Sunday, January 17, 2010

There and Back again…

Its hard to say where home is…

….down on the island everyone says back home we have this and back home we have that…but when we were  back in Louisiana over the break, I kept hearing myself say the same thing but about St. Maarten.  Strange…Before embarking on this wild adventure I never could understand the stories about prisoners becoming “institutionalized” and not being able to cope with life outside the prison walls; unable to cope they would commit some petty crime to violate their parole where they could get back to their version of “normal.”  Now this thought process doesn’t seem so foreign to me, after 8 months of constant reading, constant class, constantly memorizing, constant testing…all on an island that is only 37 square miles of earthquake loving mountains, the wide open spaces and long spread out places of Louisiana were nearly maddening.  And not having anything to do…but to wander from place to place, no books, no study sessions, excess time on my hands oh my oh my…I was ready to commit the crime and have the warden throw me back into my “institution.”  For so long this was the dream while I wandered through the my real world, now this, the island, the school this is the real world…now what is the dream?

I had forgotten what it was like to have to drive for an hour and half to get anywhere, and the flatness was mesmerizing, the same, the same, the same all over again and again;  the island life has changed(spoiled)me!  But it was all worth it, to see friends and family again was worth all the madness, all the driving, all the Christmas goings and comings…that’s what it is all about, because what is an adventure if you have no one to share it with. 

Leaving the island was no huge task, a 4:30 PM flight, beautiful weather and another semester of med school was behind us all.   Most everyone in Cupecoy had left for the US the day after our finals, leaving us behind for an extra five days to enjoy the ghost town like village to its fullest.  The day of our flight back to the US was the first day of winter for the rest of the world, but for those in St. Maarten it was a toasty 80 F , a toasty day that warranted a swim in the ocean (never could do that in LA no matter how many times I planned it out growing up), Delta took us all back to New Orleans just as safely as we all arrived.  It just so happened that our hotel in the French Quarter was only one block away from Felix’s (of which I have been so deprived), only took 3.5 dozen raw and wiggly oysters to sedate our monstrous cravings and hopefully is enough to carry us over to the next time we can attack the oyster bar.  It was a great couple of days, fantastic food, fantastic beignets, fantastic coffee, and just catching up, and watching the river amble by.

new orleans sunrisecan you guess which one is the island bum

  Santa had to stop over on Decatur for a little jazz improv

image The 2 weeks spent back in Louisiana now seem a blur, we went so many places, so so many faces and had terrific family Christmas parties, and parties with friends  thanks you everyone for putting us up and carrying us around. We all froze the entire time we were there, a constant 85 degrees makes it hard to transition to the unnatural Artic winds that were blowing through the Miss-Lou.  Wish we could have seen everyone, but time controls us all…back on Island time now, the clock only revolves around Block exams, all other times and days are ostensibly meaningless, all of your efforts, late nights and hard mind numbing work revolves around that singular dreaded and anxiously anticipated day.

Best thing about making it back to the island is that sweet Rainy Roo was finally able to make the trip with us, she is safe and sound living the good life like a beach dog, barking relentlessly at random passersby and riding the countryside of any unsuspecting cats, mongooses and iguanas. 

Since we have arrived back on the island, life has been in high gear, no real time for adventure.  Classes began for everyone the very next day of our arrival and it has been wide open since we landed:  unpacking boxes and bags, packing up bags and boxes, saying new helloes and tear filled goodbyes, sitting in new classes, watching old faces watch new professors telling of new directions..time rolls on gotta keep on keeping up

