30 January 2009

Paparazzi in Paradise

Flamands Beach faces north. Long, wide, two hotels (Taiwana and Isle de France) at the east end, beachfront villas to the west. Flamands is three minutes from our house, and we tend to go there when we want to spend just an hour or two in the sun.

There are two public entrances to the beach: one about 300 yards west of the hotels, and the other at the extreme west end. The former entrance is a 25 foot wide corridor between two large recently built houses, each bordered by an eight foot high white concrete wall. The houses have elaborate swimming pools at their seaward faces, and low concrete walls separating the pool from the beach. That wall is fronted by dense plantings in the sand immediately adjacent to the wall.

Flamands is not nearly as heavily attended as the others. It is at the extreme end of the island and not so convenient for most, it tends to be windy with a bit of surf, and because it is on the north shore of the island, you need to choose whether you want to face the sun or the water. None of those things bother us.

Okay, so one enters the beach by walking down what is a walled corridor that extends onto the sand. It is only when you reach the end of the swimming pool sidewalls and the beachside foliage, do you get to see the beautiful vista to the east and west. So why was that guy dressed in black jeans, black shirt, holding onto a black backpack, lying at the beach end of the westernmost wall of the entrance? He looked bored staring east, but what was he doing there? Clearly not dressed for the beach, not interested in the view of the sea and the islands to the north, not reading or sleeping, just staring to the east. Sinister. Very un-St. Barths.

Shortly after we settled in our chairs, it became clear. He was a spy. Really. Well, at least a lookout. This guy reached into his backpack and came out with a pair of binoculars that looked like the ones you see submarine commanders use in the movies. Long, large circumference. Impressive. He looked through them for only a few minutes, then put them away, then took them out ten minutes later, etc. At one point after a viewing, he made a cellphone call. Aha. Within five minutes three more people arrived, two of them carrying large gym bags, out of which they took cameras the likes of which I have seen only on the sidelines of football and basketball games. The camera body was a that of a normal size SLR, but the lens was a monster. I estimate it was 18-24 inches long, with an end-diameter of 6-7 inches. It even had a carry handle along is longitudinal axis. The photographers never exposed themselves to an eastern or western viewer. All preparations were accomplished in the walled corridor, and when they were ready to shoot, they emerged from cover bent at the waist, crouched behind the foliage, and fired away, lenses aimed at the beach in front of Isle de France.

Pinks went for a swim, and I went for a stroll--east to Isle de France. I am terrible at star sighting. I recognize nobody. One year I even came face to face with Nicole Kidman, and missed her. Happily, Stephanie was with me or I would never have known one my "girlfriends" ( I have three or four, it is a rotating list, I am fickle) was here visiting me--or at least visiting my island.)

When I got to the hotel beach, I made careful survey of its occupants. I saw lots of beautiful people, but nobody I recognized. I sighted back to the photographers who would not be noticed but for someone who knew where to look, and estimated the lenses were aimed at the swimmers, two gorgeous women in waist deep water, playing in the surf. Still no recognition on my part. The only thing I was sure of was that neither of them was my Nicole.

Lacking the ability to figure this out for myself, I did the only left for me to do: walk back and cross examine the photographers, who were not all happy to talk to me, especially not to be seen talking to me. That was my edge: I wouldn't leave them until they cracked. The answer, in heavily accented French, was that the two women in the water were top Victoria Secret models. From my keen observations, they surely qualified, and I retired to my chair and my book and told Pinks my story. Ho hum. Just Victoria Secret models. Big deal. These guys ever been to Gouvernor Beach?

End of story, but I have questions. I can understand why fashion and gossip mags publish pix of beautiful models playing in the water, but why do the photographers need to hide? At 300 yards, the pictures would surely be degraded by the powerful lenses, focusing would be extremely difficult, movement of the camera and the subject would complicate things further, etc. Do models not want to be seen swimming? What would happen if these guys just walked up the beach and shot photos? It is a public beach, even the part with the hotel's chaise lounges on it. I could have brought my little pocket Sony, sat on the sand right at the water's edge and done as well as these guys, if I knew at whom I was looking!

Hey, perhaps I have stumbled onto a recession-proof trade. I'll go upstairs and charge up the camera battery now. Better still, I'll use the new Flip videocam I got for Christmas, take pix of beautiful people, and then maybe will be able to afford the St. Barths restaurants!

A bientot.

