even a symbol of the country, while they are rejected on St. Thomas. The inhabitants are terrified of frogs because they think they bring bad luck. When we tore out the damaged walls of the houses, we never told the owners if there were frogs hiding in the moisture. Then they would have been very upset. We spared them from what we saw, sometimes twenty frogs would jump from behind a wall.

Trash duty

One of the most important thing we did was also the most depressing one. We cleaned up the mangrove swamp from rubbish and plastic, a problem that escalated in connection to the hard hurricanes. Our job felt like a drop in the ocean, although we repeatedly filled up our kayaks before we emptied the garbage on a platform that delivered it to a temporary landfill along the beach. At least we did what we could and other organisations kept on working at the same theme.

It was easy to get around the island. It was just to jump on one the open safari jeeps that circled along the island all the time. I met very nice people at the camp and we went together to different amazing beaches in our free time. One of my new friends was a black woman from Georgia. It was exciting to hang out with her, it brought me closer to the local people. Although the people were friendly in the most cases, I was accepted in a completely different way when I was with her.

My next destination in the Caribbean was St. John, working for the same volunteer organisation. Also part of  the US Virgin Islands, St John was just a little boat trip away, but so different from St. Thomas.

All images © Monica Axelsson

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I quit a well-paid job as a planning architect, sold my car and went away to travel solo with my old veteran motorbike.