Sunday, December 27, 2009

La Belle Creole and other life adventures

Time has a way of slipping by when your head is down and a you are steady plowing forward, plowing through mounds of notes, books, and slides…suddenly 5 months have passed and you are closer to the end of the road than you realize.
Lots has happened since the wonderful cow delivery back in July….and at the same time not much at all. Studying takes up nearly 80% of my conscious hours and it is hard to get myself to leave the little town of Cupecoy where we live.  The kids finally arrived the beginning of July with DeDe in tow and we moved into a 3 bedroom 2 story house from the tiny apartment that began this journey.   We have circumnavigated the island several times since they arrived, ate some wonderful foods (kept Pizza Dan in business that’s for sure, oh by the way if you are ever in St. Maarten make sure that you go to Cupecoy on the Dutch side and hunt up Pizza Dan and have him make a Papa Dan for you, oh my…first there is no tomato sauce, he adds spinach, chicken, goat cheese and strangely enough honey,all of this on a hand rolled homemade pizza crust…intense epicness)
image Finally together again.rock family
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image The kids started school at a private International Academy that is only 0.1 km from our house and they really enjoy it.  The school follows an academic Canadian program so they get to learn all about Canadian history, Canadian civics, French, and the lovely metric system. The curriculum concentrates on preparing the kids for a University education, Jack has an entire semester class on just life skills, like resumes, interview skills, money management and just plan existing after high school. They are so lucky to have the opportunity that has been placed in front of them, Jack Aaron just returned from a Humanitarian Expedition in the Dominican Republic with his class.  If you would like to see a video of his experience it can be found at  you may have to scroll down until you see the title “Experience of the International Academy of San Maarteen”   He moved in with a family in the Dominican for 7 days and lived as they lived, meaning no hot water or running water for that matter, no air conditioner, and he bathed from a bucket placed in a small bath area.  It was a truly memorable experience for him to see how those live in the developing countries, we all should expose ourselves to the really real world that exists outside of the comfort of homes.
Arden really enjoys wearing the uniforms.image

So we are all just a bunch of unemployed professional students now, in and out of the classroom. Leah is taking classes through the magic of the internet on her journey to become a nurse practitioner, the kids are busy with their many school projects and my time in the classroom or buried in some book is becoming more and more consuming.  But our time outside of the classroom away from any formal organized type of education  is spent learning things that can never come from any book or lecture.

Jack discovers new foods…..lamb shwarmas are wonderful                                              
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Arden discovers the warm Caribbean..above and below

imageimage                                                                                            self taught sailors

