A Thirst for Destruction

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Why are news outlets so quick to devour the stories of the misery of others? Weather reports have also followed suit placing reports in increasingly dangerous situations to show firsthand Mother Nature’s wrath. The viewer becomes a fly on the wall watching up close without consequences. Sensationalism has become the new norm we’ve come to except. Social media alerts everyone right away of the latest on the top stories as they unfold.

Irma, from the US perspective, glossed over the fate of the Caribbean and St. Martin specifically. Those of us who travel there regularly grew concerned for not only the island but all the friends we know and love who live there. Many of us stayed glued to social media for any shred of news.

I remember checking in with everyone and wishing them safety as we all said good night. In the morning during the eye, we tried to check in again. By then there wasn’t much communication from the French side. A local posted a video showing Simpson Bay with minimal damage. We were lulled into a false sense of security that maybe the storm wasn’t so bad after all.

The next wave of photos emerged telling what we feared most; the devastation of our beloved island. Family members off island were the lifeline for information. It was a worrisome waiting game until everyone was accounted for. The SXM sites worked together connecting concerned members with locals on the island. We rejoiced together with each name added to the safe list. We couldn’t imagine that gunfire and looting would also be reported. Evacuation and restoring order followed. Some of those who left have yet to return. After coping with food and water shortages there was a collective sigh. Storms following Irma grazed the island dumping rainfall on roofless homes. Mold added to the misery. The military distributed food and water but communications were spotty when there were any at all.

We watched stateside in the comfort of our homes. We waited as days turned into weeks. Word that friends evacuated to their motherland or a neighboring island flowed on message boards.

We wondered if we would be returning with what seemed to be so much chaos going on. Once flights began resuming we found a place to stay and booked our trip. Three months to the day Irma first hit, we landed. There weren’t many visitors and people gathered wherever they could to be together. Locals were and still are, traumatized. They are impatient, drink more, some choose not to venture far from home, while others have jumped into work. The strongest of men became unable to cope, women rose to take back their lives for their families. So many contrasting reactions.

The collective spirit of the people has moved forward, never forgetting what has happened to their island, their homes, their loved ones, and themselves. Six months later so much has transpired. We’ve gotten used to the leftover damage to buildings, derelict boats and cars, and tarp covered houses. Broken car windows have become more scarce as repairs are being made. Building projects are going on all over. The beach has cleaned up nicely. Visitors are returning and have acclimated to the island’s new look. More restaurants are opening and there are rooms available to rent.

Everyone here prefers not to dwell in the past. Those on social media who choose to are not being helpful or respectful. Let’s be part of perpetuating the strength and resilience of the island. Challenge negative posts from those who’ve not been here to witness the p
hoenix as she rises from the ashes.

Locals ask me all the time “even after the storm you still came?” Yes! We still came, we saw, bear witness to a metamorphosis of epic proportions. We’ve relished every moment. So don’t believe what they say on the cruise ships. The French side is open for business and is beautiful.

There are ways to help the island, negativity is not one of them! #sxmstrong

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Still Not Bored

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After three months we have not grown bored with the island. Our biggest regret is not being here to welcome friends who will arrive after our departure. The social calendar, work schedule, and beach time have us sometimes wanting a poolside break where we can regroup.

Bill has been in charge of our social life, and done a great job, for the last nine years. Prior to that I burned out from taking on a lot of hostessing. That was another life when the kids needed us around more. Although we both love people, I’m the introvert by nature, have trouble in crowds, and need alone time more than he does. SXM has offered us a wonderful combination of peace and party. We are so grateful for the opportunity to be on the island and for getting to meet so many fine people. It has been three years that we’ve been able to extend our stay on the island. Who knows what the future holds? So much of life is uncertain. It’s important to make the most of each moment we’ve been given. Sometimes I have trouble remembering names and faces and feel embarrassed. The island has so many visitors we meet daily. I’ve unfortunately reached my capacity to retain it all. Bill also struggles with names. In fact, it seems to be a malady shared by those who stay for longer periods and are social. Sigh, nice to know that at least we’re not alone.

