26 April 2008

Muddy Skies

About 20 miles to the southwest of our outdoor dining room table (not to suggest there is also an inside one--there is not) lies the island of Saba, a Dutch protectorate. On clear days, its two-volcano profile is quite visible. On some exceptional days, one can see the sparse white pinpricks that are the houses clinging (if one can still use that word without being attacked by the Clinton spin machine) to the few gradual slopes.

But about one-third of the time, Saba is invisible to us. Why? The air quality is not noticeably different. The soft springtime breezes are delicious and full of the jasmine scent from the bushes by the shed. The cruise boats, private yachts, small sailboats, and fishing boats anchored in Corossol Bay are still brilliant in the morning sunshine.

So where's Saba? (Locals pronounce it "saybah", the metropoles' pronunciation rhymes with "papa". Me? I'm a local.) As I sit here and look out, it's as if someone took a gummy eraser and removed it from my picture.

I have heard two explanations and I am prepared to believe either or neither:

1. The atmosphere is sometimes clouded with dust from the Sahara Desert. Yes, really. There is a huge quantity of the Sahara traveling up there in some form of jet stream and sometimes some of it settles over the Carib. While the stuff is not noticeable when looking at an object but a few miles away, there are days when the horizon is not a sharp line, but a fuzzy, almost gradual interface with the sky. On those days, the blue sky just above the horizon is pale, bordering on grayish. And Saba is behind the blue-gray drapes.

2. Most of the islands that make up the Lesser Antilles (an eastward bulging convex chain of islands stretching from Puerto Rico to South America) were created by now-defunct volcanoes. ( Not St. Barths. I dunno why, or how this island came to be, but our mountains, I am informed, are not volcanic, but were formed by some other process on that single day (well, according to Mr. Huckabee, at least) the land was separated from the sea. The few nearby volcanic islands I have been able to eyeball (Saba, Nevis) have unmistakable volcanic visual profiles.

But there is a real live, i.e., active, volcano in the neighborhood: Montserrat, an island 100+ miles to the south, has been devastated over the last decade by the activity of the Antilles' only active above ground volcano. (Yup, there is an active undersea volcano farther south, off the Grenadines. Kick 'em Jenny –nobody knows where the name comes from, beyond the fact that there is a tiny island of the same name nearby —has erupted twelve times in the last 70 years, and has created an undersea mound three miles across and .8 miles high. Its crater is now only 500 feet below the surface of the water, and careless mariners ( the volcano has a 1.5 mile radius no-navigation zone) could find themselves in a boiling and smoke-emitting cauldron. That's the hard way to get the barnacles off the bottom. It is also the easy (read "only")way to pick up some ready-to-eat bouillabaisse at sea.

The projection is that the Kick 'em Jenny sea-floor volcano is likely to become yet another island in the Lesser Antilles chain in the coming century. Buy now and save.

Back to Montserrat. This very active volcano has erupted numerous times in the last decade or two. During the last several years, the eruptions were devastating. Towns and villages on that island were buried in ash and lava, the airport was destroyed, more than half the population has been forced to evacuate, and last year a mile-high pillar of smoke and dust from its crater interfered with airplane traffic in the nearby islands. While there has not been a major eruption so far this year, the volcano continues to spew smoke and dust on a regular basis, and when the wind is just right, we get a kind of dusty haze in Paradise that obscures the horizon and wipes out Saba.

Just keeping you northerners up to date. I know you are very concerned about traffic, the Second Avenue subway, and the general stress of life in Metropolis, but I wanted you to know we tropical island dwellers have our issues too.

Okay, time to get the moldy suitcases out of the leaky pump room and start packing. See y'all soon.

A bientot.

19 April 2008

Spring is Here

The wind has stopped howling, and one can sit on the beach eating le baguette avec jambon et fromage without that tell-tale crunch that warns the enamel is being ground away. Kinda makes me think of those animals (we don't get channel 13 here so I cannot remember which they are) who spend their lives chewing stuff, and when the teeth are ground down, they die. This winter had made me wonder how many Barthians have succumbed to that fate.

I confess I was not sure the weather would ever return to normal this year. We are not there yet, but at least getting closer. No islander can recall a winter so cool and windy. People had even taken to wearing long sleeved shirts to dinner, and Pinks frequently found no fish at the market on the quay because the fisherman said it had been too rough to go out; mahi-mahi, which is the staple local fish, is caught some 50 miles offshore. On some evenings, we dropped the hurricane shutters so that we could eat dinner protected from the near gale that was buffeting our outdoor dining table. On those days, the guys who rent boats to the tourists didn't even bother to come to work, and dive boats and snorkel tours were also hit hard. Add to that the high cost of the euro, and lots of Barthian businesses had a poor season.

But it's all relative, I guess. The tourists still filled the island during the good weeks, escaping the cold of the northeast and midwest. They endured the cool evenings and the windy beaches because it was a heck of lot better than what they left behind. Some of the northeasterners,-- I guess those who sold subprime mortgages to the rest of us and got out before the dam breached—even lunched at Eden Rock.

