Mike Agranoff

Blog - 1998

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February/March, 1998
What I Did On My Winter Vacation

This, like the August 1990 entry, is sort of a "Blog Prequel". It was written several years before I actually started this Blog. But it's a story worth telling and worth reading. So in May 2016 I added it for all to read.

So about two and a half years ago, Rick calls me up and says "How'd you like to go take a Windjammer sailing ship to see a total solar eclipse in 1998?" Seemed like a good idea to me at the time. So I posed the same question to Jenny, eliciting a similar response.

The plan was to fly to Sint Maarten in the Dutch Antilles on Sunday, February 22, board the ship and cruise around the Caribbean. We'd visit an island a day, sailing mostly at night, and on the afternoon of Thursday the 26th, position ourselves between Guadeloupe and Montserrat, dead center in the path of the eclipse. We'd finish up back in Sint Maarten on Saturday the 28th, and stay another couple of days there in a guest house to decompress.

Sunday, Feb. 22: Departure

I had strong-armed Liza to give us a ride to the airport. But when I took another look at our tickets and saw that the 6:40 AM flight would require us to get her out of bed at zero dark thirty, I did the humanitarian thing and decided to drive and pay the long term parking. Jenny came over the night before, and we headed out early. One does not expect to bump into acquaintances in Newark Airport at 5:00 in the morning. But there in the bus from the long term lot to the terminal was Son Lewis, blues player off for a gig in Hawaii. Ah, the carefree world-hopping life of the average folk singer.

The flight was uneventful; changed planes in Miami and got into St. Maarten around 3:30. (Clocks set 1 hour later than local NJ time.) Out of customs we found about 4 taxi/minibus drivers asking for members of "the eclipse tour". Of course there were participants of about 3 or 4 eclipse tours disembarking, and nobody seemed to have informed the drivers which was which. Finally sorted it out, and trundled out to the dock in Phillipsburg, about 3 miles away to await boarding of the Polynesia.

The SV Polynesia is a metal-hulled 4-masted stays'l schooner built in 1938 as a Portuguese fishing vessel to ply the Grand Banks for cod. In May 1952 she was featured in a National Geographic article on the last of the working sailing ships. In the '70s, she was purchased by Windjammer and converted to cruise duty. (Thoroughly cleaned first, I imagine.) She's 248 feet long, caries a complement of 126 passengers and 45 crew. And, if you call her a "boat" instead of a "ship", Captain Neil will see that you are keel-hauled and won't get any fresh strawberries for desert.

Captain Neil asserts that she ain't no "Foofoo Ship", as he terms the big cruise liners. And, yes, the accommodations do have their austere aspects. Cabins are small; about 7 by 11 feet with one corner partitioned off as a combination toilet and shower. Beds are long enough for me, but their double-decker configuration leaves barely enough vertical space to turn over. A lot of the boat oops, ship is short on headroom for me, and I left a couple of dents in the ceiling beams of the saloon. The shower has but one spring-loaded faucet, and I feared short frigid showers. They were short, but of comfortably warm temperature. But despite all the Spartan protestations, when they change your linens every day and feed you as well as they did, it comes off semi-foofoo to me. I ain't complaining.

I had been having inklings of some kind of stomach flu since Friday, and it came to a head (and so did I) about the time we boarded. I hit the rack in the afternoon, and missed dinner and the sailing party which featured, so I was told, a very loud and very bad band.

The Windjammer company had not fully realized how different from their norm was this complement of passengers. They're usually geared for the party crowd, while this trip consisted almost entirely of eclipse junkies and science geeks. The band and the "let's get drunk and fall down" atmosphere fell flat, but things like the lecture on celestial navigation and tours of the engine room got more takers than they knew what to do with.

