Half an hour of uncontrollable chortling later, I was able to choke out “Gastrocolic Reflex!” A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Still, this semester, I’m getting that lovely “tying it all together” experience more often…it just increases in frequency from here, I’m told. Still, I have an awful lot of ligaments to learn before next Wednesday…
Last weekend was the midsemester break; Kevin and I went to Saba, two islands – and whole worlds – removed from St. Kitts. The culture shock was pretty extreme: mixed ethnic backgrounds & countries of origin, multiple languages spoken, no crime, friendly & outgoing people, and a pristine, unspoiled environment…it was idyllic, and ideal.
Until the 1960s, Saba had neither a road connecting the three villages, an airport, nor island-wide electricity; it was too rocky and mountainous, too remote. Dutch engineers (Saba is one of the Dutch Antilles), in fact, told them that neither the road nor the airport could be built, the cliffs are so sheer. Their one small harbor becomes very rough very quickly in windy weather, so the finality of this decision would have left Sabans as they’ve always been: pretty much isolated – alone in a chain of neighbors. So, a Mr. Hassell of the island took a correspondence course in road-building, and over the next couple of decades, built The Road (which is what it is called). The Road winds steeply, in vertical switchbacks, from the airport; traveling from the village of Hell’s Gate to Windwardside, where Kevin & I stayed, there were rainforest-choked drop-offs of more than a thousand feet a few inches from the taxi’s tires.
Still, this wasn’t even as exhilarating as the landing at the airport, which was at the island’s lowest and most level spot, and was cleared by hand by the locals, who really wanted an airport: one of the shortest runways in the world, all one sees upon approach is: sheer cliffs, sheer cliffs, blue water crashing in foamy cataracts against wicked volcanic rock, weathered sea caves – Oh! Touchdown! And IMMEDIATE hard braking, hard right turn, and park! We flew over in a DeHavilland Otter, a small plane with GIANT windows (sort of like a flying tour bus), so we had a terrific view of the ruggedness of Saba’s cliffs before we landed. The plane stayed on the ground for 10 minutes total: enough time to dump off passengers & luggage, acquire new passengers & luggage, and lift off, before it was off to another island – we loved how little waiting there was.
We were met at the airport, as the owners of El Momo Cottages promised, by Garvis, a friendly local gentleman of indeterminate age who told us a little about the island, the view, and random other facts in his marvelous Saban accent: part Dutch, part Caribbean. Everyone knew him & waved as we went past; in fact, everyone knows EVERYONE on Saba – the community is pretty small.
El Momo Cottages were perched on a cliff on Booby Hill, staring off over the edge into empty space, far above the sparkling sea. Its owners, originally European, were incredibly warm and friendly. It wasn’t a full-scale hotel – more of a backpacker’s hotel, with very strict water-conservation measures (there is only one spring in all the island, and it’s small and at the foot of the mountain, right next to the sea, so all the water that people use comes from their own little backyard catchments – everyone’s got one, and everyone’s roof is simply a tin funnel feeding it), but the breeze blew sweetly through the bright yellow room, and that misty, distant sea far below made me feel like I was perched in an eagle’s eyrie, high on the rooftop of the world. It actually got cool at night – Kevin & I needed blankets – the whole island was cooler than St. Kitts. (Imagine perfect spring weather in Santa Cruz, with bright sunlight and cool breezes – it was like that.) The garden was lush and beautiful and tropical, and full of iguanas (though we didn’t actually see any, since we didn’t hang out at the pool during the day, preferring to go adventuring, as we always do on vacation) and birds – I spent several mornings in a row trying to catch a picture of the bananaquit (a tolerable photo at http://www.camacdonald.com/birding/carusvirginislands.htm) I saw in the African Tulip tree, right at eye level. Really active, beautiful little bird, busily drinking nectar. Never could get a shot. We did manage to get a shot of Saba’s unique little leopard-spotted lizard, though! (He even showed me his dewlap!)
