19 March 2007

My Cistern Floweth Over

Islanders and visitors don't quite see things the same way when it comes to weather. Pinks and I welcome a day off from the sun, the sometimes overwhelming brightness of the sky, and the reflective silvery shine on the sea that overcomes the darkest Polaroid lenses. And then there is the 4 PM wave of heat in our house when the sun lowers in the western sky and floods our deck and kitchen, -- the signal that it's time to lower the hurricane shutters half way and mix up the first of the day's gin and tonics.

The cistern, of course, loves the rain. It is literally its raison d'etre. In March and April, every liter in the roof gutters is one I don't have to buy from Regie des Eaux. Not only is this the dry season, it is also the children and grandchildren visiting season, all of whom, like the good Americaines they are, are constantly washing, rinsing, and spritzing. And while one can train the adults to take "navy showers", one cannot effectively monitor the little ones, especially since at least some of the showers here are outdoors, unique, and qualify as recreational activities. Add to that the additional clothes and dishes that must be washed, and I have to be content with the knowledge that while we are putting a lot of water down the house waste drains, it all goes to a series of tanks that ultimately feed the garden.

But this past week we have joined forces with our pale guests. Enough is enough. It has been raining here for five straight days. Not the rains of Camelot, but the driving daytime squalls as well. We grow restless, visit the hardware store too often and then don't use the stuff I bought to fix things because I do not want to repair doorknobs, change outdoor light fixtures, and do other stuff in the rain. We are all ausgeshopped.

And while it's nice to know the boat is getting cleaned with fresh water, who needs it that clean? I kind of liked the salt-encrusted look as she rode on her mooring line in the bay.

We check the forecast hourly. Depressing. It tells it like it is, and Windguru, my weather website of choice, is eerily accurate, down to the hour.

Yesterday, the weather broke—a bit. We saw some blue sky around 4PM and Mark, Steph, and I went fishing. On the way out, we saw people coming up out the cabins of their sailboats (we think we had it bad? Can you imagine four people being cooped up in the cabin of a 36 foot sailboat for days on end?) and hanging out their mildewing towels to dry on the lifelines.

We dropped our lines off Pain de Sucre rock at 4:45, planning to fish until 6:00. At 5:05 we saw that grey smudge on the horizon coming our way, and by 5:10 we were getting soaked. With COLD rain, yet. I may be getting old, but fishing in the rain is not my thing, and we headed in. Of course, the rain stopped before I could tie up the boat, but we hadn't caught anything and I was sure we weren't going to either, so we called it quits. The rain has sapped my optimism. I am desperate for sunshine.

The rain, naturally enough, is the topic of the day at the hardware store and on the quay. The shopkeepers are desperate because the tourists mope in their hotel rooms or on board ship. The moms are berserk because the kids can't go the beach after school (yup, that's what they do here), and because virtually all the restaurants here are more or less open on all sides, they lower heavy plastic curtains when it rains hard, and even the nicest places are somewhat claustrophobic. Business suffers.

Scramble up some eggs for dinner? Hey, the price is right.

Yesterday, we watched from the deck as a large cruise ship anchored in Corossol Bay in the rain, and nevertheless loaded its tenders for the ship's passengers to come ashore. Two of the tenders actually motored away from the ship, stopped about 1000 yards off, loitered there for a good ten minutes, and then returned to the ship. One can only imagine the conversation (arguments?) in those tenders, with the tourists realizing that as much as they wanted to see St. Barths, they would see nothing but each other huddling under awnings and in doorways, and the jury ultimately voting to go back to the ship where they could sit in their small but dry cabins. Yuch. And what if the coxswain had said, "No, my orders are to take you ashore and that's where we are going." Mutiny? Well, maybe something close. My bet is that during the loitering, there was a lot of communication with the mother ship, and the Captain had to make a hard call. Probably some lawyers aboard the tenders threatened to sue. Ah, les Americaines arrive a le Caraibes.