I was over the worst of my discomfort and up and about for the 4:00AM setting of sail. They asked for volunteers from the passengers to help on the ropes. I wasn't quite up to it yet, thank you. Nice touch, though: they played "Amazing Grace" over the ship's PA for the procedure. Actually it was a medley of very nicely chosen music, opening with Amazing Grace on bagpipes, and featuring the song in various versions scattered throughout the program. It lent an impressive air of majesty and tranquillity to the proceedings. I later found out that "Amazing Grace" is the theme song of the Windjammer company. And while the song is company-mandated for the setting of sail, the particular version and subsequent music program is the captain's choice. It said something about Captain Neil

Monday, Feb. 23: Anguilla

I've not the knowledge to judge Captain Neil Carmichael's merits as a sailing captain, but he's a great tour director. He is a real character, and he knows it and makes the best of it. He's a died-in-the-tartan Scotsman, and a wonderful speaker and storyteller. Each morning after breakfast the passengers gather on the top deck for "Storytime". This is where we're briefed on the plans of the day, and given a little background on the island we're to visit and suggested sights or activities. He suggested several beaches and a nature hike.

Jenny opted for the hike, a fairly strenuous one.I wasn't ready for that yet, so I hung around on deck for the morning. I got into a conversation with Grant, a deck hand, who was repairing a rip in one of the sails. I helped as he applied a patch of sailcloth, using low tech techniques to repair a low tech means of propulsion. Contact cement, poking holes for sewing the patch with a piece of bent metal rod sharpened with sandpaper, and sewing around the periphery of the patch by hand. Grant is from Guyana. He is contracted for a year of sailing without getting home to his family.

Just about all of the crew is black and from the Islands or South America. The officers are mostly European and Aussie. The crewmen's attitude to their work is puzzling and delightful. They seem to take inordinate delight in the most menial of tasks, turning dishwashing and food service into a game and a theatrical performance. They go around with huge grins plastered permanently on their faces and a "How you doin', mon?" whenever they meet you. They made me, of all people, feel repressed and shy by comparison. The crew chief, Popeye, is a burly man with a shaven head except for a tiny tuft at the nape of his neck, into which he weaves a short string of beads. He made bead-strings for the passengers during the course of the week.

By the afternoon, I figured I had recovered sufficiently for some swimming. I took the launch to shore with some other passengers. It was a "wet" landing, disembarking from the launch in the shallows of a small beach with a little restaurant. We opted to take a taxi to another beach across the island, and arranged with the driver to pick us up in time to catch the last launch back to the ship at 4:00.

The other beach was a dilly: sand like velvet and water the color of a picture post card of Caribbean water. I met Rick and his buddies there, and we hung out and swum. I was still a little tired, so I snoozed a little. Woke up to discover that the group with which I came was not in sight. I ran up the road to see if they were waiting for the taxi. No one there. Oh well, I can still catch a ride back with Rick & company. Went back to the beach. No Rick & company. It was a quarter to four. I might be in a little trouble. I had not been paying too much attention, and realized I didn't even know the name of the beach where the Polynesia was anchored. Well, if worst comes to worst and they sail without me, I do have my money on me, and I can always catch a plane to the next port of call of the Polynesia. Umm...What island did they say they were sailing to next???

I went back up to the taxi area. There was only one there, already engaged by a French couple who had to catch the ferry to St. Maarten. I asked if I could share the ride, and they agreed, provided they would go to the ferry first. I asked the driver how close the ferry was to where the Polynesia usually anchored, and he said ten minutes. Great. Let's go. We back-tracked to a certain point, and then took a different turn from the road back to the Poly's beach. And continued on the new course for about 20 minutes before I started to question. "Oh, the Polynesia is back that way? That's not where she usually anchors.

Well, about ten miles, 45 minutes, and one traffic jam later, I got back to the beach where the Poly was. Yes it was still there, about 250 yards offshore with both launches back on the davits. The taxi driver asked for and I paid an exorbitant fee of $15 (All the islands accepted US currency as the norm.) and I was left to figure out how to get back to the ship. A couple of fisherman were on the beach repairing nets. I asked them if they could run me back to the ship. One wizened old guy of about 60, without a word, stripped off his shirt and waded into the water. I wasn't sure what he was about, but he proceeded to swim out about 150 feet to where a small dinghy was anchored. He hoisted himself into the boat,, browbeat the old outboard into reluctant life, and headed back towards shore. That's when I saw the launch from the Poly also approaching. Someone aboard had spotted me and called in the marines to my rescue. I knew I would hear about this for the rest of the trip. And I surely did.

