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ST. CROIX: : In the West Indies, far from events of international concern, it's easy to realign priorities and forget problems at home.

May 01, 1988|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

ST. CROIX, U.S. Virgin Islands — "Do you know the best thing about Amerigo? " Norman said to Henny. "Down there they don't know there's a Chinese crisis. They have no television. You can't buy a paper that isn't five days old . In the three days I was there I heard one news broadcast . . . the strange part was, I didn't care . " --"Don't Stop the Carnival," by Herman Wouk

It has been 23 years since Wouk used this long lozenge of land as his pattern for Amerigo ("He never admits it in the book," confided the tanned and beaded lady at a recent rum-punch party in St. Croix, "but we just know he was writing about us"), and obviously a few things have changed.

Instead of not knowing about the Chinese crisis, the people of St. Croix now don't know about the Gaza Strip crisis. There is a TV in the Ritz Cafe in gingerbread Christiansted, and it must be assumed that a few more sets have been admitted. The New York Times now arrives on its day of publication. Most days.

But the strange point that Norman noted to Henny remains ingrained. Here in the West Indies it's easy, even mentally healthy, to realign priorities and not to care about BankAmerica's varying fortunes or Los Angeles' shaking suburbs.

Maybe it's the island's distance, geographically and emotionally, from events or centers of international despair and jubilation. Or it's the Caribbean sun and a light that's fit for Impressionists. Or seas of dapple-topaz. Or an unvarying climate in which no body is too cool, too warm, too moist, too dry. Maybe these are God's tranquilizers.

Whatever, Cruzans instinctively do not care.

Obviously out of touch with the pressures necessary to buy a Mercedes and enjoy a heart attack and live the full life, they simply haven't learned how to worry.

With that comes their soothing sense of timelessness.

"Your office trouble back home was Monday, OK?" says a cab driver. He is genuinely confused (not worried, mind you) by the length and depth of his passenger's concern for the costly meanderings of Wall Street. "But now it's Thursday. So back to relaxation, mon ."

Mike Klein, an escapee from Amherst College, Mass., a skipper with Caribbean Sea Adventures and a young man on an endless voyage of sun, beaches and satisfaction, has learned the knack of living hourless days. He has only one reason for owning a watch: "I wear this big old rubber thing because you can touch a button and it shows the month. Sometimes you need to know that."

Luis Torres from Puerto Rico--a hotel waiter and patient turner of a 10-foot spit skewering two pigs for a beach barbecue--has no reason for owning a watch. "Why?" he asks. "My brother has one."

And tennis-teaching professional Don deWilde knows that this unhurried, unworried, unflappable way of St. Croix is absolutely contagious.

"On the first day of their vacations, highly successful professionals, captains of industry, come marching into the tennis shop and it's: 'Look, I want a court at 4 p.m. today and a one-hour lesson at 8 a.m. tomorrow and for the evening I'd like to schedule some doubles.'

An About-Face

"At the end of one week they come strolling into the tennis shop and it's: 'Don, have you got a court free anytime tomorrow? If not, whenever you can fit me in.' "

There's a name for this enviable state of island mind.

" Lymin' ," explains Charlie Martin, manager of the Buccaneer Hotel--a low, pink, 17th-Century inn-cum-palace that is an island tradition almost as old as 151-proof rum. "You say, in dialect, 'I'm going lymin' a while.' Being laid-back in California is lymin' time in the Virgin Islands.

"It's part of the Cruzan way of living in the time, metaphysically, of this moment. And that's the basis of island philosophy."

And there's the opposite of lyming . Hoross . To hoross . The state of being horossed . As in harass.

Continentals (the island's sly hypocorism for anyone unfortunate enough to have been born on that frantic lump of America to the northwest) in search of a little lymin' can do no better than the Virgin Islands.

But which island? There are three in this skein. In the niftiest real estate deal since Peter Minuit closed escrow on Manhattan for $24, the United States bought the trio from Denmark in 1917 for $25 million.

An acre lot with prime beach front on any island now costs $100,000. Denmark should have held out for cash plus Oregon and Solvang.

But we digress. St. Thomas has grown to become Rodeo Drive on Catalina Island. St. John hasn't grown at all and remains as Kauai is to Hawaii. St. Croix, to continue the Pacific parallel, is what Maui was 10 years ago.

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