(In my youth, representing a large stock brokerage, I once took an appeal from a District Judge's order. The District Judge had made a mistake, of course. I knew that, even if he did not. So I asked the appellate court to reverse and set the lower court judge straight. Unfortunately for my client, not all wrong orders are appealable. I thought this one was, or that, at the least, it was a close question. Unhappily, the panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that heard the case did not agree with me, and the sweet, kindly Chief Judge by the name of Irving Kaufman said so his typically ambiguous and tentative manner: he added a footnote in which he likened my client's expenditures in the pursuit of this appeal to the stories of the wealthy colonial landowners who, for sport, would gather on the banks of the Potomac and take turns throwing gold coins into the river, until one of them would shout, "Enough, sir, I say enough.")

That's the way I feel about the restaurant prices at the Eden Rock Hotel.

Nevertheless, real estate prices on the island continue to soar, and one wonders whether we are in the midst of a bubble, a la the United States. No subprime mortgages here, though. French banks are far too conservative to lend 90% of a property's value. What's more, when they do loan money, they insist on being named beneficiary of a policy on the life of the borrower. Sort of reminds one of the way Tony Soprano did biz: pay or get whacked.

We approach the last roll of the dice for local businesses. April 15 is the universal start of the reduced rate "low season" here and lots of sun starved northeasterners have been crouched at the start line waiting for that gun to fire. But let's face it, the springtime visitors are not going to undo the economic damage done by the Bush dollar. Everything here is wickedly expensive for the dollar crowd. It is difficult to eat at a moderately priced restaurant for under $100 per person, groceries are about double what we pay at home, except for fruits and vegetables which are triple. Gasoline is pushing $8.00 per gallon. The list goes on and on. The only bargains are tobacco and alcohol, and given that we abjure the former, we see it as in our best economic interests to capitalize on our fondness of the latter.

Okay, it is getting to be time to recover Frank's travel crate from the shed and assemble it for the trip home. M. Franck, who is approaching his fourteenth birthday, was happy with cooler weather this year, but found going up and down the steps increasingly more difficult. Me too.

On another note, I read in the NY Times that David Tarloff, the guy who in February used a meat cleaver to hack to death the Park Avenue psychiatrist, will plead not guilty by reason of insanity. His lawyer is quoted as saying he has "very strong grounds" for such a defense, inasmuch as, "He believed through prayer that God had approved what he was going to do."

Didn't I read somewhere that George Bush said the same thing about his invasion of Iraq?

A bientot.

07 April 2008

Come Fly With Me

The island of St. Barthelemy lies 10 miles southeast of the westernmost edge of the island of St. Martin/St. Maarten. In between is a nasty strip of water called the St. Barthelemy Channel, which features steep and confused waves on all but the flattest days. Several public ferries make the trip 5 or 6 times a day. That journey lasts, by the clock, somewhere between 45 minutes and 90 minutes, depending on which ferry one takes, and its point of departure from St. Martin. I provide the clock measurement as a frame of reference only. For the passengers, the trip can be endless. Sea sickness is the norm, vomit bags standard equipment, and the trip can be torture. (Not torture, of course, by the Bush administration's definition, because it does not involve pain one associates with major organ failure. But let's put it this way; I would willingly, indeed happily, consign Dick Cheney to ride the ferry for an indeterminate period,-- a modern Man Without A Country.)

The alternative, of course, is airplane travel. St. Barths has a renowned airstrip. It is renowned for its absurd location (at the approach end of the strip is a sizable mountain, and the run-off is equally unforgiving - - at the far end of the strip is 20 feet of beach and then the sea. I am informed that a plane gets its wheels wet every now and then, though that has not happened while I was on the island. Not all visitors love the roller-coaster descent, but certainly everybody comments on it. Only specially certified pilots may attempt a landing here. In the 50+ years of operation, there has been one aircrash on the island, an unexplained fall from the sky about a mile short of the runway. There has never been a comprehensive explanation of why the plane fell.

There are three airlines that serve the SXM-SBH route. All three have planes that depart from the big jetport on the Dutch side of St. Maarten, which makes transfer possible without passengers having to go to another airport. Sounds good so far, right? Not so fast. We now come to the Third World aspect of Caribbean air travel.

Last week, we went to the airport to meet Pinks' sister who was to board a 3:15 Winair flight out of SXM. I love going to airport in my bathing suit and flip-flops, watching exhausted North Americans, white-faced, (sometimes tinged with traces of green for the not-so-hardy fliers) and seeing them instantly relax when embraced by the warm sun as they descend that rickety ladder out of their small aluminum cigar tubes.

But as Pinks and I sat around in the lounge waiting for Karen to arrive, we noticed not one Winair plane had landed in more than an hour. Several Air Caraibes and St. Barths Commuter flights, but no Winair planes. Late arrivals are de rigueur here, but no arrivals at all? A check with the Winair desk was in order.

When I asked my usual question at the Winair counter, I expected I would hear the usual response: "We have no idea when the next plane is coming in or who is on it." But instead I got the startling message, "No planes. None. Winair can not fly into St. Barths today because the St. Barths airport fire engine is broken."

