May 11, 2009

1. Miscellaneous

A. Saw a movie called Cinema Paradiso — an Italian movie, an old favorite of mine. I don’t usually watch movies a second time, but a new, longer version of Cinema Paradiso has been released, and I wanted to see it. I enjoyed it, but I was slightly disappointed: the characters are somewhat flat, the plot somewhat sugary. It’s charming and tasteful, it doesn’t jar the senses, but the nostalgia is a bit heavy, the love story a bit too loving, too Hollywood. Perhaps it’s a movie that should be seen only once.

B. The art of writing: get out of the way, and let the truth speak for itself.

C. The human predicament: we can’t live alone, but can’t get along with each other.

D. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal discussed the Shakespeare controversy — more specifically, it discussed what Supreme Court Justices think about the controversy. If you search the Wall Street Journal website for “Shakespeare”, you’ll find various materials about the controversy.

E. When Boswell and Johnson toured the Hebrides in 1773, they both published accounts of their trip. It was more than a tour of the Hebrides: starting in Edinburgh, they went up the east coast of Scotland, before cutting across to the west, and visiting the Hebrides. Perhaps their accounts could form the basis of a Scotland tour.1

Another basis for a Scotland tour might be the life and work of Walter Scott, or the life of Mary Queen of Scots as told by her most popular biographer, Antonia Fraser.

2. A Week in Saint Martin

I recently returned from a week-long vacation on Saint Martin. All three of us (my wife, my daughter, and I) enjoyed the trip, though we were somewhat disappointed with the island.

The island has a Third World appearance. There seem to be no zoning laws or building codes; people build whatever, wherever, and most streets have a messy appearance. Billboards abound. Crime is widespread, though I haven’t heard reports of violent crime. Rental cars are often targeted by thieves (don’t leave valuables in a rental car). The island’s roads were built for a small population, and are now choked with traffic. There are few road signs, and it’s hard to find your way around. We spent much of our time at the hotel, partly because we had free meals there, partly because it was far more difficult to move around the island than we expected.

First we tried taxi, and we were charged a high price to go from the airport to the hotel (a very short distance). Then we tried bus/van, but it only took us to Philipsburg, and we found little to like in Philipsburg. Then we tried renting a car, and were pleasantly surprised at how inexpensive that was, but unpleasantly surprised at how difficult it was to find our way. The authorities try to control drivers with speed bumps; Saint Martin is the Speed Bump Capital of the World. If you hit one of these bumps unexpectedly, you get a jolt and a crash.

Despite its messy appearance, Saint Martin is probably more prosperous than the average Caribbean island. We didn’t see any beggars or homeless people. One tourist said to me, “I’ve been to places where the people are really desperate,” implying that Saint Martin was relatively prosperous.

Our trip began inauspiciously: we missed our flight from Newark to Saint Martin. Our drive to the airport was smooth, we just didn’t leave enough time for check-in, etc. Usually you don’t need as much time as they say, but at a big, busy airport like Newark, you need lots of time, you need the recommended two hours. So we were bumped to a later flight, and had to pay a “change fee” of $150.

One of the highlights of our week was a snorkeling trip. We were taken by boat through the Simpson Bay Lagoon, then up the west side of the island to Crole Rock (also called Crowl Rock, or Creole Rock). Finally we were free of traffic jams and air pollution, and we could see the island from a different perspective. We enjoyed the warm water and the abundant, brightly-colored fish. There were several groups of divers at Crole Rock — it’s one of Saint Martin’s most popular diving spots. From Crole Rock, you can see the long, flat island of Anguilla, which is only about six miles north of Saint Martin.

As we passed through the lagoon, we saw some wild goats on a hillside. And as we drove around the island, we saw numerous stray dogs. As we ate at outdoor restaurants (at the hotel), stray cats would come by, looking for food, and birds would peck at leftovers. One might say that Saint Martin’s anarchic atmosphere extends to the animal kingdom.

People on Saint Martin are casual, laid-back, inexact. When someone saw us studying a map, he said, “don’t look at the map, just drive.” People aren’t eager to maximize their income; one might say they go to work to get out of the house, but don’t really work. Prices are sometimes ambiguous and, at a restaurant, you may be charged a lower price than the price on the menu. Times are also vague: don’t expect things to take place at the stated time. Buses don’t follow a schedule, they just drive around as the spirit moves them. Though Saint Martin is in the same Time Zone as the eastern U.S., it has a different sense of time; Saint Martin is on Island Time.