The sun came out at noon today. So did all the islanders, residents and tourists, young and old. The beach was never so crowded with desperate sunseekers. Many pale tourists will suffer from sunburn tonight. No sleep for these heretofore sun-deprived visitors.

And the forecast for tomorrow is great. But for the five days to follow? Don't ask. My cistern floweth over.

A bientot.

13 March 2007

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Several times a week, I start off the day by walking up the mountain. From our house to the lookout at the top of Mt. Columbier (at least that's what we call it) is a little more than one mile each way, but the elevation is brutal. At three points on the walk, the grade is ridiculously steep. And even early in the morning, parts of the route are in full sun. I have no documented facts, but I am confident the road grade exceeds US roadbuilding standards, and would be entirely impossible to traverse in either direction if there were snow or ice. In fact, the road is dangerous in the rain even with four wheel drive. Though the concrete surface has been roughened (they draw a rake across the concrete before it fully hardens, creating deep grooves in the roadbed perpendicular to the line of travel) we have learned to forgo the walk after a rain because the downhills are too slippery.

At the end of the outbound section of the walk, one is rewarded with a lookout platform with a tile mosaic identifying all the islands one can see to the north and west. Principally, they are St. Martin, Anguilla, Forchue, and several smaller ones the names of which I can not recall. The view to the east and south is of the mountains of St. Barths, with names and heights, the tallest of which is Mt.Vitet at 281 meters (approximately 922 feet).

Nevertheless, my Reason For Living decided this walk was not difficult enough. So she started jogging on the downhills and at the few level spots. Then she extended the walk by passing up our road on the way back and adding an additional mile out and mile back.

I refused to jog, claiming ancient injuries might return were I so to strain this ancient structure. But I had to compete somehow, and did so by extending my walk even further than hers. In time, I was actually walking to the airport and back, some 5.5 miles. I did that three times in the last two weeks.

But the airport walk has some serious hazards beyond the grade of the road. While the hills in that direction are not as steep as the Columbier hills, that section of the road is much more heavily travelled, narrow, and virtually without shoulders. The result is the cars and trucks zip by inches from a pedestrian's elbow. Moreover, there is no tree cover, and the walk takes almost two hours--a long time to be in the sun under any circumstances.

The last time I did this walk was a week ago and that was the last time I will do it.

I was on my way back from the airport, having struggled through some 3.5 miles of punishing terrain, and the sun (duh, this IS the tropics, didn't I know that?) was killing me. My bandanna headband was totally soaked and no longer keeping the sweat from my eyes, which were stinging badly. At at a point in the route where there was no shoulder but for about six inches of weeds hard up against a huge rock, where the road was turning left ahead of me, I used my shirt to wipe my face. Bad decision. I knocked off my glasses. I was afraid to bend down to look for them because that would involve taking my eyes off the oncoming traffic, not to mention sticking my behind out into the roadway. I was afraid even to move my feet lest I crush the glasses, and if I moved even a pace or two forward or back, I would widen the search area unacceptably. So I bent over at the waist, combed the weeds with my fingers for what seemed like forever but was probably no more than two or three minutes. Looking for your glasses without your glasses is tough enough without the sweat in your eyes and the distraction of the speeding traffic less than a foot away. Coming up with zip, I knew I was in big trouble. While the glasses could not have gone far, they were invisible to me--small clear plastic ovals in thin wire frames, tangled in some brush. But I could not conceive of abandoning the search. I needed help. I had no phone, and could not leave that spot.

So I did the only reasonable thing: I got down on my hands and knees to search.

That had a dramatic effect on the situation. Traffic in both directions stopped at once. The very next oncoming vehicle came to a halt and the truck passenger hopped out and came to my aid. In passable the English he asked if I was alright. Was I ill? Did I need help? I told him I lost my glasses. He nodded, turned and called to the driver of the truck and said something in rapid French that ended in "la lunettes." The driver exited the truck and in a moment there were three of us searching the weeds. One of the guys found my glasses ten seconds later.

