Tuesday, September 29, 2009


As I was driving back towards the airport area and trying to read the directional signs against the rising sun’s intense glare, I was thinking about the Guadeloupans. As opposed to the rest of the Caribbean, where virtually every non-tourist person was black, here about 30% of the population was French. And that went to over 90% at the beaches and national parks. But the blacks here seemed to be well integrated citizens of France. The downside was that, while friendly, they lacked the ‘hey, mon’ sensibilities of other Caribbeans.
The upside was that they had a European work ethic. Which meant that the car lot guy was there early at seven, as planned. And he efficiently finished my paperwork and then drove me down to the ferry dock. Where I bought my ticket and boarded the boat.
The other ferries I had been on had been pretty small and in various states of repair. But this was a medium sized, commercial catamaran with 300 seats on two levels. I watched Guadeloupe sail by, the mountains re-cloaked in clouds, and about an hour later we reached the north end of Dominica with its green, rugged mountain spine. Ah, goodbye to Froggieland for a while, and back to the easy life of the English speaking Caribbean.
When we reached Roseau there was somewhat of a scrum to even get through the doors. So far immigration had involved a quick, perfunctory stamp. Here, however, each passenger seemed to get at least the second degree. And there were only two lines for all the people. So it took about twenty minutes for my turn. The guy asked me if I knew the name of the person who owned the hotel I would be staying at.
But I got my stamp. Then I went into the next small room to retrieve my pack. And there it became about as third world as possible. It turned out that many lowlife Dominica women go over to Guadeloupe to buy crap, then bring it back, all wrapped up in heavy bundles, to re-sell. Every single one of which the customs agent had to then open and check. And these were rude, pushy women. Which was very shocking here in the Caribbean, where heretofore everyone had been unfailingly polite.
All this in the hot humidity of a small confined room, waiting forever to reach the front of the line. There was a nine month pregnant woman in front of me, and people kept pushing in front of her. Finally I had had enough, and called one woman out and told her this other lady was first. Anger ensued, but I won. The pregnant lady had her turn, then I had mine.
Whew. At least that was over.
Hot and exhausted, I was deposited out on the street, my shirt already completely soaked in sweat. And, Oh Boy! In front of me was a truly behemoth cruise ship, 400 feet long, 100 feet high, easily larger and more substantial than the whole rest of the town that it was moored next to. And hundreds of its soft, fat customers were out on the street being hustled by every taxi driver and tour operator on Dominica.
Well, at least the men weren’t being totally rude, but, again, I hadn’t run into anything like this so far on my trip. Besides, had I mentioned that it was extremely hot and humid? And I hadn’t arranged for my car rental beforehand, stupidly thinking that in such a small town it wouldn’t be a problem. Who woulda thunk of a behemoth cruise ship being there?
I headed the three short blocks along the waterfront to the other end of town to find a restaurant that the LP recommended, the plan being to rest and reconnoiter. I knew that I had the right area, but person after person had never heard of said restaurant. Meanwhile there’s all the chaos of the cruise ship passengers. And it’s really hot. Finally someone did know of it. It was thirty feet away. And closed for September.
Two other two places in the LP were just closed, period. I lugged my bags up and back a few blocks to find the last one. Closed, too. By now my brain and body were totally fried. I asked a woman if I could use her cell phone to call one of the companies I had listed. No, but she did explain my problem to another man. He said that there was a car rental company just down there and to the left. The Chinese store owner across the street from it didn’t know where it was. But I finally found it. It was actually one of the companies that I had been looking for from the internet. And I was back to being a short block from the ferry. They hadn’t mentioned that feature of their location on their website.
But at least I finally had a car. With a/c. And now I was ready to get out of town.
Which was about as small and dinky as any capital city could possibly be and still exist. Not one noteworthy or substantial building. The whole place was about three blocks square. In a minute I was in the ‘suburbs’ and headed up towards the interior.
Dominica is known as a natural paradise. That’s another way of saying that there is not a single flat space on the entire island, meaning that it was never any good for agriculture, meaning that its entirety is one big overgrown rain forest. And I had to admit, curving around on the poorly maintained one lane road, that it did spectacularly live up to its billing. Simply beautiful flowers, trees overhanging with vines, wonderfully misshaped hills and mountains as I wended my way up to, er, a famous waterfall.
Once again, though, the Dominican people were lacking in that famous Caribbean charm once I got there. ‘Guides’. A peddler hitting me up for spare change. $1 to use the bathroom. And this was in a national park.
Waterfall seen, I headed back down to Roseau, then turned north on the island’s one and a half lane main highway. What with a couple of detours and stops, I finally reached, down a long, rough passage, my lodgings for the evening. Stonedge. Run by a crazy Belgian French guy.
Didier immediately offered me a welcome drink. Then informed me that he was having water problems, so that I would need to use a bucket for the toilet. I looked around at his establishment. Self-made funky, wooden hippie building done in the early Seventies style. Overlooking the ocean. Could have been worse. Anyway, it brought back old times. And it was only $25 a night. I trundled upstairs to my room.
After a short nap, I was out on the verandah appreciating the sunset over the sea. Then Didier set about whipping up a little dinner. Around me was the gobble, gobble, gobble of the other guests all speaking in French. Amazingly enough, I was starting to understand it. (Dominica is kind of in a French sandwich, and most of its visitors are from Guadeloupe or Martinique, getting off on the super cheap $2 a can Cokes.) But they were nice enough folks, and even deigned to hang out with me and use English.
