Yet another century or more old shuttered house whose owners are probably abroad and may never return. I was doing my best itinerant vagabond imitation in the English Quarter, returning from a visit with a friend with a bad knee and a penchant for 1 pack a day kill sticks when I
I saw the fog rolling fast over Mt Scenery, and below it, this lovely place nestled within lush foliage and flowers.
I’m a hack photographer compared to so many others–even on this island–but if you put a monkey in a room and have him pound at the keys of the typewriter…or laptop, in modern adage…eventually, he types the Gideon Bible. I get lucky a lot, and I’m on a tiny island rife with explorable nooks and crannies that yield treasure views.
“No living organism can be said to exist under conditions of absolute reality. Even larks and katydids are supposed by some to dream.”
Shirley Jackson’s immortal quote opens a classic horror story, but après pro of today’s go go go world, I often have the conversations with friends about how much we’ve migrated from human beings to human doings; at least in the US, in my humble opinion. We work our hours and chat with colleagues about getting away from it all, and plan with our families months or years ahead, and when the time comes at last, we revel in the vacation…a week…maybe two…then it’s back to the proverbial grind in a blink, a blip on a hungry soul.
Today’s local Saba profile and pictures are the Ecolodge, a charming mountain retreat a hundred or so stone steps up Mt Scenery, immersed in the tropical forest above Windwardside (but notably, not visible from the village). Proprietor Bernt Groenendijk (shown in the collage with his two children Dylan and Alexis) got the idea from his father Tom van’t Hof, a noted ecologist/naturalist who still gives Wednesday night presentations at the Ecolodge Rainforest Restaurant about the unique ecosystems and ever changing forces of nature on Saba, particularly its cloud forest on Mt Scenery. Tom had seen other ecolodges in his travels but didn’t want to focus on the hotel business. Bernt was in culinary school in Holland at the time, and had traveled to Saba in the 90’s on a couple occasions; eventually he came to the island to start the hotel, they began building in 1998, opening in 2002. The Ecolodge is a group of cottages built up a sloping plot of land that had been used as farming for centuries by the local Sabians before falling into disuse. The herb garden I tilled the other day was up at Ecolodge, and the volcanic stones around are intact the way they were a century or more ago. Bernt and his team of Michael, Elizabeth, and Johnny (not shown here) also happen to be crack chefs, and the Rainforest Restaurant is celebrated island wide for its excellent meals, including Bernt’s Curry Shrimp. I regularly wake up at 0-dark-30 and hike up through the lush tropical forest at the base of Mt Scenery to have breakfast there as well. The locals who live and work on the island work hard to be here, and Ecolodge is no exception. Getting water and supplies and keeping logistics smooth while making guests feel welcome in this relatively remote location is a non-trivial exercise for the four Ecolodge employees, but they do it with panache.
Greetings and Happy New Year, all! Saba brought in the new year in grand fashion, and I celebrated at the local hotel/dive center Scout’s Place. The fireworks show was pretty grand for this tiny isle, albeit a lot more dramatic than the US, since the colorful night explosions were fired out of the old Captain’s Quarter remains down the hill in Windwardside, quite a bit closer than US regs would allow, meaning you had red, green, blue, and white embers and streamers within 50 yards or less from our crowded perch on the wooden terrace. No pics, though; didn’t want to be dripping champagne and happiness on my little camera. My typical no clock cycle in Saba appears to be 5am-10pm, but I caught a second wind and made it until I got dropped off at my St Johns house at 2am. I actually spent the majority of the night prior to the fireworks behind the Saba Trail Shop, where the Conservation Bureau (responsible for both Saba’s Marine Park and all of its trails) roasted a full pig on a constructed pit of brick and embers, while various folks manually turned the spit for 8 hrs. With some deference to the vegetarians among the blog readers, that was the most succulent pork I’ve ever tasted. Really fabulous, and made better by the fact that we had fresh veggies from the government gardens for the freshest salad. All in all, it was fab, and I’m hoping all of you celebrated with a bang or a whimper, depending on your style, but with much fun!