The guys from the truck offered me a ride home, which was in the opposite direction of their travel.( More than that, I was soaked in perspiration and would have had to squeeze in on the bench seat of their tiny truck.) I politely rejected the offer and struggled home on foot, overheated, dehydrated, and leg sore. Several cars going in the same direction that I was going, and who had also stopped when they saw me on my hands and knees, slowed, offered assistance and inquired about my health (the only real question was my physical health. As to mental health, nobody could have any doubts. "Only mad dogs and Englishmen ... .")

On the other hand, there is the matter of bragging rights. You simply cannot say you walked to the airport and back if you hitched a ride home. Even in France.

But from here on in, I will visit the airport only by car. For my morning walk I will stay on the less travelled road to Columbier point. And to increase the exercise level, I will emulate my beloved by upping the pace of my walking stride and maybe even try jogging on the few level areas and the downhills. Maybe by the time I depart, I'll even be jogging up a few of the lesser hills if no parts fail.

Hey, it's like the old days training for the marathon in Central Park: the faster you go, the faster you get home. If I fall apart ... . Well, we'll see.

A bientot.

05 March 2007

Celebrities in Paradise

For thirteen years, Pinks and I have been coming to this paradise because we think it is Paradise. I have frequently seen in the press a mention of St. Barths as a gathering place for A-list celebrities, but not counting my plumber, the only celebrity I have ever seen on this island was David Letterman. Beyond that, we have never seen a single movie star, television celebrity, or Vice-President of the United States. We of course see Ron Perelman's boat all the time, but never have actually laid eyes on the little bald guy in person.

This week, Stephanie is here with her highness three-month old Audrey Viola Madoff, (who has more bathing suits than I do) and last night at dinner at L'Espirite de Saline, we were discussing celebrity sightings. Stephanie is big on this subject, but not nearly as focused as Petal, Audrey's baby nurse, who scans the room desperately seeking even a B-level personality. The four adults pursued this conversation at some length while Audrey Viola evinced her disdain for this subject by napping, blowing spit bubbles, and smiling at the waiters.

Petal was crushed to learn that celebrities were not strewn among the diners restaurants like so many boats riding at anchor in Corossol Bay.

Me, I take the blasé approach. Who cares? They are just people, and though they go to the Academy Awards presentation, they have to worry about their hair and clothes and be photogenic all night long, while I can watch the first hour in my shorts and then go to sleep while they still have three hours of torture. Besides, I have some difficulty with names and faces, and would likely not recognize any celeb other than John Wayne, Jimmie Stewart, Spencer Tracy, or Humphrey Bogart, and given my atheistic leanings, I regard the likelihood of an encounter with one of them to be slim to none. Well, perhaps I exaggerate. There a few people I think I might recognize; perhaps one of my "girlfriends" as Pinks refers to them—a small group of women who are distinctively to my taste, i.e., Catherine Zeta-Jones, Nicole Kidman, and, well, maybe one or two others I cannot think of right this minute.

The Letterman Sighting:
One day last week I had come down the road from the FedEx office, waiting to turn right into the stream of traffic on the airport road, when I saw David Letterman drive by right to left, in his Moke—a distinctive small open vehicle formerly quite prevalent on this island, but for some reason or other, now almost extinct. I knew it was he, because it looked just like him, and Pinks told me Letterman had a home here and drove one of the few remaining Mokes on the island. So instead making my intended right turn, I cut off a motorbike and hung a fast left, trailing Letterman by one car. Exciting stuff, huh? He made a left into the Match parking lot, and I followed him in. Now I have him trapped.

Only it wasn't the Match parking lot, it was the driveway just before that, and it dead-ended in auto repair shop, and the guy got out of the Moke, kissed a mechanic (I am not kidding about this) and now that he was standing I could see he looked exactly like Letterman except he was about seven inches shorter, maybe forty pounds heavier, and his face was different. So I made an elegant three-minute long six-point u-turn to get out of the driveway without smashing into the scattered cannibalized Mokes (so that's where they have all gone), motorbikes, and Smart cars—the latter, it appears, endure island fender-benders as well as motor scooters. Yuch, that was embarrassing.