I went upstairs to sleep in my room. There were no screens on the open windows. They wouldn’t have helped anyway, since there were so many chinks in the building. Nonetheless I was mosquito free.
The next morning I was out on the road, free from the tyranny of manual transmission and seat belt laws. But--to remind myself--I had to keep singing my little calypso song. Which consisted of one line: ’Drive on de left, interminably…’ Which was repeated interminably.
After fifteen minutes I turned off and drove up a tiny little snaking road to a trail to a parrot viewing area. There were no parrots. But it was another excuse to walk through the rainforest. I got back to my Suzuki jeep and drove back down the hill, then up the ‘main road’ to Plymouth, Dominica’s second largest ‘town’ with a population of perhaps a thousand. But there were also 1200 American students at the Caribbean’s largest medical ‘college’, where people pay $100,000 for the first two years of med school. An incongruous KFC in the middle of the wilderness, but I did partake of some corn and biscuits.
Back on the road. And what a road it was across the northern tip of the island. Better and far steeper (and narrower) than a roller coaster, with green hills everywhere and ocean in the background. I was glad I wouldn’t have to come back on it.
About two miles before it re-connected with the main road, though, they had decided to close it for repairs this afternoon. As I turned around a guy standing there asked me if I could take him to Plymouth. Sure, okay. Then as we started off, we passed another guy. ‘Can you take him, too?’ he said Well… ‘Don’t worry, man. He’s a teacher. It’s cool.’ Until then I hadn’t thought to be paranoid.
Back west to Plymouth, then back east to the Atlantic coast. This constant twisting and turning was getting to me. And I’ve driven enough in the rest of the world to know that everyone doesn’t share Americans’ sense of personal driving space, but some of these drivers were dangerous and downright rude.
It wasn’t like everyone was unfriendly. But even the friendly ones were hardly Caribbean effusive. I stopped to stretch my legs. A woman was scowling. I smiled at her. She continued to scowl. Hmmm, when I’m the one trying to cheer people up…
However, the natural environment continued to be stupendous. And these islands aren’t very large (Guadeloupe’s the biggest at 500 square miles), but their convoluted hilly nature and tiny roads means that they seem a lot bigger. I wasn’t going to be able to complete my circumnavigation.
But I got close. Then I turned back inland, twisted and curved a bunch more, stopped for my last walk through the rainforest to a waterfall, came back down the leeward side, and made it back to Stonedge. I was exhausted, but--now that it was over--had thoroughly enjoyed the drive.
The next morning was a Sunday, and after my breakfast of toaste francaise I slowly meandered my way back to Roseau. Here perhaps was a clue to Dominica’s relative unhappiness: No one was going to church. The rest of the (English) Caribbean is about the most Sunday Go To Meeting culture in the entire world. Even the commercial radio stations are always playing religious music. Here on Dominica the only jobs involved depressingly catering to either ‘rich’ French foreigners or cruise ship passengers. These guys needed to get involved in something uplifting.
Well, church or no, Roseau was just as dead and deserted as any other Caribbean town on Sunday. The rental guy never even made it to the office. I wedged the key under his door and walked on over in the hot, empty stillness to the ferry.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Up at five. Tiny airstrip at six. Flight at seven fifteen. A half full tiny airplane isn’t nearly as claustrophobic as a full one. Although the sound of an angry rubber band engine as you’re traversing the ocean might not be for the squeamish.
Amazingly enough, the bag arrived and the connection was successfully made. The four days in Montserrat had refreshed me, and I was able to look forward to Guadeloupe with some energy. I would need to.
So far, all the islands, whatever their putative ownership, had been totally Americanized. In a good way. The products were all familiar. TV channels were an exact replica. Everyone had most of their families already living in the States.
At the same time, whatever the putative ownership, the Caribbean culture was far more important. And unitary. Virtually everyone I met was originally from some other island than the one they were working on.
I was now going to be entering a foreign world. One controlled by France. Actually, Guadeloupe was treated as an equivalent of one of our states. Everyone said that going there was like going to France.
After the eighteen minute flight I began to find out for myself. Oui, the airport was pretty European, although in a small, tropical kind of way. I made my way over to the row of rental car companies and made my deal.
I was soon taken to a tiny, silver Citroen. My bag barely fit in the back. No trunk. At least they drove on the right here. I slowly made my way out into traffic. This was all way more developed than the English Caribbean, but not overwhelmingly so.
My first order of business was coming up with a hotel room for under $100. All my research on the internet had produced one possibility. No website, but a recent review was from a few months ago, so as long as they were still in business… I headed the ten miles or so to the beach resort area.
It wasn’t much of one. And I was already getting tired of shifting gears on the narrow, congested French roads. At least they had signposts. If not street signs. Now if I could just find the rue that the place was on. Ah, there’s an advert for another business, and it’s the right road! Not too long of a one, either. I turned onto it.
And couldn’t find the hotel Les Flamboyants. Of course, being French, the street was so narrow that it was almost impossible to turn around and extricate myself. Okay, back to the turnoff. Find someone somewhere and ask. Although I haven’t spoken French in years and they all go gobble, gobble, gobble.
Okay, back to that street. Still can’t find it. Turn around. Repeat. Repeat. Finally, after forty five minutes a nice gentleman explained slowly that Les Flamboyants was no longer in existence.
Screw it. I didn’t like this town anyway. I would just start my drive around the island, and figure out lodging later.
Guadeloupe is shaped like a butterfly. The eastern wing, Grand Terre, is actually flat and relatively uninteresting. The other side, Basse Terre (Low Land), is heavily mountainous. Go figure. I was already on Grand Terre, so I continued on along the coast.