GOVERNMENT GARDENS (aka The Farm)
A steep 380’ road climb out of the main Windwardside leads to The Level and Booby Hill, where clusters of cottages and houses old and new overlook arguably the best village views on the island. Up on The Level is The Farm, Saba’s first shot at reinvigorating a dying tradition: farming. All over the island there are stone steps that appear to lead to nowhere, or old terraces and cleared plots where sustenance farming used to be a mainstay of the island. The Saban government contracted Cuban agricultural specialists–who have done this extensively, particularly since the economic sanctions started in the 50’s–to reclaim this plot of land and grow everything on.
Otto, shown here, is the latest of the Cuban contractors, a gregarious, friendly gardener who, in addition to growing nearly every vegetable and fruit you can imagine up here (Saba’s volcanic soil is incredibly rich), also teaches local schoolchildren. It’s all part of a tres cool plan, and I hope they can amp up interest in the way the local farm movement has swept the US, particularly northern California, where I’m from. Note the big blue barrel at the top of the gardens; water conservation is something I’ll address in an upcoming blog, as it’s a very interesting topic here on Saba. Doesn’t hurt that the gardens sit in gorgeous setting, across from Mt Scenery.
Je t’adore Saba!
THE NORTH COAST TRAIL
Saba is a hiker’s delight, with trails crisscrossing all over, complete with challenging terrain, loose scree, alternate blazing sun, gusty winds and rain pelting the primary and secondary rainforests, replete with dramatic coastline and village views. The Saba Conservation Bureau’s James “Crocodile” Johnson—a multi-generational Saban—is the de facto ranger for all of Saba’s hiking trails, and he is a walking bush medicine and flora/fauna expert. Saba’s northern side is wild, rugged thick foliage, complicated by continuous cliff erosion that forces James to gather volunteer crews and reroute the North Coast Trail (guide required…e.g. Crocodile) three times in recent years.
Croc led our little group of five solid hikers on a 4 hours traverse of this trail, climbing steeply out of a walled “gut” to the remains of Mary’s Point, a small village founded in the 1600’s until the government forced them to relocate to The Bottom in the early 1940’s due to the encroaching erosion on their settlement. And sure enough, we saw the edge of a cistern hanging over a thousand foot drop to the ocean, a mere 15 feet off the trail. Parts of this trail are not for the faint of heart, as goats regularly start landslides that send rocks bouncing down the switchbacks, and places are so steep and loose in parts, they’ve wired thin cable to pull yourself up or down, with vertical drop-offs right at the edge of your feet. But once you get up, it becomes a traverse through lush, dense tropical foliage, mud, lichen encrusted rocks, patches of elephant ears. With James pointing out the local names for every flora used for medicinal purposes, its clear Saba is a living representation of preservation of rainforests everywhere, but it’s a less complicated issue to control on tiny Saba than it is down in the Amazon. I’ll check in with Sierra Club when I get back to the states to see if they’d have trail maintenance volunteers to visit Saba and help the Conservation Bureau.
The culmination of our hike was the off trail descent to Great Point, where you have the most expansive ocean view on the island chewing up your field of vision, with western looks at the Saba’s only persistent beach—reachable only by water—The Cave of Rum Bay and Diamond Rock, and Green Island and Flat Point to the east. The Winair planes come right at you before banking left and descending along the cliffline to the airport. In addition to the large bowie knife at his side, Crocodile is one of just a couple licensed gun owners on the island, so issued to keep the goat population in check. In the picture here, on the way down to Great Point, we ran across these plains of grass where goats run wild like wildebeests, and James showed his acumen in shuffle stepping towards an unsuspecting goat. Click on this thumbnail picture to see it full sized: I love the expression on the other goats who’ve spotted him, and they bleeted like crazy trying to warn their pal—Bob, get the hell outta there, it’s the goatstalker!— ‘til Croc got within a few feet of the goat, and it jumped up and took off like a bat in hell down the ridge. What a hike – loved every minute of it!