Now to this morning. Steph and I were in the Jeep, and Pinks, Petal, Audrey Viola, and two hundred pounds of baby cargo were preceding us in the Terios, on the way to lunch at CocaLoba in Grande Cul de Sac. About five minutes into the drive, we were in St. Jean, just past the Eden Rock Hotel, when Stephanie screamed "Nicole Kidman, there she is, with Keith Urban!" As we passed the woman on the sidewalk walking toward us, I did get a momentary glimpse of a tall skinny woman in baseball cap and sunglasses walking toward the shops on the north side of the road, but I doubted this was my Nicole and said so. Stephanie said "Trust me, I am good at this, that was Keith Urban (whom I gather has the distinction of winning the shortest-time-between-wedding-ceremony-and-entering-rehab award) and Nicole Kidman." So blasé me stepped on the gas, roared ahead into one entrance of a small shopping mall and out the other, in the process scaring a pedestrian couple out of their shoes (well, only she, and then only one flip-flop, but they were strolling in the driving lane) hung a left to go back the other way, (Steph screamed because I had to make two moves to do the left , and that left me broadside to the heavy traffic for a few moments, but she is a New York City person and not yet wise to our local customs) and I sped back to the place of the sighting.

Yikes, there she was, my Nicole, very tall, very skinny, white T shirt, skinny jeans (egad those legs are long) sunglasses, baseball cap, standing outside a store, looking pissed, doubtless cause her husband left her there while he ducked into a shop to …. Whatever. What do I do now? Abandon the car in the middle of the road? I actually considered it for a second or two while traffic behind me started to pile up. But then what? What do I do after getting out of the car? Throw myself at her feet? I do not collect autographs, had no camera, I am already happily married, and she, at least is married for the moment. While I ponder, traffic is piling up behind me. Especially on that road, one stopped, (no less abandoned) automobile can, in a few minutes, bring the entire island to a halt. Out of options, I resolved the quandary by doing the distinguished retired lawyer thing: I tromped down on the gas pedal, sped down the road to the Suzuki dealer where I pulled in and made a tire-screeching U-turn and drove back to make another pass at my Nicole. But she was gone. Must be inside on of the shops, balling out her husband who doesn't deserve her.

Sigh, Stephanie and I would just have to be content with torturing Petal and Pinks at lunch, which we did, quite effectively I thought.

And who is that short guy Keith Urban anyway? And what kind of name is that? Was he really born Marvin Yablonky? I never heard of him before. Does he do septic tanks? Maybe I'll throw some business in his direction.

A bientot.

01 March 2007

International Travel

Sailboarding is not an entirely useless activity. I have discovered at least one redeeming value: the sport has inspired someone to create a website (www.windguru.com) devoted to sailboarders, informing them of wind conditions at a hundreds of points around the globe. The site managers use sophisticated algorithms (love that word, have no idea what it means, other than, I am pretty sure, it has nothing to do with birth control) to predict the wind every FOUR HOURS, eight days out, at any point you choose. They show wind speed, direction, wave height, the space between the waves, the percentage of cloud cover, and temperature!

If you are a coastal boater, there is no better source of weather information. None. These guys are way ahead of the run of the mill weather forecasters.

So two weeks ago, Sandy Herzfeld and I saw an opening in the forecast and on a flat day circumnavigated Saba, a forbidding inactive volcano (actually two of them joined at the base) 25 miles southwest of here. Despite a reputation built on the diligent work of the Saba tourist bureau, there simply is no good reason for anyone to go there. Owned by The Netherlands, it is populated by some fifteen hundred souls (must be lots of kissing cousins there, non?) whose ancestors lured boats on to the rocks for plunder. It has no beaches, and it's shoreline consists of two kinds of rocks: large and small. It has virtually no port to speak of, and its airstrip is shorter than St. Barths'. We went because we could, happy to say we visited Saba, but never went ashore. I understand tourists go there for the hiking. I wonder if anyone has ever kept count of the number of tourists going in versus the number coming out.