The climate was overbearing. 95 and horrible sticky humid, like Louisiana in July. The a/c was laboring away to not much effect. Lots of traffic, and twisting and turning on a two lane road. I didn’t remember this many billboards in France. In my grumpiness I concluded that Guadeloupe was a lot more like Louisiana than France, down to the cheesy roadside stands and white gravel on the shoulders.
I pulled into a gas station mini mart for a cold drink. $3.50 for a can of coke! All right, I had known that this was going to be expensive, but now I really went ‘eep’.
I was a little frazzled from the congestion, so I turned off inland on a side road. It immediately became more rural and pleasant. At a town ten miles along they had a sandwich special for $5. A little refreshed, I kept going towards the northeast.
Pleasantly kind of flat, with fields of sugar cane and other peaceful scenes. A couple of turnoffs to not special but still okay beaches. Always deathly humid, however, whenever I got out of the car.
But I had gotten as far away from civilization as possible, and now I had to turn back towards the airport/capital complex. And I had to start dealing with my little accommodations problem.
I had been hoping that I would have seen cheerful little signs for gites (a cross of cabins/guesthouse) on my drive. Nothing. Well, why would there be any over here on the side that tourists wouldn’t want to go to? Better head over to Basse Terre.
By now it was around five. There is a famous cross-mountain road that cuts across the middle of the wing, so I headed up it. A short stop at an obligatory waterfall (why the hell do we always stop at waterfalls when they all basically look the same?). Then continuing on to the west coast.
On my internet search in Montserrat, I had run across a gite that had gotten rave reviews. And its website made it look idyllic. It was $90 a night (double eep), but, hell, at least I could kick back there with folks who spoke at least a little English. All I needed to do was find it.
Once again, this proved nearly impossible. Their location was just the name of a town, and it had a big environs. Not to mention that no commercial establishment seemed to have a directional sign taller than six inches.
Just as the last light was fading I finally found it way up a steep hill. The lady took me to a cabin from 1945, and opened a door to an oven. No, no a/c. It was immediately obvious that the glowing reviews had been faked by the owners, and of course the website had been a complete lie. And now I was supposed to find another gite in the dark. And on top of that even if I found one it would probably be closed here in September.
To cut the story short, around eight thirty I was back on the east side of Basse Terre trying to find a small hotel recommended by the LP. Why wasn’t it here? I went into a pharmacie and asked. The lady said, mais oui, this pharmacie used to be that hotel! When she saw how exhausted I looked, she helpfully added that there was a gite about a mile or so down the road over here.
Amazingly, it was where she said it was. And they had a room. For $90. But it was clean and modern in a rustic way, and the a/c worked. Moreover, they had a little restaurant, and could sell me a veggie pizza for only $16.
An hour later I was relaxing in cool comfort chomping on my pizza. At least these French knew how to make really tasty food.
The next morning my only problem was finding out about the ferry.
There are two companies that go to Dominica and on to Martinique. Company 1 was shutting down service on Sunday for a month, which had totally affected the whole rest of my trip schedule. Company 2 implied that they had continuing service, but they never answered my email. Company 1 had a ferry at 8 am Friday, which would mean getting up at five again. Company 2 supposedly had one at 1. But I needed my hotel person to call them and confirm.
They never answered the phone.
I had finally steeled myself to drive all the way into the capital and hassle with trying to find their office. But if they hadn’t answered their phone, what if they weren’t open? Just as I was leaving I noticed that the gite owner was now here, and he tried calling them again. No answer. So he tried Company 1 and confirmed the 8 am sailing. Now all I had to do was get up at five again. But at least it was taken care of.
And now I could get into some serious touristing. I was now in the center of the east side of the west wing (look on a map), and was heading south to faire un circuit of the entire Basse Terre. The four lane road didn’t last that long, but traffic wasn’t bad. And I was also in great luck. The mountains at the southern end were completely free of cloud cover, something that hardly ever happens in a place with 300 inches of rain a year.
I took a one lane road up into the mountains towards, you guessed it, some waterfalls. The trip, though, was quite a trip. The lower levels were banana palms and tropical flowers. And all that rain creates about as dense a jungle as there is in the world.
When I got to the top there were two, count ’em, 400 foot waterfalls. But the national park guide said that if I walked to the closer one I wouldn’t be able to see it, since they were working on something. So I looked from a distance and then descended.
About fifteen miles further on there was another one lane road turnoff. This went twisting and turning up and up to the base of Guadeloupe’s active volcano, which last exploded in 1976. On the way there was a spectacular view of the cloud free summit, looking very ominous and volcano-y. When I got to the end of the road, the sign said that there was an ‘easy’ 25 minute trail. It went step by step up and up and up. At its top there was an even better closeup view of the volcano. But the first clouds were coming in, so I was free from any obligation to keep climbing on the next ’difficult’ trail.
Then it was a drive back down the mountain. And now I was squarely on the west coast of the west wing. A road that truly twisted and turned along the crooked seacoast. With the brilliant green tall endless mountains to the east of me. It was all rather special.
By late afternoon I was on the north side, at a relatively empty and relatively large beach, maybe Guadeloupe’s finest. And regretting that I had forgotten to bring along my swim trunks this morning. Oh well, I just would have ended up wet and sticky.
And then I continued along the north shore, back amongst the traffic and the sugar cane fields. A cut across on a back road, and as the light faded I was back at my gite. Turn on the a/c and order that pizza…

