Well, as time so often works, it was slow while it was happening, but looking back, it went incredibly fast. Though I savored each moment of my time on Saba, I can’t believe that my two weeks on the island are already over.
By the time I left last Saturday morning, I had already promised at least five people that I would return someday. It’s impressive to see how many other tourists have kept this same promise. There’s a large percentage of expats living on the island, and I met a lot of Americans who come back to Saba at least once a year. Many people have island hopped across the Caribbean and finally settled on Saba. It’s the kind of place that you want to make home. Maybe that’s because the people you meet make it feel like home so quickly.
Still, as you might guess, there’s a clear distinction between resident and local. You could move to Saba as an infant and not be considered a local – you have to be born there. Language, as it often does, contributes to the nuance: the correct term for someone living on Saba is a “Saban,” but true locals refer to themselves as “Sabians.”
Time and again, I found that the locals burst with pride for their island. (Side note: this often works in the environment’s favor – it translates to investment in keeping the island clean from litter, for instance.) As I wandered through The Bottom one afternoon, a man sitting on a stoop asked if I needed directions. After directing me towards the covid testing building, he asked how I liked my stay so far. I told him I’ve been having a great time. “This is my island,” he said. It reminded me of when my family would drive into Boston when I was a little kid, and my dad would always say: “That’s my city!” And my mom would say: “That’s MY city.” And I’d follow: “It’s MY city.” There’s something about owning something huge and abstract that can’t be owned; the feeling of possessing something translates, I think, into the opposite feeling of belonging to that same thing. And wanting to belong somewhere is a universal desire. I heard it in his voice: “This is MY island.” “It’s beautiful,” I told him. “Thank you,” he said sincerely.
I asked most people I met what is their favorite thing about Saba. I got nearly the exact same answer from Crocodile James and the rector at the episcopal church, Sinclair Williams, as well as many others: “it’s quiet, it’s safe, it’s friendly.”
Here are a few notable experiences from my time on The Unspoiled Queen:
Tidal Pools with Garvis
When Garvis the taxi driver dropped me off at El Momo Cottages on my first morning, he mentioned that he gives tours of the tidal pools, so I decided to take him up on it. I wasn’t able to reach him when I called, but luckily the island is so small that I ran into him downtown and we decided to go right then to see the tidal pools.
Garvis was born in 1954, and he belongs to the 8th generation on Saba. His ancestors were Irish or Scottish pirates who ended up on Saba. He used to walk to kindergarten through a ravine before The Road was finished, and then he bought his first car at age 12. Today he’s missing most of his teeth and his lined face is deeply sunken in, but one of the expats told she heard that he used to be very handsome. He’s been a taxi driver for a long time, but many other things too: fixing cars, painting houses, fishing, other odd jobs. He described himself as the jack of all trades. “I could survive anywhere on Saba,” Garvis told me. Honestly, I don’t doubt it.
Many of the older Sabans talk about being able to survive on Saba if contact with the outside world was suddenly cut off. Garvis brought it up on his own, as did Crocodile James and Reid Barnes, who were all of the same generation. One of the younger locals in his 20s told me that he thinks that, for the older folks who grew up farming and hunting, it was an understandable fear, but not a plausible one. (I think this mindset has contributed to the contention around the culling of the goats. Because the goats have been speeding up erosion on the island, there’s been a recent government-sanctioned culling of many of the goats. Apparently it’s caused a lot of conflict on the island. It seems that the older Sabans worry about losing that potential food source if it might be necessary someday.)
The tidal pools are super cool because they exist in a section of the island that’s made of hardened lava – clear evidence of the volcano’s last eruption in the 1600s. This is where Garvis learned to swim. He told me that when he was young, he and his friends would build rafts out of trumpet wood and raft around the island spear fishing. “Did you ever drift off to sea?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. “Were you scared?” I asked. “I have nerves of rocks,” he told me.
He pointed out the little critters in the pools: elk coral, black sea urchins, little crabs that molt on land at night and make good bait if you stay up to catch them. Garvis didn’t know the name of the crabs. “Us fishermen don’t know the name of crabs,” he said. “Just that he’s from the sea.” He did know the name of the Frenchman snail, which, if you pick it up, releases a purple liquid that smells like urine and stains your hand purple. He demonstrated on my hand, which smelled like pee all morning and stayed purple for three days.
