Reading the Signs

Who wants to pay attention on vacation? This tourist season comes with many signs…hand written or spray painted. “Welcome”, “we’re open”, “warning”, are announced to passers by.

Signs, another casualty of Irma’s winds.

They are important for helping us know where we are and if it’s safe to proceed. In the past we would chuckle at the ones with misspellings or a funny word order that could be taken another way. At night lighting is sparse, they have to order the bulbs for the working street lamps. During the day visibility is much better, as long as they are heeded. One day while in Le Sucriere enjoying coffee and croissants with friends. There’s still outdoor seating with a view of the lagoon. Ghostly gray wrecks floating or partially submerged, covered with silt, while the Rhino Tour weaves in between on their way to Marigot. The bakery has groomed the plants and remaining trees on the edge of the deck and clearly roped off the section damaged by the storm. Iguanas were enjoying the privacy of the unsafe deck. A group of tourists noticed them and had to take their picture. They crossed the barrier and stood surrounding the reptiles snapping their camera phones. Lucky for them the owner was nearby and immediately addressed the group. Hadn’t they seen the sign warning them not to go onto that section? He urged them back toward safety, and they sheepishly complied, quickly leaving altogether. The iguanas, unphased, went their separate ways to enjoy the beautiful day.

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All Washed Up

Each day we have the privilege to listen to the waves crashing to shore. We’ve gotten good at predicting how rough it is by sound alone. The weather feels warmer than this time last year. The winds on any given beach are as strong as they are on Orient Beach. The beach bars would all have some kind of tarp to shield patrons from the wind and rain. I think it is windier overall with gusts pelting sand from head to toe. Hair ties are a must to prevent tangles.

We were worried about the condition of the beaches as we prepared for this visit. We purchased water shoes that Bill does not like to wear. I’m selective and use them more on Orient beach than on Simpson Bay.

Since our arrival the waters have continued to shape the beaches – removing more sand, exposing rocks and boulders. This is our first time staying on this part of Simpson Bay. The sand is a treasure trove for different colored sea glass and a variety of sea shells. A rip current delivered a huge amount of conch shells onto a small section of the shore.

It is important to watch where you are going. Expect that one rogue wave or something new sticking up from the sand.

We’ve talked to friends who live in Orient and they are very cautious about swimming. One we spoke to snorkels regularly in order to clear objects from the ocean floor. The storm washed away entire contents of homes in many cases. So far we haven’t had any issues.

We enjoy walking down to Karakter for lunch and a drink. It is for Simpson Bay what Pedro’s on Orient Beach was. How lovely it is to be able to enjoy shelter with such awesome views. On one of our recent strolls we watched as an armchair made landfall. The next day someone had it set up next to the sea wall and was using it to hold fishing gear. You just never know what may wash up next.

 

Happy Bay Ending

We still haven’t attempted the hike over the hill. We’ve instead taken the easier way. The wall in between the path and the driveway has become the sidewalk in. I don’t know why they still bother to lock the gate. The view is amazing. Between last year’s festival and Irma, there’s nothing left to block it. The buildings still stand although many have lost all or part of their roofs. Facing Anguilla, all the way on the right hand side, someone is squatting. Someone with a key to the gate.

Walking down the familiar path, I now miss the cows that used to roam here. They were reassuring to me in this solitary place. Debris of sand and shell mark how far the waves reached. There is no longer any hint of the festival held back in April. The stage and giant tiki sculpture are gone. Danny’s Beach Bar stands without a roof and the tables need chairs. It’s hard to believe he hasn’t, as of yet, made an effort to return.

As on all the beaches we’ve visited so far, there’s a drop down shelf where layers of sand have washed away. No one has come to tend the palms that survived – and those that didn’t stand helplessly lifeless, like telephone poles. The roots are all exposed, a tangled network that once held the ground in place. Everyone’s favorite icon, the giant sea grape now lays on its side half dead; half growing anew.

Walking down to where the path over the hill opens to the beach is also greatly altered. The lovely canopy from the tree in the middle of the path is toppled. Boulders at the end of the beach have moved, but there are still tide pools to enjoy. Then again, the whole beach is still beautiful and to be enjoyed. An umbrella would be ideal to have. We’ve packed a picnic lunch complete with beer and rosé. Fishermen and the rhinos stop by as they have in the past.

Come on Danny come on back! We are here, you have hungry guests. Make the scene complete!