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


The island of Montserrat is 37 square miles. All right, 39 square miles because of the volcano. Then again, two thirds of those 39 square miles are off limits because of said volcano.
Montserrat was a happy little island of 11,000 souls until 1995, when its previously long dormant volcano decided to erupt. And completely wiped out the main town of Plymouth, along with most other places where most of those people lived. Not to mention the airport.
We landed at the new little airstrip in the north of the island. This was the third time today David had driven over to pick me up. On the way to his place we stopped at a little East Indian run market to buy cheese and bread and stuff.
David and Clover and family are semi-ex-hippies who moved here in 1980. In 1995 when the eruptions began David fell into a career as a video chronicler of events, which he then sold to all the news organizations which showed up. That kind of morphed into them building a little guesthouse for researchers, etc., to stay in. I was booked into the ‘backpacker’ room, with bathroom, fan, fridge, and microwave.
As soon I was settled in, the first order of business was showing me the composite DVD of all the explosions and pyroclastic flows and Plymouth being covered in thirty feet of volcanic mud. It was really bittersweet (if you can use that word in the Caribbean) to see their little ingrown society all silly and content, and then watching them all turn into jobless refugees.
News accounts at the time had made Montserrat seem like a semi-barren, backward isle, but the reality it is a ’chain’ of several tall mountains clothed in dense jungle. The areas where people live are verdant and tropical, with flowers and fruit trees. And the houses are usually around 800 feet above sea level, so that you’re always looking out over the endless warm blue ocean.
Saturday morning I decided to get in the spirit of things and go barefoot. Almost immediately I slipped on wet grass and fell downhill onto the concrete driveway, badly scraping my foot. I limped back into my room.
In the afternoon I went out to the road that circles what’s left of the island, and got a ride south with an engineer from Guyana who didn’t have anything else to do. So he drove me up to the (closed) volcano observatory, where we watched the Soufriere volcano smoldering away. Unfortunately, as with most mountains in most places, the top was somewhat cloud covered, so it was difficult to separate the volcano smoke from the clouds. But there it was anyway. Off in the distance I could see the grey emptiness that had used to be the town of Plymouth.
Since the guy was from around here, he was convinced that we couldn’t drive any further south. Turned out that we could, but no matter. He took me back to Gingerbread Hill.
Sunday I lay around some more. Then I walked the two miles or so in the hot sun down to the nearest black sand beach, where I toodled in the water for a while. David was supposed to pick me up at sunset. I had just given up on him and was starting up the long, long hill when he showed up. Good.
My expedition Monday was to get to Jack Boy Hill as far on the eastern end as I could get. First I stopped at an Indian grocery for six greasy samosas; ramen in the room is readily tiring. Which I ate at a beach. Then I stuck out my thumb, and eventually got a ride with one of the gravel dump trucks going back and forth to Jack Boy Hill.
They were about the only vehicles available, since nobody lives on that side of the island, it being all hilly forest jungle. When I got there I could see the former airport runway all covered in grey ash and mud, and that was about it, the volcano being totally cloud wrapped now. I thanked the driver, and got out to walk around.
I didn’t make it far. My toe, which had been constantly sore for the last two days, now made walking impossible. I barely made it back to the guy’s truck, and he drove me back to the civilized part of Montserrat.
By now I had gotten a pretty good feel for the culture, etc. It was really kind of sad how such a close-knit, idyllic life had been shattered. And it was clear that the northern part wasn’t nearly as ‘sweet’ as the southern part had been. And that the people who remained were doing it almost solely as a stubborn rejection of their fate.
That, and Where else did they have to go? Cold, rainy Britain???
I stopped at a grocery for more supplies and made it back to my room, looking forward to the joy of lying under my whirring fan and munching on some of my microwaved popcorn. Maybe check the email. When I went to switch the fan on, it turned out that the power was off on the whole island. Which it would continue to be until around seven.
Oh well. Since my main purpose on Montserrat was to relax my aged body for a few days, sitting around at the guest house and watching the sun set over the Caribbean wasn’t a bad way of accomplishing that.
And now with my bung foot, I had every more opportunity to do that. I therefore didn’t try to go anywhere or do anything on Tuesday. Just sat around.
In the late afternoon a 68 year old lady checked in who was going to paddleboard the 25 miles over to Nevis on the horizon. I asked her if she did it for the physical challenge or for the tranquility of being alone in the ocean. She got real intense and said, ‘No! It’s because I’m the first one to do it!!’
Nothing left for me to do except hobble up the driveway and pay the bill with David and Clover, hobble back down to my room, and pack everything for tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Antigua Airport