Climbing to Mary’s Point
Crocodile James maintains the trails and also leads guided tours. I’d heard his name several times and knew that I had to find him for a tour. My cottage host, Andries, told me that the nickname came from the machete James carries around for trail maintenance; it’s apparently a bigger machete than Crocodile Dundee’s. He also jokingly told me not to trust a word that Crocodile James said because his tales tend to be tall ones. He had gotten the Saban authorities in trouble a few times when he said some things on record that he shouldn’t have.
On a Friday afternoon, Crocodile James drove us to the trailhead to the Mary’s Point settlement. People lived there until 1934, when there were concerns that the land beneath the settlement would erode and the whole thing would slip off the island. The Bottom gave the displaced settlers an area of land called “The Promised Land,” so named because it was promised to the settlers, but there seemed to be a dispute about the money involved. James’s mom grew up at Mary’s Point. She was 17 years old in 1934 when she moved to Hell’s Gate and met James’s father.
Although James turned 70 years old this year, I was a little concerned about keeping up with him on the trail. Luckily he stopped frequently to share wild stories about a goat that he shot, or a dead man that he found once in the hills, or a section of trail that he built with the help of 20 Marines. When we made it to the Point, I could see the effects of the erosion: a water cistern hung half off a cliff. “It feels like this section of land could also break off,” I told James. “It could!” he laughed.
He still knows who owned every house. Only their foundations are left; everything else was removed. He shows me the grave of a pair of 9-year-old twins: apparently they both fell off a stone wall, hit their heads, and died on the same day. There was another grave of a preacher who predicted the end of the world and told everyone to stop farming. Everyone almost starved to death in preparation for an end to the world that wasn’t coming. Perhaps they were still worried the preacher might have just gotten the date wrong, because when he died, they gave him quite a nice headstone.
How could I not? Almost everyone I met on Saba (besides many of the older local Sabans, who are only interested in diving if it involves fishing) was a certified scuba diver. Being on Saba and not diving felt like I wouldn’t see 50% of the island. I had always thought of scuba diving in the same way I’d think of wrangling snakes or running across coals – intriguing; reckless; not really necessary. A distant family member had died while scuba diving, and that was the only story I needed to hear. But the stories I was hearing from the divers on the island made me revisit the idea.
So, against my better instincts and my dad’s recommendations, I signed up for a day of scuba diving. I got paired up with Dan, who had glowing recommendations from others on the island. (“British Dan? The one with the tongue piercing? Not the other Dan, right? British Dan is great.” Apparently I narrowly avoided being paired with Upstate New York Dan, who I met on my last night in Saba. Lovely man who gave me his Mac n cheese recipe and fangirled over country music, but was planning to be very hungover in the morning while teaching a beginner course.)
The Discover Scuba Dive program equips you with the skills needed to handle an emergency (or a smaller issue that could be scary if you didn’t know what to do), and you’re closely watched over by your instructor. We practiced the skills in the harbor beside the dock: what to do if the regulator falls out of my mouth; how to remove water from your face mask; etc. The instructional pamphlet that I read the night before had said that I would never forget my first breath underwater. It wasn’t very magical, to be honest. If anything, I’ll never forget it because I started panicking out about not being able to breathe through my nose and had to ascend the ten feet to catch my breath. I wasn’t sure why I had decided to do this.
But then we went for a swim around the harbor. My mind immediately quieted. We were surrounded by a school of blue fish. The world felt far away. I stopped thinking about not being able to breathe and just breathed. I understood why people chase this feeling.
That afternoon, we took a 5-minute boat ride along the shore of the island before stopping at a mooring. Dan taught me how to jump off the boat and then we swam to the mooring to follow the line down to the bottom. As we descended, we were again surrounded by dozens of silvery fish. We followed the contours of the reef and I couldn’t stop looking every which way. We spooked an octopus who swam under the reef and changed colors. An eel snapped its mouth in its cave. A trumpet fish hung upside down. One of my favorites was the parrotfish, which look simply jovial. (Please Google them to see their brilliant smiles.)
At the surface, Dan told me we’d been underwater for 42 minutes. Not very long in the diving world, but about 41 minutes longer than I’d ever been underwater. In defiance of the natural laws of the world, I had existed under the ocean for an extended period of time.
Banding Red-Billed Tropicbirds
On a Tuesday morning, I headed down the hill at 5:55 am to meet Lara, a researcher from Germany I had met earlier that week. I kept checking the time because Anise, who recently moved to Saba and works at the dive shop, told me that every morning at 6 am someone blows a conch shell and you can hear it around the whole island. Sure enough, a minute after 6, I heard the distant sound that could only be a conch.
