Marigot, St. Martin
It's been a while since I've found myself on streets filled with expensive cars and buildings aglow in bright neon lights—my first night in St. Maarten I felt like a hillbilly thrown into the middle of Las Vegas.
That first night in Marigot, French St. Martin, I strolled along the waterfront past dozens of beautifully lit fine restaurants filled with people eating gourmet meals, nestled next to chic boutiques displaying the latest in style (undoubtedly from Paris). I felt both a little uncomfortable and envious in my travel-worn (stained and fraying) clothes.
Several hours prior, I received great aerial views of several islands as my Caribbean Star prop plane hopped from St. Vincent–Barbados–Dominica–Antigua–St. Maarten. I think it's fascinating how much the topography and climate changes from island to island (over such short distances). For example, Barbados is a flat, dry, island full of farm land, while Dominica is mountainous and totally saturated with jungle (landing there was crazy).
Anguilla is so close, I can practically touch it. At something like seven miles away, it almost looks like it's a part of the island, separated only by a short bay. Ferries to the British territory run frequently, costing US$30 for a roundtrip ticket. Immigration control will stamp your passport as you enter and leave the countries. I plan on relocating there later in the week.
Dutch St. Maarten is so eclectic, the sensation is almost overwhelming. It's a wild cultural hodgepodge of the Netherlands, United States, Caribbean, Europe, Latin America, and China. Everywhere on this side of the island people are speaking Spanish—it's as prevalent here as it is in Puerto Rico.
The choice of currency can be a little bit of a brain teaser. Do I take money out of the ATM in U.S. Dollars, Euros, or Gilders? Sometimes the prices are listed with just one currency, but at others all three. Which gives me the best deal with their off-market conversion?
To make juggling money easier for their patrons, some French establishments will take a 20% loss on the bill by offering a 1:1 exchange rate between Euros and U.S. Dollars (if paid in cash). So far I've been using U.S. cash to pay for all of my expenses—which have been numerous and costly. This is easily the most expensive island I've been on so far, a fact my rapidly diminishing savings can attest to.
There are small casinos everywhere on the Dutch side. Not permissible in the French territory, I've counted 11 of them since my arrival (one even sporting blackjack tables a great view of the beach less than 30 feet away).
On both sides of the island it's common to see tiny European hybrids running down the street next to massive, American gas-guzzling SUV's, flanked by struggling jalopies on their last mile. Like many places I've visited, I would love to have a little convertible to drive and tour obscure parts of the island.
Truthfully though, I'm a little thrown off by the whole driving on the right-hand side of the road thing; the past two months have been spent retraining my brain to look right, then left, for traffic driving to the left.
I almost laughed out loud the other day when a minibus driver turned down a passenger because he said he was full (with less than a dozen people comfortably on board). I've grown accustomed to sweaty rides with upwards of 23 adults stacked on top of each other like Lego's inside of 12-person vans older than me. Buses, common on the Dutch side, rare on the French, cost $1 between the seven major cities/villages.
Today I indulged a bit and fulfilled one (of several) simple little desires that I carry around in my head. This particular one involved me, a warm beach with clear blue water, a bottle of merlot, fresh bread, and some tasty cheese.
After walking around the calm, restaurant-centric French village of Grand Case, I decided to jump into the town grocery store. What originally was a desire for a cold beverage quickly turned into a wanting for something out of the ordinary. I knew I was in France when I stood and stared at a hundred varieties of cheese—most marked with exotic, unfamiliar names.
With some careful shopping, I managed to pull together the complete package (of 100% French produced eatables and locale) for just over US$6. An added bonus: finishing off the bottle of wine (after not drinking much in way of any alcohol for the past few months) while traipsing down the shore, hot sun on my shoulders, cool waves on my feet—delicious.