LOCAL PROFILE – Sunday Backgammon
I’d like to throw in a personality profile here and there of the people I meet here to keep it real. Bob, Uwe, and Michael are a group of long term expats here who gathers every Sunday at Saba Snack in downtown Windwardside to play backgammon for hours with a Chess Grandmaster-like intensity, occasionally broken up to order beers and food for brain upkeep.
Michael is a Dutch speaking Irishman—complete with hard Irish accent–who drove a taxi here for a while before his taxi broke, and he’s the all purpose everything support and maintenance guy up at Ecolodge in the hills above Windwardside. He’s the epitomy of the Irish spirit, super friendly and talkative, liberally dishing out advice, opinions, and tales tall and short. We’ve had some great conversations over beer late into the windy star filled nights. Uwe is the intense, soft spoken, friendly German who started a bike rental shop here on Saba, and also does handyman work for Tricia (my landlady and friend from the earlier blogposts) and the properties she manages. Bob…well I don’t know a lot of about Bob other than he’s another friendly amigo—do I sound like a broken record?—with a UK accent, he’s married to Marie, a sweet French girl who runs a really interesting arts shop where she crafts custom jewelry for visitors made from rock and artifacts found on Saba (more on that in future posts). But Bob is also a very friendly, cool dude. I think I captured the essence of their backgammon passion in this collage, and Sundays are a quiet day on Saba, with most things closed except church and a couple of the restaurants.
More more more to come! Hope this is all interesting enough to keep you coming back, as I love and welcome all comments. I continue my diving the amazing reefs and formations of Saba, meeting many new friendly aquatic pals, and I’m hoping to have diving pictures in a few weeks when I get good enough to hold a camera while floating without dinging the precious coral.
It’s Christmas, 2012 – wishing you the happiest of holidays to you and yours wherever you are. Lots of interesting pictures and mini-stories to share with you on this lovely day in Saba, Dutch Caribbean.
If you have the bandwidth, be sure and click on the smaller pictures in this post to blow them up to their full resolution selves. I’m uploading them full sized so folks can see all the great detail on Saba.
On Christmas Eve, I did my 22 minute walk on The Road to Windwardside, the largest village on Saba, nestled roughly around 1400 feet elevation with views to the northeast to the islands of St. Maarten, and St. Barts and to the southeast Statia, St Kitts and Nevis, and on clear days, Monsterrat. More importantly, Windwardside is nestled in the foothills and valley below Mt Scenery, which presides above it like an intimidating parent. Generally, Mt Scenery has its top clouded by the fog bank for which its known (and I’ve written about in prior posts), but this is the dry season, so the communication tower is clearly visible 1400 feet above the village. If you look at prior Windwardside post pics from Mt Scenery, this is a picture of Windwardside from the opposite side, from a steep road up to The Level and Booby Hill. I had Christmas Eve dinner with a friendly Canadian gal named Susan at Shearwater Resort up on Booby Hill, and I climbed this road twice in doing so. The breezes are intermittent and cooling, with 15-20mph gusts that cool the sweat off my overheated core after dragging my sorry butt up these steep hills. Since I wanted to dress in a little nicer shirt for dinner, I made the 30 minute jaunt from my St Johns cottage (about a 500 ft elevation gain) in my quick dry shirt, cooled down for a half hour outside the resort, changed shirts and I was good to go. I’m a San Francisco food lover (“foodie”) and I have to say, Saba has a pretty impressive ratio of fine chefs on the island for a population of 1400 or so, all the more creative because lots of the food has to get shipped in from the other islands: St. Maarten or farther. Christmas Eve dinner was beef tenderloin with a fine cheese wafer with both a cream sauce and a demiglace. Not bad.
