St Martin - A Little bit French, A Little bit Dutch
|Heartin' St Martin|
We started our first day of 2016 being groomed to purchase the Hope Diamond. Everywhere we turned on the ship there were ‘experts’ giving talks on how to buy the perfect diamond, how far to push a pirate, and a 3 step guide on how to separate a fool from his gold.
While waiting for something on board (probably more food!) I noticed a chap who was cleaning jewelry for free. I schlepped across, dragging my knuckle duster ring and struck up some chit-chat as he took a toothbrush to my sapphire. It transpired that he was the onboard diamond expert, a requirement for every ship apparently (I know I never leave home without one).
The Caribbean islands, and St Martin in particular, are known for their blingtastic shopping (the island has lots of designer original stores E.g. Dior, Hermes, etc). St Martin is a duty free haven, a magnet for rich American cruisers looking for delectable diamonds and wacky watches.
With my dainty rings shining bright we disembarked to take in St Martin or should I say Sint Maarten. The island is split between the French on one side and the Dutch on the other. If you make a phone call from the French side to the Dutch side it is considered a long distance call, however if you ring Paris, it’s a local charge!
The split was the result of a colonial tug of war. Legend has it a Dutch man and a French man laid conflicting claim to the land, to calm their quarrel they agreed to walk around the island’s coast in opposite directions and where they met they could claim the land behind them. The French got the bigger slice (mais oui, haaw, haaw, haaw) but the Dutch got the Harbour and now the Intl airport (clogs don’t look so funny now, huh).
Before tourists came to wade knee deep in cut price precious stones and metals, the island’s main industry was the pinch-and-it’s-gone business of good old salt. It was the salt that first attracted the Dutch whose Dutch East India Company began the salt mine operations in the capital Philipsburg.
The island is hilly, and only 37 square miles, with one traffic light, which makes it the smallest landmass in the world split between two countries. The population is tiny at 90 thousand. The island can’t produce anything, except for salt, everything is imported. But with it’s gorgeous beaches, American private school, houses going for millions, the rich find a nice niche for themselves here; The Dutch Royal family are known to visit!
It felt a little like we’re in Europe as school kids traipsed by in uniforms. To keep the lines between the sides of the island entrenched, the Dutch side have different school hours to the French. Naturally the Dutch speak Dutch and English, the French speak French and English. Some Papiamento is spoken, a Caribbean creole mixing English, Portuguese, etc.
The Dutch side allows fast food chains, but none are allowed on the French side, giving it the nickname the ‘slow food side’, though it boasts a reputation for great restaurants. No casinos are allowed on the French side, 13 are allowed on the Dutch side. However, the French side does allow Rooster Fighting and the gambling that comes with it!
|One Love, One Heart, Let's Get Together and Feel Alright|
Despite its’ attraction to the jeweled up rich brethren, it boasts quite a diversity. All of its 36 beaches are for the public, and in among the Christian churches there is a Mosque. Random politically charged signs appeared here and there, references to Babylon, Zion and a New World Order (?!) I walked around humming Boney M songs all day, not sure if that was the desired effect.
It astounded me how deep the ties to the old countries ran. Students moving on to third level education would return to their ‘sides’ motherland, with some Dutch going to the US and some French going to Martinique. My astonishment turned to disbelief when I discovered the Dutch side uses the old currency of Dutch Antilles Guilder, despite Holland moving to the Euro many moons ago. The French side had the decency to move to the Euro. But more importantly the almighty American Dollar is also legal tender -of course it is! these American Cruisers aren’t going to splash the cash in godforesaken guidler.
|Friendly Rum, Friendly Island|
We took a bus to the French nook of a town called Marigot, the lush countryside was dotted with colourful houses; an orange wall, a yellow door, an acqua marine roof, it worked! The town itself was tres jolie and text book French. All the signs were in French, the cars had French licence plates, even the police were true blue gendarmerie posted to St Martin on yearly assignments (how many diamonds have to cross palms to get that plum posting!).
|St Barts Calling|
We scored some ice creams and took a walk by the ferry terminal. A sign for the Next Stop hung in the blazing sunshine… St Barts…. Man, it must be tough to live here.
A series of stalls unfolded before us, each seemed to be manned by a large black woman, all carbon copies of each other (perhaps it was one woman, who was faster than her size lead you to believe) her eyes followed us around, a big smile, and smatterings of French slipping out the side of her crooked mouth to people shuffling and twirling in the back of the tents.
My Aunt had lived in the Caribbean for a time, when I was very small, and I remember gifts appearing in our house of colourful island dolls, paintings on silk of exotic trees, and small leather purses sewn by hand. Much to my delight, I came across the very same memorabilia on these stalls. After a lengthy (unnecessary) negotiation, I walked away with a Caribbean doll that is reversible (very important), a handheld drum that subsequently fell apart, and a purse that nothing will fit in.
There are shrubbery and trees everywhere, including one growing out of a house! The foliage is so vividly green, with big iguana lizards unfurling themselves along branches as they blaze in the sun. Back on the bus, the driver made a point of telling me some locals eat iguanas…. to each their own. I also saw monkeys and mongoose jump from vine to vine; I hope they don’t end up on people’s plates.
As the bus trundles through the countryside, it was common to see people, usually men, sitting out in the sun, watching the road, having a beer. I was saddened to learn that beer is drunk so freely as it is cheaper to buy than a bottle of water. A bottle of milk can cost 6 dollars, a bottle of beer 1 dollar. Damn the cost of imports!
As the island only has one traffic light, there are lots of roundabouts. The bus driver gave an explanation of the quirky monuments that that adorned these traffic circles. One was to ‘Tata’ a beloved school bus driver, another was to a butcher who had fathered 50 kids (apparently he had one wife and a lot of ‘friends’)!
In order to get back to the ship we had to force our way through the ‘duty free village’. In an act of selflessness I pushed Dom and Roisin on ahead and promised I would follow once I’d beaten back the advancing sales.
The words of the onboard diamond expert rang in my head - "duty free status means you can slash the price by 70% and that's just for starters". He told me diamonds are shipped to the islands from all over the world and sold there. With the true gems comes fakes, that’s why the ship employs him, to advise folks on what you look for, what to pay, and what to avoid.
Armed with his tips on where to go, I took myself diamond shopping. I am by no means made of money, but if my battles with cancer have taught me something, it’s to occasionally throw caution to the wind, and enjoy the hell out of life, don’t always wait for the rainy day because when it does come… you might get washed away!
In the very last shop I looked in, as most people had wandered back to the boat, a ring caught my eye, it was a one off, black diamonds with a snake band, very pirate-esque, the ship was tooting its horn, it was either going to fit or not, it did! I did quick calculations subtracting 65% off the price tag, that got me into negotiation territory. People had started to race for the ship, I had to play it cool and get a more affordable price or walk. After much steely staring from me and a sales assistant that wanted me to just disappear, we agreed on my price. My pirates treasure safely on my finger I tore after my ship!
I joined my pirateers up on deck, as I told my story of bravery and foolishness, how I made the sales assistant walk the plank, we all leaned back to look at the night time sky. A blanket of bright shiny stars cloaked the moon, shimmering and shining so clearly, diamonds in the sky, they looked they they were dancing… just for us.
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