Up at six am for the flight to Antigua. At least this was the last time for a while that I’d need to get up that early. $10 two minute taxi to the airport. Liat flight on time. Seats for thirty, and all filled up, even in this low season. A wonder what monopolies can achieve.
Soon over the gently rolling island, beautifully indented coast of Antigua. From the air it looked like the fancy country club gentility that I had kind of expected on St Martin. I had ’done’ Antigua in 1982, and I preferred to remember it with the lazy, slapdash St Kitts vibe it had back then. The kind of place with an overgrown town park where two idiotic schoolgirls passed their time sticking sticks into a hornet’s nest.
We landed, I retrieved my bag, and headed over to the WinnAir counter for the flight to Montserrat.
Hmmm, nobody there. I asked around and was directed to a girl who worked for WinnAir. She said, we don’t start check in until after one. I said, my flight is at noon. She said, we don’t have that flight. I said, but you sold it to me on your website. See, here’s the printout. She said, but we don’t have that flight.
It turned out that they had re-booked me for the 3:15 flight. Without notifying me through email or any other way. Not only that, but now I was scheduled to come back from Montserrat at seven in the morning on Monday. But my connecting flight to Guadeloupe didn’t leave until five in the evening.
Not only that, but I had arranged to stay with this lady in Guadeloupe. But I had kept emailing her before I left trying to confirm everything. And she had never responded. Until yesterday when she wrote and said, gee, it had been so hot that she had up and booked a flight to Montreal. Sorry.
And Guadeloupe is probably the most expensive island in this most expensive of seas.
So I found my way to the ’office’ of WinnAir, where the manager lady was actually apologetic about the incompetence of her airline. And she could rebook my return flight on Wednesday.
Because that was the next available Guadeloupe flight on Liat. Which they then changed for me at the cost of $60. (The original flight, about 30 miles, had been $100.) Now I had an extra two days on Montserrat, and only two days to fill in Guadeloupe.
But for now here I was stuck at the airport for the next six hours or so. And everything about Antigua was exceedingly upscale, except for this 1960s un-air conditioned airport with nothing to do and nowhere to sit.
Okay, there was one tiny restaurant upstairs, where I had a colossally overpriced short stack of pancakes. And sat and sat in the booth and played with the wifi.
At around one-thirty I went over to the WinnAir counter and checked in. She said that boarding was at four-thirty. I said, but the flight was for 3:15. She shrugged her shoulders.
It was really hot and sticky. A taxi into town would have been $30. But I was really getting antsy, so I decided to at least walk out of the airport and to the main road.
The airport itself may have been total crap, but the landscaping around it was just fabulous. Every kind of exotic fancy palm tree imaginable. And right at the airport entrance was this giant neo-classical/country club type bank building. I looked at its name: Stanford International. As in Allen Stanford. The $10 billion Ponzi scheme guy who had just been nailed a few weeks earlier.
And there across the street, with ornate columns and all, was the Stanford Cricket Field. And next to that was the Stanford-owned Antigua National Bank. Where all those Antiguans had lined up a few weeks ago trying to get out their non-existent deposits.
Standing there in the hot sun, it was hard to know whether one was supposed to laugh or cry. This guy had been more moronic than those girls with the hornet’s nest, but the world had gladly ponied up $10 billion for him.
I walked into The Sticky Wicket, a shrine to cricket cum bar and restaurant fronting the cricket pitch. A hamburger cost $18. The receptionist was taking down reservations. Looked like the Stanford empire was continuing apace.
You can’t make this stuff up. Oh yeah, you can. And he did.
Back to the airport. Through security. Nothing to eat except some overpriced cookies. Finally we boarded the small plane. Twenty passengers squeezed into about a quarter of the space of the Liat plane. At 5:10 we finally took off, buffeted around in the air over the deep blue sea.