21 January 2009

The Challenge

Our first full day at the beach. We go to Gouverneur, a gorgeous, curved, white sand beach on the south shore of the island, bordered by green hills to the east and west. On Saturdays, many tourists are traveling, and many locals have the day off. Bright sun, light breeze, our beach chairs face the sea, the sun, and all who come and go. When it comes to people watching, it doesn't get any better than this.

For both of us, happily for different reasons, the people to watch are the French women. They are breathtaking. One after another. It makes reading my suspenseful police procedural very difficult. Every two minutes one of us pokes the other and we gawk, then make analytical observations about the latest woman passing our vantage point close to the beach entrance path.

The "Challenge", as Pinks put it to me this morning, is to describe the scene without being a dirty old man, or worse. A test, she says, of writing ability. She dared me to try. Here goes:

Some common elements I observed:

1. It would appear that all the French women are born with a dominant ”style" gene. No exceptions. Its effect is lifelong. Whether the woman is 8 or 68, it is always on display. This is involuntary.

2. Pinks and I disagree about this, but I am absolutely convinced all French women know EVERYBODY IS LOOKING. The result is that in the supermarket, on the sidewalk, and in the shops, the gauzy shifts and the high heeled slippers,(or whatever they are called) are show stoppers. I am not sure if it a cultural or criminal regulation, but no French woman may wear sneakers in public unless she is in the gym. On the beach, the bikinis are breathtaking, and the cover-ups, be they filmy, sometimes glittering tops, or clingy brightly colored pareas knotted low in front on a bony hip, are stunning. The entire look is as if it were all just "thrown together." Perhaps, but I doubt it. It's too perfect to be chance.

3. All the women affect an air of total indifference to the fact they putting on an electrifying fashion show as they parade by.

4. There are little if any cosmetics or other artificial styling assists involved here. The women swim, bake in the sun, lie on the sand or on towels, swim again, change their babies' diapers, whatever, and they still are heart-stopping. I have never seen even a re-application of lipstick on the beach. WYSIWYG.

5. Did I mention they have perfect figures? I mean movie star, model perfect. All of them. Really. Staggering. Something in the drinking water? Or another French gene that bars the production of cellulite? Whatever. It's not for me to question nature's wonder.

6. On the beach, women either stand or lie on the sand. Only Americans sit on chairs. Think about it: what is the best way to display that perfect body? Sitting folded up in a beach chair ain't it.

7. Some French women remove their tops, some not. Then they swim, walk the strand, sunbathe, converse with friends and their children, whatever. That's all I have to say on this subject. I am simply not going there.

Oh, one possible exception to Point 3 above, re their indifference to public notice. One topless "10" who parked herself at the water's edge near us must surely have been aware the show she was about to put on would draw the attention of all within a quarter mile. (Pinks disagrees, but she is simply wrong. Besides, it's my blog). First, the young Deborah Kerr wannabe, looking for all the world as if she were awaiting the arrival of her own Burt Lancaster, lay down on her back at the fringes of the surf, her feet pointing to the sea, letting the wavelets roll over her. I am not sure if she ever saw the famous beach scene in From Here to Eternity, but she sure channeled it. After a while, perhaps sensing that Burt was not going to arrive and her audience was drifting, she sat up and treated herself to a self administered languid mud scrub. All of her. Pinks and I were both transfixed. We had the following conversation:

Me: Good lord, Pinks, what is she doing?

Pinks: She is exfoliating herself.

Me: Huh? Is that legal to do on the beach?

Pinks: I guess in France it is.

When the exfoliater had done her work to her satisfaction, she rose and walked slowly into the calm sea. I thought the entire population of the beach would give her a standing ovation. Pinks and I sat open-mouthed through the entire performance. Brava!


I surrender. It's impossible for me to be any more graphic without violating the "dirty old man" rule. In fact, I am already in trouble at home, but I have a responsibility to those of you who are now freezing your asses off to tell you what is going on here.

Come on down and see for yourself.

A bientot.

15 January 2009

Don't Blame It All on Osama

Let's face it. Much as I formerly loved jet air travel, it now really sucks, and much of the suckiness has nothing to do with Bin Laden or the TSA. Two examples, then I am going into the pool:

For some reason I now fail to recall, we decided to try Continental's flight out of Newark for the trip to SXM last week. Just in case air travel is insufficiently inconvenient, Continental Airlines has injected a new annoyance: the "undisclosed seat switch" maneuver. Travelers beware. Here's how it works.

