14 November 2009


You North Americans have your worries, and we Barthians have ours.

You worry about the Goldman Sachs bonuses, and this island has no limes. Is there a connection? Has some Goldman Sachs Master of the Universe, sulking because his bonus was cut from 15 million to 13 million, decided to make up the difference by cornering the market for les citron verts so that we sunset gin and tonic drinkers would pay a monopoly price for a slice? Where are they storing them and when are they going to dribble them onto the market already? Do I spend the whole two weeks here without a single lime? Can't Ken Feinberg fix this? Why can't those guys with suspenders just do their insider trading and market rigging in New York and leave the Carib alone?

You worry about with collapse of the New York State government, and this island has a desperate shortage of parking by the harbor in Gustavia. Which is more important? We desperately need more parking space in downtown Gustavia, but do you really want a government in New York State? At least, do you want one that is anything like the one you have now? The State of New York's annual budget has TWELVE digits to the left of the decimal. Like 120 Billion US Dollars. The Collectivity of St. Barthelemy has, I think, an annual budget of EIGHT digits to the left of the decimal, and our elected governor was actually elected by the people. Brothers, can you spare a digit for a new parking area and some palm trees?

You worry about traffic moving too slowly in New York City. We recently had a total traffic shutdown. I'm not talking about slow-moving cars and trucks, I'm talking about shutting down streets in the center of town. Well, to be fair, only one street was closed. But then again, there are only two streets that comprise downtown Gustavia, and the one that was left open is a one way street going OUT of town. Clever, huh?

And, uh, this weekend there were no subways running either.

What calamity caused this total transport freeze? Hey, mon, relax, it's the Carib. They closed the streets because the streets were crowded with people standing around and drinking beer, talking, listening to a rock band, and otherwise chillin'.


First, a brief history and geography lesson. As we all know, five thousand years ago, God created the earth, the dinosaurs, men, women, dogs, and the iguanas. They lived happily together for a while here on St. Barths and then the dinosaurs moved to America where they founded the Republican Party, and Christopher Columbus discovered St. Barths. Somehow the French swiped the island from the Portugese (or was it the Spanish?), sold it to Sweden, which sold the naming rights of the harbor to the then current King Gustav (who outbid Citibank), and once that was accomplished, sold the island back to France, and in 1949, a Swedish descendant opened a kerosene-lantern-lighted bar in downtown Gustavia, and he called it Le Select, and it was good, and it prospered, and its square meters multiplied, until the little shop came to be a large open-air hamburger and beer place at the virtual center of Gustavia, which is, by any non-geographic standard, the center of St. Barths, which is for some, the center of the Carib, if not the universe. EVERYBODY, at one time or another, has been to Le Select, including, it seems, a struggling young musician by the name of Warren Buffet, who, some years ago sang there for cheeseburgers. Later, Buffet bought his first cross-border insurance company, made several billion dollars by cornering the cockle shell and railroad market and changed his first name to Jimmy and went back to singin' and strummin'. And he was good.

Btw, I see that some older guy has adopted Jimmy's former name, but you gotta be careful about anything you read in the New York Post.

Bottom line, the real Jimmy Buffet is a long time adopted son of St. Barths. Or visa versa. Anyway, we often see his blue trawler and/or his pontoon airplane hereabouts, and he pops up now and then unannounced and strums and sings at one restaurant or another. Buffet credits the owner of Le Select as being one of his early supporters and indeed, has written one of his most famous songs about it, Cheeseburger in Paradise.

So how is this related to traffic here? Because last weekend the island celebrated the 60th anniversary of Le Select and it was virtually a "national" holiday weekend. Bands playing all weekend, and downtown, especially in the area around Le Select, was like Times Square on New Year's Eve, happily sans Dick Clark. The piece de resistance was to be a Saturday night concert by the old Warren, the new Jimmy. Buffet, that is.

We wandered downtown Friday night after eating at Sante Fe, in Lurin. Lots of people, bands playing, nice. Gustavia was a street festival.

Saturday night was the biggie, an eight o'clock free concert by the man himself, on the quai. Before the concert Pinks, I, and our friend Lee, had drinks at L'Oublier, immediately across the street from Le Select. L'Oublier is about half the size of Le Select, open on two sides, and does about 1/8th the business. Le Select had a rock band going, and L'Oublier was the perfect place to sit, drink too much, listen to the music, and people watch. The street was jammed. Everyone except the infants in strollers and tiny infants in slings (and there were some of each) was holding a beer bottle and smoking a cigarette. Some of the latter actually contained tobacco I am told, tho I have no personal knowledge.

