MAX­INE BENEBA CLARKE

As yet an­other hurricane men­aces the Caribbean, Max­ine Beneba Clarke tracks its fright­en­ing progress to­wards St Maarten.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page -

1. From my writ­ing room in Mel­bourne, I track the hurricane. They have named her Irma. Univer­sal. From the old Ger­man “irmin”. War god­dess. Re­ports show her bend­ing trees, crush­ing build­ings, scoop­ing tor­rents of wa­ter onto brac­ing shores. She is mak­ing to side­swipe Puerto Rico. Haiti might just es­cape. The Ba­hamas is right in her path. In the shaky mo­bile-phone footage of on­look­ers, Irma howls hell-fury. She shows no signs of calm­ing down.

2. Un­like the tem­po­rary cruise-mar­ket ta­bles that greeted my fam­ily’s travel party on the United States Vir­gin Is­land of St Croix, St Maarten’s pier shop­ping is bricked-in sturdy. Pretty paved mar­ket area. Small row of per­ma­nent shops sell­ing opals and stones, tout­ing de­signer clothes. Tourist knick-knack stands spruik­ing ripoff sun­glasses, palm-painted ukule­les, “hand­made” Rasta wrist­bands still in made-in-China-stick­ered plas­tic.

“Ye hun­gry? Come on up! What meat ye wan? Chicken? Fish? Gat gin­ger juice, gat lemon­ade, gat sor­rel juice. Ye hun­gry?” The young woman serv­ing roti is all black-girl-shine, quick-hus­tling fist­fuls of creased Amer­i­can dol­lars into the navy blue pouch-bag tight­ened around her waist.

3. My trem­bling in­dex fin­ger fol­lows the glow­ing Cat­e­gory 5 fire­ball along my com­puter screen. Trinidad and Tobago. Bar­ba­dos. St Lu­cia. Hurricane Irma is head­ing for Isla de San Martin. St Maarten. A coun­try al­ready knot­ted with cy­clone scars. Hurricane Donna ram­paged there in 1960. Hurricane Luis bore down in 1995. Now Irma has fixed her swirling sil­ver eye, ad­vanc­ing with grit­ted teeth.

4. Work­ers in bright or­ange shirts guide visi­tors to taxis. “Where ye go?” a woman in a black cap asks my aunty. “Maho Beach.” “Take this cab here – $17 per per­son.” My aunty sucks her teeth, dis­ap­prov­ingly. “That’s too much. There are 40 of us. Do us a bet­ter deal.” My aunty is the youngest of six strong-willed chil­dren, all in our travel party. “We’ll go out to the road and hail someone.” “Ma’am, we can’t guar­an­tee safety un­less you hail someone from here.” Aunty fans the dense hu­mid­ity from her face. “We’ll take our chances.” Our group starts walk­ing away from the taxi rank. “Wait! Let me talk to the driv­ers.”

Di­rectly be­hind us, a moun­tain­ous hill looms. Not the lush jade-green we saw in Do­minica or Gre­nada, but cov­ered in a spindly brown and sil­ver un­der­growth. The steep in­cline shields the rest of the is­land from im­me­di­ate view, like a brutish club bouncer, spoil­ing for a fight.

5. They are call­ing this storm a mon­ster. She has con­jured winds of 300 kilo­me­tres an hour, ex­tend­ing 130 kilo­me­tres from her cen­tre, and sus­tained them for more than 35 hours. The At­lantic Ocean is Septem­ber-hot. Irma will have a clear run­way of warm wa­ter, stretch­ing all the way from Puerto Rico to Florida. They say noth­ing will slow her down. They say she will de­stroy every­thing in her path. They say God save the peo­ple of the Caribbean, be­cause noth­ing else will save them now.

6. My aunty bar­gains down to $US14 a head. Our group splits into two taxi vans. The driver of ours, an In­dian man, in­tro­duces him­self as Bob. Bob has lived in St Maarten for more than a decade. He speaks of her like she is the love of his life, but with a rev­er­ence re­served for the beau­ti­ful-dan­ger­ous. “I want to live here for­ever. You can get weed here. It’s not even a crime. We grow it like medicine. I can sell you some, and none of us would get into trou­ble. And St Maarten is a tax haven. I work five days a week and no­body takes any of my money.”

The driver’s chest puffs out proudly against the steer­ing wheel at the sheer gall of it all. “Then on the week­ends I go hunt­ing.” Bob de­lib­er­ately pauses a beat, as a small child telling a knock-knock joke. “Hunt­ing pussy. He­he­hehe.” His am­ple belly jig­gles. “Just jok­ing. I swear. But re­ally, you can do any­thing here. And every­thing is cheap. Ex­cept petrol and girls.”