We check in at Newark two hours before our flight. We pay our luggage charges (sigh), and get our boarding cards from the desk agent. We ask for, and are given emergency row seats, 14 D and 14 E. Our boarding passes are the cardboard type, with a perforated section at the right hand end of the card. My experience is the boarding agent takes the larger left hand piece, and you keep the stub, with your seat number on it. At the gate, as we board, the agent takes our boarding passes, runs them through the machine they now use, and instead of giving us our original card back, the machine spits out a new paper boarding pass. I think nothing of it until walking down the aisle of the rapidly filling plane, I notice that my new boarding pass says 10 D and 10 E, which are NOT emergency row seats. The crowd is gathering behind me, the cabin attendant knows nothing, the couple already sitting in emergency row seats 14D and 14E stretch their legs, look at their magazines and pretend they are not listening to our conversation, and I am screwed.

I surrender. Hey, I bought a coach seat, I got a coach seat, I am here for the duration of the winter, and the seat-stealers will be up to their whatevers in snow in a week or ten days. My revenge: I just will not fly Continental again. That'll bring em to their knees.

The second half of this travel report relates to local issues: While the St. Barths airport is comfortable, and now very secure (they just last month actually plugged in the metal detector and baggage x-ray machines that have been sitting in their packing crates for three years) the airport is not much use without airlines. Ah, now we see the problem.

Returning to New York in November, we had booked a flight that departed St. Maarten at 2 pm, and Winair booked us on a flight that departed St. Barths at noon, scheduled to arrive at SXM at 12:15. For the off season, an hour and forty-five minutes lead time is hardly generous, given that it now takes an hour just to get from the tarmac to the check-in gate, but it is adequate.

We dutifully check in at the Winair desk in St. Barths at 11:30 A.M. Plenty of time for the our noon flight, an excessive amount of time for the 1 P.M. flight. Hold on, did the Winair agent just tell us the next flight was one o'clock? Surely he meant 12 o'clock. No, his English is perfect: one o'clock is the next flight. But we are on the twelve, not the one. "Yes," he explains, "you are confirmed on the 12 o'clock, which today departs at one o'clock." "On time", he adds helpfully. "But that would get us to SXM too late to catch the 2 P.M to New York," we calmly explain. He agrees. We need to get back to New York tonight, we assert. He shrugs. How Gallic. His manner says this is not really his problem. He does not have to make the 2 o'clock plane from SXM. He lives here.

We ask to see the manager. He is not here. Mind you, at this airport, the check-in guy is also the baggage handler, and in the absence of Rodrigue, he is also the manager of this "airline."

We slide over to the adjacent Air Caraibe desk. Do they have a noon flight? Yup. Any seats? No, they just sold the last two to a couple who were standing behind us at the Winair counter, overheard our conversation, and, slippery devils, boogied over to Air Caraibe. I can't complain. I would have done the same.

We were accompanied in all of this by Dawn, our local friend and house manager, who had come down to bid us adieu. Dawn is a no-nonsense New Orleans gal, married to a Clark Gable look-a-like local builder. She brooks no bureaucratic incompetence. Her life here is hard.

She takes us to the St. Barths Commuter desk. (This is our last shot. We are out of desks, now. And out of time. It is already noon.) Any flights? Non. How about a charter? (We have another couple in tow, similarly situated. For four people, the cost is close to Winair ticket prices.) The agent makes some calls. We are hopeful. Then not.

Agent: "I cannot help. I have a plane, but no pilot."

Dawn: "Where is the pilot?"

Agent: "Eating lunch, he just left."

Dawn: "Where is he having his lunch?"

Agent: "In the restaurant upstairs."

Dawn: "Nobody move, I'll be right back."

The pilot was no match for Dawn. Five minutes later she and the still-chewing pilot arrive at the desk. His body language is that of a school boy caught smoking in the bathroom. His expression is the same as it would be if Dawn had him by the ear. We sign some papers, are airborne by 12:20, and make our flight to NYC with ease. If I ever fly Continental Airlines again, I'm taking Dawn to the airport with me.


Bottom line, we are now back in Paradise, the sun shines during rainstorms, the tv works from time to time, and all is right with the geckos who sun on our deck.

A bientot.

08 January 2009

Come Fly with Me, Carib Style

Okay, so it's November, the Montauk pool is covered, ice frosts over the nameplate on the Yamaha outboards, our heating oil dealer is smiling again, and it's time to take the ten-day trip to Paradise, open the shutters on the cottage (err, "Villa", excusez moi!), poison the resident scorpions and dengue mosquitoes, and make the page-long list of things needing repair.