The weather had been threatening all day. (Rain is forbidden from 8 AM to 4 PM). Nobody seemed daunted by the low-hanging clouds. Then, at 7:30 PM it poured. Hard. Ankle-deep water flowed down the street. But God provided everyone with flip-flops and they too were good. People casually sought shelter in doorways, under palm trees (can you imagine any place less likely to shield you from rain than a palm tree?) and some 20 or so stalwarts found a large tarp somewhere and huddled. (My guess is at least three children were conceived thereunder.) Those who had been sitting at tables in Le Select simply stood, turned their plastic chairs upside down, and used them as umbrellas. But nobody, nobody, went home. They all knew it would stop raining in ten minutes, and, of course, it did.

About fifty feet north of Le Select is the southern end of the quai, where the big yachts tie up stern to (for the tortoises among you, that means ass end toward the edge of the wharf). The main part of the quai is a concrete area about two football fields wide and three football fields long. It is a nice quiet place for the most part and we love to stroll there in the morning, watching the neatly dressed ships' officers and crew wiping down and polishing the immaculate steel and fibreglass toys. In the afternoons you can find many of those people drinking beer at Le Select. On this Saturday night, at the southern end of the quai, a substantial stage had been erected, bordered by fifteen foot high speakers, great light bars above the stage, a set-up you might expect to see at the Meadowlands or any other big-time concert venue. Bottom line, this was not a half-assed production.

The quai was packed. I mean packed. When someone danced to the music, his or her neighbors were involuntary dance partners. I estimate several thousand people. I am told every villa on the island was rented, all airline seats sold out, and there were not only the big ships in the harbor but lots of smaller boats that had come over from neighboring islands. I saw small-boat transoms reading from as far away as St. Thomas.

Buffet was sensational. Pinks and I got separated in the crush, but were both close to the stage. Buffet looks like a combination of Larry David and my uncle Sam. He is adorable. Lots of charm, charisma, the real deal. A personality. And great music. (Big band, 10-12 musicians). They played no technoshit, no new wave stuff, just soft rock, not-so-soft rock, some slow-dance stuff, a great mix. Buffet played guitar and sang 90% of the time. I was amazed that the audience, which was a heck of a lot younger than he, knew the words to every song (except for one from his new album) and they loved it when he introduced each song in French and English. They roared. And of course, he made special remarks when he introduced the song he wrote about Le Select, Cheeseburger in Paradise. Great night. A thrill. Even the Goldman Sachs guys on the back decks of their yachts were seen loosening their neckties and holstering their Blackberries. My guess is they were even wiggling their sockless toes in their Guccis.

Not a drop of rain fell during the concert. It wouldn't dare.

Having spent from 6-8 pm drinking at L'Oublier instead of eating, we old folk were starving when Jimmy finished at 9:30, and we were lucky enough to get a table half block down the harbor at L'entre'act where we could eat pizza, drink red wine and still listen to the back up band that played on for another hour after Jimmy ended his show.

Going home that night, of course, meant walking about a half-mile to Public--the community immediately to the north of Gustavia-- to get to where we had parked the car. The rain held off until we got home, then it poured.

Sunday. I think I recall Sunday. We had earlier made a firm date to have lunch with Lee at La Plage, and laced with Advil, the three of us did our duty. Our favorite beach bar did not disappoint. The holiday atmosphere was infectious. The two bottles of red wine and the excellent seafood didn't hurt none, either. While we did not dance on the table, as did the large group of neighboring lunch-goers, we enjoyed their floor show. I briefly chatted with one of the revelers when he sat down next to me while composing a wide-angle photo. He told me he was from Paris and had come over for the party weekend, while the others in his group lived here and "were crazy, definitely crazy." He was very jealous.

In truth, I enjoyed the impromptu dance show even more than the fashion show put on by the stunning young lady who wandered among the tables modelling filmy beachwear from the La Plage store. (What did you expect, she would wander around naked? Well, close, but not quite. Think about it: no profit in naked. Naked is for AFTER the sale.)

Oh, yeah, on Sunday night, while the Giants were pissing away their lead in the fourth quarter, we were thankfully diverted by a great fireworks display mostly visible from our deck. Who does not love fireworks?

What a contrast to the Big Apple. With all the throngs, the only police in evidence were a few of the local guys directing traffic-- of which there was none, of course. No belligerent drunks, no fights, nobody ended up in the water. Huh.

Ah, the relaxing Carib.

Gotta go now. Today is a perfect St. Barths day,--breeze, warm sunshine, and happily the morning hill climb is behind me. Off to the beach. It's my job.

A bientot.

10 November 2009

Paradise Redux

Okay, so I took most of last year off. Call it a BlogBlock. Now I have a new computer and by the time I accommodate myself to this new machine and new operating system, both will be obsolete. Then again, so will I. So I had better make some hay while the sun shines, (substitute here, if you will, some other hackneyed metaphor, but it must involve sunshine, please.)

