Sunday, April 6, 2014

What makes the island of Saba special

The small planes that land on the short runway of Saba

I visited the Dutch Caribbean island of Saba in 2002, only spending two days there, but the images I picked up on my trip stayed with me to this day. I've tried reading about Saba in other articles and even consulted a book called Island Wise by Janis Frawley-Holler, which describes lessons that the author learned while visiting several small islands, to see if I could put my finger on its elusive character, even compared to other small islands. In those accounts, I didn't find the quality that I was looking to describe, so I decided to try myself.

My purpose for visiting St. Martin, Saba and Statia in 2002 was to study the islands' music and interview local musicians. It required considerable preparation and even then there were unexpected events that changed my plans somewhat - mostly changes in the schedule that were not too difficult to overcome.

I tried very hard not to idealize Saba, which has problems like any other place on earth. In spite of the fact that crime is almost nil, I know from my own experience that people are in close quarters there, know each other's business, sometimes don't get along, disagree on one issue or another, may compete with their neighbors for some political favor, or face issues that may not be a problem in a larger society, such as the unavailability of items that may force them to go to nearby St. Martin to purchase them. I tried to be an impartial observer for the short time I was there.

Saba is not your typical Caribbean island. For one, it sits like a gigantic boulder in the middle of the sea, and has only one beach at Well's Bay which is submerged for much of the year. Much is made of its airport which has one of the shortest runways in the world on the only flat area on the island, appropriately named Flat Point. This very small area is at the very end of Saba and is surrounded by the sea, so making a precise landing was crucial. The plane had to fly parallel to, and very near, a high cliff on the island before landing, and it appeared as if the right wing were going to get smashed by the edge of that cliff. What was more striking to me than this image was the fact that the airplane only needed half the runway to land; it felt like a cross between a plane landing and a helicopter landing.

Many people who visit Saba are divers who want to explore the richness of its underwater life. I was decidedly a landlubber, so I was more inclined to go hiking, which has its own rewards in the variety of plants and microclimates. At dawn I took on the hike to the top of Mt. Scenery, the highest peak on the island, accessible from 1064 steps carved out of the rock. Toward the top, the terrain becomes a humid cloud forest with many varieties of ferns that benefit from the continuous mist. The top of Mt. Scenery is often covered with clouds, so the purpose is not the view but rather walking through the forest.

Saba makes an effort to standardize the color and construction of houses, all of which have a gingerbread look. (Because of this uniqueness, the island had tried applying to UNESCO to make their island a World Heritage Site.) Besides the quaintness that this look creates, what also struck me was how incredibly clean the whole island was. I don't have even a recollection of a discarded piece of paper on the ground anywhere. We who are used to seeing trash, litterbugs, dirty restrooms and the like can't help but be impressed. Another observation I made was that at nighttime the island got incredibly dark. Not that I felt unsafe, but I tried to imagine what it must have been like in a small village many years ago before street lights were the norm.

What also was noteworthy was that people felt comfortable to be more direct with the visitor, engage him/her in conversation, and wave at them even if they were strangers. Once in a bar, a young man came up to me and asked me if I would find some time to play soccer with him. I didn't get to do this with my schedule, but it just seemed interesting that he would ask me. Expats who lived on the island for any length of time exhibited these characteristics themselves. There was one expat couple whom I approached to ask where someone lived. They were inside their house - the man of the house was on the computer - but the door was wide open so I peeked in and asked my question. The result was that I felt like part of the island within a short time and enjoyed engaging in conversation with both locals and visitors.

I rented a car and recall a few interesting details. First, the gentleman who rented me the car picked me up at my hotel and took me to where I would pick up the car, but asked me to sit in the back because he had a passenger in the front - a lamb! After I picked up my car and started driving on the island's winding roads - necessary because of the extremely hilly terrain - I saw an abandoned car that had crashed into the side of one of the concrete barriers and concluded, correctly or incorrectly, that it was a visitor that had tried to drive too fast around the hairpin turns.

While in St. Martin waiting for my flight to Saba I had the chance to meet an 89-year-old woman from the sister island of St. Eustatius (Statia), who engaged me in conversation. I don't recall her name now, but when I was on Saba chatting with a 76-year-old banjo maker named Alwyn "Buck" Caines, who had moved there from Statia many years ago, I asked him if he knew her. He said yes and commented enthusiastically, "Could she dance!"

Though the island feels isolated, the people do keep up with what is going on, particularly through cable TV. One gentleman, learning that I was from Philadelphia, talked to me about how the Philadelphia Phillies were doing and how one of their star players was not playing to his potential.

One evening I went to a bar in The Bottom to see a group perform. They were Caribbean-style rappers who called themselves the Destruction Band. The bar crowd was very small and I felt sorry for the rappers, who would have felt more at home in a larger venue. These places are usually for the locals and will generally not draw a crowd anyway. When I left the bar, I was approached by a young man who asked me to give him a ride to the town of St. John's. Normally he would have had to walk the entire way back to his house unless someone happened to be driving in his direction. On an island like Saba, there is no fear of giving someone a ride even if you don't know them.

The two days went by very quickly and the next stop on my Caribbean tour was the nearby island of Statia. When I finished with the rental car, I could just park it at Saba's small airport and leave the key in the ashtray, as there was no fear that anyone would steal it. I had meant to give a CD to Glenn Holm, Saba's director of tourism, but had forgotten to do so, so when I got ready to leave I just left it with a gentleman at the airport and asked him to get it to Glenn. The takeoff from the small airport was smooth and actually the landing at Statia was rougher than at Saba because of some strong crosswinds that seemed determined to push the small aircraft off course.