Before I got into the launch, I waded out and gave the fisherman a fiver with my thanks for his effort. We hoisted sail around sunset. "Amazing Grace" again. I thought I'd lend a hand on the ropes, and discovered that they didn't need my help. I was doing little more than taking in the slack. The crew were letting us "help" with the lines the way a 4-year old in a car seat with a toy steering wheel "helps" with the driving. One kid aboard got his foot tangled in one of the ropes, and was himself hoisted about 6 feet up before they realized it and let him down. I resolved in the future to help by singing along with "Amazing Grace".

Captain Neil told us to watch for the "green flash". This is a phenomenon seen as the last rim of the sun sinks below the horizon. The orange sliver flashes green just before it disappears. (I believe it's the of the retina briefly retaining the complementary color after the true stimulus disappears.) Southward through the night to St. Barthelemy.

Tuesday, Feb. 24: St. Barthe

Sort of disconcerting. You go to sleep in a windowless cabin, get up to the sound of a steward ringing his bell down the passageway for breakfast, and walk up on deck to an entirely different world off the rail. I slept well in the gently heaving bed. There's not much between bunk and breakfast; this being a "barefoot cruise". One rolls out of bed, stumbles into a pair of shorts, and you're ready to face the world. Many of the men aboard didn't shave the whole trip. Myself included.

It was Mardi Gras, a big deal on St. Barthe. The post office and museums were fermé pour Carnival. So much for mailing post cards early. St. Barthe is une isle Français. The port was a mini Cote d'Azure with lots of trendy shops and fancy eateries and jewelry and electronics stores. The idea of wasting valuable time on vacation engaging in something as odious as shopping puzzles me. I mean, you can always get that stuff at home. And probably cheaper, too. Shopping on vacation to me is like...oh...eating at Burger King on vacation. (I actually came close do doing just that, mind you. But that just gives you an insight into my priorities.)

Jenny and I walked the town in the morning. The harbor was filled with some pretty exotic yachts. The Mardi Gras preparations were in full swing, and folks were already wandering about in costumes. We hit the back streets, and climbed up to an overlook above a beach. Basketball seems to be the big sport there; saw 3 outdoor courts in our wanderings. Got a few postcards at a local shop. Got to try out my rusty French. It wasn't necessary, but a good exercise.

I still wasn't 100% healthy, and was grateful to get back to the ship for lunch. Took a nap and wandered out on my own to see the parade that afternoon. Strolled about amidst bespangled women and kids in spiked hair on rollerblades and loud music. The feel of the event was quite wholesome and joyous, but I wound up feeling very disconnected. That evening I found a relatively quiet corner of the deck and brought out the guitar I had carried with me. I was roundly ignored.

Wednesday, Feb. 25: St. Kitts

Captain Neil told us at Storytime that St. Kitts is bouncing off the bottom of a ruined economy. The sugar cane industry has been undercut by low cost cane from South America, and the place is in pretty bad shape. They are trying to get things going again with tourism. To that end, they have leveled a huge tract of land on the waterfront, and are in the process of building a high profile tourist trap. It's largely unfinished as of now, with just the streets laid out, and no buildings. There's an architectural model in the Visitors' Center that looks pretty impressive.

I walked across the site and onto the street facing the waterfront, which is freshly redone with all new shops. I then walked one block further inland and got to see the real St. Kitts behind the façade. Not pretty. Whole bunch of shady-looking characters hanging about, aggressive panhandlers, and some fire-breathing street-preachers striding about the middle of intersections predicting hell and damnation. I didn't feel comfortable, so I did a quick U-turn and headed back to the ship. Stopped off in one of the shops to pick up more postcards, and spent the afternoon writing them.

I tried parasailing. This was my one extravagance on the trip. ($42 for 15 minutes in the air.) It was pleasant, but nothing to take up full time. They took a half dozen of us out into the bay in a powerboat with a rig installed in the stern. They give you a harness and stand you on a platform on the back of the boat. The parachute is on a line that is wound up on a winch in the boat. They start with the chute deployed on about ten feet of line with the boat going just fast enough to keep it up like a kite. The chute gets hooked into the harness, and they speed the boat up and let out the line. And like a kite, the chute goes up in the air, taking the passenger with it. It's pretty uneventful if you're not bothered by heights. The only thing you can see between you and the ground is about 600 feet of thin rope. They tow you around for a while, and then start winding back the rope. If you desire (I did) they'll slow the boat down enough to allow you to splash in the water before towing you back up again. It was fun.