Blogging has become a much bigger deal since I started Marty's Blog several years back. I am not even sure Al Gore had invented the Blogosphere yet. But this venue is an outlier. I do not offer my readers an opportunity to share their views with other readers. If they have something to say, which I heartily encourage, they say it directly to me via email. After all, this is about me, not you.

Well, not about just me: about us and St. Barths--our Paradise island so full of contradictions. Natural beauty, gentle people, good food, and always maintaining a firm grip on the third world.

This is our traditional November trip. We come down for ten days and"open" the house, (a fiction--Dawn and Dina open the house, I just putter about replacing light bulbs and going to the hardware store.) Overall, the regimen is the same: exercise and errands and stuff in the morning, beach in the afternoon, cocktails on the deck at 4:30 sharp. As the sign says, "Respect Our Traditions."

But I get ahead of myself. First, one must get here. Jet Blue arrives SXM at about 3:30 PM, leaving only two hours before they shut down the SBH airport. No problem, tho, just call my friend Rodrigue at Winair and get two seats on the 4:30 to St. Barths, right? Hah. Rodrigue had no airplanes. None. Even two months in advance, no planes. "They might give me another flight later on, but now, nada." Yikes. No ten-minute thrill ride on the rubber-band plane. We don't even get to experience the classic confusion at the new St. Maarten airport when one tries to check in to Winair for the flight over here. I still remember fondly (not really) our last trip here when we rushed to the Winair departure area and saw the new electronic gate sign flashing "Flight 615 Boarding now". I sped over, handed the attendant our boarding passes, and she looked at me and rolled her eyes. (Eye-rolling is part of the Winair SXM training program. Every agent has it down pat.) "That departure sign? Pay no attention to that sign, mon. 'They' just do that. Right now we have no airplanes, ... none."

Okay, Plan B. The dreaded SXM-SBH Ferry. The Vomit Vector. One hour and twenty minutes of pitching and rolling, with each passenger presented with his or her own Tall Kitchen Garbage Bag. Yippee. Two years ago there were two ferries, the slow one which was very bad, and a "high speed" boat which was just plain bad. Then the high-speed boat came apart on one trip--yup, I am told the engines came off their stringers in rough weather and the boat drifted for several hours before it was found and towed ashore. Now this year we have another second ferry, the Great Bay Express. Departs Bobby's Marina in Great Bay, at 5:30 PM. You know what you are in for when the advertisement reads "Departures two to three times a day." Hmm. Not confidence inspiring. But you gotta always remember the words we live by: "Hey, relax. This is the Carib." We book the ferry.

So at 3:40 pm we roll our luggage out of Princess Julianna to the cab stand, put our bags in the trunk of the lead car in line, and I tell the driver we need to go to Bobby's Marina (which is in Phillipsburg, as is the airport) to catch the ferry. The driver asks what time our boat departs, and I say, "Plenty of time, almost two hours from now, at 5:30 PM and she says "I dunno if we can make it." For the next ten minutes we crawl ahead at two kilometers per hour while she complains about the traffic and assures us she will certainly try to get us there on time, and I tell her trying is not enough, she either gets us there on time or we are sleeping in her house tonight. You see, I have been down here but fifteen minutes or so and an not yet fully Caribified. Relaxing takes practice.

Our cab driver solved the traffic problem by expelling us! No shit. Ten minutes out she pulled over, got out of the car, hailed one of her friends driving a van, and introduced us to our new transport. Actually a great improvement. This guy was much more optimistic, and, it turns out, realistic as well; we were delivered to the dock one hour later--plenty of time.

Ahh, the Great Bay Express--an older steel boat, freshly painted, just fine. Maybe 70-80 feet long. With this boat, from this marina, the trip to Gustavia Harbor is but 45 minutes. In itself, a big improvement.

We check in at a shed near the road where a guy takes our passports and promises to give them back on the boat. Scary, but, ya gotta start relaxing sometime, and this is it. Luggage check-in is very Carib. We walk our luggage down the pier to where the Great Bay Express it tied up. There are no moving belts, no agents with computers that print sticky luggage tags, no security checks. What you get is a smiling strong guy standing on the edge of the dock who takes your bag, raises it over his head, (Pinks's weighed sixty pounds), leans forward over the water, and hands the bag off to another strong guy on the boat who leans over the bow gunnel and lifts the bag onto the boat, then tosses the case onto the bow deck, where all luggage is haphazardly piled. If that process does not sound suitably daunting, please recall that boats have a pointy end up front, called the bow, and fat part in the middle, called the fat middle- or midships, or something like that, so when the fat middle is snug alongside to facilitate boarding, the pointy end is actually several feet away from the dock, making the baggage transfer operation all the more impressive.

