Sunday, May 19, 2013

St Maarten or our life of Abandon

Now this is by no way a story of unbridled sex in a setting of indescribable Caribbean beauty. The implied word "abandon" comes directly from the highly suggestive St. Maarten website, although I do not want people to believe, that at my age of 70, which by the way is the reason we are here to celebrate that milestone, that I don't love my wife with abandon.
We were met by a member of the rental property management company on a warm sunny breezy 80 F Friday afternoon at the "Prestige Car Rental" company where Sandee, who did organize the celebration all by her lonely self (and for people who do not know her well: she prefers delegation), rented a jeep wrangler with a soft top.
We drove along winding roads to the other side of the island to Dawn Beach where, and I say this as a sign of advertisement, on 42 Trumpet Shell Road we found Villa Seastar, a place we would never have located on our own.
The place was shuttered all around by metal, front door and windows alike, but when all that went up and all glass sliding doors disappeared into the walls I literally gasped and turned to my sweetheart and said "wow this is unbelievably beautiful".
The pictures will tell the story better than I can. As I sit here and stare at the blue horizon in front of me with the only obstacle being two empty chairs representing as Sandee phrases it: a Cialis moment, I am starting to write this blog, which is unusual for me as the story normally needs to percolate awhile to get those writers juices flowing. Seated in one of those chairs you have 180 degree unobstructed view of blue, deep blue down and light blue up with little white clouds. Closer by, the blue of an infinity pool invites a dip.
The tradewinds are caressing your skin and the bright light is a photographers dream. This truly is one of those rare pieces of "heaven".
St Maarten and St Martin is the smallest two country island in the world. The Dutch side is about 40% and the French side takes the other 60% of land mass. The island is 87 square km (34 square miles) large with 78,000 inhabitants of which 37,000 are under French rule.
The border is an imaginary line over some uninhabited mountain area, with 3 roads crossing over, where markers state that you enter the other country. I will spare you the technicalities of government, the issues of currency between Netherlands Antilles Florins or NAF's and Euros on the French side, because everybody who is not from here uses dollars and daily exchange fluctuations are not applicable.
Each merchant has their own conversion system, which is sometimes a bad rate sometimes a good rate. For example on our boating day, we moored at Lola's crab shack where pricing was in euros, but since they only take cash, the black board and menus specified one euro to convert into one dollar. I can not tell you how much this Dutchman enjoyed the 23 percent discount while eating and drinking there.
For those of you that visited St Maarten before, the following story can be skipped, since it is one of the first stories visitors hear: On March 23, 1648 the republics of the Netherlands and the kingdom of France signed a Treaty of Concordia, in which they agreed to share the island. Folklore describes how the division was established. A Frenchman and a Dutchman were placed back to back on a beach and were told to walk, not run, around the island until they met again and between both points a line on the map would establish the border. When they met again it appeared that the Frenchman had established a 60% of territory, which led to the Dutch accusation of running with no proof to back it up. Later explanations were that the Frenchman used wine for libation during the arduous trek, while the Dutchman used 80 plus proof Genever, which may have made him crawl instead of walk.
Our days here were magical and besides getting burned in places I did not know I had, being on land or on the water, with the wrangler jeep top down or after not being able to zipper some of the roof parts up again and thus returning to the rental agency, with the top up from there on, we could not get enough of this place. The funniest story that I can share with you, is Sandee's surprise couples massage in the villa, while staring at the ocean, like you see on tv or in the movies.
Brian and Elizabeth came with their tables and oils at 6 pm that first day on the island and gave us a really great massage on our backsides. The first surprise was that Brian started to massage Sandee, not her preferred choice. The second surprise was that the towels, that are there for modesty reasons billowed in the wind and mine blew off, leaving me rather exposed and making the massage different from any massage we ever had before but luckily Sandee was monitoring Elizabeth's moves. When they stopped for us to turn over, we both wrapped ourselves up and uttered words to the effect "that this was wonderful, but we are really done and very mellow" and retracted to the bedroom to change back into our clothes, ignoring the protestations that this was only the first part of the massage.
Another story relates to cats.
The owners like cats and there are many stray cats in these hills. We found 6 huge 15 lb Whiskas bags with the request to keep the cats fed. That first night however we had 4 howling cats staring at us down through the glass sliding doors while we were not yet aware of this extra job awarded to us. So we brought the metal shutters down to stop the melee.
The last story I will relate to you is about the sign you see here warning people that this the spot they can die from a engine blow backs. The Princess Juliana Airport has its landing strip starting a few feet from the beach, with these jumbo jets coming right over bathers heads, so low you can almost touch them if you were quick enough that is. Unfortunately, the only picture we took was of a small plane coming in much higher because they need less distance to come to a full stop.
This has been a memorable 70th birthday and I am looking forward to my 75th.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The White Continent