We sailed at 2:00 in the afternoon, having some miles to put under our keel before our next destination. Once underway, some of the organizers and astronomers on board gave some preparatory talk about viewing and photographing the eclipse. They handed out viewing filters that looked like 1950's 3-D movie glasses. The various options for where to go to view the event were discussed. Those with photographic equipment needed the stable base of land for their work. Others wanted to avoid the potential of cloud cover that the islands can generate. The compromise was as follows: The Polynesia would rendezvous with another ship in the Windjammer fleet, the Legacy at Guadeloupe. Those who wanted to go ashore would do so, with the Poly standing offshore to serve as a home base. Those who desired would transfer to the Legacy, which would sail to an optimum viewing point, centered on the path of the eclipse and away from any cloud cover. Suddenly this impending celestial event, heretofore just a neat idea, took on a sense of reality.

Our course that night was to take us past Montserrat to Guadeloupe. Montserrat has been for the past couple of years devastated by sporadic major eruptions of its volcano. The island, a British colony, has been largely abandoned, its former residents resettled by Great Britain to other locations in the British Commonwealth. It must have been pretty unsettling. Imagine, after spending one's entire life on an island only 15 or 20 miles long, to be uprooted and dropped somewhere else. "Sorry, you've got to leave your planet." The island appeared as a cluster of lights isolated on its northern end, and the rest of it as a major occlusion of stars in the midnight passage. As my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I realized that that occlusion continued much higher than any possible mountain peak. The higher stars were being masked by an ash cloud. The volcano was erupting! Occasionally a dull red glow was visible at the peak, and I could see red hot masses tumbling down the side of the mountain away from the lighted end.

There was a moment of stark unreality for me standing at the bow. Looking directly upwards, I could see the up-thrust foremast with the jibs running down from it to the bowsprit. The brilliant field of unfamiliar stars appeared to swing back and forth above the mast with the rocking of the ship. Over the warm breeze snatches of cross-conversations impinged upon my ears. From the right: "...and look at the size of that globular cluster just to the right of Cygnus...Yes, just over the Southern Cross. I've never seen it so..." From the left: "Man! there goes another lava flow. You can see it just at the edge of..." Toto, I don't think we're in Boonton anymore.

Thursday, Feb 26: Guadeloupe, Montserrat, and the Eclipse

Well, this is it. Two and a half years in the planning. After breakfast we got in the launches and transferred to the Legacy. Our course backtracked the path we took in the night leading us back towards Montserrat. We had no sooner cleared the harbor when someone shouted "Whale!" Sure enough there it was off our starboard rail. It was surfaced and spouting. It hung around for a while and finally dived in one of those classic flukes-in-the-air maneuvers you see on the nature programs.

As we approached Montserrat, we could see in the daylight what had been hinted at in the midnight passage. The ash cloud was thousands of feet above the peak, and pyroclastic flow of grey material down the side was visible with naked eye from about eight miles away. The horizon was dotted with other ships of all sizes gathering for the show. Strange pieces of equipment began sprouting on tripods all over the deck. The science geeks were in their glory. My tech equipment consisted of a pair of those cardboard viewing glasses and a couple of squares of aluminized mylar that I rubber-banded over the big end of my binoculars.

"First contact" when the beginning of the moon took a little mouse-bite out of the sun was due at around 1:20. Somebody with heavy-duty binoculars saw it and called it out, and all eyes swung upward. Yup, sure enough. It was hard to keep the binoculars steady on the image with the rolling of the ship. But I got to look through the hotshoe equipment of some of the amateur astronomers, and got a good view.

As totality approached things got hectic. Whales, volcanoes, eclipses...where do you point the binoculars? Do you put the filter on or off? What's on the schedule for tomorrow? Mermaids? Northern lights? The light started to get funny. I later figured out that the reason it seemed wrong was that the light was about the intensity of that of a cloudy day, but there were sharp shadows. That discrepancy from conventional experience was what triggered the "uh-oh" receptors in the hindbrain.

