It’s #WorldOceansDay. How could I not add some commentary?
I am extremely fortunate to have dived in some amazing places, like Saba and the Andaman and Belize and the Caymans and Honduras… I’ve seen critters and corals and sea life that are beyond my wildest imagination. An inner mermaid, perhaps, impels me, calling me to return to the undersea world time and again.
I’m afraid for our oceans. I’m afraid that our human sprawl and a clinging, thing-ing greed is driving a mort lente, a slow death, to the base of our ecosystem. Read More…
Your last night in an endearing place is always a bit bittersweet. A frog jumped out of the tap when I turned it on to brush my teeth this evening, perfectly punctuating my last evening here on this surprising little island.
I spent my last night with new friends, and in the morning (which comes all too quickly) it’s time to leave and begin that multi-airport hopscotch.
As if on cue, the skies open up in a tropical downpour as I navigate my 17 kilo bag down the (what seemed like) 200 stairs from the heights of my cottage on Booby Hill. Soaking wet and laughing, I cross fingers that the stash of Saba Spice, a local liqueur made from aged rum and local spices (cinnamon, fennel, and others), survives the journey back to the States. I’m certain that the Elfin Forest imps are having fun at my expense…
On a solo trip it’s always a crapshoot, but usually an adventure, in how you spend your evenings. This trip, I fell asleep early a few nights, ventured down to a local restaurant where I took meals with dive boat friends and locals, and the last night, spent with divemasters from different pinpoints on the map talking fish and Western politics and equanimity, yoga, Buddhism and life, was perhaps the most enjoyable (Aside: it is usually at this juncture where I ask myself if I could chuck it all to work on an island somewhere and live the divemaster life). You share a lot with those you meet on a dive boat. Perhaps the fact that nobody looks good in a wetsuit gets people to let defenses down and open up a little more.
The people I met in Saba hailed mostly from Europe, some from the US. Divers, all, as this place is a hidden gem; more than earning her name as the Caribbean’s Unspoiled Queen. Languages on the boat ranged from English to Dutch to German to French to Spanish, making me more intent on improving a foreign tongue in the coming year, as I realise my creaky French now outshines my rusty Spanish. I can read a menu and perhaps have a scrappy conversation with a 7-year-old in 3 languages, yet only one with la bonne confiance, as they say.
peter & amy
stefen & heidi
And so, after leaving somewhere that has made an impression, I reflect on not only the experiences had, but the things that got me there in the first place. The absurd airfares required for a Big Trip this Christmas; the yearning to get away from the routine back home; the random blip on the radar of this little island, nonexistent to me only 2 months ago yet something made me look into it… So it’s perhaps also appropriate at this juncture to think about what comes next.
I don’t make resolutions. As this wobbly world does its best to leave us wondering what crazy thing is coming next, and as things change along the way (as they are wont to do), I find that resolutions tend to leave one feeling more frustrated and unfulfilled than resolute come March or so. That’s not to say there aren’t things to be learnt and new adventures to be had and unfinished somethings that need finishing; because there are! And so I set intentions at this time of year, focused on feeling well and greeting the days with gratitude and welcoming new experiences into my universe; learning much along the way, finishing what’s been started and ultimately moving forward each day on strong legs and with a bright heart. There’s something about setting an intention that makes the path to achieving it more evident and perhaps the future result more tangible.
I write now, flying over the Atlantic Ocean on my northbound trajectory: a little bit browner than when I left and a little more grateful for the wonders of the natural world, having seen some quite amazing undersea stuff as well as rainforest flora and fauna. I met a few wonderful people and also encountered some characters; hiked in the rainforest, dodged raindrops and lived amongst what I’ve nicknamed the woodland creatures: Coquee frogs, snakes, lizards (the little Saba anole lizards and also giant iguanas), hummingbirds, crickets, grasshoppers, roosters and goats, all moving about on their own schedules, setting a rhythm to each day.
But when you return home, to a place where water isn’t a luxury, it makes you think about the scarcity of our natural resources. And it makes you grateful for the little things: the plentitude of bananas when you want them; hot water on demand; hair that doesn’t react so insanely to the humidity; dry stuff (in the rainforest, things only get “somewhat dry”). I ran into a woman on the trail up Mt. Scenery with unless tattooed on her shoulder. Unless, indeed.
So now, as we close the books on 2015, there are places to go and people to see and more potential adventures than there are days on the calendar. I wonder if it’s possible to do one new thing each day or maybe each week? There’s only one way to find out: try.
Feeling a bit wonky and also slightly water-logged, I opt for a day on dry land. The tropical weather doesn’t seem to want to cooperate, repeating its sun-rain-fog-sun-fog-rain rhythm as a fog swoops down from Mt. Scenery and envelops Windward Side. The town has two markets, a handful of restaurants and bars, a bakery, a couple of dive shops and a few other random places to spend a tourist (US$) dollar. I find a quick brekkie at the bakery in town, the Bizzy Bee (“flour, flour” on their sign). From their Christmas stollen (shared on the boat with my new diving friends Christmas Day) to the almond cookie I had on the trail (filled with marzipan!!!), their stuff is fabulous! Sated, I embark on the day’s mission: summit Mt. Scenery, the highest point in the Kingdom of The Netherlands.