St Kitts & Nevis

I was deposited in St. Kitts at around nine thirty at night. The one and a half mile taxi ride into town cost $10.
Glimbaro’s Guest House was small and dark. Outside everything was small and darker. As I was checking in a prostitute kept coming downstairs and asking for a different room for her ‘boyfriend’. I went upstairs to my room, a small cubicle with a fan that didn’t work, an a/c that barely did, a sheet that didn’t fit on the tiny slat bed, and no hot water. I fell asleep.
The next morning the outside was laid back and funky, thrown together wooden like the Caribbean should be. I went out looking for new accommodations.
I found them down by the waterfront. Glimbaro’s had been $41. For $55 at the Seaview I got a room as nice as the one I had had in St Martin. Clean and big and cable TV.
I needed some comfort, since today, September 16, was Heroes Day, a holiday not covered in any book or on any website. This as distinguished from September 19 in three days, which was Independence Day. At any rate, everything in town was closed up tighter than Sunday in Marigot. No restaurants or grocery stores open. No minibuses running anywhere. Hmmm. Well, at least there was a KFC next door, so worst case scenario I could always have some biscuits…
I strolled around downtown Basseterre, the capital. There were several nicely slatted buildings, but everything was slightly, or not so slightly, ramshackle, low, low key Caribbean. The few people on the street were very slow and friendly. Nothin’ goin’ on.
Since I couldn’t get around St Kitts today, I decided to take the ferry over to Nevis, the smaller island in this two island country. Not many ferries running, either, but at one I boarded a little funky one, and in less than an hour I was disgorged in Charlestown, the capital of Nevis.
Basseterre had been a bustling metropolis compared to here. Especially on a closed down, shuttered up holiday. I walked from one end to the other and back again. One of the only cars on the street, a beat up taxi with a beat up guy inside, stopped. The guy charmingly noted that I was a stranger in town, and started mentioning places he could take me, seeing as I was obviously just there for a couple of hours. I blew him off, but then asked him how much to circumnavigate Nevis. I got him down to $20, and off we went.
Chattering away, he took me to every sight to possibly see, and in little more than an hour, including a stop for ice cream, we were back at the ferry. Plenty of time for the four o’clock sailing back to St. Kitts.
For dinner I had the option of KFC, Subway, or Domino’s. Those were the only three places open in the entire town. A basic Subway sandwich was $12. Everything is expensive in the Caribbean. Even for locals. But Domino’s had a large mushroom special for $10. I took it back to my room, where it was surprisingly delicious.
Thursday morning I wandered over to the car rental place. $55 for one day. Plus $25 for a local drivers license. Plus taxes. Plus gas. I got on a minibus and went a third of the way around the island for $1.
The one reason to rent a car would be to drive all the way to the volcanic plug on which sits St Kitts biggest tourist attraction. I figured, what the hell, I could walk.
It was a long, hot, steep walk, only partially shaded. When I paid my entrance fee and emerged at the top, I was at the ramparts of the Brimstone Hill Fortress, once the Gibraltar of the Caribbean.
It was still kind of impressive, what with all the requisite rusty cannons and such. It was even nicer looking out over the placid greenery of St Kitts below me. All bucolic and yesteryear-y I was pretty much by myself for the next hour or two, with only the occasional tourist minibus pulling up with a couple of tourists inside.
As I started to finally walk down, one of those minibuses stopped and asked if I wanted a ride to the bottom. I turned them down, thinking that I would instead be taking a leisurely descending stroll. Big mistake. As on Saba, the steepness was extremely painful on my thighs. And you wouldn’t think that the 1 pm heat would be that much greater than the 10 am heat, but it was. I kept turning back, looking upwards, and wondering how I had ever walked up.
I finally made it down to the main road, got a large Gatorade at a small gas station, and downed it in one and a half gulps. Then I stood there waiting for one of the informal minibuses to drive by and continue my clockwise tour of the island. A couple of bus rides and not much more than an hour or so later I had completed the circuit and was back in Basseterre. I made it back to my room and took a quick air conditioned nap.
After that there wasn’t much to do except walk around the little park, walk along the little waterfront. Downtown Basseterre isn’t really even one good square block. But I was quite enjoying St. Kitts. Absolutely nothing seemed to be happening. Absolutely nobody seemed to care. And I was totally fine with that.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


I awoke at six and was ready for the guesthouse guy to call a cab at six thirty. Nobody answered at the only taxi company in town. Welcome to the Caribbean. Finally he gave up in disgust and offered to taxi me to the airport himself. Even though St Martin seemed completely overdeveloped, most of the locals had been really friendly.

I was about the only person in the big airport. American and the other big airlines appeared to have stopped flights for the rest of the month. At the far end was a little counter for WinnAir. I checked in and walked all the way to the other end and up to departures.

At eight the other two passengers and I boarded the little plane that was going over to Saba. Then the propellers started twirling and off we went over the ocean.

Within fifteen minutes, the giant five square mile rock that is Saba was no longer a lump on the horizon but real and steep. In a few seconds we had landed on the 1200 foot runway, famous as the Shortest Runway In The World.

We squeezed out of the plane and over to the tiny terminal. There it turned out that my luggage had been lost. Really. Welcome to the Caribbean.

This was interesting because I had spent quite a lot of time on my luggage problem before I had started the trip. Because this was a day excursion, and I later had an evening flight on Liat, I had asked them if I could check in for it this morning. No way. Okay, then I had asked WinnAir if they could hold my bag in St Martin for the day. Impossible. All right. So I had gotten permission for the terminal manager in Saba to bring it over there and leave it with them all day.

But now it hadn’t arrived. They called and determined that it was probably back at SXM. And they told me to have a nice day on Saba.

Hitchhiking is actually the law on Saba, a Dutch island where everyone is either Scot or Black. But now everyone from the flight had left, so my only option was to start walking. Straight up and up and up. So that I did, past many, many pink oleander bushes and looking out over cliffs and blue sea.