It started to get chilly and breezy. While there was still plenty of time left, I got my jacket on. A call came from somewhere, "There's Venus!" Sure enough, about 30 degrees above the horizon was a lone point of light in the clear but darkening sky. The sun was now a crescent almost directly overhead. The best viewing position was flat on my back, but the binocs were still hard to hold steady. More planets appeared: Jupiter and Mercury close on to the sun. It's now just a sliver. Calls from the astronomer types on the deck below: "Five minutes to totality!" "Two minutes!" I finally found a good position on the steps to the second deck. I figured no one would be using them for the next ten minutes or so. "One minute!" I determined to try to see the edge of the shadow of the moon racing across the sea at 850 miles an hour, so I put the binocs down. It was now like dusk or twilight. "Twenty seconds!" Where's that shadow? "Diamond ring!!" (That's the effect of the very last brilliant edge of the sun peeking around the black circle of the moon, looking like a huge jewel on the ring of light surrounding the moon.) Then, almost simultaneously, "Totality!" and "Filters off!"

I had not seen the shadow. I ripped the mylar filters off my binoculars and looked up. And sat down on the steps and roared. Along with everyone else on board. I was not prepared for the sight. I had just caught the extinguishing of the diamond ring as the moon moved to totally obscure the sun, and the corona flared into existence, no longer washed out by the light of the photosphere. It was about three times the diameter of the sun, and glowed with a cool brilliance, sort of like fluorescent light with a bluish or pinkish tinge.

What was that? A ruby red flash within the corona. "Prominences!" I called out. "Upper right in the corona!" Then I put the binoculars down and just looked. Let me tell you, all the photos and all the science books and all the episodes of Nova can't hold a candle to actually seeing an eclipse with your peripheral vision putting the phenomenon in the context of the surroundings. There was this full hemisphere of cloudless sky, a uniform twilight color (not the color gradient from East to West one normally sees at twilight) with three prominent planets showing. At the zenith was the fluorescent electric corona looking like frozen white flames, in the center of which was this midnight-black hole in the sky!!! It was the most bizarre and surreal thing I've ever seen. Awesome in the original sense of the word.

Totality was about the shortest three minutes I ever spent. The black moon flared with the diamond ring on the opposite side, and the unnecessary call of "Filters on!" came from whoever had been giving the play-by-play on the main deck. And then the ovation began in earnest in appreciation for the light-show of a lifetime. We blew the ship's horn, and sat back to contemplate what we had just seen. It occurred to me that the sun was still in state of about 95% eclipse. And where ten minutes ago that had been cause for acute anticipation, it was now being largely ignored. Champagne was broken out all 'round, and we toasted God. They played the "Amazing Grace" sequence, the Legacy swung 'round, and we headed back to Guadeloupe. Jenny came up to me and said, "I think I hear a waltz." Sure enough, in the Legacy's musical program was Cat Steven's "Morning has Broken", and we waltzed clumsily on the pitching deck in the dim sunlight.

We transferred back to the Poly, had dinner, and set sail for Nevis. I didn't sleep much that night.

Friday, Feb 27: Nevis

If you want to find the last vestiges of the Caribbean as it was before the tourist industry found it and transformed it into Hollywood, go to Nevis. Go quickly. It seemed generally poor, but not impoverished. Goats and chickens meandered about in the streets, and you got a sense of general contentment about the place. I took an island tour in a jouncy van with a bunch of others from the ship. Our driver, Morrell, was an affable sort of guy, who shouted out the sights as best he could over the engine's roar. Between the noise and his Island patois, it was difficult to make out some of what he said. I asked him if the English he used with us was the same as that he used at home; was he speaking his native language. He said yes, although for us he spoke slower.

Nevis is the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton. It was also the first tour of duty of Lord Admiral Nelson, who established a name for himself by slaughtering a bunch of pirates there. There was a little museum with a few artifacts and some dioramas about these personages. We stopped at an Anglican Church, which was pretty scruffy looking from the outside, but had just been recently gutted and beautifully redone inside. It had that architectural feature peculiar to the Caribbean of conventional looking stone-framed gothic arch windows with no glass. Shutters were closed when the church was not in use, but left open to the breeze at other times.

