On any given off-season morning on the Holland House beach-view deck, one might witness a Carnival floating city slowly wafting into port. This, of course, changes everything on the Dutch/French Island of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin. Cruise ships are important because, although a pristine, emerald water, white sand, tropical beach paradise, it’s short on valuable natural resources leaving tourism and retail for primary trade. With that in mind, one wonders why this tiny island ended up split (Dutch and French respectively). But then again, say what you will about the French, they really know how to “chill.” Some things are worth fighting for, right? Priorities. Again, not a crucial hotspot for imperial holdings, but there were plenty of skirmishes and smoky gun battles in the early days. In fact, Saint Martin/Sint Maarten changed hands many times between the Spanish, Dutch and French powers in the early days. Still standing are old stone forts overlooking many seaward inlets offering proof of the island’s turbulent past.
Hotel Holland House is in an area under the government of the Netherlands. The immediate locality is called “Philipsburg,” one L short of a burg with the same name north of Hays. Phillipsburg, Kansas is nestled within a county that regularly produces grumpy people simply unable drive like persons with urgent purpose. Locals on St. Maarten resemble these Kansans in that, on this morning, they seem a bit on the lethargic side… smiles are rare. In addition, traffic lights are superseded by lazy roundabouts, and the grumpy, grumpy traffic cops have seen it all. But oh, things get cheerier when the cruise ships dock. Lots of foot traffic on the concrete “boardwalk” and many more dollars, euros, yen, bat, yang, pesos, etc. are in circulation.
Ship is in and the eerie buccaneer grin on my waiter’s countenance foretells tourist plunder ahead.
THERE YOU ARE…
Sampling local spirits, you may find the Caribbean and Dutch beers most agreeable. Of course, Red Stripe is available, if not at the bars, the mini markets peppering the narrow cobblestone walkways. “Presidente” and “Heineken” are available to enjoy with or without citrus. Among other choices, a particular local favorite is a salty number called “Carib.” There may not be a connection, but in the 14th century, war-like cannibalistic Indians called the “Carib” named the island “Soualiga,” which means Salt Island. This due to its main mineral deposit. In fact, the remains of the Great Salt Pond can still be seen in Philipsburg today. So there’s that. My doctor tells me to avoid excess salt, and so I find myself here… hmmm. And you know what they say… “wherever you go…”
I’m here with a group of students in their first years of higher ed. on, what is for many, their first international sojourn. There is plenty of time for cultural exchange, but the students have a primary mission, which is to assist local entrepreneurs in their various endeavors. Later on this day, after the day’s experiential learning, the cruise liner is GONE, and the locals are back to their original grumpy bearing. Over in a remote corner of the beach-view cabana, there is an author interviewing local entrepreneurs, digging for gold to use in his latest book. He’s an interloper and doesn’t know how cranky the hotel’s employees can be and so dared to move a stem glass in order to make room for his recorder. This audacious breach of manners drew a hissing demand to put everything back where is was. Luckily, he’s interviewing locals, and they run interference for him.
FISH OUTTA WATER…
One might find it weird being among the scarce few honkies in streams of people drifting around a beach community. After all, it IS the off-season, so few tourists are to be found. The locals are primarily of color and don’t appear troubled with questions of social justice. In contrast to the racially tense air in the US, folks seem generally peaceful, at ease on their island. One might wonder, however… where are the interlopers’ boundaries? For example, one customarily bold tourist from the Midwest US, a person used to taking 40-minute uninhibited walks at the end of his workdays told me he tried to do it, walk, on this morning, but found himself feeling super unwelcome (ah, fresh perspectives). He ended up skipping the morning walk but may screw his courage up later in the day. After all, he’s on island time now. He knows those grown accustomed to the world starting engines of commerce somewhere around 7:00 am will have to adjust, and should probably get used to not having breakfast till 7:00 on the island.
Many are the opportunities for wonder in “Paradise” as local celebrity, Ife Badejo calls it. One of the more popular adventures is a trip around the island in a canopy-covered motor boat. It is speculated that three out of twenty Midwestern landlubbers on these excursions grow quite seasick and throw up overboard, or worse, on boatmates. Sometimes when a hapless landlubber regurgitates the morning’s breakfast on their neighbor, it starts a chain reaction of stomach evacuating fun. Ah… good times. Luckily, tour organizers have the foresight to install water hoses starboard and stern conveniently for these unfortunate situations. Other wonder inspiring diversions include jungle zip line courses and, of course, shopping and cosmopolitan cuisine out the wazoo. The zip line requires one to screw courage up good and tight. Although a rider may have two safety lines and a workman’s glove to prevent plunging to the mango peppered ground, they also have friendly guides that help the persistently squeamish. Some just can’t hang, and the numbers are about the same as those of the party boat seasick variety… just different individuals.