Anguilla—now that's another story. Located north of St. Martin, about 25 miles northwest of St. Barths, it is reputed to have the most magnificent beaches in the world. Miles and miles of white powder, wind-sheltered beaches.

Anguilla (pronounced ANGWEELA by those who live there) has another virtue—it is an easy day trip from St. Barths by boat, which we did recently for lunch.

I had visions of finding a shoreside restaurant with a dock, the kind you find all over Long Island and New England. No such thing there. I checked with the guys at the local marina here. Frederic told me how to do it: Go the to Rendezvous Bay on the south side (the close side for us) of Anguilla, anchor close to the beach, wave, and somebody from the Cuisinart Hotel will come in a dinghy and take you ashore. All you need do is wave, and they will come. So much for vhf, radio-phone, sat phone, cell phone, and all the rest. We are back to semaphore, without flags yet.

When Windguru told me Monday was to have 9 knot winds and 1% cloud cover, I made plans to go on that day.

I am often asked what I do with myself now that I am retired. What occupies my day. Here's an example:

Two days before our scheduled trip to Anguilla, we decided to take the boat around and swim off Columbier beach, a nice 15 minute jaunt from Corossol Bay, and on our way there, we can look at the big ships in the outer harbor. I never tire of that.

To save time I decided to go out to Fish Faster alone early in the morning, lower and start the engines, check out the boat, etc. I drove down to the beach, parked the car, went to the dinghy, went back to the car and came back home for the dinghy key. Key in hand, drove back to beach, turned around and came back home for the dinghy pump. Returned to the beach with the pump, topped off the tubes, launched the dinghy, started the outboard and got about 20 feet off the shore when I realized I had forgotten to replace the garboard plug in the dinghy transom and the water was rising fast. Nice. Did a 180, beached and drained the dinghy, replaced garboard plug, re-launched the dinghy (Launching dinghy is not so easy given the swell. It involves pushing off in knee deep water, hopping aboard, dropping the engine to the "down" position, pulling the starter rope and getting the engine running before the waves push you back to the shallows where the propellor digs in the sand. The liklihood of that happening is directly proportional to the number of people on the beach watching the operation) putt-putted to Fish Faster. Terrific. All seemed to be in order there, but when Pinks, her sister Karen and I later returned to Fish Faster and motored over to Columbier Bay, I found the anchor windlass had seized and I could not free the anchor. (I had not before used it this year). We were able to tie up to a buoy instead, and while the sisters swam, I sweated trying to fix the windlass, or at least free the chain from the gypsy so I could use the anchor the old fashioned way: pitch it off the bow. Btw, there is no shade at the bow of Fish Faster where the windlass is stationed. I labored in the sun for an hour, but when I was finished the chain was still firmly in the grip of the gypsy.

Woke up early the next morning full of ideas. Maybe it was electrical. Yeah, that's the ticket. Ugh, so what? I know zilch re boat electronics. Dinghied out to Fish Faster, found no loose battery wires, tried shorting out the circuit breaker with a screwdriver (to see if it was a bad breaker) could not short out the sealed switch, so I was stymied. Dinghied back to the beach, and returned to the house, then returned to the beach because I had left the key in the dinghy and forgot to close the gas line, then went to the shipchandlers for some gizmos, then back to beach, back to Fish Faster and freed the chain, then back to beach, drove to shipchandler for a stainless steel shackle because I destroyed the cast iron one that connects the anchor to the chain. I also bought a pair of work gloves so the substitute anchor windlass doesn't ruin her manicure while retrieving the anchor. Came home, made some calls re getting the windlass repaired.

