St. Eustacis

SCN_0091The island of St. Eustacis, commonly called Stacia, was like a derelict mansion, still somewhat magnificent in its faded way, yet only a shadow of its former self.  In the heyday of the Caribbean, when all the different European powers were trying to gobble up as much of the verdant land and azure sea as possible, Dutch owned St. Eustacis had been the epicenter of trade and commerce of the Caribbean.  The most profitable yet most heinous of goods kept and traded on this island were human slaves.  After making the infamous middle passage from Africa, the slaves were marched up a steep cobble stone street to their meager dwellings where they would await auction.

To this day that road, aptly named “the slave road” is still intact.  It was strange walking up the gruelingly steep stone road and imagining the hundreds of chained men, women, and children that must have walked up this very same road that I had tread upon.  At the end of the road were the still existent and occupied slave quarters.  They had doubtlessly been rebuilt many times over the centuries, yet they still appeared to be in a rather sorry state.  The tiny yards were ill-kempt, and the paint on the houses had faded and flaked away to reveal the dusty grey wood underneath.  Adjoining a few houses were goat pens, and others had one or two tethered goats in the back yard.  But more often, as we walked down the littered streets we’d pass a small herd of wild goats bleating agitatedly.

In front of the slave quarters was once mighty Fort Orange which had doubtlessly seen a lot of action in its day, yet now looked like ancient ruins.  A branch of the fort on the water had been washed away after centuries of erosion.  Hundreds of years ago, musket and cannon fire must have filled the air in a display of deadly fireworks, for St. Eustacis had been highly fought over because of its fertile soil and convenient location.  Subsequently, St. Eustacis had changed hands an unprecedented 22 times, yet the Dutch remained the primary force controlling the island.

The geological history of Stacia had paralleled that of its human inhabitants.  The once fire and brimstone spewing volcano, named the Quill, now rests quietly overlooking the island.  Early one morning, we set out to hike up the Quill and into its crater.  This crater is home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world, for it is protected from hurricanes and other disasters by the mountain itself.  In order to get to the start of the trail, we had to first walk a good mile or so inland.  At the start of the trail was a billboard telling of a few species found only on this island, including a species of purple-clawed hermit crab and a type of small non-poisonous snake.  We only saw the hermit crab, and I think my mother was quite all right with that.

As we marched deeper and deeper into the forest we didn’t quite feel like we were hiking up a volcano and towards a rainforest, but more like we were strolling thought some common deciduous forest back home.  The only thing reminding us we were even in the Caribbean was the sweltering heat.  Thankfully the trail was fairly well shaded.  Because we had just hiked up an even larger mountain, Mount Scenery on Saba, the hike didn’t seem quite as strenuous as it might have otherwise.  We trekked thought the unimpressive forest for a couple of hours, but at the top of the mountain we were met with an extraordinary view.  We decided to venture into the crater itself, for how many people can say they’ve been inside a volcano and lived to tell about it.

There was a long piece of old sodden rope leading into the steep crater to be used as a handrail of sorts.  The squishy terrain gave way under foot, and we all would have fallen profusely if not for the scraggly rope.  We had been told that this rainforest was among the oldest on the planet, yet I hadn’t expected the forest to actually look old.  Gnarled trees intertwined with each other and bedraggled vegetation crept into the sparse path.  Yet, here and there an uncommon, vibrant flower interrupted the tangled mass of flora.  Once we reached the pit of the crater we went back out rather quickly, for it is slightly unnerving standing in a volcano, even a supposedly extinct one.

We went back down thought the ordinary forest, but when we returned to the small city our ears were assaulted with a most distasteful genre of music.  Soca music, my new least favorite type, was blaring from two enormous speakers, each one larger than I am.  The cacophony was coming from an odd sort of establishment, a gas station with an adjoining bar.  My mother went in to the bar to ask whoever was in charge to turn the music down, if you could even call it music.  Inside were two coquettish looking women, to put it nicely, nursing adult beverages in the early afternoon.  My mother asked them, for there was no one else in sight, to turn it down.  They replied in broken Spanglish, and my mother walked away unsure if she had gotten her message across.  Apparently she had, for as we walked away we noticed that the surly strumpets had done just the opposite of what my mother had asked.

When we returned to our boat, it was infinitely worse.  The gargantuan speakers were directly facing the water, and as everyone knows, sound carries quite well over water.  Also, the shape of the harbor seemed to funnel the noise.  Sitting up on deck that afternoon, we literally had to shout to one another while we were sitting only a foot or so away, it was just that loud.  And the boat was anchored about ¾ of a mile from the speakers.  It was absolutely absurd!  And it wasn’t just bad music, it was the same bad music over and over and over.  From about 11 am to approximately 2 pm the next afternoon the same atrocious CD was played continuously at an ungodly volume.  I can only hope that some justice will be served when the electric bill arrives.

The four of us spent the night with out heads sandwiched between two pillows, and left early the following morning.  With bloodshot eyes we watched St. Eustacis fade away.  It was not the most beautiful or exotic island we had visited, yet is was strangely captivating.  There was some intangible element that made Stacia such a highly sought after piece of real estate, beyond the obvious.  The untold lives that had been given for this island must have felt it, and now we had felt it as well.

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