Even with all the visitors there’s still plenty of privacy to have a Happy Bay ending.

My Island Car

Anyone who’s ever rented a car on the island has a pretty good idea what it means to drive an “island car”. We’ve had cars that could barely get up a hill, had no brake lights, were missing mirrors, without mufflers, had bald tires, no radio, no antenna, burned oil, a bumper that scraped the tires, and had the occasional flat tire. Once we even rented a Jeep and in the middle of a down pour the roof flipped back. At this point we don’t even want a new car! We’ve only had them twice in twenty-one years. The first time was when we had spent the day on Orient Beach and it was obvious someone tried to break in. The second time was when we won the rental in a free drawing. We happily turned it in without incident and quickly downgraded to an “island car”. The dents do not bother us one bit. We’ve received the same exact car for the last three years. Actually, we’ve gotten somewhat attached to it.

Since Irma the definition of the “island car” has changed to “hey it runs!” It doesn’t matter if it is completely dented with parts missing, or mirrors dangling, or if it has any glass. The first time I saw someone driving without a windshield I was taken by surprise. After that, I was looking for the most creative use of it. My top three picks were: First, the car where something hit and shattered the drivers side and they carefully removed that section alone. Second place goes to the car where the entire windshield was shattered except for a tiny spot just above the steering wheel. Lastly the car that removed it altogether.

Some buses look fine at first glance but then all the side windows are missing. Since so many drivers are in the same situation, it isn’t hard to imagine a shortage in replacement glass. Three months and counting, we’ve seen so many creative applications used to remedy their plight. Plastic wrap, garbage bags, surfing materials, duct tape and any of these used in combination with one another. Towels, even though they don’t work that well, are a favorite. I think the funniest, though, was a tarp. At this, point if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry and not stop. It amazes me how everyone has made do with what’s been literally thrown at them.

Cheers to you and your island cars. You always make me smile.

Blue Christmas

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As a child our special time to open gifts was December twenty-fourth, in the evening. My sister and I were sequestered in the downstairs family room, for what felt like an eternity. Mom and “Santa” prepared for the festivities upstairs. Dad would check on us from time to time. Of course he was helping mom put up the tree she painstakingly decorated. The tree would have white lights and be all silver one year, silver and gold another, and there were always those few special hand made ornaments. The presents surrounded the tree, a section of each family member. Stockings would hang by the staircase railing, filled with yummy treats. Downstairs we’d play or watch movies and wondered what some of the thumping sounds were. Once everything was finally ready, we would be summoned by the sound of Christmas chimes played on the stereo, mom’s favorite. It was dark by then and only the lights of the tree and candles lit the scene. We would run up the stairs with excitement. First we were allowed to check out our stockings before going to our section under the tree. It looked so beautiful. We’d take turns choosing a gift and would watch each other open them. There was always that one special item we wished for and somehow it was always the last to be opened.

In later years we asked mom to only put out appetizers, since that was all we ever filled up on. Her wonderful dinners were hardly touched. It was so much work and my sister and I were far too excited and full to eat the dinner. We were distracted by our new toys or clothes.

Funny how family changes along with some of the traditions. Once married and we had our own family, they kept morphing. As our children grew, they preferred opening gifts Christmas morning, so we switched. It was then I realized how much influence children have. We had done the same thing with our parents.

It’s holidays like Christmas that get romanticized. Everyone has a different expectation or vision. The child within us wants to feel special. As children we loved receiving that one gift that was so thoughtful. As we matured we enjoyed trying to give that kind of gift.

The consumer culture has affected the notion of what is special. We used to have to wait for special occasions to receive a gift, maybe it was a much needed pair of shoes or a new outfit for church or school. We lived by delayed gratification and we seemed more thankful. Nonstop purchasing throughout the year sends a different message, especially to kids. Expectations have been raised a bit higher.

One year I hand made all the gifts. It was a lot of work and time consuming, a labor of love. After that, I put the kibosh on gift giving. I was always happy to be surrounded by our family. That was enough.

For the last few years we’ve been away in St. Martin. The rest of the family has made their plans, possibly new traditions. There may come a day when we are once again celebrating together. We’ve left behind gifts for the grandchildren. They are in their magical years when their imagination and excitement are still fresh and innocent.

