Monday, January 18, 2010

Saba, a Best Kept Secret

Greetings from Saba! Pronounced "Say-ba," it's a Dutch island least traveled because of its inaccessibility, but also one of the best diving spots in the Caribbean. A dormant volcano, formed around 500,000 BC, it's just 5 miles wide but about 3,000 feet steep. The shelf around the island drops off quickly, and there are diving sites over 100 ft. deep. This makes anchoring tough and anything but a due East swell will make your stay rolly. Maybe this is okay for those who like to be rocked vigorously to sleep. In the right conditions though, the dramatic beauty of this anchorage is worth it.

The entire perimeter serves as an impenetrable fortress, protecting one of Earth's last true nature reserves from human development. It looks intimidating as you approach by air or sea and isn't the place to go if you want a lazy day on the beach. The shoreline all but disappears in the winter. The beauty that awaits inland requires some effort to discover, so be prepared to burn those calves and quads exploring on foot with the goats and donkeys. Many of the trails are still the only roads for Sabans to get back to their hillside homes from town.

Until the 1940s, engineers believed that a main road was impossible. But in 1943, a determined Dutch engineer completed what Sabans refer to as "The Road That Couldn't Be Built." And some of the taxi drivers refer to it as "The Road That Shouldn't Have Been Built." There are retaining walls filled with boulders and a few holes where some have busted through. Some drivers refuse to pick tourists up at certain places on the road, but as Dad Toman points out, without the road, there would be no taxis!!

Before "The Road," Sabans had built over 800 steps where they carried everything that came by sea, the whole way into town. Carved into the leeward side of the island, or Ladder Bay where we were moored, boats could only land when the sea was calm and had to bring cargo ashore by wading in waist-deep water. Among the craziest things carried up the steps over the years were a piano and a bishop.

We got to catch a ride along this road that connects the two main villages "The Bottom" (guess where that one is located) and "Windwardside" at a much higher elevation. We're on what I like to think of as the "physical fitness budget." So when we learned that a cab ride just from Fort Bay (the main port) to The Bottom, would cost us $15, we were prepared to hoof it until "Coochie" offered us a ride. Saba's population is just about 2,000 with families of Dutch, Irish, Scottish, English and African descent.

I found the people here to be exceptionally personable and welcoming. There's nothing superficial about their friendliness, their only motivation being pride for their island. While they do things on their own time, we were always acknowledged and taken care of right away. It has been among the most hospitable places we have traveled to, reminding me of times spent with Carol's family in Bermuda. When we tried to check in with customs first thing Sunday morning, the officer was out most of the office -something we've come to expect on weekends despite posted hours. Sue at the marine park office cleared us in on her end and with a relaxed attitude said, "Go ahead and tour the island and check back with customs later. If you don't make it back by 4:00, just check in with them tomorrow."

Initially feeling like strangers among this small island, we were quickly absorbed into the community when Stephen mentioned that he was friends with James Curran, a relative of the McCarty family responsible for founding Saba Steel. Stephen has been keeping in touch with James through e-mail and we couldn't believe it when he told us he had family on Saba of all places. The world can be just as small as Saba. Coochie, who just happened to offer us a ride when he saw us hiking up the side of "The Road," had grown up with the McCarty's and knew the family well. Coochie offered to take care of us during our stay on the island, free lifts into town included. Knowing that he was close with James' family made the otherwise scary car ride feel safer.

While Coochie insisted that we come into town to enjoy some "nightlife," this was not an island where we wanted to be away from our boat past dark. Not because of crime, of course. The guest houses often don't give room keys because crime is unheard of in Saba. While it was generous of him to offer us rides back to Ft. Bay, I don't know which would be scarier, the dinghy ride around the island in choppy seas in the dark or Coochie's driving down "The Road That Should Have Never Been Built" after a few drinks. A desire to live was reason enough to turn in early every night. And so we got an early start on our ambitious hiking plans every day. This lifestyle helped out our budget, as we spent less than $50 in Saba, which included Customs & marine park fees, a pizza with beers and even some groceries.

