22 April 2012

State of the Union

Well, actually it is the State of the Collectivite, a/k/a Le Pays Territoriale Outrémere (PTOM) Saint Barthelemy.

Almost back to NYC, (sob,) so I thought I would give you all what you are really pining for, a technical update on Paradise.  I list the various elements in the rank of their importance.

Seaweed:  Ever hear of the Sargasso Sea?  Well, it's a 2 million square mile (about half the size of the United States) patch of ocean in the Bermuda Triangle, bounded by encircling ocean currents that effectively that hold the Sea together.   (It's the only Sea in the world not bounded by land.)  So what, you say? Ahh, here's what: Aside from being the place where all the eels in Europe and the United States go to spawn, the Sargasso Sea gets its name from the huge mat of the seaweed Sargassum that covers much of its surface.  The stuff normally stays there, but this year large patches have broken away and found their way south, and some of that stuff (the seaweed, not the eels) has found its way to our beaches!   Sacre bleue! And all this without permission of the Gendarme contingent on St. Barths!   Many St. Barthians are persuaded this is the work of the Venezuelans, who figured out how to screw with the ocean currents in order to mess with our pristine beaches because this island always votes heavily for Sarkozy.  Of course I do not credit that one bit. It was not Hugo Chavez.  Al Gore did it.

Weather:  Global warming?  Hah. This is the coldest winter in years. Why on some days the temp sank as low as 72 degrees Fahrenheit!  A few tourists were spied actually wearing long-sleeved shirts!  While their visas were not revoked, those who were apprehended were put on a "Do not re-admit" list.  

Lots of rain this year.  Island is very green. Not quite the same shade of green as the faces of the travelers who had to take the ferry from St. Maarten when the airport was closed because of high winds.

Economy:   Tourism about the same as last year, maybe up a tick.  Nowhere near 2005, but thankfully nowhere near 2008 either. Enjoying its new found financial independence from Guadaloupe, the St. Barths government continues its aggressive road building program, spending a big chunk of its capital budget to keep the new fatter automobiles from falling off cliffs.  This program has its detractors: a substantial portion of the population wants the new fat cars to fall off the cliffs, but the newly re-elected President thinks chucking visitors off cliffs may adversely affect tourism. Yup, he’s a tad conservative, but he got 73% of the vote on the first ballot and what he says goes: this President does not have to deal with an island equivalent of TP&TM, a/k/a the Tea Party and the Tin Man. (Speaking of the latter, yes, our President has a dog; no, he does not travel the island with it strapped to the roof of his car.)

The Port:  This is a major element of the island’s economy.  St. Barths is a “duty free” port. Just read the signs on the jewelry and wine shops in Gustavia.  This means is there is no duty on imported goods…..well, except for the 5% duty the government collects on everything, including wine and jewelry.  What the “duty free” signs apparently mean is that the customer never sees the duty because it is already baked into the retail price because the retailer already paid it before he could get his goods off the commercial dock.  No, we do not have a Consumer Affairs Bureau on island.

 A growing problem.  Distance-wise, there are no new roads, yet the island imports more than 1,000 vehicles per year.  As far as I can tell, it exports zero, and junks but a couple of dozen of the older diminutive Mokes and Suzuki Samurais. (Yup, we have a car crusher, but I lack real statistics. Usually I don't let that bother me... .) The island's traffic issues are exacerbated by the local custom of stopping in the middle of the roadway to chat with a pedestrian or a friend driving the other way in the adjacent lane. Happens all the time. No one gives it a second thought. Horn blowing, or even looking impatient, is very bad form and tags one immediately as an Ugly American, which tends to prolong the conversation.  Actually, the custom is quite charming--quand c'est moi who stopped the car to chat. 

Cruise Ships:  We get some. So far, none have sunk. They do not fit in the harbor and must anchor offshore. Once ashore, the cruise ship tourists are an unhappy lot.  First, many get seasick on the 20 minute bumpy ride in on the closed-in tenders. In town, they discover that all the stores are closed in the afternoon, and there is nothing to do but walk aimlessly around downtown Gustavia (which is three blocks long, (only two of which have sidewalks) in the heat of the day, and then, just as the stores start to re-open, the tourists need to hike back to the dock where they queue up for a vomit-inducing tender ride back to the ship in time to wash up and get to the dining room in time for their 5 PM all-you-can-eat first seating dinner service.  The government collects a harbor fee of 1500 euros per day per ship, plus 8 euros per head for each person who comes ashore. That is why, when we spy a cruise ship in our front yard, we avoid downtown Gustavia between Noon and 4 p.m.-- it interferes with our “serenity now” mindset. And the cruise ship tax is one of the reasons there is no real estate or income tax here.  Maybe Majority Leader Bonehead and the Tin Man can figure out how to use this concept back home and eliminate all income tax on people who earn more than one million dollars.  Talk about incentivising  productivity! 

More infrastructure stuff:  One word: “Strained.”

a)  The electric generation plant is at absolute max, and there is no room or money to build another. (Additionally, EDF, the French nationalized power company, lacks any incentive to produce power here because the cost of generation is three times the revenue they can collect given the French national rate card.) This may be very good news because it limits growth. An undersea cable has been proposed to link the island with St. Martin, where there apparently is a surfeit of available power, but the staunchly capitalist St. Barthians adamantly refuse to permit local growth based on St. Martin power, given the latter island's propensity to cultivate paralyzing strikes.

b) The island incinerator.  Only a few people worry about this, but unfortunately they are the ones responsible for the island's garbage disposal. This super high-tech facility burns garbage and produces heat that makes steam for the desalinization plant.  The incinerator was designed to handle island growth until 2025, but it is already straining at 24/7 max operation and cannot take so much as one more baguette crust. The bright side: a business opportunity here for candle makers and pig farmers?  Nah, that probably won't work. Another suggestion: Compress garbage into neat 30 pound cubes sealed in plastic and require each departing passenger to take one home in their luggage. Let  Bloomberg worry about it. Maybe he'll take some with him on his weekend helicopter jaunts to Bermuda.  Or dump it in the Sargasso Sea. The latter idea is dicey because of the risk Al Gore will then make it come right back to us.

Gardens, rainbows, and sunsets:  As sensational as ever.
Attitude of population: What are they smoking and where can I get some?

Conclusion:  Boy, I am really looking forward to getting back to my dentist and the NYC subway system.

A bientot.