Colors and Cottages
All Christmas Eve day, I wandered around Windwardside, unsure of the protocol for taking pictures and not wanting to step all over private property, although on Saba the “private” concept is somewhat relative. I’ve been particularly cautious around cemeteries, though I’m very tempted, as the crypts are semi-above ground, and generally sealed in the fiery gray volcanic rock endemic to the island. I decided to snap a couple pictures of the Saba History Museum (which I’ve not been to yet) and an Anglican Church located at the entrance to the village. The reds, whites, and greens just pop on this island. Ocean, village, or mountain views, pictures simply can’t capture the dramatic–sometimes overwhelming–beautiful views on the island. I don’t want to get used to it. I choose to be immersed, as this is the kind of place where nature is a spirituality unto itself. Can’t help but feel, calm, relaxed and unhurried wherever I wander. Talk to any locals or the expats who gave it all up to come here and live, and it’s the personification of jeune c’est quoi; you can’t put your finger on how to explain Saba, you simply have to be here, as the cliche goes. Below is a long lensed shot of Saba from The Road to The Level that provides a cool perspective of the bright red roofs, whitewashed sides, and gabled shutters that are indicative of the Saban architecture. Not having been to Holland, I’ve not idea whether this is what Amsterdam or rural Holland must look like, but it’s consistent and beautiful here. That’s the Catholic Church in Windwardside below. As the son of an almost-nun, I think I sort of remember what happens in there, but I happen to be a recovering Catholic myself, so my thoughts are the usual garble of remembered dogma, community, and cool wafers and wine for kids on Sunday.
Here There Be Hurricane Ghosts
The last major hurricane to smack Saba head on with real and serious damage was 1998’s Hurricane Georges, a nasty whippersnapper that tapped 6 islands and managed $6 billion in damage. I remembering visiting Saba in 1995 by way of s/v Polynesia, one of the fleet of Windjammer sailing ships, and I vividly recall getting chased by Hurricane Luis down in these waters, a massive green blotch that consumed most of the ship’s macro scale radar. By comparison to, say, nearby St. Kitts (which you can see in many ocean pics from this blog’s prior posts), Saba was relatively spared from the wrath of Georges. Though there are sources that say Saba is impacted by more hurricanes than any other island in the world, as far as I know, the island has suffered no direct hurricane deaths. But there was a one fabled structural fatality: Captain’s Quarters, which had hosted Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in its heyday. Here’s a couple pictures of the bar/restaurant hotel, a stark black and white of the place, which appears untouched in 15 years, and the view from the damaged structure out to the sea, perched on the cliff. The hotel itself was cleared in 2007. The owner wasn’t insured (no small matter on Saba, I’d guess) to replace the buildings. I’m told by islanders that a wealthy lady has purchased the property, and plans to renovate it soon. Wandering up the steep street a little further and I came across the bones of another victim. Not sure if this is part of the CQ complex or not, but again, the undisturbed ruins, complete with overgrown foliage, makes for really fascinating visuals, even if it is relatively recent history. Half the reason I take these particular pictures is so I have the details in front of me to describe what I’m seeing to the readers of this murder mystery I’m writing.
The Road Redux
I’ll close this long Christmas post out with more talk of things unchanged; My Christmas Eve walk from Windwardside back to St. Johns on the rollercoaster architectural achievement that is the Road, with its stone masonry of volcanic rock that looks like it could withstand hundreds of years to come. It’s a pleasure to walk along this undulating beast, gazing out on the vast wide Caribbean from on high, down the plunging ravines, watching the multitude of goats of all colors sprint up and down its slopes, sun dropping low in the sky as the night closed out, illuminating the best cloudscapes I’ve seen yet. I hope you agree.
Thanks again for the comments – always appreciated and welcome. If you happen to be fact or spell checking my blog and catch a mistake, please let me know and I’ll get it corrected immediately.