But before I get into to much history (that can come later) I must first tell about the latest adventure, the discovery of an abandoned resort on a little peninsula in Nettles Bay named La Belle Creole.
The discovery was accidentally made one day when James and I were trying to find a place to portage the kayaks across the narrow strip of land at Sandy Ground.  Driving around on that narrow strip of land between Simpson Bay and Caribbean we found this nice paved road with a chain across it and “route privee” painted on a sign.  Using quick judgement and creating an excuse of not being able to understand difficult French words as “privee” (wink, wink) if were to be caught back there, we set out and found a resort hidden amongst the overgrown mangroves and sea grass.  The place was immense, easily costing $30 or $40 million to build.
super secret zombie island Ok so it isn’t really an island and it really isn’t called Zombie Island, but there is a reason for the name we have chosen.  Shortly after discovering the resort James and I made our way back to the main road so we could bring everyone else and teach our children the fine art of international treasapassing ;-)  On the way we encountered two shady Frenchmen who were spear fishing in the shallow flats that bordered the peninsula…surely they must know something about the island…"Let’s ask them” James says.
“Bonjour monsieur, como allez vous”
“ce qui est cet endroit” (what is this place)
OK, another lesson learned on this day, only begin speaking French if you are sure that you can keep up with the Frenchman on the other side of the conversation.  He begin rapid fire rattling off words and phrases of which I have never heard or can understand (damn you Rosetta stone).
“uhhhhhh…..parlez vous English”
Smilingly he replied, “Sure”
“This land is cursed,” he began, “none of the islanders would work here or set foot on the land around here.  This resort was built on an old cemetery…this is Voodoo land.  It was built 30 years ago and no one has been able to keep it open, it has been through several owners from around the world but no owner has been any more successful than the last.  There have been fires, sudden mass exoduses of employees and the latest travesty closed it for ever.  The last owners were excited about the re-opening of this fabulous resort.  The grand opening day was drawing near and they bought new kitchen appliances and other equipment for the various restaurants and rooms on the resort.  That very night the people from the neighboring islands rode over to the point on their boats and liberated the resort of all their newly purchased equipment.  This was many years ago and the place has been vacant since that time, no insurance company will entertain the thought of covering this hexed resort.”
“This has got to be the greatest thing we have discovered yet!” James said with an enormous grin.
So we fly home and grab the rest of our family and return to the cursed voodoo island that is sure to be crawling with brain eating Voodoo cursed zombies (at least that is what I had Arden believing by the time we arrived at the abandoned road. 
Gates are usually there for a reason
Now a good adventurer is never deterred by stories of cursed lands, Voodoo zombies nor something as simple as a chain link gate.  A quick detour through the thick  mangroves got us past the first obstacle.  Despite the ominous sign of seeing where some unfortunate soul had been chained up in the mangroves fatefully awaiting the arrival of the Kraken, we pushed onward.Kraken feeding site
Not knowing what to expect as we made it back to the main road from our detour, we were deathly quiet.  The hushed concerted flapping of the host of flip flops were intermittently overtaken by the sounds of the “whatevers” scurrying through the decaying mangrove leaves that littered the sides of the road.  Heads bowed and concentrating on not stepping on any dead leaves and alerting the zombies of our position we trudged forward, we happened to look up just in time to see a security guard (guarding what i have no idea) just sitting in a lawn chair no more than 30 feet in front of us on the edge of the road.  The brakes were immediately put on and we diverted back to the beach and crawled through the backwater to get to the resort.  The guard never moved, never acted like he heard us, I do hope that the zombies had not gotten to him.
This place was immense; there were abandoned dance hall, bars, restaurants, a huge courtyard made completely out of very expensive looking flagstones.  Villas were lined right on the Caribbean looking out toward the setting sun, with fantastic balconies and beautiful French doors on all of them.  The entire resort probably covered at least 60 acres. 
Arden was ever on the ready with her pistolas drawn, ready to parry any zombie attack.  I know that there are zombies here somewhere
bond....james bond
Overgrowth of the Mangroves Zombie OfficeBill of Sale 1988
We all kept looking over our shoulder for Jack Nicholson yelling “Here’s Johhny!”
stariway to ???
the main building and courtyard
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It was all quite unimaginable to think that this was once a bustling 5 star resort, hosting celebrities and trendy jet setters, it is truly a hidden gem off the beaten path.  Sadly this trend of abandonment is repeated throughout many areas in St. Maarten, hurricanes, dwindling economy, and corruption in the government have caused many other beautiful places to suffer the same fate as that of La Belle Creole.

Before we traversed the hallowed ground of the abandoned resort we spent the morning in the seaside town of Marigot on the French side, exploring the markets, and eating good pastries at Sarafinas.  You have not lived until you have sat on the shoreline of the Caribbean eating a mousse filled chocolate éclair with a double espresso chaser.

Looking over Marigot, is an old French military post named Fort Louis, set in the 1700s, Fort Lois protected the West side of the island with a barrage of cannons and even a small prison for those that may survive any cannon attack. We had been driving past this fort for 8 months and always saying that we should go up there one day, and today was the day.

The vantage point from atop the hill offered spectacular views of the island.  The blues and greens of the the shimmering water were amazing and you could see every inch of the surrounding reef lying beneath its surface.  This is truly one of the greatest places on the planet.  That is Anguilla in the distance, a British island about 6 miles southwest of St MaartenDSCN3203

Other Adventures since July
Having successfully navigated the first step along this difficult road is definitely invigorating.  Knowing that you have the ability to pursue and achieve your dreams is a feeling that can’t quite be described, it finally hits you “man I’m really doing this” and doing it on a beautiful Caribbean island is the equivalent of winning the lottery (well I guess sort of the reverse lottery one where you pay them instead of them paying you, but with all the excitement….crap!!).  

