Monday, January 24, 2022

Moths to a Flame - Part 11, St Maarten


Philipsburg is our last port call of the cruise, and as usual, I wake up before daybreak. Instead of going up on deck to take photographs, I roll over and go back to sleep. This is our second visit to Philipsburg, St Maarten. We were here in 1992, long before they opened the Dr. A.C. Wathey Cruise Facility that facility allows four huge cruise ships to dock simultaneously just a mile down the beach from town. We arrived on the SS Norway back then and we went ashore on a tender, one of the smaller boats that ferried passengers between the off-shore anchored ship and the small dock at the edge of town. The costly, time strangling tenders are no longer required with the new facility.

SS Norway anchored at St Maarten - 1992 - The tender is alongside the ship.

I wake up to a barking dog. I roll over and groggily look at Ilse. She says “Is that a dog?” I opened the balcony slider part way and looked out at a hill just behind the cargo wharf. There are shipping containers stacked neatly the length of the dock. We are tied up just several hundred yards away from a small island-hopping freighter, the ones that are the life blood of all the Caribbean islands. A small, yellow tow boat idly motors between us. The dog barks again and I slowly focus on the top deck of the freighter I would have called a tramp steamer in the old days. I really don’t know what a tramp steamer is, but I imagine it would look something like this clunker that has a dog kennel just behind the bridge.

We dressed, went up top and ate breakfast, still not mustering the moxie to try coddled eggs, and returned to our cabin just as another less-than-pristine island freighter tried to negotiate the pilings between us and the wharf she had been tied to. Her anchor was still down as she tried to power away from the dock and I told Ilse there was a good chance the ship would ram the piling if he wasn’t careful. He wasn’t. The ship slammed against the huge concrete piling before the little yellow tow boat could push against his stern, and at full power, shove it around the stubborn, unforgiving piling. The anchor finally winched up and the boat eventually quit scraping noisily along the massive concrete pillar. I don’t know if the boat, on its way to some long lost pirate cove, would have actually collided with the mighty Celebrity Millennium, but I guarantee you the crew on our ship was watching closely, if somewhat helplessly, from the bridge.

Ilse and I walked down the dock toward security but I dawdled, taking photographs of a three-masted sailing ship, the Stad Amsterdam, tied up across the dock from us. A beautiful, nostalgic clipper ship geared to those who wistfully want to relive the golden age of sailing ships, she calls St, Maarten home-port. Most everyone stops to look at the beautiful ship as they head toward the security checkpoint.

A German cruise ship arrived earlier and docked at the other dock directly across from the black, magnificent sailing ship. It makes a great photograph as the new arrival, the huge German AIDA Sol, is painted with gaudy, goofy lips and extravagant eyes and eyelashes that go from the deck to the waterline, contrasts between a bygone era of primitive, survivalist exploration, and one of surrealistic entertainment that now dominates our coming future. A long, blue stripe representing hair, runs the length of the ship. It is quite a contrast to the sedate, serious schooner.

By the time we get through security, a second German ship, the AIDA Perla, has docked alongside her sister ship. They must be related, they are painted identically. The Perla, while quite a bit larger than the Sol, is to me, just as gaudy and quite honestly, goofy. Ilse and I walk across the concrete wharf to get a better photograph of the two ships and stop to talk with a couple walking slowly from the newly docked ship toward the port exit. They sailed from Hamburg, Germany, on a thirty-eight day cruise and will visit the Dominican Republic and Cuba before returning via Lisbon. We laugh and chat for ten minutes – mostly them, my German is not up to par these days – before saying goodbye. Everyone remarks what a small world we live in.

Ilse and I decide to catch a mini-van or jitney so not to wear ourselves out too early by walking the mile into town. There is a designated waiting area for vans and taxis in the cruise terminal, with passengers, most them looking at maps or guide books, from all three ships milling around. We join the queue at the port exit and find it is well organized. The vans are stacked up one behind the other, taxi cab style. When we have six people waiting, the honcho waves for the next van and asks our destination. He loads us so the closest people get off first. Ilse and I are in the very front.

All the other passengers are German from the same ship as the people we talked to on the pad. They are considerable younger than we are and we remember all other civilized nations except the US and Canada, get a basic thirty day vacation as a minimum so this is common everywhere else but here. We’re number One! We’re number One! Damned socialism! We end up chatting with them, masked of course, and exchange pleasantries before we get out of the van.

The fee for the interesting, toot-filled trip through town was seven and a half dollars. When I gave the driver fifteen dollars, he smiled and gave me back seven and a half dollars. “The fare is for you both,” he said. I begin to wonder if I’m dreaming about the way the world should be. It is a pleasant surprise.

We walked through the old dock area and the boardwalk, taking photos of the old landmarks we had seen many years before. Ilse haggles with a street vendor for a swimsuit cover-up, settling on a price less than half the original asking price but still twice as much as it was worth. When I asked her why she paid the price, Ilse smiled and said “They have to make a living, too.”

We stopped and asked for a local drug store as I needed band-aids for a nasty little whack on my shin from being careless on deck. I ran into a deckchair that had been pushed into the walkway and really banged the devil out of my shin. Blood running down to my shoe type stuff. I cleaned it up but we couldn’t stop the bleeding and we used up the meager supply of first aid stuff we brought with us within a few hours. I wouldn’t go to the ship’s medical center for attention unless it was imperative to do so. But, so far so good, and we found an Israeli-owned store – it is indeed a small world – a few blocks from the beach that had what we needed and two and a half dollars, we were good to go. We decided to walk back to the cruise center, enjoying the warmest day of the trip.

One of the shops caught Ilse's eye, especially since she's a yoga instructor. A store had a row of yoga pants mounted on mannequins on display on the sidewalk. The very first form-fitting pair of pants was one with snowflakes and reindeer. "Where did you get those?" "Why, in St. Maarten, of course!"

A cat was sitting in the walkway at the security checkpoint. It looked as if it was checking the ID cards as well as the several uniformed guards who leaned on turnstiles and waited for the few straggling passengers. I smiled at the guards, but instead of showing them my ship’s ID card, I bent over and presented it to the cat, which in perfect cat fashion, looked at the card, then slowly looked up at me and meowed. I said “thank you,” to the cat – and showed the card to the guard just to be safe.

The guard said, “You want a cat? Take this one.”

We went back to the cabin, ordered drinks, went out on the balcony and put our feet up. We were looking down into the almost clear water, it was almost a milky blue, when a huge sea turtle surfaced right beside the boat. I went inside grabbed a camera, and when I got back, there were two of them! They stayed beside us for several minutes before diving out of site. If we had been in St, Croix, we would have seen them underwater.  

The heliport is opened for the departure from St. Maarten, but Ilse passes and I went back up to see if I could catch any unusual shots. One single gentleman I had chatted with several times a day, older than me, was complaining bitterly to a steward that it really wasn’t much of a party. The steward, serving free drinks to the passengers watching the dock disappear as we pulled out, didn’t have an answer. The complainer was originally from Belgium but now resides in Florida, and was simply being petty. I couldn’t help but butt-in. “I didn’t even know there was a party, my friend,” I said, “Would you like to dance?” My grumpy friend put his empty margarita glass back on the server's tray and climbed back down the stairs. I glanced back at the steward. You could see the twinkle in his eyes above his face mask.

Our dinner was very special as this was the first evening we ate with Dany and Seba. We didn’t leave the dining room until 10:30 in the evening. A wonderful way to wrap up our final port call of the trip.

We have two glorious days at sea ahead of us on our return trip to Ft Lauderdale. A perfect vacation.

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