One of the best things about travelling is meeting new people, and seeing the world through foreign eyes. We enjoyed chatting with the captain of our snorkeling boat. He was a young man of Puerto Rican descent who had grown up on Saint Martin. He had gone to private school (everyone who can afford to goes to private school). Though he had always lived on the Dutch side of Saint Martin, he couldn’t speak Dutch; he spoke English, Spanish, and French. English seems to have displaced Dutch on the Dutch side, just as the American dollar has displaced the official currency, the Netherlands Antillean guilder.

Though the dollar is accepted everywhere, many stores say “No $100 bills accepted.” I assume they’re afraid of counterfeit bills, which may be a bigger problem overseas than in the U.S. Notwithstanding the counterfeit problem, Saint Martin merchants like cash, and many won’t accept credit cards (probably because cash can be hidden from the tax collector). One merchant said she would accept credit card or cash, but would charge an extra 5% if I used a credit card.

Our captain said that the population of Saint Martin was 100,000, of which 40,000 was illegal. Many of the illegal immigrants come from Haiti and the Dominican Republic. When the Saint Martin tourist industry exploded around 1970, Saint Martin experienced a building boom and a labor shortage, and became a magnet for illegal workers.

Many of the new hotels and vacation homes were built in the southwest of the island, perhaps because this area was remote, undeveloped, and neglected by earlier settlers. Our hotel was at Maho Beach, in the southwest. Our hotel was close to the airport, and we could see planes coming in just a few feet above Maho Beach. Airplane enthusiasts like to come to Maho Beach to photograph planes at close range.

Our captain said that a few families own much of the island, and wield considerable power. On the French side, the Fleming family is important, and the Wathey family is important on the Dutch side. In 1989, the University of St. Martin was founded; one of its founders was a Wathey, and its president is a Fleming.

Many Caribbean islands, including Saint Martin, have small medical schools. American students who aren’t accepted by U.S.-based medical schools often attend these Caribbean schools. Students spend about 20 months in the Caribbean on book-work, then go to the U.S. for hospital training.

Our captain told us that Chinese immigrants play an important role in Saint Martin’s restaurant industry, and own many food stores. Immigrants from India own many jewelry stores and electronics stores. Other ethnic groups dominate other industries.

When we rented a car, we wanted to go to the French side, and its capital, Marigot. We were told that the scenic route to Marigot went through The Lowlands (Terres Basses). The Lowlands are an area in the southwest that has quiet beaches and palatial homes. We found the quiet beaches (such as Long Bay and Plum Bay), but this route didn’t seem scenic because all the homes have walls and gates, which block the view.

Eventually we made it to Marigot. On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, Marigot has an open market with local produce. Unfortunately, we were there on a Tuesday morning.

Looming over Marigot is Fort St. Louis, which was built about 1780. It’s an easy hike to the fort, which offers good views. Signs at the fort tell you that it was built to protect Marigot from British attacks.

The fort is on a point of land that forms the eastern side of Marigot harbor. The western side of the harbor is formed by Bluff Point, which is connected to the shore by a walkway/jetty. Bluff Point once had a leper colony. I was told that you can walk out to Bluff Point, and see the ruins of the leper colony.

The next bay (north of Marigot) has a huge, rusting ship. Apparently it ran aground, and no one has bothered to do anything with it. Abandoned boats and abandoned buildings are not uncommon on Saint Martin. The island is periodically ravaged by hurricanes, and some homeowners can’t afford to repair hurricane damage, so the building is abandoned. When a home is damaged, the occupants sometimes emigrate; I met a man in the U.S. who said he had left Montserrat in 1989, after Hurricane Hugo.

When I was at Fort St. Louis, I met a school group from Puerto Rico. The teacher gave me a broad smile, inviting conversation. We had a pleasant talk. He groused about American colonialism (he overlooked the fact that his ancestors, the Spanish, were also a colonial power). When I told him that I saw some traces of an independence movement on Saint Martin, he said, “good for them.” He said there was still an independence movement in Puerto Rico, and compared such movements to the American struggle for independence from Britain.