The sunsets here were also worth getting back to, as we were anchored along the western shore with an uninterrupted view of the horizon. Having nothing but open sea on one side seemed disconcerting at first, but proved to be comforting since we were secure on one of the free moorings installed by the marine park. Even in the unlikely event that your boat somehow broke free from the mooring, you're on the lee side of the island drifting out into open waters instead of other boats or a reef.

As you can imagine, groceries can be very expensive in Saba, but we were well-stocked from St. Martin. So I try to include photos whenever I can to prove that we are still eating well for all those concerned. Stephen is quite the cook and now breadmaker too! There's nothing sexier than a man kneading dough for bread. This is a meal of steak, avocado and mashed pumpkin. Avocado, pumpkin and banana have become staples in our diet.

And of course, another megayacht photo. I swear they keep getting bigger. This one was about 240 ft. anchored just ahead of us, but further off shore, probably in about 100 ft. of water. They pulled in from St. Bart's just for the day. And can you believe there were only 6 guests aboard? Excluding crew. A lot of big yachts like these pull in for an overnighter just to go diving with one of the three companies or on a guided hiking tour. Diving, Eco-tourism and fishing seem to be the biggest industries.

Unlike most people who visit Saba, we covered almost every part of this island on foot, winding up and over the mountains on steep trails where you encounter all of its rainforest and wildlife which include cows, donkeys, goats, snakes, geckos and the occasional rodent. I swear I saw bats too. My favorite is the goat. There are so many of them and I was sure to get some goat pictures for Daddy who wants to raise some of his own again one day. He used to have pet goats when he was a little boy living in McSherrystown. Back then, I'm sure McSherrystown was a lot like Saba today, where people had large gardens, knew everybody and could still leave their doors open at night. The goats were very sweet and shy and leary of humans since their still a delicacy around here. I have my goat call down, though and like to think I had them tricked into believing I was one of them. They are unbelievable climbers with their hooves - the most unsophisticated hiking shoe. From our anchorage you could hear baby goats calling out to their mamas at night.

The hike that you don't want to miss on Saba is Mt. Scenery. This is the highest point of the island, and surprisingly easy to climb since the park maintains some of the nicest trails I have ever been on. Over 1,000 stone steps lead the way to the top of Mt. Scenery that has one of the most gorgeous views I have ever seen, looking down onto the village of Windwarside. On top of Mt. Scenery, we were above the clouds and even in them at times as they rose up over the peak.
I love this photo, 1) because Stephen looks so cute in it, 2) because you can see Statia (St. Eustatius) and St. Kitts (St. Christopher) behind him, and 3) you can see how on this particular day the ocean seemed to blend with sky. You had to stare closely to figure out where the ocean ended and where the sky began.

On our second day in Saba, we started a 5 mile hike from Ft. Bay, where we landed our dinghy to the other side of the island. We passed through "The Bottom," one of the main villages that is home to The University of Saba's Medical School and hospital. Walking by the hospital was like passing a ghost town. The windows and doors were all open, revealing empty beds. Only staff walked the halls of the building, their voices echoing inside. It seemed their primary job that day was keeping the hospital clean. We had asked Coochie if they had universal healthcare or had to pay out of pocket, to which he replied, "I don't know, I've never been sick." And this is a man of at least 30. Clearly living here is good for your health. At the end of the village, a man pointed the way to the Sandy Cruz Trail through his backyard.

From there we reached the Top of Troy Hill just above "The Bottom" where we saw beautiful homes like these, with views that many people dream of. What I love about Saba is that views like these are not restricted to the wealthy. From working class to upper class, almost everyone has a view of the ocean, the only difference being the size of the home and amenities. On our trek back from Hell's Gate to Windwardside, a school bus driver named Yvonne picked us up on the side of the road after dropping the kids off at home. She told us about her house in St. John's Village above the island's gorges dense with forest, and her view of the valleys, Statia and St. Kitt's in the distance.

The "Sandy Cruz" and "All Too Far Trail" leading to the other side was my favorite hiking in all of my experiences so far. These trails wound around the outermost edges of the island and almost every inch offered ocean views over cliffs and through the trees. While the drop-offs were steep, the trails were well-maintained and I never felt unsafe. On the beginning of the Sandy Cruz Trail we spotted Synchronicity at anchor so far below.

