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.

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