In 1967, a stairway comprising 1064 steps was built, leading up to the “Elfin Forest” at the top of this dormant volcano. A somewhat treacherous (mossy and steep) climb through the rainforest and around a private residence which reminded me of something like a tropical Deliverance (“take no photos, please respect” signs clearly posted), and then rising through the elephant ear and mountain palm, tropical flowers and trees. The trailside was teeming with butterflies: little white ones, black and yellow-striped and some even a vibrant orange. The mosses and ferns truly made the setting look like a scene from Grimm’s.
With a fog-ensconced trail, I was not optimistic of seeing much besides treetops and tropical mist when I (finally) reached the summit. And so, an hour after leaving the trail shop, I did, in fact, land at the top of Mt. Scenery; greeted by a friendly mountain chicken and a dense blanket of cool fog (which was actually quite refreshing after that tricky ascent). And so, as Samuel Clemens said about the weather in New England, “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.” Or 15, in my case. For the wait, I was rewarded with a parting of the clouds as it were: a brilliant view of Saba, from the Airport over to The Bottom, materialised in front of my eyes. Blue skies, lush hills, the charming red-roofed buildings in Windward Side and a shining Caribbean sea below. I stayed until the fog returned, its little cat feet guiding my way down the mountain once again.
Down is harder than up on the moss- and jungle mist-covered slick steps, and I’m certain a mountain troll or elf is giggling at me from behind the elephant ear as I slip and teeter down the trail. I have seen hummingbirds and butterflies and lizards and the myriad rainforest flora. I land back at the trail center…mission: accomplished.
Lunch is a spectacular grouper sandwich at Scout’s Place. As I order, I hesitate – I have a moral dilemma with grouper. I love it but at the same time it is a scarce fish in most parts because of overfishing and poorly-designated marine reserves. But in pristine waters like this, with few fishermen on the island, the catch is both hand-reeled and controlled. So it’s doubly cool when the chef can show you a picture of the fish you’re eating, and more than likely introduce you to the fisherman.
The afternoon is rounded out with a siesta on my little terrace, views of Mt. Scenery (partially enveloped in its signature fog) in the distance; an ear out for the giant iguana thrashing about in the trees and the hummingbirds with their miniature jet fighter trajectories. Background din is the melange of goats from down the hill, birdsong, roosters and an occasional barking dog. The sun is looming lower in the sky and the peeper frogs (Coquee) are on deck to begin their nightly chorus more.
Christmas Eve evening, shortly after I returned from diving, the proprietor here came up to my room bearing a message that I had been invited to Christmas lunch at the home of the parents of one of the women I met on the flight from St. Maarten. Because the rumour mill is small, and the magnifying glass is large on an island this size, everyone knows everyone, and “oh, she knows where the house is; lunch is at 11” was all that was needed by way of invitation. It’s nice and welcoming, when you’re on the friendly side of the looking glass in any case. In my case, I was booked on a dive boat (fish always trump Santa!) and so I walked down to the house (indeed, I did know where it was, having been greeted profusely from the driveway my first day here) to acknowledge the invitation and pre-excuse myself for being late.
I dove Christmas morning, on pristine walls and through fabulous coral formations. Saba is proof that ocean conservation works; its teeming reefs and coral as healthy as any I’ve seen in years is testament that when you curtail pollution, prohibit fishing and limit the number of boats in a marine park, you win. I thought about that diagram we all see in grade school: where the ocean feeds the rain which provides the water to the land… and somehow we humans, in our need to build and grow and super-size everything, forget that the sea is at the beginning of the entire process of our existence. Plainly: without healthy oceans, there is no healthy rain. Coral is a living, breathing thing. It is being bleached and killed off with our warming oceans. It is being choked by pollution and stomped on by inconsiderate tourists. It is a filter for our seas, it provides shelter to the smaller marine life and food to some of the larger. And it is the bottom of the marine food chain that feeds up through the top.
Banded Coral Shrimp
And as I dove and marvelled at the life going on all around me, I was hoping that maybe this is the year that people start to get it; that maybe this coming year will mark some kind of turning point in conservation and appreciation for the natural world. That maybe rabid consumption turns into something more like conscious consumerism. To quote one of my favorite doctors, “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” (Dr. Seuss, The Lorax)
After the dive, I found the best bottle of wine I could on Christmas Day on a very small Caribbean island when everything was closed, and walked down the road to join someone else’s Christmas. And though I had missed most of the festivities and all of Christmas dinner, they had made me a plate for later and treated me to Saban fruitcake. And with that very small act of kindness, coupled with the power of the Internet to bring me closer to those I’d like to be with, I went to sleep Christmas night feeling really lucky to have found this weird little island that nobody really knows about. There is a cat that visits me in my room (and slept with me last night), and a hermit crab with a broken shell (like a sunroof) that lives in my bathroom, and two hummingbirds that fancy the tree outside my door; and giant iguanas and peeper frogs and tropical rain and a marine park for me to explore in the coming days.