The only trail we decided to keep away from was the "North Coast Trail," since the brochure stated, "WARNING: Guided hikes only. Do not proceed without a guide. Several people have been lost here!" Having survived the "Peligro trail" of the Monte Verde cloudforest in Costa Rica, we learned that dangers in less litigious cultures are typically understated. The red trail or what Stephen and I now refer to as "The Peligro Trail" indicated that while caution should be exercised, it was the best trail for monkey sightings. "How dangerous could it be?" I said to Stephen, half an hour before scaling the side of a cliff with sliding rock. As many know, there is no turning back with us. So when we read a brochure actually emphasizing danger, we assumed the worst - that "lost" meant "dead," and took heed. Customs had already conveniently cleared us out of Saba on the same day we checked in, so no one would be looking for us.

We eventually crossed paths with James, the local guide, and asked him about the dangers on "The North Coast Trail." After emphasizing the importance of hiring a guide and confirming that people "were lost" I asked him what happened to them. "Oh, they took a wrong turn and we found them the next day," he said. Stephen and I had a good laugh about this one.

We hiked all the way to the Old Sulfur Mine on the East side of the island, where the trail opened up onto a huge meadow overlooking the sea and "Green Island" where waves crashed onto this huge rock of an island below. To the right of the meadow there was a sign perched on the edge that read, "Sulfur Mine." From the bottom slope of the meadow it looks like the sign drops off into nothing. I figured it was just pointing to the general location of the old sulfur mine, to be admired from afar. As I saw Stephen lingering by the edge, I thought "Please don't tell me he's going to try to climb down there." It was only when you approached the sign that you could see a trail leading straight down into the Sulfur Mine. Leary at first about the loose gravel path, it was as safe as any other part of the trail. As our motto goes, "Well, we made it this far."

The mine was built with the same determination as "The Road," but perhaps a bit hastily. Both attempts to make the mine operational were unsuccessful within the first year. Once they mined the sulfur, they had to figure out how to get it to down the mountain and loaded on a cargo ship, so they rigged a steel cable to ferry the sulfur from the mine down to Green Island where they would load it onto freighters pulling alongside this inhospitable shore.

All you have to do is look at this photo of Green Island to figure out why this was a really bad plan. With steep seas crashing against this so-called island and reefs that you can't see surrounding it, I'm amazed that any freighter was bold enough to attempt it. Sabans are a gentle yet persistent and fearless breed of people.

A more successful venture was the airstrip, engineered by a French pilot from St. Bart's not long after "The Road." Like "The Road," many thought this wasn't possible either. Flights arrive in small propeller driven planes from other islands about every other day - sometimes daily. People say the flight in is like landing on an aircraft carrier. The airport/airstrip is located in Hell's Gate, one of the smaller villages on the island.

We ended our journey of Saba in Windwardside where we found "Saba's Treasure," a pub without beer on tap, but at least it's ice cold, and really great pizza. It was either pizza or the "Colombian" snack bar that really just served burritos, burgers and fries. Easy choice. Inside, the walls were covered with old articles about Irish natives who came from long family lines of diehard mariners, some lost at sea in hurricanes. Something I don't like to read about.

Our last day in Saba was spent at anchor, as two days of serious hiking left me paralyzed from the waist down. I figured I could still float, so we went snorkeling in the caves around Diamond Rock, on the northern tip of the island. These were some of the deepest reefs I've been snorkeling on. Instead of turquoise, the water is a deep blue. It was the first time we swam with sea turtles, and a curious baby swam right up to us. Stephen spotted a huge lobster at the bottom, and told me he was studying its behavior for future capture. Since the area around Saba is considered marine park, fishing is forbidden. Gray reef sharks are also common here, but I was happy not to see any.