An unexpected pleasure was a Botanical Garden. In the middle of this generally unpretentious and low-key island was a formal garden of striking beauty and size. Built by "some rich American", it was open to the public and beautifully landscaped with winding paths, artificial streams and fountains, complete with bronze dolphins, storks, and mermaids. There was a vaguely Mayan feel to the architecture. There was a garden of sunflowers, with one nonconformist individual that resolutely faced away from the sun in defiance of all its brethren. There was a private residence on the grounds that I assumed (incorrectly, as I later discovered) was the owner's. I left a note on the doorstep saying, "Thanks for building such a beautiful back yard, and inviting us to come see it."

That night, being our last on board together, we had what passed for a formal dinner on this barefoot cruise. Dressing for dinner meant putting on a clean tee-shirt. Toasts went 'round and we started thinking about getting our stuff together to leave the ship the next day. As we sailed out of Nevis, we said good by to Fantome¸ another ship of the company by "firing" upon her with our ship's cannon. This was a little brass job about 18 inches long that fired what appeared to be blank shotgun cartridges. We were in reply mooned by a contingent of the Fantome's company. I'd say the Fantome got the better of the exchange.

Saturday, Feb 28: Sint Maarten

We awoke to major hubbub. In the wee hours we had docked at St. Maarten, and the company's supply ship, the Amazing Grace was alongside. The crew had their hands full simultaneously feeding us breakfast and taking on supplies via hoist and cargo net between the two ships. Amongst the supplies were finally some Polynesia post cards, which I got to send to the one or two remaining people on my list who were sailing nuts. I decided to mail them from the States, seeing that it would be Monday before the local post office could deal with them, and we were leaving for home on Tuesday. Who knows how long the local packet boat would have taken to deliver them.

We went ashore and wandered around. Mostly touristy shops again. Golly, Marsha, I already bought a diamond ring and a boom box on St. Barthe. What shall I get now? Visited a museum about the Island upstairs from an art gallery run by a politely rampant liberal anti-American Dutch woman. There was a lot about Hurricane Hugo, which pretty well decimated the place a couple of years back.

Sint Maarten/St. Martin is half Dutch, half French. (Good thing it's not French/English. Changing sides of the road at the border would be interesting.) The French side is more upscale. The island is blessed with the best pavement in the Caribbean. Most of the roads on the other islands I'd visited are sort of like the roads in my community: just enough pavement to have potholes. Just so's you don't get carried away, though, they've installed speed bumps (I like to call them "launching ramps") randomly about.

We went back to the ship for a last lunch, and were about the last passengers to leave around 3:30 in the afternoon. We took a taxi to the Horny Toad Guest House, which was to be home for the next couple of days. It was situated in a very lovely spot overlooking the beach. It was convenient to a little bodega where we could pick up some breakfast and lunch supplies and a couple of very good and moderately priced restaurants. Only one problem: It was about 500 yards from the end of the main runway of Princess Juliana Airport. You could practically reach up and touch the big Boeing 767's as they went overhead. Well, at least the commercial flights stop at 9:30 or so. Had dinner at a nice Italian restaurant on the bay where we could look off the dock and see some sort of immense fish swimming around. Packed in early and went to sleep.

Sunday, March 1: Sint Maarten/St. Martin

Rick was scheduled to fly home that afternoon, so we made the best of the morning with him and his brother Jerry and his girlfriend Mary. I rented a car for the two days we were to be on the island. A tiny Suzuki with a little bitty mouse-motor. Jenny liked it and wanted to take it home. It wouldn't have fit under the seat of the plane, but we might have gotten it in the overheads if the flight wasn't too crowded.

Our first stop was a butterfly farm on the French side of the island. Butterflies are sort of Jenny's mascot animal, and I found the farm charming too. It was very peaceful to sit among the exotic plants with new age music softly droning in the background and dozens of these beautiful creatures flitting mindlessly about.

The rest of the afternoon we spent at Orient Bay, one of the famed beaches of the island. Orient Bay is on the French side of the island, and fully resortified. It's entire length is apportioned out to restaurants and bars which rent beach chairs and umbrellas and have young stud waiters stroll around to refill your drink. We chose a place called Kakao. Tops for women's swimwear were optional, and there was a nude beach at the end of the bay. Occasionally some of its denizens would stroll past appropriately unclothed. After the initial surprise, I became quickly used to it. Made me wonder, though: is it bad form to have an erection at a nude beach?