When we go home — wait, where’s home again? …..I may hit the ground running to catch up with family but also need to relax….YES, relax! I love this island paradise and the busyness. It inspires our creativity. I look forward to painting and sharing how this time has influenced me.

I leave with you our saying, our motto actually:
Life is short
Communication is an art form
Relationships are fragile
and it’s time to add a fourth…
Laugh more

Raw Beauty

 

The buzz was to stay away, too bad if you listened. With each month farther from Irma, more tourists and regular visitors have taken the risk to come to the island. We’ve been told repeatedly that risk has paid off! The island is different and damage is visible. The adjustment to what it has become is quickly made and a new appreciation sets in. Do people miss the beach bars?… yes and no. Thirty years of man’s tyranny on the landscape has been erased. What is now left, especially on the French side, are beautiful beaches with less crowds.

This year is a very special year. It gave us a glimpse into what was and may not be again. We’re glad and even honored to have such an opportunity. The island now has a chance to rebuild and hopefully not overbuild. The French side still has open spaces that make everyone feel SXM is their own deserted island. At the same time, they offer some of the best cuisine. The Dutch side also offers great food but only has one pristine beach left, Mullet Bay. They’ve over cemented the rest of their side.

It pains me to hear that cruise ships have warned passengers not to go over to the French side. They are wrong in doing so, and I would question their motives.

In the meantime — there are a bunch of fun people hanging out at the beach and eating fabulous dinners. If you’re not coming, it’s truly your loss. We will still be posting pictures on FB.

The Volleyball Net Saga

 

It’s too bad beach volleyball hasn’t caught on more. On Orient, beach tennis is all the rage. The net is higher then regular tennis but lower than for volleyball. We met a power couple who are world class players. She missed the Canadian Olympic team by one and has gone on to win a world championship competition. Her husband was her coach, and has been playing the Caribbean circuit. We’d love to see the children of SXM become interested and trained to play this ever popular sport. There’s a group on the island committed to restoring the courts on Le Galion where Irma had ruined them.

Bill and I enjoy the sport and participate in a league back in the states. I’m a beginner and Bill is ready to move up to the next level. It has been so much fun playing with so many younger people. We’re thankful they don’t laugh us off the court. Here on the island it is difficult to find a group willing to work with and train us to grow in the sport. We practice on the beach bumping the ball to each other, learning how to control it better. It’s good exercise too!

In the past a fun and friendly game could be found down by Club O. This was the first beach open for business with the Perch Lite, lounges, and umbrellas on Orient after the devastating hurricane. Re-creating a volleyball court was not a priority, although the management made overtures of restoration. Back in December it was Bill and I hitting the ball around. As time went on, more people joined our circle. The beach was really filling up, but still no court yet. Late February our friends arrived with a net. Where were the promised posts? When they finally showed up, there still more delays. March was just around the corner when when Beach goers took matters into their own hands. A post digger happened to be available so holes were dug, posts installed, the net was attached, and court boundaries marked. Voila! If you build it they will come….and they did. How nice to once again have a friendly afternoon game on the most beautiful beach. Playing was almost anti climatic compared to the drama that dragged on month after month. Such is progress on island time.

Dead Calm — The Race That Almost Wasn’t

 

Regatta time is filled with excitement, sailors, alcohol, and the races. I have to be honest, I haven’t a clue about the different classes, vessels, or even how the races are conducted. The local radio station gives a blow-by-blow but I need both verbal and visual to begin to understand. One year we chased with a guy who had been part of crews before, he gave the best insights.