After a few days in Saba, we sailed off our mooring, in pursuit of Barbuda, about 95 miles due East. The winds were so light, just enough to keep the boat moving, and we could still see Saba at sunset. This was one of the nicest overnight passages with the calmest conditions. It was great for sleeping and reading on watch, watching stars and shadowy outlines of so many other islands. I enjoy the endless views of the vast ocean, but also appreciate staying in sight of land. We're looking forward to spending a couple of weeks in Barbuda's contrasting landscape, where everything is flat and beaches stretch for miles, also uninterrupted by development.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Spending the Holidays in St. Martin

The sail from Isle de Forchue (St. Bart's) to St. Martin was pretty uneventful aside from the loaded freighter that couldn't decide on a course heading. At the last minute we tacked to alter course, in awe of the monstrosity crossing less than 100 feet in front of our bow. Otherwise, the winds were light and we motorsailed towards Simpson Bay Lagoon (Dutch side), making it just in time for sunset and the 5:30 bridge opening. As we motored into the lagoon, it was like we were lining up for a parade procession, passing by the grandstand to salute the bridge operator and the onlookers in Herald Square (the tourists seated outside the St. Maarten Yacht Club). The megayachts were the huge character balloons that get the oohs and ahs as spectators look up at these crafts without a human face aside from the many string operators that are too busy to make eye contact with the people. As our little sailing yacht motored past, John and I were up at the bow, giddy at the unexpected welcoming crowd that was cheering for us, the little man. "Hurray, you made it!"

The lagoon is where you want to be, well-protected and a close dinghy ride to all the marine stores and big supermarkets. The bridge only opens a few times a day for inbound and outbound traffic, and watching boats scramble to get through is always entertaining. I admire the bravery or gumption of the small sailboats that cut right in front of the big boys. Yikes! When the bridge is scheduled to open, you don't want to be on the road as traffic backs up for miles, the whole way to the airport, and it can sometimes take up to an hour for all the megayachts to get through. One breakfast, we became one of the SMYC tourists, waiting to see if one of the megayachts would get stuck, which sometimes happens, or even just scrape the sides as many barely make it through. I would only feel sorry for the crew, always poised with fenders and holding their breath until the tail ends clears it.

St. Martin is an even bigger hub than St. Bart's for megayachts, as as it is one of the last ports with so many marine suppliers and services until you get to Martinique. It is rumored that the Victoria's Secret boat is here. So far, these are the biggest boats I have ever seen, many of them equipped with their own helipad like the one above. And this one is a baby-sized yacht because it can still fit in the lagoon. There were mini cruise ships, doubling this one in size, anchored in the Bay. Even the biggest yachts don't let their size deter them from getting around as often as they like, whenever they like. We were told that for between $1 - 2,000 (petty cash) they can have the bridge opened in between scheduled times. One day a yacht pulled right up to the bridge and blasted his horn until the bridge opened.

Living amongst captains and crew of these vessels will give you a lot of insight into the social and cultural scene. Unlike St. Bart's, there are far more opportunities to intermingle, like at the Lady C, a notorious crew bar made out of a ship that floats alongside the dock. We found this bar with John on our first night anchored in St. Maarten. From dockhands to sous chefs, everyone was rowdy and in the Christmas spirit, dancing on tables in santa hats while trying to swing from the boom. The bouncers were pretty tolerant, requesting many times that people get down from the mast and tables, but never kicked anyone out. While some of the yacht owners are more laid back and permissive of their crew, others have strict curfews and rules. So while the owners are away, the crew will play and play hard.
Also known for it's burgers and BBQ, the sign out front read, "Saturday, All You Can Eat Ribs for 11.95!" But if you come back the next day it will read, "Sunday, All You Can Eat Ribs for $11.95!." Pretty clever marketing. We met Donna and Steve, a couple from South Dakota celebrating their 30th anniversary at Lady C on a Wednesday, because they didn't want to miss rib night! We really enjoyed meeting this couple and were dually impressed with each other's lives. Donna and Steve have been farmers all their life. They have 4 kids, with their youngest boy in Iraq and a baby of his own on the way. They shared a unique midwestern perspective, one that is forward-thinking on energy, the economy and where our country is headed. While nomadic life on the water seems polar opposite of growing roots on the farm, it is so similar in terms of self-reliance and resourcefulness. Therefore, we felt very much on the same wavelength (pun intended!), and Steve and Donna had actually just started thinking about learning how to sail before meeting us.

There is no story behind the picture above. The absurdity of this mermaid on the bowsprit of a monohull is the story itself. It's well-endowed chest and lifelike hair caught our attention. From afar, it is a faceless, strangely tanned, blonde, busty mermaid. But as you approach, you are in for a surprise as it is more like a mermaid diva with implants and too much makeup.