But you have to get there first. Easy, right? Fly 2,000 miles in comfort in a bulkhead seat (the advantage of having flown a million-plus miles on that carrier when I was a working stiff), and then one arrives at the newly constructed terminal in Phillipsburgh,St. Maarten. Completed last year, the place is gorgeous. A triumph of architectural beauty. Soaring ceilings, 48-inch round pillars supporting 60-foot high steel arches, acres of gleaming terrazzo floors,a zillion cubic feet of air conditioned space, the whole bit.

Ah, but if only just one on that team of expensive architects had ever actually been in an airport before and navigated to a connecting flight. Two years ago, making the transfer from AA to the Winair plane for the ten-minute flight to Paradise was simple: You exited the big jet via an outdoor stairway directly onto the tarmac, strolled about a hundred yards in the delicious hot sun toward a collection of one-story attached corrugated buildings, and before reaching the steaming cowshed that was the "main" terminal, you ducked into a door marked "Transfer" and in two minutes (if the person attending the Winair desk was actually at the Winair desk) you were at the Winair gate. After some pushing and shoving, you were allowed through a door which put you back on the tarmac for a brief stroll to the tissue paper and balsa wood plane that carried smiling people to St. Barths. (The uninitiated sometimes stopped smiling when they realized their luggage was a day behind. Hey, it's the Carib.)

Now, in the new building, it is all much more "efficient": One exits the jet via an air conditioned finger, walks (no people movers) about .3 mile, descends a flight of steps and walks to a series of five immigration lines. Each bears a different redundant sign (i.e. "immigration", "transients" "transfers' etc, but all empty to the same area. Why five different labels? I dunno. Walk down another flight of steps, and you are in baggage claim. Take your bag to a nearby unmarked counter which sometimes has a person attending to it. If he is there, check in to Winair. If not, then you take the hike. That is a 50/50 bet. If no one is there, walk your luggage about .5 miles to Winair check-in desk at the extreme far end of the terminal, passing through a "Customs" area where two uniformed guys are chatting. In the several trips through that area, I have NEVER seen them stop anyone, check any bags, ask any questions, nada. At the Winair check-in you learn there is a 60 euro (80USD) charge for your second bag. But that attendant will not take your money. Instead, you walk to another line at another Winair counter. This is deceptively long line; it moves quickly because almost all the people on line think this is Winair check-in, instead it's only where Winair TAKES checks IN. Pay your money, and then walk all the way back to where you started (do not collect $200) wait in line at a passport control counter, walk up a flight of steps, wait in a switchback maze to get to another passport control check-point, then another switchback corral to reach the single lane security check. The management recognizes this is a burdensome process, so they provide entertainment: while waiting in the corral before the second passport check, the public address system reports:"All Winair flights are delayed." Get through the passport check and while shuffling along in the next corral, one hears yet another announcement, "All Winair flights are FURTHER delayed." Huh? Whatever.

One then walks then walk another half mile to the Winair departure gate. Here you see technology at its finest. A large flat panel monitor lists all Winair flights that day. All are marked "On Time." Actually, none are on time, and at least three flights back from the current hour have not left at all. At the gate itself, there is another large monitor, flashing the flight number and the status, such as, "On Time", "Boarding", "Departed" etc. All lies. When one inquires of the sulky clerk, one learns, "Oh, that's just the signs. Don' mean nuttin." Thank you very much.

If Winair finds a plane they can actually fly that day,they call your flight, you hand in your boarding pass and go through the door leading to the plane. Well, not exactly. That door leads to another staircase, at the bottom of which is another door. And is it closed. The passengers are now being held in a new sort of holding pen: a flight of steps with locked doors at top and bottom. As you can imagine, they are very happy. Eventually, an attendant unlocks the bottom door, and you board... A BUS, which takes you to your toy airplane.

Is this progress, or what?

Aside from the stupidity of the geography, the process is mind-bending. Why three Winair counters when one would do? And why two separate passport checks? Is there really a terrorist-infiltration threat to the St. Barths infrastructure? What infrastructure might that be? The road system here is already barely one level up from hardened goat paths, there are no bridges, no traffic lights, and the water plant is already frequently inoperable for one reason or another. What do they fear bad guys would do, blow up the hardware store, storm David Letterman's house?

But we persevere. We must. We live here.

A bientot.