As for the actual voyage, Pinks is prepared for the worst. She has taken some seasick med, and when we board we grab seats in the center of the upper deck, in the fresh air. The weather is gorgeous, the sun setting, the air temperature just perfect. The sea looks dead flat (duh, I know better. The "sea" is ALWAYS flat in the harbor.) In all, this is really romantic--a 45 minute sunset cruise to Paradise. The awful taxi ride is already forgotten. Who needs an airplane?

We do, that's who. Ten minutes out to sea we get drenched in a torrential squall. In a matter of seconds, before we could make our way to the entrance to the passenger cabin, we are blinded (my eyeglasses lack wipers) and soaked through and through. And cold. It was raining icewater. How do they do that?

The rest of the ferry voyage is done indoors, in our wet clothes, sitting in an air conditioned cabin. In truth, not as bad as expected, though. Blue is better than green. Just a little pounding through the squall, a piece of cake, and we arrive on time at Gustavia Harbor, where Dawn was to have left our little Daihatsu in the lot. It is, of course, now pitch black, the ferry-dock area is about three feet wide, and the entire passenger population of the ferry is clustered about the bow where the two strong guys are reversing their procedure and unloading the luggage which is now much heavier because the contents are soaked. (They did cover it with a tarp during the trip, but only after the rain slacked off.) There is no shoreside infrastructure to support this operation. There is no room on the narrow dock for both people and luggage and I am astonished some of each did not fall into the water. Repeat after me: Hey, relax, this is the Carib.


Yup, Mr. Margaritaville, Mr. Cheeseburger in Paradise, is giving a free concert Saturday night in honor of the 60th anniversary of Le Select, the hamburger and beer garden smack in the center of downtown Gustavia. The island is in full party mode and filled to capacity. It is Christmas/New Years in November. More on that in the next chapter. Stay tuned.

We get back to the house, unpack, grab some dinner downtown, and rush back home to watch the Yankee game. Actually what we get to watch is a screen that says our receiver is trying to connect to the satellite and we should be patient. Say after me, "Relax, it's the Carib." We get no tv reception here when there are storms on the western horizon, or when there are storms in Minnesota, or when the bougainvillea sprout a new leaf that intrudes into the sat dish's line of sight, or when the rain gets into the connections, or when Serge, the guy who fixes sat tv, is off the island for any reason.

Screw the Yankees anyway. If the Brooklyn Dodgers were playing in the World Series, I would be upset at the loss of the tv signal. The tv set hates me anyway. It blanked out the Yankee game, and despite great storms in the western sky, the reception was perfect during the fourth quarter of the Giants game on Sunday. I think Serge is an Eagles fan.

On arrival night, Pinks makes a house and garden tour. She talks to the plants, looks in on all the bedrooms, and generally takes psychic possession of our villa. Something like accepting livery of seisin every season. (Lawyer joke. Sorry.) During the tour I hear my name called. Pinks is in the bathroom attached to the mid level guestroom, and was startled when she opened the bathroom door, turned on the light, and a green monster ran across the floor to hide under the sink cabinet. That bathroom is open to the sky, bounded on two sides by concrete walls ten feet high. At the top of those walls is the upstairs garden--home to lots of island critters including a mating pair of iguanas. (When I first saw the big one several years ago, I almost fainted. Maybe six feet long-- mostly tail, prehistoric looking, a fearsome lizard.) Iguanas are an island treasure. Once hunted, they are now adored. But somehow, our iguanas' babies keep falling (or scurrying, I dunno) into this bathroom and cannot get out. No food or water in there. Worrisome. Dawn's 12 year old son Garrison rescued two babies last week, but could not get the third--the survivor that startled Pinks. So until Dawn's kids can get over here, Pinks puts a bowl of water in the bathroom and checks on the little guy every day. He is adorable. Mostly tail, a very light green like the color of a spring plant chute, very shy. Not sure how they can catch him, he's that fast. But they got his sibs, so I guess this little Iggy will be freed soon too. Sure hope so.

One more bit of local color. (Double entendre. You'll see.) At this time of year, we get great sunsets from our pool deck. When the sky to the west is absolutely cloudless at the horizon, you can see the big orange ball slowly sink below the edge of the earth (You know, of course, that the earth really is flat. From our deck you can see that with your own eyes.) Back to my point, if you have properly averted your eyes until the last few seconds, as the last tip of the sun disappears below the horizon you see a fantastic bright green flash, lasting a second or two. So far we have seen that phenomenon twice in the five days we have been here.

So let's sum up: Sunny days, good food, white sand beaches, gin and tonic on the deck, followed by beautiful sunsets, (did I mention good food?), and I haven't even gotten around to the Jimmy Buffet concert.

Okay, I'm relaxed.

A bientot.