Here's another quirky snapshot we had to take of the "7-Alive." Unlike 7-11, there's no slurpies or hot dog rotisserie. Just your standard groceries with some cold ice, waters and beer. And real vegetables! This is a feature I prefer over 7-11. They're not open 24 hours, but who needs to be? And they don't believe in wearing the 70's style uniform with that tacky vest. It's no bullshit. It's 7-Alive.

We missed being at home with everyone on Christmas. I actually missed having a reason to get warm by a fire - indoors, not a bonfire on the beach. We still managed to enjoy ourselves no problem mon! We fully embraced Christmas in flip-flops and beach wear. For those of you who are wondering how they celebrate Christmas in the islands, they do it Caribbean style - mostly with ribs and BBQ but families do prepare turkey or ham on Christmas Day. People get dressed up in green and red beads with santa hats and many homes and businesses do decorate with lights and a traditional Christmas tree. Sometimes they'll string lights up on palm trees too.
On Christmas Eve, we worked on boat maintenance projects all day until evening when we set out on the dinghy, following the sounds of live Christmas music. We were led to the outdoor market, where a small band with staw hats that reminded you of the Hawaiian Punch guy played a mixture of Christmas and drinking songs on kazoos made from broken beer bottle necks. They were actually called "The Broken Bottle Neck Band." We were served ribs and goat while watching a crowd of locals gather to dance with this band. Band members were actually dancing with people, as they made it their mission to split up couples and force them to dance with someone else. Stephen & I had fun with this for a little while, but grew frustrated when they wouldn't let us dance with each other for even a minute. So we followed the sounds of more mainstream music to La Palapa, an outdoor tiki bar/dance club. This is where synchronicity happened again. We met Herb and Frank on Magic Dragon out of Deltaville, VA, a boat we had been communicating with via SSB when we left the Chesapeake in November! We heard them on Chris Parker's weather net, also looking for a good window to get across the Atlantic and hailed them over the radio. We had checked in with them a few times over the first couple of days and then lost contact, until meeting them in the flesh almost 2 months later!
"Hey, weren't you guys just dancing with us?" Herb approached us. They too, followed the sounds of the music to the market place until one of the band members spilled a rum punch down Herb's shirt while trying to dance with him. Over a couple of beers, we commisserated about shitty conditions that forced us both to put our boats hove-to. We all agreed it was nice to meet other couples who had a less than ideal sail across the North Atlantic. Like us, they traded it all in to go cruising, and we have been thankful for the opportunity to spend time with them, sharing stories, experience, information and lots of beers and cocktails. To learn more about their story, check out their blog at:
We exchanged Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve under our tree made out of aluminum foil: new flip-flops for Steve and a new beach dress for me. Gretchen even got some new kitty treats. I didn't make it through National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation before passing out, and had to wait until after the New Year when we had power again to finish watching it!
We spent Christmas morning on the internet at Cappucinos beach bar/diner. For me, this was the best combo of island and Christmas. Instead of snow, we had cool breezes from the rain that downpoured all morning. I was as close to friends and family as I could get, typing messages to them while the entire Mariah Carey Christmas album was blasting through the speakers.
Christmas night, we went to Caribbean Cinemas to see "Up in the Air," followed by Christmas Dinner at Saratoga along the waterfront. stephen ordered the ahi tuna, but I went for the traditional ham, seeing lots of tuna and less pig in my future. I was correct, as we ended up purchasing a case of "Chicken of the Sea" on a recent provisioning trip. We have already started to get really creative with tuna...tuna omelettes, tuna mac n'cheese, tuna casserole. We figured out that we have enough tuna to have one can a week for the next year.