The ve­hi­cle climbs out of the port. Out­side the van win­dow, a sub­ur­ban-cum-in­dus­trial land­scape un­folds. An en­tre­pre­neur’s won­der­land. Lux­ury hol­i­day venues eat up white sand beaches, fancy new-build loom­ing over turquoise tide. In­land, con­struc­tion spills from lot to lot. Age­ing, brightly painted, ce­ment-ren­dered homes back on to road­side chicken shops, back on to hair­dress­ing shops, back on to grave­yards. Churches bump up against night­clubs, which twerk against fac­to­ries. The T-shirted peo­ple walk­ing the streets swing be­tween laid­back stroll and mean­ing-busi­ness stride.

I’m stunned at the num­ber of car deal­er­ships we pass, un­til the taxi van slows. “There’s only one road round to this part of the is­land. And ev­ery­one has a car. It’s so easy to get a car loan. Some­times you can get stuck for hours.” It’s the first con­ces­sion Bob has made about his beloved. But then, as if to erase the mem­ory of it: “Did I tell you how cheap the rum is? We brew it up when­ever we feel like it. But don’t buy it. Tourists can’t han­dle it.” He’s smil­ing, but the word tourists drips with de­ri­sion.

“We have, like, 100 churches on the is­land. We just sin all the time and then re­pent on the week­end. There’s even a tiny is­land here where they go out to do voodoo. You bring a pic­ture of the per­son you hate and they’ll snap a chicken’s leg off. You’ll never ever see them again. Just like that. He­he­hehe.”

Bob does not tell us how Colum­bus did not bother to stop here. He does not tell us about the Dutch West In­dia Com­pany, set­ting up to mine salt. About the im­por­ta­tion of slaves to grow cot­ton, tobacco and su­gar. He does not re­count how slave re­bel­lions fiercely pushed the is­land to­wards abo­li­tion, or ex­plain the still-di­vided re­gions of the is­land, French and Dutch.

7. The wa­ter at Maho Beach is so jelly-blue it seems like an eye trick. An open-air bar built into one side of the beach teems with tourists: red-shoul­dered with sun­burn; drink­ing long­necks and rum punch; seek­ing shade shoul­der-to-sweaty-shoul­der amid wooden ta­bles, as an is­land DJ blasts reg­gae and hip-hop.

The fine white sand is striped with brightly coloured tow­els and ev­ery-body biki­nis. The wa­ter is bath-warm, crys­tal clear, lap­ping gen­tle, like a lake. Be­hind Maho Beach, sep­a­rated by a sin­gle-lane road, is Princess Ju­liana In­ter­na­tional Air­port. The spec­ta­cle of im­pos­si­ble nat­u­ral beauty against soaring steel bird and con­crete run­way is St Maarten to a tee.

Ev­ery 15 min­utes or so, beach­go­ers, shriek­ing and point­ing to the sky, watch as a plane draws closer and closer, fly­ing in at chill­ingly low al­ti­tude, right above the heads of the sun­bak­ers. So close it seems we could touch the un­der­side with our fin­ger­tips. Each ar­rival rip­ples the bright blue wa­ter, dust-storms the up­per beach. My cousin climbs up from the beach to the bar where I’m sit­ting. Her eyes are star­tled wide. Her black braids are se­quined with sand.

8. For a good while, af­ter Irma hits, all sig­nals out of St Maarten cease. Then im­ages start fil­ter­ing through. Roofs peeled back like tin cans. Trees up­rooted like gar­den weeds. Crushed me­tal hulls where once were cars. Build­ings turned to pow­dered rub­ble. No elec­tric­ity. No run­ning wa­ter. No way off the is­land. The press use words such as apoc­a­lyp­tic, such as de­spair.

Irma laughs in aerial view: a swirling white mass, puls­ing around a dark, in­flamed eye. She is bound for Florida. Her fam­ily is close be­hind. Her aunt Ka­tia landed in Mex­ico, then re­grouped over the Pa­cific Ocean, to give birth to hurricane Otis. But it is Maria the world is wor­ried about. Maria is Irma’s twin sis­ter, and mir­rors her in strength and tem­per­a­ment.

There’s even a tiny is­land here where they go out to do voodoo. You just bring a pic­ture of the per­son you hate and they’ll snap a chicken’s leg off and you’ll never ever see them again.

I find my­self won­der­ing: is the voodoo is­land still • stand­ing; who is there left to row out?

The Caribbean is­land of St Maarten.

MAX­INE BENEBA CLARKE is the au­thor of The Hate Race and For­eign Soil.

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