Again this year we have forgone the cold weather for a blue Christmas. We will celebrate with friends on the island whose families are far away. We will enjoy the warmth of the weather and friendship, never forgetting the warmth of the togetherness of family.

Like Shifting Sand

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Adventure. Travel. Change. There are so many songs written about change, musings of things lost and hoped for. Sometimes these changes are fun and exciting, while at other times they are unpleasant and difficult. Things rarely stay the same though. We grow up, move out, move away, and/or move on. Relationships come and go, even long term ones change. Does anything stand still? As our planet spins within its orbit, is it only the cycles that stay the same? Day and night, seasons, the waxing and waning of the moon; are these examples of ongoing change? Life itself has a beginning and an end, another cycle. During this cycle all the other cycles influence it. A measure of time with unknown length each of us is given.

Coming to the island it seems easier to see. The island has changed not only through storms but the people who visit her. Building, overbuilding, using or abusing resources — all these have an impact causing change.

We’ve enjoyed coming here some twenty-one years now. What has been built up during that time has just been washed away by a storm. A reset in some ways. It has affected adventurers too. Those who came to enjoy working in a beautiful place have had to reevaluate whether to stay or go. This island has always collected the transient and adventurous. Idealistic dreamers in search of pirated gold. Here, there will always be new restaurants to enjoy and new people to meet. Like the shifting sand, people will come and go

Walking the Dog

Pet owners on the island are just as diverse as the many nations they represent. Small dogs get to come along on outings and restaurants. Large dogs ward away burglars. Many dogs on the island are allowed to roam freely. The problem with this is they risk being killed and all to often on purpose.

Ursula has made an effort to teach islanders basic care. Too many of them treat dogs like goats. They believe the dog can forage for food and water. Dogs need love and attention to be good pets and protectors. Being mean does not make a better guard dog, it only confuses him.

Since arriving on SXM, we’ve met a seafaring dog named Ginger. She knows how to balance herself on a dinghy and loves to swim to shore and roam around on Tintamarre.

One afternoon on Simpson Bay beach, I noticed a black lab racing past at top speed. I wondered where the owner was. Then he came back the other way again at top speed. It was then saw a dinghy cruising along the shoreline. The dog was chasing him. As soon as the dinghy stopped, the dog headed into the surf and then swam out to his owner. He climbed on board and the two sailed off into the sunset. What a way to walk a dog. You could feel how he loved every minute of it.

Whole Lot of Shaking Going On

 

Every Irma story varies depending where on the island they were. Besides the screeching wind and the sound of bombs going off, the other distinctive was that the buildings all shook. It’s hard for me to imagine the cement structures literally swaying to and fro. After hearing this, it is a wonder more structures didn’t collapse. The air pressure could be felt in the chest and ears were popping. It was oppressive.

Our friends in Orient were enjoying a cappuccino down in the village when the evacuation orders came. The entire village area had to clear out. After the storm our friends ventured down the hill and were in total disbelief at the devastation. Debris piled all over and the palms dividing the main road in the village snapped with a car suspended in one of them. I forget how far inland the surge came and that this area was hit with a forty foot tsunami. The clearing out of standing buildings has begun. Black mold took over quickly and cannot be painted over. This all on the left side as one heads toward the beach. Le Noon has set up shop in front of their space. A canopy covers a bar, it’s hard to tell if they’re serving any food though. The Chinese grocer is open for business. In the restaurant court yard a couple of places are also up and running.

I was proud to hear that US marines were down on the beach as part of the relief efforts. They set up a desalination station where locals could get fresh drinking water. The French Foreign Legion made the rounds into the neighborhood handing out ration boxes. Only the French would hand out duck, canned salmon, and couscous. The kit was complete with a self contained burner for cooking and matches. We wonder if the less fortunate in the less desirable areas got the same treatment. In another area with Villas they received shrimp, pasta, and Rosé.

Many people were glad to have been on the French side of the island in the aftermath. The Dutch also feel the same way about their side. This makes it difficult as an outsider to get a clear picture of how it really was. Many people ran out of food and water. They waited in long lines at both airports in hopes of leaving. In Grand Case passengers who gathered all they could carry, were forced to leave all but one item behind. The street became lined with them. It was rumored that pets were not allowed n some flights either. One suitcase, they became refugees.

