Monday, February 20, 2012

Tour of the Island

On Sunday, the 19th , we decided to rent a car, so went to the village early in the morning, and found Chucky at the parking lot behind the ferry terminal. There were four stalls next to terminal, for local car rentals with exotic names like Zircon, Xtreme, Lucky’s etc, Of course, we did not go to them, but asked around for Chucky. When he slowly staggered towards us, Al embraced him like a long lost friend, and signed a sheet of paper to get the keys for a brand new white Hyundai. I asked for insurance, so we ended up paying a total of $50.00 dollars cash up front, and got ready to roll. Chucky told us, that because of the carnival month in St Martin, the entrance to the village would be blocked until 6:00 pm that day. We decided to return the car after that time, and he agreed. He claimed that there was a quarter of gas in the tank. As soon as Al started the engine, some annoying and persistent alarm came on, and we saw to our horror that the gas tank was totally empty. When asked, Chucky pointed towards the road, and assured Al that there was a gas station close by. We ran on vapours and made it to the station. Al did not wish to fill the tank for a half day of usage, and asked the attendant how much we would need to go around the island. He laughed and said that one could drive all around in one hour, so we only needed $10.00 dollars’ worth of gas.

We started our trip towards the north, on the only two-lane road that goes around. We passed through the other French settlement, and did some food shopping, then in a flash reached the famous Orient Beach. Al said that he had first heard about this beach from our friends Serap and Ismail, who had visited St Martin/Sint Maarten on a cruise. I could not see what the fuss was about; yes it is a vast north facing beach on the east coast, the water of which is full of reefs, which look like black holes. The colour of the water was not inviting, so I did not swim. We found the restaurant among the hundred lining the beach that offered free WiFi and beach chairs/umbrella, if one paid $8.00 dollars for a fruit punch. Al needed his Internet, so we stayed there for an hour, and resumed our trip.
We quickly reached the southern part, where the main Dutch town Phillipsburg is located. We made the mistake of venturing into the town by car; the roads must have been made for mule transportation in the old times, and renovated recently along with the facades of the original buildings. That is to say, they are only good for walking in. After some sweaty (from fear) minutes of Al’s driving, we got out of the town and headed south by mistake, but found the harbour where the cruise ships were tied, and a marina for smaller boats. We had a good lunch at the marina, and returned to Phillipsburg, to travel to the west side through the narrow strip of land surrounding the lagoon. Once we went underway, the traffic stopped, because of a road construction on a couple of yards of a major turn out to the road to Juliana Airport. The detour for the five minute stretch cost us an hour, but finally we were able to reach the famous Maho Beach, literally at the foot of the runway. All kinds of airplanes, including jumbo jets, land over the beach, so the swimmers get the urge to reach out and touch them. While take off, the back of the planes almost reach the barbed wire fence between the road and the air-strip, and the thrust of air coming out of the engines create such a noise and wind at one section of the beach, that the people who deliberately stay there for the experience, get blown towards the water or run away closing their ears and mouths, because of the sand-storm it creates.

Anyway when we reached the beach, which was jammed by cars, we saw one of the cars among the parked ones pulling out. We felt lucky and parked there, then walked to the bar at the end of the beach. Al had a beer, and I jumped into the water, which was pristine and calm, while its bay was open to the ocean, but located at the western side of the island. We spent a few hours there, and I asked Al to bring something from the car, which was visible in the distance. Al looked and saw a white car with an open door, and thought that it was our car, and rushed to its side. Sometime passed, and I saw Al talking to someone, but not coming back. So I collected our stuff, and walked to him. What I saw was that two police officers (one of them a female islander, the other white male Dutch), writing something, obviously a traffic fine. Apparently the section of the road-side that seemed like a parking strip had a sign, forbidding to even stop there, probably because of the proximity to the air-strip. By the time that police arrived, all the other cars had vanished, and ours was the only one left. The policewoman asked Al why he parked there, and Al truthfully told her that there had been others, but she did not seem to believe it. The police probably have a specific time of patrol, which everybody knows. The male officer told Al that he had ordered a tow truck, but cancelled it when Al showed up. It was nice of the officer I guess. When we asked about the amount to be paid, it was something like $30.00 dollars, not that huge, but we have to travel to Phillipsburg to pay it in person to the official collector. There was no other way of being relieved of the crime we had committed. When Al reminded the officer about the practice of fine payments in Canada, he concurred that in Netherlands it was the same, but not in Sint Maarten.

If you ask me, I never liked this island from the moment we set our anchor and foot on it. I guess I had a reason. All our experiences with the people, except the chandlery personnel, had been negative. Neither the whites (almost fifty percent of the French side, maybe thirty of the Dutch section), nor the islanders are friendly or helpful. It is amazing that most of the store owners that we had frequented, and maybe half of their workers are white in Marigot. So far, on all of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the majority of the faces in the businesses have been coloured; Hispanic/African/mixed etc. Whites were few and far between, and the coloured people have the dignity and charm of affluence. I may be wrong, but St Martin should be ashamed to claim this territory as French soil. At least the Dutch side is called the colony of the West Indies, which include some other islands around, and their currency is the Gilder, the old Dutch currency before the Euro. The Dutch side seems a bit more rundown, while the coloured are the majority.

Anyway, we were a bit shaken, and jumped into the car immediately after I changed. Ten minutes later when we passed the spot that we had been fined, we saw at least four cars parked. Go figure. The drivers must stay close to their cars, and escape when the police show up.

When we came to the bridge over the lagoon entrance, we saw that it was open, to let the sail boats in and out of the lagoon. We waited for half an hour in the car, and reached Marigot village to return the car. It was 6:00 pm; the traffic slowly dispersing, but the noise of the carnival in the distance. We reached the parking lot, to give back the keys, but Chucky was nowhere to be found. Al asked some guys lurking around, obviously the taxi drivers or Chucky’s competitors, having stone faces. Nobody knew or cared. It was getting dark, we had some groceries to carry to the boat, so we made one trip with the dinghy, while holding on to the keys, changed and returned to the parking lot. This time, after a bit of waiting, somebody offered to find Chucky, and came back with a young black guy in tow. The guy looked like the pimps in North America, a lot of gold chain showing at various parts of his body, a cocked hat to the side etc., etc. He claimed to be Chucky’s assistant, and looked the car over, and snatched the keys from Al’s hand. He also claimed to have seen us coming to the parking lot earlier, but by the time he came around, we had vanished. His coming around must have taken more than twenty minutes, but he was right. I asked his name, which turned out to be Al. I laughed, and he said that we would never forget his name. No comment. Al called Chucky, who miraculously answered his phone this time, and confirmed that he knew Al.

When we were able to return to Ruyam II at last, the first thing I said was that I missed her desperately during the day. We had forgotten about the life on land, and what a relief it is to be away from the traffic, parking, congestion, dust and grime associated with driving a car! The false security that a car provides is more precarious than the boat in general, as long as one shows the respect owed to the ocean.

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