Iit was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. I was staring through a large sliding glass door at a place I thought I would never visit. Since June of last year my wife and I had been dreaming about our time in paradise as we hadn’t had a vacation of any sort for over six years.

However, this year we promised ourselves that we would put all of the pressures and strains of life aside and visit the beautiful island of St. Maarten. When we arrived at our oceanfront suite the first thing I noticed was the immense sliding glass door that overlooked the Caribbean. It was like looking into a giant post card; a clean, white sand beach, tall palm trees and an ocean of translucent turquoise and indigo in shades that I had never imagined. As I stared at the view a small dark man in a white suit suddenly popped into the foreground and signaled me to open the sliding glass door.

It was as if I had turned a giant valve that allowed all the warm and fragrant perfumes of paradise to flow over me. For a moment I could no nothing except let it all wash over me, spellbound by the seductiveness of the tropic air. The man smiled at my reaction and said something I will remember for the rest of my life. He said: “If you think this is beautiful now you should have seen it before we lost it.”My wife and I did a lot of exploring that week.

We visited the nearby town of Philipsburg that was in the process of being modernized to accommodate the demands of modern tourists. I was told that, in the past, the streets were unpaved and people who called at the island rarely visited the local shops and restaurants. I saw old photos of small, makeshift stands run by the islanders who offered their homemade wares and traditional foods for sale. I noticed that in most of the pictures they were all smiling and waving, as though inviting everyone to come to their island. At the time it really was their island. The comment made by the man at the room rang in my ears.

Walking through the town I noticed shiny new shops filled with people from places that had little or nothing to do with the island of St. Maarten. I wondered what had happened to the people in those old photos who seemed so happy to share their paradise with all who visited their island home. Many of the shops, I discovered, were owned by people from away, who were just there for part of the year to make money. The further we wandered into the newly-polished town the less I saw of the people I thought belonged there. That vision made me think about my home in York and how it had changed since I moved there almost 30 years ago.

During our first winter I was shocked by how desolate our new home was. Living out on the Nubble it felt as though we were the only people left on Earth. Once, when leaving home to drive to work, I almost rammed into another car as I pulled out. I remember being shocked because, since there were so few cars on the road in winter, I never bothered to look. I laughed at the headline in the local newspaper that would report an early morning accident involving two of York’s only cars.

Today we have four newspapers competing for local advertising dollars with three of them owned by big corporations that have no interest in the welfare of my town. Other images of York’s past paraded through my mind’s eye. I remembered when Mr. Grocer was the only grocery store in town. Most people went to Portsmouth to do their shopping because it was a bit cheaper but my wife and I enjoyed shopping at the local store because we knew everybody who worked there and they knew us. Sure we paid a bit more but the social experience of shopping there was worth it.

Today we have one of the largest and most modern supermarkets in the State. I am thrilled to have everything I could possible want at my fingertips but I am also a bit saddened by the fact that I know so few of the people who work there and none of them know me.In those days, when we wanted to go out with friends, there were few places to choose from. Our favorite was a small bar called: ‘The Sand Dollar’.

They did very well during the summer months but, during the off-season, was when the locals could get together there and enjoy themselves. I remember there were two floors with the second floor wide open to create an interior courtyard and there was a heavy fish net pulled across the open space so falling glasses or bottles wouldn’t knock out somebody on the first floor. The bar was run by the Smith family, who were wonderful people, and who knew all the locals by name.

The only other bar I remembered was the ‘Driftwood’ at the old Union Bluff Motel. A country and western style bar with sawdust on the floor and a reputation that meant you never wore your best clothes there in case you ran into a fight or somebody throwing up. Today there are all kinds of places in York where we can spend our hard-earned money, relax and meet friends and I doubt if any of them will ever have the homelyness of a ‘Sand Dollar’, or the adventurousness of a ‘Driftwood’.

On St. Maarten we pushed our exploration of the island off the tourist tracks and were rewarded by finding places where modernization hadn’t spoiled everything yet. We found a little village called Grande Case, which reminded me a lot of York Beach in the old days, because most of the shops were on one road. The foreign entrepreneurs hadn’t discovered it yet and we realized we were the only tourists there.

At one end of the street was an area with a cluster of open barbecues run by the locals who were cooking chickens, ribs, corn and things I had never seen in my life before but which I couldn’t wait to try. The barbecues were blackened 55-gallon drums cut in half to hold the wood they needed to cook their feasts. The grills were tended mostly by women who were almost all very large and very friendly. They sat us down on old wooden tables and chairs and served up a meal that cost us very little but which was one of the best feasts we had ever had and gave us a taste of what this island used to be.

The next morning, back in our beachfront suite, I looked through the big, sliding glass door at the beautiful picture postcard scene and remembered what the man had told me at the beginning of the week that if I thought the island was beautiful now I should have seen it when it was all real. I was thankful to at least have seen a glimpse of it but it was gratitude tinged with sadness because I couldn’t help thinking that I had visited this island a bit too late.

The End.
Running out of time to see the World the way it was
by J. G. Fabiano.
Jim Fabiano is a teacher and writer living in York, Maine, USA and holder of:
Maine Publisher’s Association Best weekly column award for 2004

e-mail him at:
by J. G. Fabiano.
Jim Fabiano is a teacher and a writer living in York, Maine, USA
e-mail him at: james.fabiano60@gmail.com

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