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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Part 1 of WeeCheng’s Caribbean 2007: Five Islands, Four Days: Tales of Luxury & Revolution

Part 1 of WeeCheng's Caribbean 2007: Five Islands, Four Days: Tales of Luxury & Revolution

 

The tricolour fluttering in the clear blue skies, on the hilltop fort above the town hall. Private jets flew over the marina which was packed with luxury yachts and pleasure-boats. I enjoyed a meal of stew chicken prepared in the French Creole fusion style, together with a glass of Bordeaux, in a restaurant full of beautiful people – twinky blue-eye types whose perfect tan was probably acquired on the beaches of Cote d'Azur whispering to their glamorous blond goddesses; the retired ex-corporate heads in Ralph Lauren polos just back from the golf course but nevertheless looking dignified in celebratory champagnes. Exquisite boutiques and classy fine dining restaurants lined the smart, chic streets that make up Gustavia, the island's capital. Meters away were the usual brand name shops – Dior, Prada, Herme, Cartier and more. Is this the French Riviera or a quite corner of Lake Geneva?

 

Welcome to St Barthelemy (St Barths in short) in the French West Indies. Once a Swedish colony and then part of the French Overseas Department of Guadeloupe, St Barths, like neighbouring St Martin, seceded from Guadeloupe to become a separate overseas collectivity in February 2007 following referendum – the island is rich enough to be an autonomous colony rather than to remain part of France proper like Guadeloupe.

 

Today, this 21 sq km island whose population of 7,000 was descended from poor Breton and Norman farmers, is a top end luxury resort that play host to movie stars and celebrities of all sorts. Some of the celebrities listed by an airline magazine were Giorgio Armani, Harrison Ford, David Letterman, Rod Stewart, Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt – when they were still a couple, as noted by the magazine – Naomi Campbell and of course, the famed Chef Alain Ducasse, among others.

The glossy magazines distributed by the tourist office – yes, with photos of beautiful people on beaches, mountaintops, helipads and marinas, and printed on crips recycled paper - play to an image of glamour, exclusiveness and lifestyle. One particular publication features more "ordinary" residents – among them, an ex-Boy Band heartthrob and his Dolce Gabbana manager-wife now running a restaurant in Gustavia, the mayor's son who is a dashing goodlooking pilot and whose good looks would probably turn him into a Boy Band heartthrob if he sings as well, a restaurateur who hadn't gone into TV but nevertheless near Michelin-listed, an ex-corporate type who is now a painter in St Barths, and a gay Muscle-Mary couple who now runs a gym (what else) in Gustavia.

 

I wonder if the Swedes ever regretted giving up to the French more than a hundred years ago (- the French called it "The Retrocession" ) what could have become a tiny piece of tropical, glamorous Sweden.

 

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I began my journey in Aruba, an autonomous island within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Merely 25 km from the Venezuelan coast, Aruba, whose national motto is "One Happy Island", is a tiny island of 193 sq km and a population of 103,000. Once dependent on a Shell oil refinery, the island is today a winter getaway that attracts 1 million tourists annually, many of whom come here for its beaches and casinos. One of its historical curiosities about Aruba is that it used to be one of the Allies' key refined oil suppliers, and its oil refinery was the target of an unsucessful German U-boat attack during World War II. Today, the Valero refinery (formerly Shell) remains important as a major processor of Venezuelan oil heading for the US. US (and Aruban) flags fly over the heavily guarded refinery, with alert status boldly displayed at the entrance.

 

My host in Aruba was Sam, who runs a guesthouse together with his family. He drove me round this dry desert-like island full of cactuses, which look like spiky gigantic matchsticks from afar. Sam is proud of the island's multiethnic mosaic. The Dutch colonials brought here slaves from Africa and Jewish merchants from Amsterdam settled here together with French Huguenot refugees. The local language is Papiamento, which is also spoken across the Netherlands Antilles, and is a mixture of Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, English and various African dialects.

 

Chinese supermarkets now dotted the island – a local magazine talks about a Dr Eduard Cheung – son of a Hongkong immigrant who runs a supermarket in Aruba - who made it good at NASA and was inventor of a sophisticated aeronautical device known as the Aruba Box. I come across a group of young Malaysians who were most secretive about their presence in Aruba. On holiday in Aruba when Malaysia was full of fabulous beaches and equally enchanting island? My guess was they were probably trying to slip into the United States from here, perhaps by the many rickety boats that attempt daily from the Caribbean. Many would be intercepted by Coast Guards and many more die in storms and accidents. Why do this when Malaysia is prosperous and peaceful? Perhaps the grass is always greener on the other side.

 

From Aruba, I flew to nearby Curacao, the largest member of the Netherlands Antilles Federation, an entity from which Aruba seceded in 1986. The Netherlands Antilles, 800 sq km in total surface area, now comprised five members – Curacao, Bonaire, Sint Maarten, St Eustatius and Saba. As a result of inter-island rivalry, the federation, which has a total population of 183,000, will be dismantled by December 2008 – the result of a series of referendums in the past decade. Wealthy and larger Curacao and Sint Maarten, with 133,000 and 30,000 inhabitants respectively will become separate politically autonomous entities whereas Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba, which have tiny populations (14,000, 2,000 and 1,400 respectively) , will become direct municipalities within Netherlands.

 

I visited the Curacao National Museum, located in an old grand Dutch mansion. When heard that I came from faraway Singapore, the venerable-looking curator, an old lady in her sixties dressed in blank elegant silk formals (- she had just attended a wedding that day), switched on what she called Euro-Caribbean ballroom music of the 1930's and began dancing in this hall full of old colonial furniture, tall 1930s mirrors and paintings of long dead Dutch plantation owners and Jewish traders. I swore this could have been a scene from some ghostly film and I would be dead frightened if this was at night.