Probably the most interesting observation that I took from my trip to Saba is that Sabans are hard-working people but laid back at the same time. These seem like contradictions but they don't have to be. We in the northeastern part of the US seem to associate hard work with nervousness, packing too much into our schedule, rushing meals and running around, and can learn a valuable lesson from the Sabans regarding how to pace ourselves.

Check out my Twitter account @meesposito and my Facebook page "Mike Esposito's Travel Blog" for more travel-related information.

Montego Bay and the NAJASO Convention - July 18-21, 2013

Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller addresses the NAJASO Convention

Diana and I returned to Montego Bay on July 18 from Kingston in the afternoon and arrived 30 minutes late at the Secrets Montego Bay for the NAJASO conference welcome. The mayor of Montego Bay, the Director of Tourism, the Governor General of Jamaica, the president of NAJASO and others gave speeches. Afterwards was a cocktail reception and music by The Mighty Beestons, this time with bass and drum set added. Diana dropped me off at Sandals Carlyle at about 10:30. My room number was 303. Showered, tried to sleep but was too hungry, so went down to the bar/restaurant area for a late snack of chicken fajita wrap. Room 303 has a balcony with a nice view of the Hip Strip (toward the south) and the small beach to the right.

July 19: The breakfast buffet at Secrets had varieties of cheeses, also had a ham and cheese omelet, along with a banana smoothie and coffee, and lots of water. Waitress was nice and called to me when I forgot my suit jacket. 

There was some delay in starting the seminar, but the AM focus was on education. There was some networking time afterwards. At lunch the keynote speaker was the leader of opposition and former Prime Minister.

Arriving at Secrets Montego Bay

Ate escovitched snapper at lunch buffet at Secrets, accompanied by sweet potatoes, salad and rice with peas. Dessert was chocolate mousse and key lime cheese cake with caramelized pineapple. Had lots of Ting soda, rum punch and coffee.

The afternoon was dedicated to tourism. Diana led the panel discussion with the ex-Tourism Minister, Theo Chambers and the rep from the Jamaica Tourist Board. Diana asked me to provide a short testimonial, and I said that my experience far surpassed any other tourism and culture experience that I had. 

Diana McIntyre-Pike poses with Rick Nugent (left) and Dr. Alston Meade

After the end, we stepped outside for photos, and I didn't stay for the panel discussion on Six Sigma because Diana had to leave early. I got back to Sandals Carlyle, showered and went down to the Jacuzzi.

Later I went to the dining area for dinner. One of the waiters told me that there was a dress code and that I needed to wear a shirt with a collar. I obliged and returned. I had two pieces of what tasted like raisin bread and ordered spring rolls for appetizers, followed up by an entree of snapper with rice and vegetables. Dessert was a flambé. Afterwards, I went back to poolside and let myself nap to soft music from the iPod.

Housekeeping had my laundry ready at about 10:20 PM - a pleasant surprise.

Streamer tail hummingbird in the garden at Sandals Carlyle
July 20: Had our 8:30 AM mtg with Christopher Elliott, Diana and Khadine Daley at Sandals Carlyle. Christopher is the General Manager of the resort and Khadine was in charge of media relations.) Lots of good discussion, and we learned that Sandals is also connected with community outreach. Diana and I went to Secrets, we caught the tail end of the young professionals meeting and part of the medical professionals meeting. I met the former honorary consul of Jamaica in Philadelphia, Dr. Alston Meade and had a nice conversation with him regarding how he got his start in the city.  Lunch was buffet style at Secrets with Diana, Theo Chambers and Melida Harris-Barrow of Panama. 

In the afternoon I went back to Sandals Carlyle and rested by getting a beef patty for a snack, lying in a hammock, taking pictures of a hummingbird, resting in the hot tub, lying on a float in the pool, and swimming. Later I showered and got ready for the banquet. The Prime Minister of Jamaica was in attendance. There was lots of dancing in that nice, easy reggae style and we didn't get back to my hotel until 12:30 AM.

July 21: Breakfast at Sandals Carlyle: gave most of photos and videos to Diana (she doesn't have those from camcorder or iPhone). During breakfast she was copying them from my two memory cards to her laptop. We also had a good conversation but I was preoccupied with the time and don't recall it, except that she was also going to copy all the photos for Sandals Carlyle to use, and perhaps some discussion of her upcoming trip to St. Kitts to set up the community tourism network with those islands. She took me to Sandals Royal Caribbean for the tour with Rochelle. There was little time but I was able to see the spa and other parts that Adriana and I may have overlooked last year. I recall mentioning to Rochelle my experiences in Treasure Beach, particularly Jakes and the unique room I stayed in. I hopped on the shuttle and Rochelle continued the tour at Sandals Montego Bay, including the chapel sometimes used for weddings and the restaurants. Sandals let me use a room to change, complete with whirlpool bath -very nice! I had lunch (pizza), a pina colada at the bar and a little beach time before heading to the airport. 

I had dropped a memory card in Diana's car, but fortunately it was an empty one that I had bought in Black River and didn't work in my camera anyway. I had also left my toothbrush, toothpaste and mouthwash in my room at Sandals Carlyle, thinking I was going to return to the room but then time ran out and I forgot that I left those items there on purpose to brush my teeth there and then pack them. My tie, which I kept misplacing at various intervals, had disappeared altogether when it was time for the reception at Secrets on July 20.

Checkin was smooth and I was able to pay for my checked bags in Jamaican dollars. I had to transfer items from one bag to another because the first bag was over the weight limit. I used a skycap for the bags and the tip is $1 per checked bag (displayed on sign).

Check out my Twitter account @meesposito and my Facebook page "Mike Esposito's Travel Blog" for more travel-related information.