I met Lara outside her house in Windwardside. Lara drove me and another volunteer to the harbor, and we walked past the fishermen dock along a path I had never noticed before. It took us alongside the edge of the island to the first beach-like coast I had seen on Saba. We stood by the water for a while looking up at the steep hillside we would be climbing. All above us flew the tropicbirds, which look a bit like seagulls except with long elegant white tail feathers and red beaks.
For the next six hours, we scaled the hillside looking for tropicbird nests. They nestle themselves into small cavities in the rocks, and they’re easy to walk right by. The birds are strangely tame and don’t react much to a threat. This has made them easy targets of the burgeoning population of feral cats and rats, who have been caught on camera stealing eggs.
Many of the nest cavities have already been marked by small silver tags that glint in the sunlight. But we discovered four more nests that hadn’t been marked before, and we also found some birds that hadn’t yet been banded. I held one of the birds while Lara carefully squeezed a metal band around its leg. Lara had gone out several times monitoring the birds, but this was her first time leading it on her own. I could tell she was a little nervous, but she was slow and steady and confident around the birds. Though they didn’t have much bite, they did have a terribly loud squawk. Once while I was wandering among the rocks above Lara, I heard some sounds and leaned over to peer into a cavity. A bird! It shouted at me and I found myself scrambling away. A young local, Peter Johnson, later told me that when he returns to the island, it is the sound of the tropicbirds that make him feel like he’s home.
Going to the Landfill
Not what most people might consider interesting, but I was really intrigued to see the landfill and recycling plant on Saba. One of the first things I noticed on the island was that every house had a big orange recycling bin out front. After living in NYC for a month, where recycling bins are nearly impossible to find on the street, it was a refreshing sight. When I asked someone about it, I learned it’s a relatively recent initiative.
As recently as three years ago, everything on Saba went into the landfill, and it was all set on fire. The smoke would rise and settle heavy on one of the four small villages, St. Johns, which is where the schools are. Colton Johnson, head of the waste management program, told me that it used to look like fog and it would smell terrible, several days a week. It couldn’t have been safe for people.
So, to reduce the smoke, they decided that they needed to be burning less waste. Thanks to the Dutch, who helped them with the costs of the new infrastructure and program, the recycling program was put in place, and now Saba burns almost entirely organic waste.
When I was studying in Denmark, I took a waste management class that ended up being super interesting. One of my main takeaways was that the most important step of disposing of waste is SORTING. If any trash makes it into the recycling, the whole batch has to be thrown out. Recycling only works if it’s the right stuff to be recycled. That’s obviously a huge issue in a world where a lot of people throw the wrong things in the wrong bins – either because they don’t care, or they don’t realize (it’s SO confusing what plastic can and can’t be recycled), or because they didn’t take the time to wash the can, etc.
So the really wild part of Saba’s waste management is that they sort EVERYTHING, including the trash. It’s a small enough island to do it. That means that everything that can be recycled on Saba is, indeed, recycled, which I imagine is remarkably rare.
Visiting Tom van’t Hof
Halfway through my stay on Saba, I was introduced to Tom van’t Hof, who is basically the father of conservation on Saba. He is responsible for setting up Saba’s Marine Park in the 1970s, and since then he’s written several books about the park, hiking trails, and nature on Saba. He lives with his wife Heleen on Troy Hill above The Bottom. Heleen is a talented artist who published a book of watercolor paintings of Saban houses.
Tom looks a bit like a hobbit: short, stout, well-built. He wears collared plaid shirts and always suspenders. He has a kindness about him, but not an immediate warmth. That has to be earned.
On a Sunday afternoon, I hiked across the mountain and trudged up Troy Hill Drive to get to Tom and Heleen’s house. It’s tucked away in the greenery, and you have to walk down a long pathway to get to the gate leading to the house. My mouth dropped when I walked inside. It reminded me of the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse – immersed in nature and yet also ornate. A brass chandelier hung from the ceiling. Everything was open so that you were sitting half outside while in the kitchen. Tom told me that Heleen designed the house in six weeks while she was on bedrest. It was enchanting.
Heleen poured me a glass of freshly squeezed passionfruit glass, and Tom and I spent a couple hours chatting about his conservation work. I’m excited to go through our conversation and construct a history of Saba’s conservation in more detail – stay tuned.
Now that I’m back, it’s time to go through all my notebooks, organize, synthesize, and narrow down a few stories to pull out of everything! It’ll be quite the effort, but I’m looking forward to it. I think there’s a few lessons that the rest of the world can learn from Saba. Let me know if you ever end up visiting the Unspoiled Queen. I’ll be curious to hear what you think.