Since we have been here, lots of things have changed “attitudes change with latitudes” we are all doing things that we never would have dreamed in that former life.  Arden got certified for Scuba at only 10 years old and is completely hooked, we may never get her to want to do anything else because “go diving” is her answer to every “what do  you wand to today” question.  On our first dive together we dove an old wrecked Dutch gunship that went down in the late 1700’s,  the HMS Prostelyte.  It was a fantastic dive to share with Arden and Jack Aaron, the depth was shallow no more than 40’ and the visibility was at least 120’.  The sea life was just as diverse as it was abundant, Hawksbill turtles slowly ambled among Southern Stingrays, Blue Tang, Parrotfish, and Yellowtails just to name a few.  The brilliant reds and purples of the reef and the varying hues of the darting tropical fish danced with each other under the rippling waves.  Arden was smiling intensely, looking at everything possible like her head was on a swivel.  It is etched in my mind forever.  The ship that we were diving was a wooden ship that broke apart when it ran aground on the reef, naturally any remnants of the ship has long since degraded into the vast Caribbean but the numerous cannons and enormous anchors were easily visible and one could tell the sheer size of the once powerful gunship. 
We were scheduled to dive another wreck for our second dive of the day, but I had been studying all the dive sites of the island and I knew that we were close to Big Mamma’s reef.  A beautiful natural reef made mainly of Elkhorn coral, it is also know to be just littered with big and wonderful Caribbean reef sharks.  The Dive Master needed only minimal provoking to divert our destination to the reef.  Jack Aaron was the first in the water (the sea had become increasingly rough and his jump into the water was more a one out of necessity to avert more sea sickness than a desire to be the first in the water).  As soon as his mask broke the water’s surface, he popped his head up, and only a child of mine would shout the following when they see the legendary and feared hunter of the sea:  “Daddy, Daddy…..(mask goes back down in the water)…there are 5 sharks right here under the boat,….(mask back in the water briefly to survey them again)…Hurry up and get in before they get away!!!”  Big Mamma’s reef is the site where the Shark Awareness dives are held; divers sit on the bottom and watch a Dive Master hand feed the sharks, so they are used to seeing us cumbersome humans in the water with them. What a fantastic unbelievable dive this was as many as 10 sharks showed up following us around as we explored all the caves ranging from 3 to 6 feet in length, sometimes coming with 2 arm lengths of you just as curious as cat.
 image Their sleek grey bodies just slice through the water effortlessly and they seem to be aware of everything around them
Along with the addition of the sharks, all the other fish on this dive increased in size by 2 fold, as well as the turtles. We found one enormous Green Sea Turtle nose down in this big crevice eating away on a lobster, he had to be at least 2.5 feet across his back.

On Exploring

One of our most greatest enjoyments is just leaving the house with a bag of snorkel gear a camera and good walking shoes just to see what we can find.  We have found numerous caves in and out of the water, deserted hiking trails that lead to the peaks of the mountains, beautiful natural arches, so called “whale holes” where the sea comes shooting out of a hole in the roof of an underwater cave and most importantly cliffs that hang over the sea…cliffs that are just begging to be jumped off of…and yes even Leah jumps, if you believe that.
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IMG_8671 This is a whale hole, when the waves surge they force the sea water though a hole that has been eroded through the roof on and underwater cave.  When the seas are rough it will shoot water 15-20 feet in the air.