A couple of months ago, when Kevin & I were flying back to San Francisco for Christmas, I met another student in the St. Kitts airport with the most wonderful necklace: a bright colored-glass fish bead on a smooth circlet of silver wire. The fish was both beautiful and whimsical; when I asked where she got it, she said “Jobean’s Glass Shop, on Saba.” I had this in mind when we went, and as Garvis pulled up to the front of El Momo, what should I see right next door but Jobean’s! So the first morning, we headed over to Jobean’s, and spent several hours drooling over the beautiful Venetian glass confections she makes…and picking out the perfect fishie! Jobean was wonderful – witty, droll, sarcastic and intelligent – and we had a great visit. (Someone I’d like to keep in touch with, if only she can get her email to work!) She ended up making me two special-order fishies, which we picked up the next morning, (You can see Jobean’s wonderful stuff on her website: http://www.jobeanglass.com) I also got a couple of ladybugs and a St. Eustatius blue glass “slave bead” – bit of history: Sint Eustatius (“Statia”, to the islanders) is the next island over, and also part of the Dutch Antilles. The slaves evidently wore these beads to show their worth to each other – e.g. a man had to come up with so many to present as a bride present before a woman would consent to marry him. Not to be confused with “slave stones”: during the period of active import of African slaves, a ship filled with imprisoned Africans and emeralds sank off Statia, with all lives lost. Periodically, after storms, emeralds still wash up, but the bones of those who died have long since gone.
After spending all morning at Jobean’s, we were picked up for a snorkeling trip: since Saba has no beaches, the only way to access the reef is by boat. (The whole reef surrounding the island, down to about 60 meters, is National Park; boats may only tie up at government-installed anchorages. This has kept the reef pristine, with Saba being hailed as some of the best scuba-diving in the world.) It was actually quite a windy day – unusual for this time of year, we were told – and when we finally got to the harbor, the waves were wild, with little boats pitching all over the place. We almost backed out there, but we were assured by an earlier dive crew that around the lee of the island the water was much calmer…so we took a big gulp of air and jumped onto the deck of the boat. Kevin stood the whole way, so he could watch the horizon as it went up and down…up…and down…but managed to keep from getting sick. The change in the sea was abrupt as we rounded the island, just as promised, and Kevin and I were the first in the sea once the boat had anchored off diamond rock (AKA bird poop rock – there were dozens of circling tropic birds in the area – some of Kevin’s & my favorite birds of all time – and it wasn’t even nesting season). The trip out was worth it! The reef was perfect: unspoiled, unbroken, unfished-out (in St. Kitts, one has to be careful to avoid getting run over by speed boats and fishing boats while snorkeling, and Kevin & I retrieve at least one fishing line with hooks and sinkers each time we go), pristine and brilliant. A hawksbill sea turtle immediately came up to me and hovered inches from my face, rolling its giant dark eyes at me, curious and unafraid. (They flee immediately in St. Kitts – Kittitians still hunt them, despite their endangered status.) I followed a couple of queen angelfish the size of dinnerplates for a while – black and gold mottled and quite beautiful – until Kevin grabbed me and we swam through the sea cave in the rocky headland. The time passed quickly in a dream-like state, as I followed blue tang and triggerfish, soapfish and coneys, brilliant blue chromis and stoplight parrotfish. Kevin was the last person on board; the boat immediately started moving, and I was left to try to deal with changing out of my wetsuit skin and putting away the snorkeling gear while Kevin dealt with motion-sickness – the ride back was even wilder than the ride out! At one point, waves kept swamping the entire boat – even the captain, who was an entire storey above us, up a tall ladder! After we made it back to dry (relatively speaking) land, Kevin & I were famished, so we dropped our gear off at El Momo and walked down booby hill to Windwardside, where we found the most wonderful little café: YIIK (I believe it was founded in 2000). The deck was on the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, giving it a treehouse feeling (especially with all the windchimes tinkling in the evening breeze). Perched at the edge of Windwardside, it overlooked the long fall of empty air to the sea far below; we watched twilight descend mistily over the Caribbean sea. It was a perfect day, and we slept well that night (especially after the Saba Spice colada I had with dinner – the locals, in a historic cottage industry, manufacture a brew which consists of various local spices steeped in rum; it’s delicious, and deceptively smooth).