While we were on Saint Martin, we met tourists from other Caribbean islands, from South America, and from Europe. In general, the Caribbean is international — a mix of languages and cultures. Some Caribbean languages are hybrids — Creole, for example, and Papiamento. And you meet people whose names have a mixed origin; for example, I met a man named “Cruz Palmer.”

Since foreigners smoke more than Americans, we saw more smoking than we see in the U.S. Most of the smokers seemed to be tourists; the Saint Martin natives don’t seem to be heavy smokers.

A taxi ride is a good chance to talk to islanders; drivers are often willing to chat. We spoke to an older male driver who said he was conceived on Curacao, born on Aruba, and spent his adult life on Saint Martin. (He was the first person I ever met who distinguished between his place of conception and his place of birth.) Knowing that Papiamento is widely spoken on the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao), I asked him if his native language was Papiamento. He said no, his native language was English; in his part of Aruba, English was widely spoken. (I met a female islander who dismissed Papiamento as a “broken language”; there may be some stigma attached to it.) He said that he never worked on Saturday, and that he observed the Jewish Sabbath. I could barely understand his English, and couldn’t tell if he had actually converted to Judaism (probably not). He said he went back and forth between the taxi business and the hotel business. He never drove at night because his eyes were bad, and his brain had been affected by years of drug use. He spoke candidly about his unprepossessing appearance, referring to himself as a “monster.”

Saint Martin’s nickname is The Friendly Island, and we did indeed find the people to be friendly.

Christianity seems widespread in the Caribbean, and we saw several people with Bibles — some in French, some in English. Besides the Bible, we didn’t see many other books, and Saint Martin doesn’t seem to have any bookstores. A year or two ago, I spoke to a Brazilian about publishing a book in Brazil, and he said, “people here don’t read books.” I didn’t understand what he meant, but now that I’ve been to Saint Martin, I do understand.

Saint Martin’s airport is the second busiest in the eastern Caribbean (Puerto Rico’s is the busiest). So if you want to visit an island near Saint Martin, you may fly to Saint Martin, then take a boat or a small plane to your destination. If you don’t like Saint Martin’s crowds and commotion, you might prefer St. Bart’s, which is about 12 miles southeast of Saint Martin. St. Bart’s is more orderly, more exclusive, and more expensive than Saint Martin.

If you stay at a Saint Martin hotel, you can make a day-trip to St. Bart’s. You can also make a day-trip to Saba, which is known for good hiking and scuba-diving. Saba is a tiny island (5 square miles, about 1,500 inhabitants) dominated by a dormant volcano. From the south side of Saint Martin, we could see Saba rising abruptly from the sea, the top of its volcano often wrapped in clouds — a beautiful sight, and one that I never tired of. Scuba divers can move along Saba’s undersea walls, and view its undersea peaks, while hikers can climb to the top of its volcano, and look down into the crater. I suppose every Caribbean island offers a view of another island — perhaps several other islands — and if you travel through the Caribbean by boat, you’ll always be within sight of an island — as Columbus was when he sailed through the Caribbean.

If I visit Saint Martin again, I’d like to go to the east side of the island, which offers a good view of St. Bart’s. Galion Beach is on the east side, just south of Orient Bay, and there’s a butterfly farm near Galion Beach; the farm is popular with adults and children. Another attraction that I didn’t visit is Plantation Mt. Vernon, a restored plantation, or farm museum, that shows visitors how rum, sugar, and coffee were produced.

One attraction that I did visit was Loterie Farm, which dates back to 1715, and is known today for its zip lines and its restaurant. I wanted to climb Saint Martin’s highest mountain, Pic Paradis, and I was told that I should park at Loterie Farm, which is at the base of the mountain, and has trails leading to the summit. Pic Paradis is notorious for theft, but your car will probably be safe at Loterie Farm.

“I don’t care about my car. What about me?” I was told that Pic Paradis thieves won’t bother hikers, since hikers don’t carry lots of valuables. If you want to be safe, though, hike in a group, or ask Loterie Farm to provide you with a guide, or speak to the local police (the French-side police, probably based in Marigot) and ask them if Pic Paradis is safe. If you want to enjoy the view, but don’t want to hike, ask Loterie Farm to drive you up (the road is rough and narrow, but brings you close to the top). Loterie Farm charges 5 euros to park, and I was surprised to find that they also charge 5 dollars; apparently they don’t care what currency you give them, as long as you give them 5 of it.