This past Friday was the 37th Saba Day, an analog to the US July 4th holiday, albeit largely ceremonial in its origin, as Saba has been tied to the Netherlands in one form or fashion since 1816. I bopped down to The Bottom, where a drum corps of local teens played beneath an orange tent next to a newly opened cultural center for the island, replete with articulate, nattily dressed dignitaries from surrounding Dutch islands–St Maarten, Statia, Bonaire, St. Kitts and Nevis. Of course, this was the first day I forgot to bring my camera, and there were some truly excellent faces among the crowd.
For consolation, I brought my camera back for the annual Wahoo tournament later in the day down in Fort Bay (the 80 ft pier that is the only way to get to Saba by boat). It’s a big deal, as other island fisherman boated 2 hrs through choppy six foot swells just to get here, and another several hours fishing. Waiting for each boat to come in was a ritual, as the concrete pier was lined with folks eager to help offload the boat to the truck that carried the fish to the weighing hook.
This group of three Statian fellows had the tiniest boat, caught 3 barracudas and had to throw them back, so they came up nada for their 6-8hrs investment. Michael, furthest on the left here, confessed to be “scared” most of the morning, as the waves were quite a bit higher than the draft of their boat, despite ultimately having faith in William (far right), the captain. My landlady/wild pal Tricia is also here, dressed up in her hat and having a grand old time, while her husband Michael (yellow shirt in the fish tournament collage above) bargained with various fisherman to see if he could get fresh mahi or wahoo for that night’s meal at Brigadoon. Flowers
I’m scheduling a few hikes soon with the island’s local flora/fauna expert James “Crocodile” Johnson and I don’t wanna bore folks with pictures of flowers sans story, but a collage of vibrant island colors doesn’t seem too bad a preview. C’est la vie.
More vista views: IMHO, there are very few, if any, angles or views of this island that don’t make me stop and cherish what I’m seeing.
First pic above is a side view of St. John’s flat where my cottage is to show the cliff heights, and below it, a more painterly picture of St. John’s looking down from the top of Mt Scenery (2877 feet), the island’s highest hike, which I finally managed yesterday.
A stormy morning view from my cottage. It’s high season here, and that also means precious rain. More on Saba’s “gold from the sky” later.
A picture of Windwardside from the top of Mt Scenery; the haziness is a King Kong island fog blowing past where I’m looking down from.
Flowers on high gazing down on Windwardside
Police Story, Part 3
Preamble: Saba is an unbelievably peaceful island; The Unspoiled Queen, as her locals aptly proclaim. Major crime simply doesn’t happen here, or hasn’t in many many years, doors generally stay unlocked, everyone waves and says high, hitchhiking is legal and friendly locals have stopped and waved me aboard for a ride as they see me walking the roads every day. So night or day, folks don’t ever feel “unsafe” here, as everyone knows everyone. It’s Mayberry in the Caribbean, truly.
All that said, petty theft happens from time to time. I’m Hawaiian in roots and heart, so the personal nature of island politics, personalities, and drama as happen here on Saba from time to time are not unknown to me. They just don’t usually happen the second day I’m here. 420 friendly notwithstanding, there are a couple folks on the island who are into more problematic drugs..e.g. crack, and everyone on the island knows who they are. Tricia had warned me that she had strong circumstantial evidence to believe a fellow named Cisco had swiped the camera of my cottage’s former tenant, and I should keep an eye out. Lo and behold, my first night in the cottage, the wind blowing hard outside, I heard a knock at 9:30pm. I opened the door, and a skinny dark face with ruined teeth stared back at me, a wool cap covering what looked to be rasta locks. I guessed he might be Cisco, though not sure.
The door frames of the cottage are about 5’10”, so I pretty much consume the space, if ya know what I mean, so I didn’t feel much apprehension; more curiosity.
“Is the lady still here?” he said.
I assumed he was talking about Else, the former tenant. “No,” I said, “She left last week. But I’m here now.”
He mumbled something I couldn’t understand, and disappeared into the night. Weird, right?