I got lucky in that someone was coming out of the driveway at one of the first houses that I reached. And she took me twisting and turning the two or three miles to just about the far side of the island. From there I walked down the old footpath to The Bottom, one of the only two ‘towns’ on this place of about 1500 inhabitants.
It’s of course an understatement to say that Saba is quaint. Even though I did walk past one of those ubiquitous Caribbean medical colleges with its couple of hundred students. In the town itself were a couple of old churches, a guesthouse or so, and a corner store. Everybody talked in a strange Caribbean/Dutch accent. Needless to say, it’s always warm but never hot, everybody always seems to have minor business to attend to, and no one ever even thinks of locking doors.
Even at The Bottom I was still around 600 feet above sea level. Since any kinds of roads in this vertiginous place are of very recent vintage, one wondered how it ever occurred to anyone that they could live here. And then how they went to the trouble of finding an anchorage, finding a place flat enough to squat upon, transporting all their gunk up top, etc.
I hitched back up the hill to the little restaurant that my first ride operated, and was her first customer of the day. Then I hitched another ride all the way back to the top and Windwardside, elevation around 1200, population around 400, the ’capital’ of Saba. Not a heck of a lot going on as I strolled from one end to the other.
By now I had done everything there was to do on Saba short of walking up to its 3000 foot summit. And the trail was far too steep and slippery for my old bones. So instead I decided to walk back to the airport.
There were some uphill portions, but basically it was down, down, down. Very steeply so. So steeply that my legs were soon aching. And the further down I went the hotter it became. Poor me.
But how many times does a person get to be on Saba? The greenery, the flowers, the deep blue sea, not to mention the palpable do-dee-do friendliness, all made for an extremely pleasant afternoon.
Except of course for the constant strain on the muscles of walking down, down, down.
When I reached the terminal they told me that they had confirmed that my bag was over at SXM. So all I needed to do was have a Malta or two and wait for the 5 pm flight.
When we returned to St Martin I did as I was told and asked the Control officer about my bag. He said, ‘I don’t know anything, sir. Frankly, I would not trust anything they told you.’ Hmm.
So I went through Immigration and walked all the way to the end of the airport, where I asked the WinnAir person about my bag. He went back to check, and was then gone for twenty minutes.
So I was a little nervous when he reappeared empty handed. Not to worry, though. Someone else was getting it. And, sure enough, soon it was back in my grubby little hands.
Just in time to take it over to Liat to check in for St. Kitt’s.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

