Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Trade Winds

Wednesday is a big day on Saba.  Like a movie set in the old west where the settlers wait around for Wells Fargo, it's the day when the supply boat from St. Maarten comes in.  Wednesday morning is a combination delivery pickup and social event.  El Momo had arriving guests who were expected around 11 AM today so Patrick and I headed down to the port about 9:30. On the way down we had a couple of stops to make in “The Bottom,” one of the two main settled areas on Saba (Windwardside, where El Momo is, is the other.  Patrick and Sophie call Windwardside “the city,” but I think they may have made that up.)


“The Road,” however, really is the name of the one thoroughfare on Saba.  It goes from the airport on one side to the port on the other and lies across the island like a tangled piece of twine.  The switchbacks and turnarounds are legendary because the terrain is so mountainous that it’s impossible to go for more than a few meters in a straight line.  The inclines and declines also make it pretty tough for one’s car to go any further than that in the same gear.  On my first trip to The Bottom I found myself clutching the door handle with white knuckles.  It’s not uncommon to round a steep switchback just to find a car headed in the opposite direction but in the same lane.  Most of the cars and trucks here are miniature to compensate for the narrow width of The Road. 


We made a stop at the hardware store to try to find light bulbs for some lamps Pat and Sop had brought from Holland.  The hardware store is tiny by American standards but is the only game in town on Saba.  I noticed a lot of the items on the shelves are the Walmart store brand, Home Goods.  But while Sabans may be “living better,” they are definitely not “paying less.”  A tube of silicone caulk?  Ten dollars.  An eight foot pressure-treated 2x4?  Well, that’ll set you back a cool twelve bucks.  In the grocery store eight dollars and fifteen cents buys you a tin of Spam.  Since literally everything on the island has to be brought in, the markups are breathtaking.


It turned out Patrick’s lamps were fitted with a particular European-size socket.  The only option? Travel to St. Maarten—to the French side—and find them there.  So the lamps will remain dark until enough things are needed to warrant a trip over.  (Again, like the old west.)


After the hardware store we had to stop for gas.  The gas station is just outside the port down the hill from The Bottom.  The Bottom is something of a misnomer as the road from there to the port drops precipitously.  Steep, curvy and constantly threatened with huge boulders that careen down the mountain every now and then.


Saba is experiencing one of its periodic gas shortages, the reason for which I couldn’t quite glean, but it meant that one had to wait in line at the gas station and each car was allowed about seven dollars worth of fuel.  Until next week.  The needle barely moved on the gas gauge, so driving will be kept to a minimum for a while.


The port was hopping; the cargo ship was still in its berth, almost completely unloaded.  Cars and small trucks were parked here and there along the quay while their owners caught up with the news since last Wednesday.  I witnessed a lot of back-slapping and good-natured ribbing along with some late-morning beer guzzling between unloaded pallets of goods.  The men then took their turns retrieving their orders.  The atmosphere here—with its combination of salt water and diesel fumes and workers calling to one another from the pier to the ship—brought to mind less an old western and more one of those steamy melodramas from M-G-M about characters getting into each other’s way and each other’s beds in romantic, remote outposts.  “Red Dust,” specifically.  Griffin, the man in charge, could have been Clark Gable had he been wearing a pith helmet and jodhpurs.  (My jug ears would qualify me for that part, but I probably would have been cast in the milquetoast-y Gene Raymond role.)


Wielding a clipboard and an authoritative air, he checked the bill of lading and told Patrick the butter he had ordered was in the cooled container on the right-hand side of the ship.  Sure, we could just go ahead and get it ourselves.  (Imagine that in liability-crazed America!)  We climbed onto the ship’s deck, dodged a couple of forklifts and walked over to the open door of the mammoth metal box.  There at the end of the empty container sat one lonely little parcel:  a taped-up cardboard box which originally held packages of Oreos with a hand-written sign taped to it:  “El Momo Cottages.”  In a movie, the image would have been accompanied by a clanging metal echo.  (Note to self:  always carry your camera!)  We retrieved the butter and hopped back onto the pier. 


The other delivery we went to get—a new toaster—was buried somewhere on a pallet but we were on the clock and had to get back to make sure Patrick was there to greet the 11 AM arrivals.  So Griffin offered to bring it up to Windwardside with him when his work was done.  (As it happens, I just saw him drive by the café where I’m writing this so I may stop by and see if I can get it myself.) 


We headed back up The Road, dodging parked cars, oncoming traffic and even wild goats, and made it back to El Momo ahead of the new guests.


I always loved those “remote outpost,” “tramp steamer,” “isolated rubber plantation” black-and-white potboilers I used to watch on the Million Dollar Movie when I was a kid (all of which seem to have featured Thomas Mitchell.)  Even then I suspected the situations and locales were overly romanticized and the characters too broadly drawn.

After just one week on Saba I’m not so sure.           


  1. Thanks for the word pictures, Tom. Even though I am not there, I am...

  2. I can see it all, even without pictures. What an adventure! A week has gone by already?????

  3. True even without pictures your writing skills are amazing Tom. Yeah I remeber the "Million Dollar Movie" with the Gone With the Wind Theme playing on WOR Ch9 in NY when I was a kid too. Those were great.

  4. Not so fast, mister. It just so happens I was watching "Saba Maisie" on TCM this evening and every bit of your supposed Road Trip comes "straight" out of that Ann Sothern classic (and also explains why you conviently have no photos to back you up).

    On a more serious note, this entry is truly wonderful. It reminds of me the stories you were writing a while back, like the one you read on the radio about your math teacher. Please sir, may I have some more.

  5. Ummm...might I trouble you to tell us what the price on gas was there? Just curious.

    Great word images, Tom. It sounds like a wonderful place.

  6. Once again living vicariously through you.

    One question, not necessarily a pleasant one, popped into my head. These islands can be notoriously homophobic. As you tend to live out and proud, I'm wondering how that has, is or will manifest(ed)(ing) itself?