While we had been very busy trying to resolve our power issues on the boat, the problem being the lack there of, Herb and Frank had explored some of the island's beaches and told us we had to go to Maho by the airport for the unique experience of lying on the beach while the underbellies of planes descend right overtop of you, landing on the runway about 40 ft. from the shore. When we got to Maho, I immediately saw and read the sign posted above. Since Stephen is so observant, I didn't see how he could miss these signs posted all along the beach, and made the false assumption he knew what we were in for. Herb warned us to secure everything, as he lost his bifocals and witnessed others losing beach towels and backpacks when the planes took off.
So we were standing on the beach, directly behind an aircraft that was getting ready to take off when it started its engines. At first it just got really gusty, and then we started getting pelted with sand, or as Stephen describes it, "getting sandblasted." I didn't necessarily feel in danger, but had my eyes closed and was having a hard time keeping my footing as the winds were pushing us backwards towards the water.
Before I realized what was happening, I heard Stephen start yelling above the roar of the engines, "Take cover!" as he wrapped his arm around me and started dragging me towards the waves. Like a soldier having a flashback from the war, he toppled me to the ground below the sand dune and covered me with his whole body like a shield of armor. "Stay low! Stay low to the ground!" he said in a panicked voice. I started to worry that the situation was more dire than I had realized. It soon passed and the plane had taken off. Once the winds died down, we both looked up and saw that everyone else on the beach was standing on two feet, unalarmed, and some were even taking pictures of us still dazed, lying in the fetal position. We picked ourselves up in embarrassment and began to shake off the sand and pick the tarmac off of each other's face.

In need of a beer after this episode, we headed to the bar where we watched others take cover and could not stop laughing at the ridiculousness of the whole scenario. Our reaction was by far the most dramatic. Stephen shared that he had not once felt as terrified during our entire voyage to the Caribbean as he did just then on the beach. Meanwhile, I realized that ever since we left Baltimore my life got a whole lot more dangerous and relaxing at the same time. Not a good combination. I was probably too nonchalant about the force of winds an aircraft could create, but terrified of 30 foot seas.
We took a cab back to Maho on New Year's Eve to watch the fireworks from the Sunset Beach Club. We asked the cab driver if there were ever any fatalities from the plane traffic as the sign suggests. He and his friend both laughed as they replied with a resounding "No," but said there was a crazy accident where a plane came in too low and took out the fence along the road. They said you can find it on You-Tube under "mystery plane - St. Maarten."

Christmas vacation didn't last long, and I began to value quiet time just before sunrise, before setting out on whatever mission was on the day's agenda. Every daily chore that used to be completed while multi-tasking has become a day long singular mission for us. Boat parts & provisioning missions, laundry missions, grocery missions, Internet/communications missions, scouting land for laundry, groceries and internet missions. Each but the latter involves lugging a lot of shit back and forth via dinghy and our backs. We have become work mules.
Once the missions are complete there is always a pending boat project, some of them - like replacing our entire battery bank, take days. Others just hours - like oil changes, scrubbing the deck or cleaning the bilges. Sometimes we get asked, "What do you do with all that leisure time?" I can't wait to find out. Some suspect that we would become bored with no full time jobs, but staying afloat in paradise is a full-time job. I'm still trying to make time for all those leisure activities I dreamed of doing: yoga on the boat everyday, finishing books, writing letters and looking for gifts to send home. If I ever get a chance to enjoy a life of pure leisure for days on end, I will welcome boredom.

Just when we start believing that this cruising life is way more work than it's worth, we remind ourselves that this is only the beginning. That we are in St. Maarten so we can complete major projects and provisioning while we have access to parts and resources. We keep telling ourselves that as soon as we get out of here, the true island life will begin. St. Martin, at least on the Dutch side, is super developed but dirty, with absolutely no sidewalks. This makes for very grimy provisioning trips. On our last trip to "Le Grand Marche" (the biggest supermarket), we were sure to stock up on plenty of food so that we can avoid coming to land for as long as possible.
We plan on heading to the more remote islands of Saba, Barbuda and the Grenadines where we can hang out at anchor for days and cook all our meals on the boat. By the time we got to the register, the grocery cart was overflowing and we had a side basket that was also full. On this particular day, we didn't have enough bags or muscles to lug all this back to the boat. We chose Le Grand Marche for it's shuttle service to your dinghy where we loaded a cooler full of meats and cheeses, a 100 liter waterproof bag full of packaged & can foods, an ikea bag, a small knapsack and additional backpack filled with more goodies.