We met a couple fostering a young dog on Orient Beach. She was found in a ditch after Irma with something sticking out of her eye. She lost the eye and had a broken leg that also needed attention. The wind was especially strong that day and the pup was clearly uncomfortable. Healing is a process and for some it takes a long time. Nature keeps proving this to us and encouraging us in the process. Another difficult aspect of the aftermath is the lack of jobs and housing. We’ve heard stories of price gouging for apartments. One landlord is trying to force his renters from their homes before the lease is up. The unit must be empty for six months before he can remodel with the insurance money and then raise the rent. Meanwhile others are taking in people. The orphanage is just one example. When a child turns eighteen, the small government stipend goes away. Not everyone is ready to launch at that age. Thankfully they let her stay.

The resilience in the face of all these challenges leaves no room to wonder about the new hashtag #sxmstrong.

Shooting Stars

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Relaxing after a long day filled with activity, we sat on the terrace with a drink. Soon the owner asked to join us. We enjoyed good conversation until he had to carry his daughter to bed. When he returned, we joined him and his wife on the lower terrace. The sky has never been so dark here on the island and not seeing the moon helped. We decided to bring our chairs down onto the beach facing them away from the water. There were so many stars, even speckled in the distance. At home light pollution has blotted out all but the brightest ones.

Our hosts told us that it was even more dark after Irma. Sadly they could see Marigot on fire. It burned from exploding gas lines and loose live wires. It must have been a terrible sight.

We sat talking, laughing and gazing upward for several hours. This night the sky was alive with shooting stars. Some burned long and bright. Flashes sometimes two or three one after another. They went in different directions too. Some were faint and farther away. A couple times they seemed just overhead. Different sizes, shapes, brightness, color and duration; they went on hour after hour. I’ve never seen anything like it. We all grew sleepy and the evening ended. It had been magical. In the morning when I woke I thought is all had only been a dream, except Bill had the same dream.

One Love

We are trading beauty for ashes. Come and see. It is here in the smiles of the innocent. We were privileged to ride along side Jeff and Jacky on what is now part of their daily routine. Everyday takes them someplace new. The hidden places in plain sight. Places tourists pass on their way to beaches, resorts or restaurants.

On this particular day after picking up supplies, the destinations were the I Can House and CSI a hub of community resources especially for children.

Right in the center of the Middle Region stands the colorful rectangular I Can building. We were greeted by the house mother Casandra. Seemingly from out of nowhere we were surrounded by a group of curious children. They ranged in age from three to eighteen years old. We brought them much needed vegetables, fruit, and flour. The children have been growing up here, this is their home. I was invited by them to see their rooms. A hand reached out to lead me. Each room had two-four beds that all were made. They were sparse without clutter of toys or possessions, only clothing, which didn’t seem to amount to much. They were so proud of how clean the rooms are kept. They are quite competitive about it. Friendly, sweet, smiling faces made my heart melt.

The youngest girl is three. Her name is Kaylee. She looked like she has CP. She cannot sit up on her own. Her limbs have no muscle and have become rigid. She has no insurance access and there is no more additional monies to continue physical therapy. She loves music and knows her name. Jacky held her the entire time and Kaylee clearly loved it.

One boy had requested a ball. Which we delivered to him. For the longest time he would not take it from the box. It was his gift and he was relishing every moment. Reluctantly the box was removed, acknowledging that this kind of gift is best shared. All the boys ran to play basketball. That one ball gave so much joy to so many.

It was hard to leave but we had another stop to make. Right on the Main Street in Quarter D’Orleans in a tarp roofed building, half of which was blown out completely. Here we met Jennifer and Troy. We came to deliver snacks and juice boxes. Jeff had been given a suitcase full of toys from a family with a little girl. Troy set out all the items on the table and allowed each child to choose one. The boys didn’t care that they were for girls and joined in. Troy removed a couple of games to be kept on site, that way the kids could enjoy sharing them when they come back.

While we were there a French woman took a group to the side. She taught them breathing exercises and is helping them work through the trauma of Irma. I thought these kids were from families in the neighborhood. Some are, but the rest are also orphans taken in by godmothers and fathers. Jennifer, Troy and other volunteers take great care of these kids who flock there daily. On a previous visit Jeff and Jackie brought the center a bookcase. It was already filled with books the children can read. They have done much with so little. Before Irma they had a vegetable garden. They also had a couple of laptops the children and adults could use, but looters made off with them. The kids know this is a caring place and enjoy coming regularly.

Beauty from the ashes, one love binding them all together.