St. Martin & Friends

A night spent in an el cheapo motel near the Miami airport. At least they had a breakfast bar and a shuttle service. Then an easy 11 am Saturday departure and three hours over the blue Caribbean. I didn’t quite know what to expect from St. Martin. But of course I would soon find out.
I walked out of the midsize terminal and Micky was there to meet me from the rental company. He led me to the car and told me to turn right, turn right again, go over the bridge, turn right at the Hollywood Casino, and the office is opposite the Atrium Hotel. The area surrounding the airport was completely built up with Subways and McDonalds and cheesy casinos and rental offices and such, the Hollywood Casino wasn’t lableled as such, so of course I got lost.
About forty minutes later I had everything sorted out, papers all signed, and was ready to tour the island. Although by now it was four in the afternoon. Fortunately there wasn’t a hell of a lot to see.
Sint Maartn/St Martin is divided in half between Holland and France. Not that there is any border beyond a sign saying that you are entering one or the other. It soon became obvious that the Dutch side is 100% American, whereas the French side is… about 92% American.
And although there is an interior of surprisingly nice lumpy tropical hills, you can’t really get there. Whereas the road around the island is pretty much one extended condo development. With Subways and McDonalds and many, many large building supply stores thrown in between. So it was immediately hard for me to see what the purpose of the place was.
Nevertheless I started counter-clockwise through the Dutch section. The pretty dreary ‘capital’ of Philipsburg was six or seven blocks of (mostly) jewelry stores, with all kinds of high priced names but relatively tacky in appearance. I still wasn’t getting it, and the fact that this was the lowest of the low season, and during a recession to boot, didn’t make ithe pretending of zazz any easier. I strolled around for about ten minutes.
(I suppose the reason I wasn’t ‘getting it’ was because upon boarding the plane in Miami I was handed a 300 page magazine on St. Martin’s, 290 pages of which were glossy upscale ads. So excuse me for thinking that I’d be getting at least a small dose of Monaco glitz. But I guess that’s the world of today. The ads portray a world that’s fancier and fancier, and the retarded customers are all slobbier and slobbier.)
Anyway, then it was back on the road, and within about ten minutes I was on the French side. This was slightly more rural, that is there were tiny breaks between the endless development. But if you were expecting classy and continental, forget it. Just a bunch of small restaurants in wooden shacks with classy, continental prices.
I took a side road over a hill and all the way out to ’Cul de Sac’, but it wasn’t that much of a wowzer. At Grand Case I took a left and went up the highest point on the island, all 1400 feet high of it, and got a mildly nice viewpoint. But by now it was getting dark, so back down the hill I went.
I pulled into Marigot, the French ’capital’, which was somewhat less commercial than Philipsburg, and found my way to my guest house. The hallway was narrow, but the room was nice, the a/c worked, the hot water was hot, and the TV got all 75 American channels. I relaxed for a bit, and then drove two miles over to the Dutch side and the Burger King there.
Sunday morning I had my refreshing shower and drove my car over to the ferry dock in downtown Marigot. $30 a day and they’ll pick it up wherever. I then went through the rigamarole to catch the ferry to Anguilla.
It’s about ten miles and a half hour ferry ride to this smallest of British protectorates. And as opposed to the mountainous St. Martin, Anguilla is lowlying ten mile long, two mile wide limestone sandbar. And instead of tropical foliage it is covered in scrubby scrub.
It is famously backward and low key in a black British Caribbean sort of way. Although there’s enough going on for the taxis to charge absurd amounts to take you anywhere. And though a car rental is only $30, you also have to pay $20 for a local driving license. Which seemed like a lot to me for such a small island. Anyway I could always walk. So I did.
It was pretty nice sauntering along on a Sunday morning, passing the occasional church with the singing emanating. But it was also pretty damn hot in this scrubland. And being basically flat didn’t mean that there weren’t long, uphill stretches. So after a couple of miles I decided to see what would happen if I stuck out my thumb. Not much.
But then I got to a main road, and a guy with a flatbed truck stopped. His name was Michael, he was originally from St Vincent, and he had a small construction company. He also lived at the east end of Anguilla, and he decided to take me there and have me hang out with his family.
So I did for the next few hours. Which was good, because the island is little else but hot and scrubby, and I don’t know what else I would have done once I had gotten the basic idea down. They fed me a little lunch, and then he had to go to work. But his wife and some relatives took me briefly to a beach (nice, but not really all that amazing), then drove me over to the west end of the island before depositing me back at the ferry.
I guess the best way to sum up Anguilla is that regular building lots are about $20,000. Seafront ones are a half a million. The island’s economy is building houses for those rich idiots who want to pay that kind of money for oceanfront scrubland. And the recession is cutting down on those numbers.
I bought a watermelon soda while waiting for the ferry. Then the ride back.
When I got back to Marigot it was a Sunday afternoon in the slow season and absolutely everything was closed. Even the Subway a few doors down from my guest house. So the guest house owner was nice enough to drive me over to the Burger King on the Dutch side, and I brought my BK Veggie back to eat on the guest house patio overlooking the sun going down over the marina in front of me.
Then I retired to my room where I watched a Phillies game on ESPN.
The next morning it was back to the ferry dock where I bought my ticket for St Bart’s. Anguilla had been $30 round trip. St Bart’s was $80. On the way to the docks I had looked in the window of the Marigot ReMax office. A four bedroom villa was priced to sell at 1.6 million euros.
It took almost an hour and a half to get to St. Bart’s, which is only about seven miles long. But it does have a pleasingly jagged mountainous outline. And its main town of Gustavia is red-roofed and pleasingly pleasant.
But the island is famous for being expensive, and it was. $6 for a cup of coffee. In St. Martin all the prices are in euros, but they only add 10% for dollars. Here they charged full exchange. In St Martin only the government officials spoke French. Here on St Bart’s it was like being in La France herself. Hardly any blacks. Lots and lots of French people.
And the low season scooter rate was over $50, so once again I decided to walk. Although here the hills were much more pronounced.
As I think I’ve intimated, in St Martin the traffic was relentless. And this was the slowest of the slow season. Here on St Bart’s it was almost as intense, especially considering that the roads were so narrow. For some reason I would have thought that a place that was so expensive and so ’exclusive’ wouldn’t be so annoying.
The hitching here wasn’t all that bad though, so after a couple of short rides I was almost at the end of the island and Orient Bay. There was a beach right past a picturesque graveyard, so I went to it, pulled out my towel, and stripped down to my bathing trunks.
It was a nice little sandy beach, but not something you would go halfway around the world for. I tried to ignore the 55 year old matrons toplessly sunbathing. And my diabetic feet were going, ouch, ouch, with all the rocks in the water.
Once I was out there in the mild ocean and looking back at the villas dotting the verdant hills, the scene looked inviting enough. And I suppose that if you were Oprah or Leonardo it might be nice to be somewhere where nobody cared if you were Oprah or Leonardo. But, really, if you have that kind of money you can find anonymity anywhere, can’t you? And if your mind tended towards anything resembling modesty, why the hell would you be going to St. Bart’s?
So I still wasn’t getting any of this.
After a couple of hours of hanging at the beach in St Bart’s, I decided it was time to head back. I got a ride to the small airport, which was only about a mile from Gustavia. So I decided to walk the rest of the way.
It was kind of tiring walking along, and I realized that I was getting old. Then I also realized that it was 88 degrees and 88 percent humidity, and I was going up a really steep hill. So it wasn’t really my age, what was going on was my senility in doing something so stupid.
When I got to the top I was looking down at the teeny tiny short runway and wondering how anybody landed there. Just then a small plane came in not ten feet above my head on its way in. Oh, so that’s how.
I had thought it would be a scenic walk down into the harbor. But it wasn’t. Just steep and hot. Then I was so tired that all I could do is sit around and wait for the ferry. There was a glossy catalog of hundreds of villas for sale. Not a single price was listed. I suppose that if you have to ask you can’t afford it.
But I did have a revenge of sorts on snooty St Bart’s. I only spent a total of one euro while I was there.