As I hiked up Pic Paradis, I saw various ruins from earlier centuries: a well with two iron vats next to it (for boiling sugar-cane?), a building used in sugar production (a “sucrerie”), and fallen gravestones. I also saw a furry animal about the size of a squirrel, and similar to a weasel in appearance; it was probably a mongoose. I saw countless little lizards, and occasionally a larger iguana would rumble through the dry leaves. I was told that there are monkeys, but I didn’t see any. The trail is rough and rocky (much of it seems to be a stream-bed), but it’s shady.

At the summit, there are several telecom towers and buildings. The presence of telecom workers makes the area safer (perhaps you should hike on a weekday, so there’s a greater chance of workers being around). Behind the second telecom tower, there’s an excellent view of Embouchure Bay, St. Bart’s, and Philipsburg, and a map describing the whole scene. Behind the third tower, there’s a view of Marigot harbor, Simpson Bay Lagoon, etc. And I was told that another lookout offers a view of Anguilla, but I didn’t find that lookout.

In a recent issue, I discussed NetBooks (mini laptops). At our Saint Martin hotel, NetBooks were everywhere — they outnumbered laptops. NetBooks are taking the world by storm. I saw one person talking through his NetBook; he was probably using Skype or another Internet-phone system. Since phone calls from the hotel are expensive, calling via the Internet is a good idea.

Since the hotel has various luxuries, and the world outside has various challenges, it’s tempting to stay at the hotel. The hotel is an island within an island. It has a beach, a large, shady pool, a bar in the pool, live music, good food, a fitness room, a spa, etc., etc.

Several companies (such as AppleVacations, FunJet, and Gogo Worldwide Vacations) offer vacation packages that include airfare, hotel, and sometimes meals and rental cars; they have Caribbean packages, European packages, etc.

The Dominican Republic has numerous hotels/resorts, which are said to be cheaper than those at other islands. But visitors to the Dominican Republic are often told to stay at the resort, because it isn’t safe outside. For many Americans, a Caribbean vacation means a hotel, pool, and beach, with little interaction with local society, and little exploring of nature or history.

Many visitors to Saint Martin stay in a “TimeShare”, not a hotel. When you buy a TimeShare, you become part-owner of a house or condo, and you can stay there for a portion of the year. Unlike hotel rooms, TimeShares often have kitchens. And you can often trade a week at your TimeShare for a week at another TimeShare; for example, if you own a Florida TimeShare, you can trade a week there for a week at a Saint Martin TimeShare.

We enjoyed our week at Saint Martin: we enjoyed relaxing at the hotel, and we also enjoyed exploring the island.

3. Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits: Sonnet 126

This sonnet expresses the familiar idea that Time will eventually destroy even youth and beauty, though youth seems immune to the ravages of Time — indeed, youth seems to become more beautiful with the passage of Time. In this sonnet, there’s a contest between Nature and Time; Nature is preserving youth and beauty, Time aims to destroy it. The poet warns the youth that Nature will eventually surrender him to Time.

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle hour;
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lover’s withering, as thy sweet self grow’st.
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May Time disgrace, and wretched minutes kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure.
    Her audit, though delayed, answered must be,
    And her quietus is to render thee.

This sonnet is consistent with the Prince Tudor Theory, insofar as a father might be expected to call his son “my lovely boy,” and a father might be expected to be aging/withering as his son is growing.

Line 11 can be paraphrased “Nature must settle accounts with Time, she can’t protect you from Time forever.” In line 12, “quietus” means settling of accounts, and “render” means surrender, so the line can be paraphrased “Nature’s ‘bottom line’ is to give you back to Time, who will ruin you, as he ruins everything else.”

This sonnet has a special importance to The Monument Theory, which says that Sonnet 126 is the conclusion of a 100-sonnet sequence that began with Sonnet 27.

© L. James Hammond 2009
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1. Catherine and Donald Carswell edited a book called The Scots week-end, and Caledonian vademecum for host, guest and wayfarer (London, G. Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1936). This book contains numerous quotes from the Scotland narratives of Boswell and Johnson. I don’t think Scots week-end could form the basis of a Scotland tour; much of it consists of Scottish poems and music. back