The windlass is a name brand, Simpson Lawrence. Their ads in all the boating magazines talk about CUSTOMER SUPPORT. What a joke. I called the Simpson Lawrence dealer in St. Martin. He was not familiar with model, had never seen one, and suggested I call the former dealer. The latter told me he was the former dealer and I should call the boat riggers who are the guys who suggested I call the Simpson Lawrence dealers. My email to the company was apparently ignored. Nice. I think I will write a letter. Just have to figure out to whom to write it. To Pinks, I guess. She, I know, will answer it.

Back to my tale, if any reader be still awake: new shackle in hand, back to beach, back to boat to attach the anchor chain to the anchor, then splice a rope to a newly purchased stainless steel ("inox," en francaise) clip to hold the anchor in its roller, and this is all before lunch. See, I am busy.

Monday produced a 6 AM rain squall lasting a good three minutes, the sky then turned an outrageously bright blue, and the sea was dead flat. Windguru had nailed it again. The scheduled 11 AM departure occurred right on schedule at noon.

With the use of paper chart (24 euros, egad!), GPS, and the written chart Frederic scratched out for me on the back of his telephone bill (he said he doesn't need it, they just take the money from his bank account.—me too), we found Rendezvous Bay just where it is supposed to be, travel time one hour ten minutes.

Then comes ten minutes of The Marx Brothers. I get to about 30 yards off the beach, the depth meter says 9.5 feet, and that's good enough for me. Over goes the anchor. I wave at the people on the shore, they wave back. I wave, they wave. Nice, but nobody's coming. After much gymnastics, a lady in a hotel uniform comes to the water's edge and starts pointing and waving. I respond by pointing and waving. She is also speaking but I can hear not a word, and I tell her so, which is really dumb cause if I can't hear her, likely she can't hear me. I do a lot of pantomiming. Not quite sure how you pantomime the message "Huh?" but I tried. Does she want me to move? Am I too close to the swimmers? (There are none, everybody is at the pool. Isn't that amazing?) This is all very unproductive and we are considering tossing Karen overboard so she can swim ashore and be our waterborne carrier pigeon,(a "carrier cormorant?") when we see our shorelady pointing to a guy who is shoving off from shore kneeeling on a surfboard, and who proceeds to start paddling in our general direction. A SURFBOARD. We were howling. Tears on our cheeks. Does this guy intend to ferry us ashore one at a time on that thing? Why not just ask us to swim?

Nope, he is paddling to his 10 foot motorized inflatable dinghy attached to a close-by buoy. He cranks up the outboard, dinghies over to us, we hop aboard and he deposits us in 12 inches of warm water with the soft sand of Anguilla under our feet. Hey, the whole process worked just fine.

There are no border or customs police in the shallows. We wade ashore a la Douglas McArthur, except we do it only once, no rehearsals, no photographers. A shame, I think.

Off to lunch at the restaurant near the pool. All very exciting, except the fries were way greasy,the "panini" was on a hamburger roll, the wait staff spoke without that soft French accent, and I left my Crocs on the boat and as a result had burned the soles of my feet on the walk to the restaurant. But hey, we were on Anguilla, another international boundary crossed (Anguilla is or was British) and the whole thing was a hoot.

As Windguru predicted, the wind picked up in the afternoon. We dinghied back to the boat at 2:45 and I did some boat-keeping stuff while the ladies swam off the stern platform. At 3 PM sharp, the captain recovered the swimmers, started the engines, and Pinks got to use her new gloves hauling up the anchor rode. Our trip back to France, bow into the freshening wind, was 1 hour 25 minutes.

Dinner at Maya's. Monday is Chicken Night. It is not the only thing on the menu, but I always order it on Monday. Why? Because the boat from France (that France, not this one) with the French chickens arrives on Saturday, so Monday is Chicken Night. If you don't believe me, ask Maya. She is the source of my intelligence on this subject.

Whoops, it is past my official gin and tonic time. Remind me to tell you about the time I lost my glasses on a two-hour walk home from the St. Barths airport.

A bientot.