After a day of flights, weather delays and an ultimate departure on the last flight of the day on the small plane that would ferry me to the volcano-island that was to be my final destination, we turned around a mere kilometer from the runway because of low visibility and impossible landing conditions on this, the shortest commercial runway in the world.
Welcome to Saba, a Dutch territory in the former Netherlands Antilles. Comprised of a 5000-year dormant volcano, 4 towns (the capital being The Bottom; Windward Side, where I’m staying, being closest to the top; St. Johns and Zion’s Hill) and inhabited by the ancestors of Pirates, Slaves, Dutch, French, Carib Amerindians, fishermen and rumrunners. Throw in a smattering of ex-pats for good measure and you have a grand-total population of not quite 2000. One could describe it as a European-feeling mountain village situated in a rainforest. Verdant, I think, is the operating word. As well, Saba claims the highest elevation in The Netherlands.
So after the weather-induced layover in Sint Maarten (perhaps the opposite of Saba in character and atmosphere, in this traveller’s mind), dinner at a (surprisingly very decent) Lebanese restaurant with the other stranded passengers (interestingly enough, Sabans now living in the States, going home for the holidays with their spouses) the morning flight both departed on time and landed on target. The timing forestalled a day of diving, but enabled me to get the lay of the land and meet some locals (human, reptilian and feathered).
The place I’m staying, El Momo Cottages (I have yet to learn who El Momo is, but will do before the week is out!) is a set of cabana-esque buildings, set into the hillside. It’s a super-rustic eco-lodge (read: there is no room service and you are close to nature, which sometimes forgets the difference between indoors and out) but perfect, really, with the rainforest wending its way wherever it can. Steps take you up and up (and then more up) to the office/pool and then the restaurant (which reminds me somewhat of a summer camp dining room, but I am charmed by its rustic simplicity). Each room is on its own level, affording spectacular views – the higher the room, the better the view! And mine, with its outdoor shower and view of the foothills of Mt. Scenery and the Caribbean beyond does not disappoint.
In the first hour here, I encountered a curious giant iguana, numerous lizards, a monster cricket and a couple of snakes sunning themselves – that or one snake who just couldn’t find the right spot. This is the jungle, kids, and things which crawl and slither are in abundance… Truth be told, the cricket was a little creepy. Once settled, though, I set out for a walkabout. Did I mention that this island is a volcano? And even though it is smaller than 15 square kilometers in size, it makes up for that in verticality. I set off and headed for the dive shop, laden with gear. And in my zeal for getting to know this place, I overshot my intended target by a literal mile (stellar navigational skills at work yet again). Local hospitality tends to make itself known, so when I stopped to ask directions, I was piled into a pickup (driven by a colourful, and perhaps a couple sheets to the wind, local) for a ride back to town…I had clearly walked too far and this fermented, yet kind, soul confirmed that hitchhiking is practically expected here!
Now unburdened, I wandered the narrow streets of Windward Side in search of lunch. That came in the shape of a mediocre chicken burrito and, later, a slice of Christmas stollen, a German (or Dutch?) bread with raisins and almond paste. It’s strange, this multi-cultural mélange that combines Caribbean Creole speakers with Dutch/Pirate/Amerindian (etc.) descendants with transplants from around the globe. Today, I met native Sabans (with and without that sing-song Caribbean accent), a Swedish woman who “married a diver” and ended up here, a woman from St. Thomas who “just likes Saba better” and a couple from the Czech Republic who run the dive shop. In just a few hours today I heard accents from all over the world, which made me feel like this is probably a good place to be.
Called the Unspoiled Queen because Sabans long ago realised the importance of both conservation and community. And because it’s a volcanic island, there are no beaches to attract the hordes of sun-mongering speculators. The reefs have been long-protected and the natural resources much-treasured, so (depending on the kind of traveller one is) Saba offers the perfect combination of pristine diving and rainforest hiking, without the Caribbean tourists (yay!).
Morning view from the little restaurant at El Momo Cottages
I have come here to dive. Hammerheads and manta rays are on request, though we shall see what mother nature decides to deliver in the way of critters when I get into the water tomorrow morning. My mermaid tendencies may prevail, but I’ve also come here to hike.
But now, as I type, I am being watched by a hummingbird. He is so close, I can hear his little “pip, pip” chirps and the furious beating of his wings (three species of hummingbird lives on Saba and I’m hoping to find them all while I’m here).
Meanwhile, the sun begins to set and the peeper frogs are competing for first fiddle or other such standing in their reptilian orchestra. They vie for airtime with the crickets (thankfully, I believe mine has left the building) and nighttime birds. And it is this symphony that will sing me to sleep this Christmas Eve Eve.