St. Maarten to Saba

SCN_0077The tiny island of St. Maarten was throbbing with life.  The buzz from the Heineken Regatta had not worn off yet and the island, especially the Simpson Bay area, was still astir.  My mother’s friend Diane and her husband Steve who had spent the past week with us had just left, but we only had a couple of days to recoup from the excitement before our next guests arrived.  My paternal grandparents were coming down to visit us, only they would not be staying with us on the boat but in a hotel.  Their hotel was conveniently located on the beach in Phillipsburg.  Simpson Bay was still very crowded from the regatta, but Phillipsburg had ample room and was very peaceful in comparison.

We spent a leisurely week with my grandparents shopping, sitting on the beach, and taking advantage of their hotel room shower.  Only one single exciting event occurred that entire week.  One thing I have not mentioned about St. Maarten is that it has an exceptional transportation system.  There are dozens of privately owned passenger vans that circulate throughout the island, and each has a sign in the window telling which cities it goes to.  All you have to do is flag one down, or often one will stop if you’re standing on the side of the road, and it is just a dollar for a one way ride.

One day we decided to take a trip from Phillipsburg on the Dutch side to the French side.  We flagged one of these vans down and the six of us piled in.  The ride started out all right, but then the traffic started to pile up.  Our driver must have been very impatient because we did not sit in traffic for long.  He took off down the wrong side of the road for a short ways, with on-coming traffic far ahead.  Then he went up and over a ditch, through a parking lot, over a curb and a sidewalk, and back down the proper side of the road in an area free of traffic and proceeded to the French side.  It was quite a ride.

My grandparents left a couple of days after our wild ride and returned north.  The following day, we too would be moving on.  Our next destination was Saba.  Small but mighty Saba rose sharply out of the depths, with rugged rock faces on nearly all sides of the island.  Also, there weren’t any decent anchorages, so we had to just anchor off the best indent we could find. Although, we didn’t actually anchor because there was one spot on the west side of the island with about six moorings for visiting yachts.  From our vantage point we could see a winding rock staircase etched into the side of the cliff.  Our guide book had told us that these stairs were one of only two ways onto the island.  And at one time, this was the only way.  It was hard to imagine that at one time everything on the island would have had to be carried up those steep bas-relief stairs. For example, that meant if someone wanted a piano it would have had to be painstakingly carried up.

At first, we tried to beach our dingy at the bottom of the stairs, but when we got close we saw that there really was no beach to beach our dinghy on.  Plus, we were getting swamped from the gathering surf.  So, we turned back, dried off a bit, and went to the other spot on the southern end of the island to clear customs.

The next morning, we would be taking a whirlwind tour of Saba, for we were only able to stay for two days, as the weather was deteriorating.  Fortunately for us, Saba was a pretty small island and it would be possible to see it all in one day.  We dinghied into the miniscule harbor lined with dive shop after dive shop and little else.  On shore, the only way to go was up, so up we went until a taxi spotted us struggling against gravity.  Once we were in the car, we noticed we were driving on an odd sort of road.  It looked like we were driving on The Great Wall of China, for there were stone walls on either side.  The road wound all around the island, flowing almost naturally with the mountain itself, for Saba was basically a mountain sticking out of the water.

We later learned the story behind these strange roads.  The people of Saba had wanted roads practically since the island had first been populated.  They had consulted numerous civil engineers, and each time they were met with no avail.  They had been told that it would be impossible to build roads on Saba because of its extraordinarily steep and rugged terrain.  Yet the people of Saba were adamant.  In the early 1900’s they finally found their savior in Joseph Lambert Hassell who took a correspondence course in road building.  He and all the farmers and craftsmen of Saba built these magnificent roads with only the blood sweat and tears of men, and a few donkeys as well.  And hence it became known as “the road that could not be built.”

Once we entered a small town, one of only a handful on the entire island, our attention was drawn away from the roads and towards the quaint uniformity of the village.  Every single building on the island was white with a red roof.  We had not noticed this at first, but as we went up and up we could see more of the settlements.  They looked like sparse red dots on a background of green.

We were going up to hike the trail to Mt. Scenery composed of a series of 1,764 steps with a panoramic view of the Caribbean at the very top.  Our taxi let us off at the bottom of the trail, and off we went into the forest.  As we climbed, we could see that the jungle had attempted to swallow up the path, but it had been well maintained and the plants had been cut back recently.  As we trudged up step after step in the searing sun I though about how all the cement and stones in each step had been carried up by wheelbarrow or donkey.  Going up all those steps in the blazing heat was extremely enervating and we therefore had to stop to rest and hydrate every few minutes or so.  There were very few trees along the way and thus precious little shade to be found.  Fortunately, as we climbed higher and higher we would occasionally be caressed by a cool breeze.

After what seemed like hours but was actually one, we finally reached the top.  But, at the top there were quite a few more trees than there had been along the way, so we had to search for a clearing in order to see the view we had worked so hard for.  We were now so high up that we were literally in the clouds, so we had to wait a while for them to clear before we saw anything.  The clouds slowly parted and we were gradually able to see the red roofed town nestled in amongst the forest.  It felt almost godlike looking down at the world through the clouds from above.  The majestic turquoise sea spread out like a carpet and sparse dots of green could be witnessed here and there.  We sat there amidst the clouds while the cooling zephyr refreshed us.

Our renewed energy was soon depleted as we made our way back down the mountain. Once we were very near the bottom we passed a few people on their way up.  We knew they hadn’t gone far at all and they looked more than a bit out of shape and already quite fatigued.  They asked us how much farther it was, and we hesitated to respond, but uncomfortably replied that they still had a little ways to go.

Once we reached the bottom, we spent the remainder of the day meandering through the villages.  It was a bit strange to think that tomorrow we would be on a new island.  Tomorrow we would be exploring a new place and continuing the adventure.

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