 

Willemstad, capital of Curacao, is a delightful city of tall, closely packed townhouses one sees a lot in Amsterdam, but a lot more colourful in a style architects call "Dutch tropical architecture" . Once a major trading hub in the Caribbean, old Willemstad is today a World Heritage Site, full of cruiseboat tourists and casino punters. I was there on a Sunday, which meant most shops, even restaurants, were shut. Instead of enjoying a nice Dutch Caribbean cuisine, I had to settle for chicken burger in MacDonalds (- even KFC was closed!). It was the same across the Caribbean – shops close on Sundays even though they are obviously dependent on tourist money, something inconceivable in Asia where shops open up to late at night. "Perhaps life in the Caribbean is too good and people need to relax," said an Indian jeweler.

 

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Next was Sint Maarten, the Dutch half of the already small island of St Martin, the northern half of which is the French territory (officially known as an Overseas Collectivity) of St Martin. St Martin is 87 sq km in surface area, with a total population of 71,000, i.e., a human density 3 times that of the Netherlands. It was said that a Frenchman and a Dutch divided the island by setting off in different directions along the coast from the same point and then drawing a line to the point where they next meet. The Dutch man was drunk with gin and so covered a shorter distance by the time he met the Frenchmen who had only some fine wine, hence the larger size of the French part of the island. The Dutch side of the island, with 34,000 people in its tiny 34 sq km, is more known for its casinos and the French side for shopping. The island attracts 1 million tourists annually, which is a lot for a small island this size, and it is also a regional air hub. From here, I did day trips to St Barthelemy and Anguilla.

 

Like other wealthy places elsewhere, St Maarten has a huge immigrant population. The Chinese and Indians run the shops and restaurants, Filipinos in the hotels, Europeans run the professional scene and Afro-Caribbean from across the Caribbean does everything else. I asked five random Afro-Caribbean persons I met in St Maarten where they were from and only found one-half with any St Maarten connection – an Aruban-born shop-lady at the airport whose mother was from St Maarten and father from Aruba.

 

The Dutch language has little place in this territory of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. English is the main language here, not just for the immigrants but also of the indigenous people of Dutch St Maarten and French St Martin. I guess this has more to do with the language that the first African slaves speak to their masters. In the Caribbean, islands change hands many times, and the former slaves who live on a particular island continue to speak the language of their first masters rather than the later ones. This is also the reason why the British Commonwealth states of Dominica, St Vincent, St Lucia and Grenada speak French-Creole rather than English. The same goes for Mauritius and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.

 

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Marigot, capital of the French overseas collectivity of St Martin (also seceded from Guadeloupe in February 2007) is just a 30 minute bus ride from Philipsburg. Again the Gallic atmosphere is attractive and refreshing, though it cannot beat the chic exclusivity of St Barthelemy. I didn't do much here except for a quick pricy lunch, and a ferry ride to the British colony of Anguilla.

 

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Tiny it may be with 102 sq km and 13,000 inhabitants, the absolutely flattish island of Anguilla was scene of what they call the Anguilla Revolution of 1967 during which they expelled police from the island of St Kitts to show their disapproval of a British sponsored but deeply unpopular federation of St Kitts-Nevis- Anguilla. In a rather island-dramatic way, the Revolution began with Anguillans cutting power and throwing stones at what they called a St Kitts-inspired Queen Show performed at a secondary school. Several Anguillans were fined between $15 and $35 for "throwing stones and indecent language", which sparked off the rebellion leading to the arrest and expulsion of St Kitts' rather massive invading police force of fifteen men, which included an incident whereby the St Kitts Chief of Police Force was wounded on his finger.

 

In March 1969, following failed negotiations and the islanders' expulsion of a British minister, 315 British paratroopers landed to restore order (and stationed London Metropolitan Police to patrol the streets) but also eventually allowed the withdrawal of Anguilla from the federation. Today, this eel-shaped island (whose name sounds close to the French and Spanish words for eel) is yet another wealthy high-end resort very popular with Germans. Here I was, merely a week plus from the 40th anniversary of the Anguilla Revolution, the local paper has a photo of Mr James Ronald Webster, described by the paper as "Revolutionary Leader, First Chief Minister and Father of the Nation".

 

There was nothing much to do here. The island was flat, small and most unremarkable. Even names of the island's places weren't too impressive – most notably, Blowing Point where I arrived by ferry from St Martin, and The Valley, the island's capital which looks slightly bigger than a huge highway rest-stop with not more than twenty smallish buildings. Most of my time in The Valley was at the Post Office's philatelic bureau, whose staff was busy searching for stamps I selected from their display panel – most of what I selected wasn't available and they had to go through their dusty cupboards for them. Nevertheless, the Anguillans were a friendly people. I passed by the Parliament, which was in session, and a well-dressed man in suits, possibly a local politician, who had just walked out of the chambers for a puff, enquired where I was from. I said Singapore, and he said, "China is a long way away." I think some geography lessons should be provided. But perhaps sequel three of the Pirates of the Caribbean where Singapore was featured as Pirate Chow's pirate den may provide some clue, or more likely, more confusion.

 

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It's day five of my Caribbean adventure. I'm ready to set off for Sint Maarten airport, and fly again, this time to the (once again) tiny nation of St Kitts and Nevis. From there, I would go on to Antigua and Montserrat, before heading to New York for transit to London.

 

 

Cheers,

Wee Cheng

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