I found the St. Barths Winair airport manager coming out of his office. Nice guy, usually pleasant, big smile, always helpful. He was so angry he could barely speak. The simple story was right out of "Stop the Carnival": Our airport has a fire engine. It is an airport fire engine, designed to suppress aircraft fires with chemicals, foam, whatever. The machine was broken. It needs a part. The fire engine was made in France, and the part will have to come from France. Estimated time of delivery? One week, not counting the time it takes to fly in the mechanic from Guadeloupe to install it.

Winair, headquartered in the Dutch airport on St. Maarten, is a Dutch company, and Dutch regulations forbid landing in any airport lacking a properly equipped fire engine. Period. The other two airlines here are French, and French regulations were not so rigid. So St. Barth Commuter and Air Caraibes were flying and Winair was not. So much for European Union.

Options for the passengers stranded in SXM? There is no way the smaller Air Caraibes and St. Barth Commuter airlines could pick up the slack. For the Winair passengers stuck in St. Maarten, it became a game of survival. The available charter aircraft were all taken. The ferries were running, but a storm had kicked up 14 foot waves in the channel, and it was a particularly undesirable option.

To make their decisions, the Winair-SXM strandees were in desperate need of good intelligence. What they got was a combination of George Tenet's CIA and Fox News: "All misleading, all the time." While Rodrigue, the Winair head of St. Barths operations assured me that the Winair personnel in St. Maarten would hire buses and transport all the stranded passengers to the next ferry, the Winair personnel in St. Maarten were operating from a different playbook.

There have been times in my career when I have been asked to teach a class or give a lecture to high school or college students, or lawyers from Japan, or China, -- people who are unfamiliar with the detailed aspects of U.S. securities law. A major principle of that regulatory scheme involves the concept of truthful disclosure. I explain that our law requires more than just being sure what you say is true. You must not only tell the truth, but in addition, you must incorporate such language as to make your truthful statement not misleading. Examples always help to explain the concept. For my next such lecture I could well use what the St. Maarten Winair gate agents told their stranded customers: It is an absolutely true statement and and at the same time a wickedly misleading one:

"We need a part for the St. Barths fire engine. As soon as it is installed, flights will resume."

No mention was made that process would likely take up to a week. Nice, huh?

So some passengers hung around waiting for the fire engine to be fixed. Others, like Karen, having been to the Carib before, went with what was working--the ferries.

All ferries arrive in St. Barths at the same dock in our small harbor. But in St. Martin/St.Maarten, there are two departure points, each 40 minutes from the airport, and each 40 minutes from each other. In typical island fashion, the ferry operators had switched terminals for some of their Tuesday departures. They announced this by posting a notice at the ferry dock in St. Barths. Nice touch. Of course, nobody advised the St. Maarten airport taxi drivers of the changes, and as a result, the passengers who opted for the ferries were delivered to the wrong terminal, whereupon the the taxis then raced across the island to catch the next ferry from the other departure point. It was a game of taxicab pinball. The passengers were green even before they got on the ferry.

Was this an effort to control access to Paradise and make it all the more exclusive? Sort of pulling up the ladder? I doubt it. A fair question, but I think this was just typical island mismanagement. St. Maarten is still trying to cope with 20th century methods and technology. It will be 50 years before they get to the 21st century. For the exhausted North Americans who spent a day, sometimes two, fighting to get as far as St. Maarten, this was yet one more bad roll of the dice in the Caribbean Planes, Trains, Taxis, and Boats board game.

By some combination of pluck and luck, Karen, after criss-crossing St. Martin by taxi, did get aboard the last ferry to depart St. Martin that evening. While she was out of communication with us, from our front deck we spied the boat plowing across Corossol Bay in the dark, drove down to the harbor, and watched Karen alight onto the quay. She was in better shape than many, i.e., her complexion was more like that of a lemon than a lime. Fortunately, she was totally restored ten minutes later when we were able to relax on the front deck of our house: Tanqueray is a great healer.

I was in the airport late the following day for another chore, and saw Winair planes landing. Huh? It seems somebody had found another fire engine! Yup. I saw it. Looked like a museum piece, or a papier mache creation, but there it was, faded red paint and all. I did not see the horses that are needed pull it, but I figured the Chamber of Commerce has stashed them somewhere off site.

My guess is they found a spare fire engine in the big airport in SXM and ferried it over here. I suspect that this fire engine probably doesn't work either, but nobody is looking at it too carefully until the other one is repaired. Meanwhile, Winair was busy flying in all the passengers who had been unwilling overnight guests at the St. Maarten Airport Motel. Those people deserve a medal.

Btw, so far as I have been able to learn, never, in the 50 year history of this airport, has there ever been an opportunity to use the fire engine, other than the several-times-a-day trips down the runway looking for parts that occasionally drop off airplanes as they take off or land.

So what is the lesson here? There can be only one: Relax, It's the Carib. Come on down.

A bientot.