On the “boardwalk,” musical selections piped through systems are generally a contemporary selection of club mixes and autotuned saccharine pop. There is one hotel that simply can’t get enough of Whitney Houston’s catalog…. played by Kenny G. on his super melodic clarinaxiphone. I overheard one patron mention that if he heard another rousing rendition of “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” he was going to snap, and it wasn’t gonna be pretty. Of course, this was an idle threat. He finished his breakfast enduring two or three more iterations of the upbeat, bouncy tootling without incident. However, when Bob Marley kicks in, it restores faith and one gets a saltier taste of island culture.
Lunchtime, things get spicier. One is more likely to hear Bob Marley at a place known as the “Lazy Lizard,” just a few ticks to the left of the Holland House deck. A super popular lunch spot, the proprietor not only serves delish nibbledy gibblies, he also has a line of fruit-infused rum that rocks, on the rocks or neat. Get jerk wings at the Lazy Lizard… and prepare to burn. Cool yourself with a slash of Guava Berry infused rum and then get ready to sleep… you’re on island time Mon… napping is good, and the Lazy Lizard is a knock-out… KO!
ISLAND TIME… ??
Now, don’t fool yourself into thinking island time is not a thing. Every appointment this group of Kansas landlubbers makes with Islanders ends up where they, the landlubbers, show up promptly, and the natives scheduled to meet them are at least 30 minutes behind. This leads one to conclude, in super unscientific ways, that island time is very much like “musician time.” I am qualified to comment on this… don’t ask. Anyhoo…
…if you want islanders or musicians to be a certain place at a certain time, you have to lead the target by at least 30 minutes in order to keep everyone happy and PROMPT.
ISLAND SECURITY… ??
A curious bit of advice might be overheard from Holland House staff to tourists, warning them not to take a right on the “Boardwalk” after dark unless accompanied by a group of four or more… or if a girl gaggle, at least one burly fella must go along. Going left from the Holland house is not much better, but at least the locals say it is. Traveling the main arteries of the island, you may pass by a “security station” touting “riot squad” in their branding. If that makes one curious, a simple search reveals recent answers to the question, “Do the French and Dutch ever squabble after all these years?” … the answer is, maaaaaaabe. Toward the end of the busy season in March, 2016, a major access road connecting the French and Dutch Quarters was entirely blocked to vehicles. According to the local newspaper, theDaily Herald, At least two barricades composed of car wrecks were seen on the main road going through the district in addition to many turned-over garbage bins, and rocks and debris were strewn over the road. District officials say the action was the work of French Quarter citizens taking matters of dispute into their own hands. Officials commended the local security forces for exercising restraint even though reports of opportunistic young people manning the barricades and charging people money to go through were verified. A spontaneous march by “Saint-Martin Wake Up,” from the French Quarter to Marigot was stopped by the Gendarmerie in the interests of public order.
OH, THE WATER…..
Swimming… sea swimming… well, there’s no surf just outside the Holland House deck, so boogie boarding or, god forbid, actual surfing are not options. If you brought your gargles, you can maybe enjoy a spot of communance with little tropical fishies, and if super lucky, a sea turtle, or even a ray or two. However, for those with bald cranial domes, and no aspirations for future melanoma, the kelp braids can feel startlingly like the tentacles of massive sea monsters…. especially when your gargles fill with eye burning sea water just as you find yourself in water deeper than your barely 5’ old, fat, bald person frame… AND… if you’ve only recently seen netwebb memes of looming shark bodies lurking in water much shallower (deep breath). From that vantage point, it’s easy to hastily conclude…. THERE BE MONSTERS!
TOURIST PLUNDER, DENIED….
So, now that the cruise ships are gone, the Buccaneer’s grin is dissolved from my waiter’s face, and the natives are grumpy again, a particularly rapacious shopkeeper tried to charge me double retail for a pair of Tevas… doh! And… some of the student honkies have taken to calling me “Captain Ron Swanson.” I don’t know why… I’m a pussycat… even though I had to let the shopkeeper know I was super not interested in paying double retail for the sandals.
Anyway, here I am… a brief hiatus from the daily grind. It’s been a joy. Six months removed from the last hiatus on the slab at the DeBakey Heart Institute. Neither of these breaks were planned, at least not by me. Mother Nature and the excellent DeBakey staff took care of the first. For the second break, I was asked to fill in for my boss so she could deal with a death in the family. I told her to think of me as an option of last resort because I didn’t believe I was up to an international excursion only six months off the slab. But no one stepped up (?) and I didn’t want to keep her from familial obligations. After all, six months should be enough healing time, right? Right… so here I am… exactly six months to the day: Reborn, 11-15-2016 On the flight to paradise, 5-15-2017. I’m glad I came, but not sure it will have the effect my family and close friends would recommend. Evidently, I’m a type-A, as in “ADDICTED to busy” kind of person. Don’t get me wrong, I love my vocation, but full emersion with it keeps me an arm’s length from the rhythm of my “original drumbeat,” an impractical avocation. Not to mention… that well-worn lesson, “Nobody on their deathbed ever said they wish they had spent more time in the office.”
I probably need to make adjustments…
……..maybe get in touch with my inner type B.
We shall see…. we shall see.