The next morning, after breakfast in Tropics Café (which had the most exquisite warm atmosphere, and overlooked the pool, which overlooked the Edge: http://www.julianas-hotel.com/cafepool.html), Kevin & I went hiking – he really wanted to make it to the top of Mt. Scenery, Saba’s highest peak (yes, we think it’s a dumb name, too). I was more interested in just hiking the easy hike to Maskehorne hill (easy is relative, here), from which we had the most fantastic view of Windwardside, but Kevin managed to convince me to keep climbing – we climbed about 1500 feet! Surrounded by lush tropical greenery, the view at the end of each switchback increasingly aerial and expansive, the whole climb was breathtaking, but the elfin forest at the top, in this sheltered little valley (the original volcanic crater) left both of us speechless. Birds we’d seen nowhere else sang from the boughs of 50-foot mountain mahogany trees filled with the massive viridian baskets of myriad epiphytes, and below the canopy, everything was covered in emerald mosses and springing ferns – I’d never seen so many shades of green! Sheltered from the wind, butterflies with tiger-stripes and big rectangular wings (like tiny runaway kites) fluttered erratically over the path, which was sleepy with warm sunlight and sweet, dense shade. Another vertical push and we found ourselves staring over the most amazing vertiginous drop: all 3000 feet to the Caribbean sea! Frigatebirds sailed below us, and white-tailed tropicbirds; the sky was a flawless blue, as far as the eye could see (usually, the peak is enveloped in cloud). Eating our sandwiches, Kevin & I saw Sint Maartin (the bustling tourist island, and local head of the Dutch Antilles, through which everyone must fly to get to Saba as Saba’s airport is not an international one), St. Barthelemy (a very expensive French playground), Statia and St. Kitts, farthest out. Higher than even Mt. Liamuiga on St. Kitts, higher than the cruising altitude of the planes that flew us to Saba, we felt like wingless birds, with a sheer drop on all sides. The wild mountain raspberries weren’t quite ripe, but the wasps from the nest behind us were busily pollinating the last blossoms; the blue, blue Caribbean stretched away forever. My very favorite part of island life is that “edge-of-the-world” feeling.
Back at the hotel, Kevin & I used one of the camp showers so we actually got a WARM shower (the shower in the room was icy cold – we screamed like grandmothers every time we had to shower), and then we lay out by the pool in the warm sun until I almost fell asleep. After a last-minute rush to get ready, Kevin and I were picked up by Michel, the owner and chef of The Gatehouse (which is famous for its French cuisine). En route, Michel told us it was self-service night – he’d hand us a can-opener when we got there. (He was joking, of course.) OMG. It was the most incredible food! We gorged ourselves, and then crammed in dessert, because we couldn’t bear not to eat it, waddled back to our room and fell into a deep food coma.
The next morning, after checking out and hiking down to Tropics Café, Garvis picked us up again and took us to the airport. Sad to leave, I kept my face pressed to the window until we arrived. The airport, like all of the architecture on the island, was Dutch colonial; it was small, cute, clean (a rarity in the Caribbean), and really quite pretty. Having forgotten the fact that all islands (including St. Kitts) charge a large departure tax, we had no cash left, and the airport didn’t take credit cards or checks; we were told to pay in St. Maartin. However, there was nobody there to pay, so we just didn’t – not a well-coordinated system. Having a layover in St. Maartin, we took a cab to the beach, which looked like the tropical version of anywhere in the States where rampant commercial tourism has taken over – a distressing change from Saba. (Most of my classmates spent the weekend shopping on St. Maartin – I’m really glad I wasn’t invited.) We drank a couple of drinks (one ok, one execrable), Kevin ordered a sandwich to go at a supposedly hot night spot and got (and paid for) two, because the waiter misunderstood him (I ate some of the greasy fries and got sick), we walked along the trash-strewn streets selling the same cranked-out commercial crap sold the world over, and we left. Once back on St. Kitts, driving by taxi through the garbage-filled streets of Basseterre (I’ve started calling it Basuraterra) was really depressing. Back home on kind of a low note, Kevin & I decided to go to Sand Bank, our favorite bodysurfing beach, and spend the rest of the weekend in the water. Glad we did; I felt ready for the week afterward. We also got to witness a classmate of mine digging someone out of the sand, where they’d driven a borrowed car (and then dug it in really deep – it was about 3/4 buried). My classmate got involved because he imported this giant testosterone-mobile jeep at huge expense (79% import tax, on top of shipping costs, on top of purchase price), and he knew the actual owner of the car – bummer of a Sunday evening. Be careful who you loan your car to!
Well, I’m off to study! Glad I could finally get this thing updated!