When we boarded the Polar Pioneer that Friday afternoon. She was dwarfed by the Hurtigruten vessel docked opposite to her. We were shown our cabin on the level just below the bridge with a nice square porthole, only to be reminded later, that the higher you are on any ship, the more you will feel the sway.
Our little group on board consisted of 45 expeditioners (or us the paying people), accompanied by 22 Russian crew and 10 mostly Australian expedition staff.
Our first exercise on board was to crawl into one of two life boats, one of those fully enclosed vessels that can roll 360 degrees around in stormy seas, during which the claustrophobic among us are dying a worse death than being thrown into the icy waters.

, after "dying", they could later look back "alive" at the psychotic experience of being buried for, god only knows how many hours, clothed in whatever they would have been in at the time the sirens sounded, over which a full life vest was thrown, together in a cramped space with 38 others in that sarcophagus but lived to tell about it. This to me seems better than drowning. The test photo here shows only us, that is 28 people without the Russian crew, and that was already very cozy. After that most of us roamed the ship, to reconnoiter it on a sunny late afternoon from bridge to bow to aft and below, finding spaces like the dining room and the lecture room. There was even a sauna, although I never visited it, so I can't tell if it was ever used.
Late that night after our first family type dinner, which we would become very familiar with in the days to come, we started the crossing of the dreaded Drake Passage, which turned out to be, that specific night and the following day, a smooth water surface, often called "Drake Lake".
It did however not prevent me and a few uncounted others from being seasick the following night, requiring an injection in my butt from our Australian lady doctor, who later turned out to be a very experienced zodiac driver.
The Drake Passage is famous for its collision of currents, which creates a sway below the surface, making you feel, like you are part of a turbulence in your innards, whereby some parts of you go left, others right and some up and down.
When the Drake is at its best, showing waves of 20 foot or more, then supposedly all hell brakes loose in your body. I will spare you the stories about boot distributions, what we ate at dinner lunch or breakfast, and most of the lecture content we received during this voyage.
If any detail knowledge will be written down in the following 2 blogs, they may have been gleamed by me during those lectures and presented to you as the result of my own research. So bite me for the lack of reference notes on the bottom of my blogs.
Albatrosses were drifting gracefully behind the ship, as well as petrels. These bird names are here for those that expect me to mention them as part of my aviary knowledge of birds that seem to live in this environment.
It was Monday morning early, when we had our first encounter with zodiacs and penguins on a little beach below Brown Bluff, as the rocky outcrop we sighted from our ship was called. Our 12 kayakers went to the aft, from where they "board" their 2 person canoes and the rest of us went down the gangway to experience our first "step in the zodiac" moment (for some of us a "Kodak moment").
Adelies and Gentoos welcomed us, especially the chicks to whom we are a new specimen to be sniffed at.
It is an exciting and a really not easy to explain moment, when one steps on land on this 7th continent inhabited only by animals and a few visiting researchers and meet quite a few of its residents within a few feet from you. Further down the beach we even met a seal,

who huffed and puffed at us, when we did not leave him alone, with that clicking sound of cameras or maybe because we were too close, so from a sleeping position he, or was it a she, raised himself and stared at us making threatening sounds, resulting in a nice picture.
We entered the Weddell sea to see how far we could go between the amassed ice and the even more foreboding iceberg formations. All around us was water and ice. Besides large icebergs we found a lot of brash ice, the smallest form of drift ice and quite some bergy bits or small ice clumps large enough to stand on and too small to be called bergs. This also became our first encounter with silence and all around whiteness. By the way ice in its coldest and most compact form is blue, real deep blue.
The captain went further in than ever before in his career in this specific sea. And we were in awe and also silenced by all that white around us. During the rest of our trip we met very few other vessels.
We also ventured further south than most cruise and expedition ships and became therefore polar circle club members, of which to date less than 20,000 supposedly are alive (that might be because many of them died a few years later of old age, although our group was not that old in average). After our first encounter with penguins and a little cruising through the brash ice and around some bergy bits we climbed on board again to continue deeper into iceberg country as only an ice breaker can.

The next blogs will discuss the animals and the land formations as well as the scientific research stations we visited.