Lounged around, swam, and had a game of Scrabble with Jenny. (She let me win.) Rick's plane left around 2:00, so we said goodbye to him and Jerry and Mary. As the day drew to a close, we decided to take a drive around the rest of the island. We saw a sign leading to Pic Paradis, the highest point on the island. Pointed the Suzuki's nose at the sky and dropped it into first and crawled up the side of the mountain. This was where the rich people lived. Nestled within the high rainforest were some pretty impressive homes. The road ended at the gate to someone's estate at the top of the mountain. We got out and looked over the bay for a while. Turned around and tried another branch of the road, which led to some fairly doubtful pavement. So we got out again and walked the road to a point where a footpath into the forest was marked with a sign that said "Best view". It wasn't too shabby. It overlooked the towns of Grand Case and Marigot and a lot of beachfront real estate. It was beautiful to see and disheartening to hear the sounds of traffic, radios, and other alleged civilization drifting from below. Walked back to the car in the gathering dark and went to the Horny Toad.

Monday, March 2: Sint Maarten/St. Martin

We looked at some of the brochures on things to do on the island and decided to look up the zoo. We found it sort of tucked away in the corner of an industrial neighborhood. It was quite nice. The animals were in reasonable habitats, and looked fairly well cared for. There were a couple of walk-through bird habitats with some fairly exotic looking waterfowl. The less exotic small birds outside the cage would squeeze through the wire netting and scarf up the food set out for the inmates. There was a bat house and a reptile house and some primates and a petting zoo. Sadly, the zoo and the butterfly farm and the parrot jungle we visited later seemed largely underattended compared with the more touristy attractions. I hope they don't go under.

Drove around over some more first-gear hills over Naked Boy Hill to Dawn Beach. The approach was lined with newly developed condos. Mr. Busby's was the Dutch side equivalent to Kakao, which meant pretty much the same deal but with more clothes. Spent another exhausting afternoon lounging around yet another beautiful sand beach and occasionally breaking the monotony by swimming.

As our last full day on the island drew to a close, we decided to go exploring again. We drove through more neighborhoods of luxury condos until we came to what must have been the last undeveloped area of the island. Perhaps this was because the shore was rocky, rather than sandy. A well trodden footpath led along the shore, and we took it for a mile or so past steep cliffs above the sea. The terrain might have looked like the Scottish coast, were it not for the rotund barrel cactus with their pink spiky flowers dotting the landscape. I came across a tower of stones precariously piled up by some previous traveler, and the engineer in me could not resist adding a couple more to the top of the pile.

Impending dark and a dangerous looking climb above crashing breakers ended our exploration. We watched pelicans circle for height and launch themselves on a long glide out towards a rocky islet about a quarter mile offshore where they undoubtedly nested for the night. Oddly enough, I think that shore walk will remain my strongest memory of Sint Maarten, rather than the beaches and the water.

Tuesday, March 3: Return

Our flight home departed at around 2:30. We packed and took our bags to the airport and checked them in at around 9:00, and then dropped the car off at the rental place. The rental agency dropped us off a couple of miles away at the Parrot Jungle. This was run by an expatriate Swiss, who gave us a personal tour of about 40 birds of various sizes and temperaments. There were talkers and screamers and cuddlers and stand-offers. Unfortunately, when they associate with humans, they will reject their own kind, and will refuse to mate. So he has the choice of a developing a sociable bird or one that will reproduce. Some of his charges are on loan to the zoo. He hopes to build walk-through cages when he can raise the funds.

One last walk along the beach: this one populated with frolicking vacationers in various states of undress. Finally stopped off at a luxury hotel where they called us a cab to the airport and home. I was ready. The flights were uneventful, long, and on time, which is to say, right on schedule....late. I again ran into someone I knew in the airport: The lady who needlessly informs passengers on the monorail that "The train is approaching the station. Please stand clear of the doors." is the same one who says "Your call is very important to us." The car was right where we left it, all its wheels intact. It started. It got us home. Boy am I glad I scheduled Wednesday as another vacation day to rest up from my vacation.




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