We both placed bets on the total bill. It was tricky 'cause everything is in Gilders which is about double $US. I guessed close to a grand, while Stephen guessed $800. When the screen showed $1,033, I started celebrating my win, or loss depending on how you look at it. But then the next screen showed the actual price in $US - which was around $500. Now we were both celebrating! We couldn't believe we got so much food, which could last us at least 3 months, for just around $500. Sadly, our mission produced another mission - finding places on the boat to store all this food.

Back at the boat, Gretchen was ready to chip in, protecting the 5 pound bag of Jasmine rice and cookies while we unloaded the rest of the groceries. We staged the food in stacks and rows all over the main cabin: jars of salsa, sauces and dressings, bags of potato & tortilla chips, cans of veggies, and extra large jars of new favorite replacement for peanut butter - NUTELLA! This stuff is like crack. We actually went back to land for more, debating whether to get 4 or 5 more economy-size jars. The task of actually putting away the food was too daunting to finish before bed. We found reasons to make other tasks priority for the next two days while Gretchen enjoyed cuddling up to new food items. Her favorite is the chicken soup mix. After making it her pillow for a while, she decided it must have been a bag of kitty treats and tore into it.

With chores completed for a little while, we finally got to explore more of the island, starting with Phillipsburg, the capital of Dutch St. Maarten. Phillipsburg has a great waterfront with a boardwalk surrounded by hills and lined with palm trees. I wouldn't go swimming on this beach, however. There's a lot of commercial traffic and the water is a milky sea green. This is also the major shopping district with high end stores on Front Street, closest to the beach and all of the sketchy botiques and electronic stores a few streets back. We fell for the so-called "deals" as we bought our web cam here for skyping. The salesman seemed straightforward and honest enough. When we got home, the software was full of defects that froze our computer screen. We finally read the receipt that indicated all sales were final.

While Stephen was searching for electronics, I went shopping for a dress in the flea market. Apparently, I am an easy target for pushy vendors. When we went to Rosarito in Tijuana for Claire's birthday, she laughed at how my demeanor changed after hours of politely saying, "No, Gracias" while vendors hovered around us on the beach like seagulls. Maybe it's the social worker in me wanting everyone to feel good that's overly careful to not offend, even when someone is insisting I buy a bright yellow ugly dress three sizes too big for me. "But it's too big," I smile, stating the obvious. She continued to follow me, "No, it fits perfect," she says holding it up to me. "But I don't like it," I reply just as Stephen arrives. Now she's trying to insist that I don't know what I'm talking about and I do like it. "Look, she doesn't want the dress," Stephen comes to my rescue. Finally, she waves us away in anger declaring us unreasonable. I was not interested in going through this experience just to get a dress. I was ready to give up but Stephen encouraged me to look further. I'm glad he did, as we met a vendor with nice dresses that weren't just "One Size Fits All" and a very pleasant and patient attitude. Her children were captivated by Stephen and the pictures on our camera. They found him very entertaining and struck silly poses for him while I shopped. To boot, she gave me 2 dresses for $30.

We're figuring things out as we start to adapt to and optimize our new lifestyle. This is partly through trial and error and partly through the helpful advice of other cruisers like Herb and Frank, who suggested to open a Skype account. While we're still trying to get the web cam up and running, we have learned how to make phone calls using this internet site, and are loving that we can now talk to friends and family anywhere in the world for just 2 cents a minute as long as we have a computer, headset and internet connection. Most of the islands, even the less developed ones have at least a few establishments that offer wifi, and some with signals you can pick up on the boat.
In addition to improving our lives with new technologies, we're learning how to streamline all of our processes whether it be blogging or doing laundry. We try to take only what we need to shore and find ways to make the best use of our time. We know that service is often slow, so we'll go to restaurants with free wifi so we can blog, e-mail or make phone calls while we're waiting. Because you're often waiting, not just for a table, but for a server to simply acknowledge you, and then there's often another 20 minutes of waiting until he or she takes your order. Then there's at least 20 minutes from the time you request the check until it arrives. This is isn't always the case, just the restaurants that are more popular. We have come to prefer the roadside place that consists of a van, awning and a few picnic tables. The food is cheap, sometimes even better tasting.
More recently, we were able to get over to Marigot, the capital on the the French side of St. Martin. It's so much nicer and more peaceful on this side of the island with cleaner, paved roads with sidewalks and lots of cafes and open air markets selling fresh produce and breads. It's also the more expensive side, so it figures. You can enjoy the best of both worlds by going to Marigot in the morning for breakfast and the market and then going back to the Dutch side for $1 beer happy hours. Of course you're dealing with the Euro again, however, we noticed that some of the vendors at the market don't feel like doing the conversions so they'll just match their prices dollar for dollar.