We were fortunate enough to get on a chaser with a large group of friends and acquaintances. We departed from Philipsburg and headed toward Simpson Bay. The announcement was made that the races were being delayed, we went and anchored off the shore of La Samana. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as many enjoyed the gorgeous Caribbean water. After a quick lunch we hurried to watch the races. With Saba as a backdrop, multicolored sails glided across the sea. Off in the distance in front of St. Barths, was another race with different type of vessels. As we approached we noticed the ships seemed to begin a timed race from an orange buoy and finish where we couldn’t see. At one point two boats got into trouble when it seemed their sails bumped each other. The wind was blocked for one of the sails and hung loosely like a curtain. The crew hurried to make the needed adjustments and the sail once again filled and the race continued.

The Dutch marines circled our boat, making sure we got a good look at them. The ladies went crazy with one woman shouting to please climb aboard! …There may have been alcohol involved. It was the most fun we’ve ever had on a Regatta chase. The wind delayed but did a fine job filling sails, so the race could go on.

When You Gotta Go

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We finally had our first weekend with a reprieve from the super wind gusts. Mosquitos were able to land and bite unsuspecting victims. The beach was busy and we indulged in seaside massages. It was so relaxing to hear the rolling waves breaking on the shore. Afterwards we shared some chicken from Chez Leandra and then headed to Idolem yoga on the beach. We’ve watched the class grow in numbers since our arrival.

Sunday’s schedule had us repeating Saturday’s except for the massages. Our plan was to spend happy hour at Alamanda after yoga. We met up with friends there. Both our friend’s husband and myself needed to use the facilities. They’ve located them in two damaged condo/hotel units. On the wall of the long hallway was a sign painted to designate gender. He was ahead of me and I watched him disappear then quickly reappear into the hall. As I got closer I realized he was now headed to the ladies room. Great, that left me with door number one. It was locked so I waited. Out walked a man who gave me a curious look. Most of the bathrooms on the island are shared anyway so I didn’t feel bad. The rest of the unit had been barricaded to lead directly to a full bathroom. In I went and closing the door noted that it stuck and left it unlocked. When I was ready to leave, the door would not open. As I tried to pull the handle I was aware that the handle was only attached at the bottom. If I pulled too hard maybe the handle would come off all together.

I stepped into the bathtub and opened the louvered window as far as it would go. I glimpsed the light at the end of my now tunnel but couldn’t see anyone. I yelled for Bill, knowing he was too far away. Then I just yelled for help. What now? How long before he and our friends noticed it’s been a while since I left? Would they come and look for me? Maybe someone would walk by or need the restroom. How long was I going to be in there? I started to panic. Finally two French guys were coming down the hall. I cried out for help and they acted as if it was a joke. I screamed at them to please help me and tried to motion them to the door. The one guy went to the door and pushed it open for me. They still thought it was funny. By now I was really frazzled and needed that drink. Certainly being stuck in the bathroom was not my idea of a happy hour! From then on I would let Bill know how long I might be, leave the door open, or be like an island guy and find a tree!

Scoobi-Too

Our first time back to Anse Marcel since Irma was for a boat trip. The morning was cool and breezy. Off in the distance, dark clouds loomed with the unmistakable mist of rain. The car barely made the climb as it strained to reach the mountain top. Sections of guardrails were missing at critical points. One false move would send a driver plummeting down in disaster. Descending the other side brought new worries of the cars braking ability. The road’s surface was also wet from a previous shower and it might be slick.

We remembered the year we spent a couple of evenings in a hotel on the hillside above the village. The kids were still young. Bill informed me upon landing on the island, that we didn’t have any reservations — anywhere — and we would just find something as we drove around. Our family of five traversed along, stopping occasionally to see if we could stay, but without success. Things were getting tense by the time we crossed the same mountain into Anse Marcel. Thankfully, we found a room. The village proved to be fun with its shops and restaurants, enjoying the best Creme Brûlée ever. Here we surveyed the once bustling area — now filled with missing roofs and blown-out, derelict cars. Not much work had been attempted at restoration, although much of the debris was gone. The marina suffered damage with missing docks and ship wrecks.

We checked in at a picnic table in front of one of the few shops left. The restaurant and other businesses were abandoned with garbage. Some contained mattresses and in a former bar/café stood a motorcycle, all untouched since the storm five months prior.

