Anna McLoud Gibbs

Part 1: The Beginning of Two Weeks on a Tiny Dutch Island

Last week, I boarded a plane to fly to an island I had never heard of until recently. I discovered the island in August on a job listings site – they were looking for an intern for a month-long environmental event in October. Saba? Where on earth is that? The more research I did, the more intrigued I was. Saba, pronounced Say-bah, almost sounds fantastical at times. It’s part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (but is not near the Netherlands as I originally thought – it is indeed in the Caribbean) and is referred to as The Unspoiled Queen.

The island itself is the happy aftermath of an active volcano that last exploded in the 1600s. Five square miles – no more than a blip on an atlas – and it’s now home to 2,000 people, four towns, and the world’s shortest airplane runway. The capital’s name is, very simply, The Bottom, and it has just one road, named (yes) The Road. Even the volcano’s name is sweet: Mount Scenery. It has a handful of restaurants and its housing options are primarily gingerbread-style cottages, which all have orange tin roofs (an island rule). Hitchhiking is common; in fact, when I emailed lots of questions to the people running the environmental event, Sea & Learn, the coordinator wrote back that she feels safe hitchhiking here as a young woman. Well! Solo traveling is scary enough when you don’t factor in the risks of being a young woman, which, of course, you always have to factor in pretty strongly. So that perked up my ears, too.

I had never before traveled somewhere without a clear objective. Sea & Learn had already filled the internship position by the time I emailed them, so I wouldn’t have anything specific to do upon arrival. Even my solo trip to Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest two years ago, which was largely an experience trip with the hope of finding writing fodder, was pretty structured, because I was volunteering at a nonprofit. This would just be me, throwing myself at this island and seeing what stuck. 

Two months later, I flew to Florida, then to Sint Maarten, where I took a 90-minute ferry (which I later learned has been dubbed the “Vomit Comet” by people on the island) to arrive in the sole harbor of Saba. One of the organizers of Sea & Learn called a taxi to come get me. She sent me an email with no subject: “look for Garvis. Old red and white van.” Garvis greeted me outside the customs office with a Hawaiian shirt and very few teeth. I came to learn that he’s an 8th-generation Saban, born in the 1950s and widely known around the island, as are the others in his generation: Peddy, another taxi driver; Reid Barnes, who lives in the mountains; and Crocodile James, the 70-year-old park ranger who wields a machete and is missing part of his left ring finger. They remember the island before the entire Road was constructed. Crocodile James was 12 years old when he watched the first plane land.

I quickly learned that many of the tourists who come here come for the scuba diving. Several dive groups from Washington, DC converged on the island for the third week of October, purposefully choosing October in order to also attend Sea & Learn. If you aren’t a diver, though, it’s not a problem, because the entire island is a mountain: hiking for days. The steepest section of road on the island has a 45% grade (according to Crocodile James – I’d believe it, though Google says the world record is 37%. It’s gotta be close though.)

The island is so small that you run into familiar faces quite quickly. On my second day, I was already seeing people I recognized in the supermarket; I’d get in Garvis’s taxi and be greeted by Larry and Sherry, who I met at a Sea & Learn presentation the night before. I’m staying in a small group of cottages run by a Dutch couple named Eva and Andries. When I went to get my COVID test in The Bottom on my second day, who was administering the tests but Eva! And, of course, she’s also the island vet.

On the Monday after I arrived, I had lunch with Sherry, a retired diver who first came to the island in 2007 and now owns a cottage that she and her husband visit a few times a year. “We came for the diving and came back for the people,” she told me. “We’ve had the experience of when we arrive at the airport, people will say to us, ‘Welcome home!’” I quickly felt that welcoming feeling too. Honestly, I’ve never smiled and waved so much in my life. In the States I’ve become good at the close-lipped smile/nod combo to someone passing nearby – and that’s even too friendly for the New Yorkers, I’ve discovered, who look at me like I have two heads when I attempt to acknowledge them. Here, though, everyone that drives by gives you a smile and a wave. If you’re walking by someone and have the time, a greeting consists of a full hello and how are you doing.  

Windwardside is the quaint hub of the island, where most of the restaurants, museums, and tourist activity are located. Where I’m staying is a pretty intense hike up the road; it would be quite the sledding hill. Then once I reach the cottages, it’s 60 stone stairs up to the little lobby, and another 15 to my cottage. The views are breathtaking from almost anywhere on the island, though, so it helps ease the pain. At the bottom of the hill is a little old woman who sits in a chair on the porch and watches her grandchildren or the goats in the yard. After perhaps the third or fourth time I passed her, she greeted me and said kindly, “You look like you’ve lost some weight!” I think she may have confused me for someone else, but I still hope she’s right. “It’s the hill!” I told her. 

The Sea & Learn program consists of a presentation by a science expert every other night at 5:30 at one of the restaurants in Windwardside; they have drinks and you can then stay after the presentation for dinner. There are also lots of field activities, mostly dives (e.g. diving with the sting ray expert to set up a camera), but also a few terrestrial opportunities (e.g. hiking with the orchid expert to find orchids). Beyond attendance from locals and tourists, the program does a lot of outreach at the schools and senior center as well. The people who run the program – Lynn, Emily, and intern JJ – are always running around making phone calls and shepherding the experts to the school or the dive site or wherever they need to be. It’s quite the impressive operation. I’ve also been impressed by the number of attendees at the presentations – at least 50 people at the last few, all gathered to listen to the latest research on sea urchins. Pretty cool. 

In my spare time, I’ve been working on interviewing people on the island who are involved in conservation. I went on a guided hike with Garvis to the tide pools and with Crocodile James to Mary’s Point, a settlement that was abandoned in 1934 due to erosion. I took scuba diving lessons. Doing some solo hiking, which is new for me. I’ve found myself wanting to squeeze every possible moment out of my time here, to make every moment either meaningful or educational, but I’ve tried to lessen the pressure to let things happen naturally. I’ve met some very kind people along the way. That being said, there are still many moments of feeling quite utterly alone. And I suppose that is part of the learning here too: how to feel comfortable being with myself, whether that be in a different country or at home or wherever I may be. Figuring out the distinction between loneliness and spending quality time with myself… it’s a journey that we all go through as we move through our lives. 

I had hoped to write more regularly throughout the trip as I did in Brazil, but I’ve somehow felt much busier here, perhaps because of my anxiety that I won’t stay busy enough. That being said, I’ve been filling up notebooks on my walks and keeping an itinerary of my various adventures. I have some cool stories from my talks with local people. Hopefully I can share some more of those on here. 

Each day, I’ve tried to keep track of what one or two spectacular and new things I experienced. On the first day, it was flying fish. Did you know they can stay above the water for over 1,000 feet? Day 2 was walking through a sulphur mine, where it gets so hot that (according to the sign warning) more than 15 minutes of exposure could lead to fatal heatstroke. Day 3, I watched a rain cloud move up the mountain. I saw the rain drops falling 10 feet away and not yet reaching me. When the first drops hit, it felt otherworldly. Magic.