While in Marigot, we climbed to the top of Fort Louis which overlooks the west side of St. Martin, Simpson Bay and Anguilla to the North. To the South, you can see Saba in the distance. At the entrance, there was a sign explaining how the French settlers came to build the Fort. Stephen and I cracked up at the irony of their so-called "diplomacy." Rather than order its construction, it's founder decided to discuss the project with the settlers to solicit their help. As it reads, the settlers came together and "pitched in," by donating their slaves. True diplomats.

While everything they say about "island time" is true, and most of us can come to even appreciate it, "Island time" should not be confused with "Island customer service" which truly does vary from region to region. Just when we think we have successfully abandoned all expectations in hope of a less frustrating experience, we are reminded that there are some standards that are just too deeply ingrained. Some cruisers blame poor customer service on some of the demands that megayachts have imposed on local businesses. The general perception of foreigners is that they are pushy and move too fast (think of the megayacht blasting its horn at the until the bridge opened).
So sometimes visitors are met immediately with resistance, before greetings are ever exchanged. The Coconut Juice Stand, as silly as it sounds, it just one example of the barriers that are created when parties hold very different standards of customer service. You wait around the stand, wondering who sitting around the picnic table is a customer or a worker until you ask the question or someone finally says, "Hey Joe, I think they want something." "What's in a coconut shake?" Stephen asks. Joe doesn't answer, but goes over to the blender already filled with some concoction. Who knows how long it's been sitting there, and begins to pour. So Stephen assumes based on his American experience that Joe is offering him a sample. But Joe has filled an entire cup and set it down in front of him. "Five dollars," says Joe. "But I asked you what is in it," explains Stephen. "Coconut," says Joe. While I appreciate this kind of simplicity, this was the wrong day for that kind of venue. So we gave up on the Coconut Stand and went in search of mudslides instead. We felt lucky to find them.

Before leaving St. Maarten, we did get to discover it's more beautiful points, like Cupecoy Beach, so secluded most people go completely naked. On this particular day there was so much nakedness you kept your eyes low to the ground and directly in front of you. I wish I knew the etiquette. Do you make eye contact and say hello or walk past like a horse with blinders? Many megayachts that can deal with rolly anchorages will stop here overnight or for the day because the scenery is so pretty with orange-beige bluffs and clear turquoise water that pools around flat, smooth rock that you can walk on. At the end of this beach, Danny, owner of "Danny Boy's" serves cold beers and ribs and chicken under a tent alongside the road. Danny is here "every day" even holidays as he claims he doesn't like to spend much time at home. I didn't dig into the reasons why. Other beaches worth mentioning are Baie Long and Mullet Bay, which was busier with tourists probably because kids love to romp in the waves. We prefer the calmer waters, can't imagine why I'd want to avoid waves...

From cupecoy Beach, we looked across the horizon to Saba in the distance which seems to be calling us to it. Saba is not an easy anchorage and gets especially rolly in Northerly winds and swells, so we'll make it when and if weather allows. It is supposed to be one of the best dive sites in the caribbean because of its narrow but steep formation. Until the 1940s, there were no roads because engineers thought it to be impossible, and all goods had to be carried up 800 steps cut into the side. "The road that could never be built" is the only major road linking the two main villages of the island - "Windwardside" and "Bottom." They finally built an airport, also thought to be impossible, a tiny little airstrip they say is like landing on an aircraft carrier high above the sea. There is a lot of amazing hiking here and if we make it, we're going to climb to the top of Mt. Scenery, 3,000 ft. above sea level. If wind and weather is against us, we'll head to Barbuda. OUr target for leaving St. Martin is Saturday, Jan. 9.