A dinghy delivered us to the spacious catamaran out in the bay. From here more destroyed buildings were visible. Except for the marina, the area was eerily void of human activity.

After all the passengers boarded and a short downpour, we were finally on our way to cross the channel toward Anguilla. The clouds passed as the sun rose over the majestic mountains of St. Martin. We warmed up quickly and so did the collective mood. Our captain carefully watched the cloud formations on either side of the boat. It was the starboard side that gave rise for concern and our destination was amended from Prickly Pear to Mead Bay, on the far side of Anguilla. The bay was picturesque, with rock formations to the right — reminiscent of Tintamarre or Cupecoy. Golden layers of limestone with hidden caves jutted out into the sea. Still, I gaze out onto the azure water and hardly believe the color is truly that vivid. Our journey continued to the eastern side of the island by Cap Juluca, where we were invited for another swim. From our vantage point it seemed there was no damage, but the resort was closed and obviously being worked on.

The sun had played hide and seek throughout the entire day while our captain managed to out maneuver any rainfall. On the return trip, St. Martin basked in its warm glow. The mountains shapeliness was revealed and the smaller knolls stood visible in the foreground. It turned out to be a wonderful day and sail.

Village Life

Orient Village is coming back slowly. On the main strip the choices, though few, draw a good crowd and have a vibe. Locals enjoy sitting down for breakfast, lunch, and drinks. It’s not only a break, it’s part of their routine.

Table d’Antoine is coming along nicely, we spy the progress from across the way. They hope to be opening shortly. The village courtyardserves dinner nightly. Some of the surrounding buildings are finally having their roofs replaced. It has been five long months. Through it all we’ve witnessed a marked increase of tourists and visitors.

We bask in the afternoon’s waning sunshine with a glass of rosé and bottle of beer, respectively. The other tables are filled with chatting patrons. School is done for the day. Children ride by on manual scooters. A group of teens have parked their bikes and gathered beneath the shade of a grove of trees. It’s their version of what we too are doing, relaxing and socializing. There goes a man walking his dog. Curious drivers slowly make their way toward the beach and work vehicles make deliveries. The strong breeze blows from the beach through our hair. There are few places like this where we can sit roadside enjoying a drink and conversation while people watching. The local market is busy to providing food and supplies. It is all village life — simple, ordinary, daily activities. It all announces resilience and life.

The Naughty & Nice List

What makes staying on the island so much fun? There are so many reasons but today’s focus is on things that are permissible and even celebrated here. They are in sharp contrast with not only what is not allowed in the U.S., but can earn fines arrests or both. Take for instance the islands version of morning coffee. For Bill, it’s Presidente Light. Some islanders prefer rum. On the Dutch side it’s Heineken, known as “Dutch coffee”. Bill likes to have his to go, while driving. In fact all drinks are available in to-go cups.

Seatbelts should be worn here but seldom are. It seems fine to randomly stop the car in the middle of the road to have a conversation. Indicators: tail and brake lights are all optional. Operating a damaged car with a missing windshield, mirrors, and chassis dented or crushed are also popular and unavoidable after hurricane Irma. Vehicles edge out into traffic until someone stops and lets them in. The same rule applies to pedestrians crossing the street. It’s a good idea to stop for all buses including school buses. School kids often ride the the regular bus system and locals may just want to kill you if you try to pass them. 😊

Drivers now need to pay attention for scooters and motorcycles who have created their own lane in the center of the road. Traffic may be stopped for drag racing. Motorcyclists like to show off by riding on the back tire only. We used to call this “popping a wheelie”. Kids practice on bicycles as they look forward to one day operating a motorized version.

It is customary for all vehicles to stop for goats, cattle, donkeys, horses, and sometimes chickens. We are thankful most will also brake for dogs, cats, and iguanas. Although it is oftentimes not the case.

Hitchhiking is an acceptable form of travel. Many visitors have given someone a lift.