On Visitors

There are so many fantastic things here to enjoy, but one of the greatest things are the visitors.  If you want to reconnect with anyone just let the word out that you have a house on a Caribbean island and people that you have not heard from in 1200 years will be emailing and Facebooking to their hearts desires.  All i can say is ya’ll come on, we have the air mattress ready. 
Leah’s mom was the first, she came over with the kids and knew the exact location of the art galleries and all 368 restaurants on the island and they attempted to hit them all.  We all were able to go an enjoy a fantastic meal at Le Cottage in Gran Case (Gran Kaas for the phonetically challenged). The Bordeaux flowed like water, and the chef sent out several items just for us to try, we had  Veal sweetbread and truffle in cabbage leaf, “foie gras” and cauliflower “mousse”, almond flavor, a tasting of cold “foie gras” apple chutney, natural and smoked salt), fried chops and leg of lamb stewed 7 hours topped with eggplant caviar, aromatic herbs and tomatoes, Sautéed Beef tenderloin, Potatoes and “Girolles” mushrooms, broad bean and sugar bean salad, toast with bone marrow, with sprinkled grated truffles, lobster chowder and Grand Marnier soufflee with orange macaroon and orange sorbet paired with a homemade after dinner rum that was all so incredibly fantastic that I may have to remove Commander’s Palace as my all time favorite restaurant.  DeDe surely fell in love  with the island right away and perfected the fine art of haggling with the ladies selling their wares at the market in Marigot and Phillipsburg.
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My parents who have never flown outside of the US in their 50+ years of life have been on the island twice since our big move and are quickly planning a third visit.  The first visit was in August when the med school was on break for 10 days.  The kids did not know that they were arriving, Leah and I clandestinely used the excuse that we were going to the store to get groceries and retrieved Nana and Poppa from the airport, put them out up the road from our house and just let them just nonchalantly knock on the door like they had just walked over from a neighbor’s house.  The surprise was fantastic, Jack opened the door and just stood there, “Wow” was the only word that he could summon from the depths of his brain. Sweet little Arden closed her eyes and counted to 10 to make sure that she wasn’t dreaming  We spent the week, sailing from Orient Bay, snorkeling at Dawn Beach, going to the market in Marigot, and just plain ol’ showing off the island.
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Their second visit was during Thanksgiving, of which we do not have a break.  So they played all week while Leah, the kids and I slaved over school work.  But Thanksgiving day was held in wonderful Caribbean style; among the customary turkey we dined on Caribbean sweet potato pie, loaves and loaves of sweet French bread from Sarafinas, good Arkansas Cornbread casserole, and the most delicious grilled lobster on the island cooked by the greatest grill chef on the island.  We had huge crowd for thanksgiving dinner at our house, all of our friends came by and brought their favorite dishes..sort of eased the homesickness pains for everyone.
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On Med School

  The speed, intensity and number of classes all really picked up in the second half of my first year of med school.  In the first semester we had 2 classes starting out then Histology was introduced after the first 3 weeks of class and the first block exams were over.  Now for this round of madness we started with three, and a 4th was added after the first 3 weeks, and then a 5th was added after 12 weeks.  More classes means more time in the class which translates into more time trying to figure out just where you are in the in the world and how to deal with the mountain of information that you are being force fed.  In light of all of this the adventuring (and blog writing) had been put on standby, we only sought the extra curricular activities soon the day block exams were over or on the weekend just following an exam.  The second semester has finally been completed!  There is no feeling quite like the feeling of completion, especially after a enduring difficult task…running a marathon, riding a century on a bike or completing 15 weeks of grueling and mind numbing studying all carry with them this unbelievable satisfaction upon rolling over that last mile.  Just to think that only this past May we were a bunch of naive scared know-nothings who had no idea what to expect, now after hours and hours of die hard determination a transformation is beginning to occur…we are probably still a bunch of know nothings but we seem to have a handle on getting through the rigors  of med school and are gaining the ability to consume the mound and mounds of information that is being force fed to us.  Every time it gets difficult and seems like it is more than I can bear I remember the words of my good ol’ organic chemistry  professor Dr. Taylor…"if you are going to eat an elephant (like organic chemistry or med school for that matter is) all you have to do is take it one bite at a time”  so I’m just going to keep on eating and eating….I just hope I will have enough room for dessert.