On the beaches, many locals do not participate in nude sunbathing unless they are bushwhackers (Not all are, of course). The designated nude beach is located on the far south side of Orient Beach. Also tolerated on Happy Bay (but not on the weekends), part of Baie Rouge, Cupecoy, and parts of Pinel. Most all beaches are however topless and it’s popular for both men and women to wear thongs and sarongs. Many tourists are not comfortable with this. Perhaps that’s why there are so few clothing optional beaches in the United States. They are mostly hidden from the view of public sensibilities.

Restaurants, for the most part are a lingering affair, where patrons must ask for the check. On the French side many of us have been spoiled to the often complimentary after dinner drink. Many places take pride in infusing their own rhum, creating unique flavors. Some places that know and like their guests have been known to leave the bottle on the table. A stray cat or dog may pass through at times without raising any eyebrows.

Men can pee anywhere they want, while women need to hide in the bushes or hold it. (Fine-worthy in many parts of the States) Getting changed publicly — people choose to look the other way. Underwear is optional. It may be hard to get anyone to admit to it, but it is a windy island and sometimes a skirt has twirled up.

Since Irma, camping out in a roofless, windowless, and doorless house is still called “home”. Partially submerged sailboats are also considered “livable”.

Anyone can walk into a casino and almost anyone can get an alcoholic beverage.

Security will check bags upon exiting grocery stores. It’s a good idea to bring your own as many places will charge for each bag.

Landscape debris are burned, so is the garbage. Why, the Dutch have made an art of it. The burning dump is the centerpiece of Philipsburg. Yes it’s toxic, but cancer is covered by their healthcare system. When smoke is visible, the cruise ships let the passengers know that it is the new “Welcome to Philipsburg” sign.

Adult entertainment and brothels are legal. One such establishment doubles as a Chinese restaurant. There you can eat in or take out.

I’m sure this list isn’t complete. Feel free to add something I’ve missed to it!

More Than Half

The beginning of a journey is full of anticipation and excitement. We even countdown the days until we are finally on our way. This trip was no different except for Irma — hitting three months to the day earlier. What would we find once we arrived? How would this time be different? Everything was different, although the island was green and our views were unobstructed. These were a welcome sight to us, but we knew people had survived something life threatening. So much would never be as it was.

We recently visited our friends in Oyster Pond at BZH and admired all their rebuilding efforts. The sun was setting and reflecting off of the now visible crashing waves. It struck me that I never realized just how close the water’s edge is to this restaurant and area. From our table we enjoyed watching the ocean. Not many outsiders have stopped in for drinks or dinner. We could tell because they were pregnant with their survival stories from Irma. It was one of those times I wished I could speak and understand French. Their English thwarted their efforts to communicate. One of the women told us she with her dogs, and they all had to swim for their lives as the house began to flood from the storm surge. Our other friend was near the crest of the hill and, as all the windows blew in, she hid in the bathroom and held the door for six hours. Both women five months later were still visibly shaken. We’ve noted those who endured this night alone are more traumatized then those who shared the experience with others. These are the only stories we’ve gotten to hear from this area. We often stay here, but the woman we rent from sustained damage to her home and rentals. Without WiFi there was no way to ever confirm our reservation. Understandably, she had her hands full and we made other arrangements.

Our little visit to Oyster Pond marked the halfway point of our trip and another countdown for the journey home. I’m not ready to think about that yet. SXM is our home away from home and we’ve gotten used to a nice rhythm of work and play. We thoroughly enjoy socializing with locals and visitors alike. Each week brings a new crop of smiling happy people to hang out with.

For now we need to make our list of things we’d still like to accomplish before the new deadline. Each time we leave it seems more and more difficult. We so enjoy being able to pick up where we left off with our friends here. Back in the US we seem to have lost some of our friendships. Out of sight, out of mind I suppose. We gravitate more and more to the generosity of heart and freedom to come and go without judgement. We’ll go home and jump into another rhythm and enjoy the people and places there, knowing it’s only a matter of time before there’s another countdown.