Saba – May 1998
“I think I’m going to cry,” my mother says as she stares out of the ferry window. The island of Saba rises from the sea, the tip of an immense underwater mountain. “It’s so beautiful.”
A short time later, we disembark at the pier along with the other day trippers from St. Martin. Minivans are waiting to take us to the various attractions. Some people are going diving, others on an island tour and then shopping in Windwardside. My mother and I climb into the minivan destined for Mt. Scenery. We are joined by two couples. The driver tells us of life on Saba, as he navigates the hairpin turns. Saba is only 13 square kilometers (5 square miles) and all of it is steep mountain. The road around the island clings to the side as if for dear life.
Tiny villages are perched on hillsides or sheltered in the crevasses. There is no flat land on Saba.
The driver lets us off at the start of the Mt. Scenery trail. One thousand and sixty-four steps to the top. My mother and I introduce ourselves to the others. The young couple is from a small city in North Carolina. They work in a factory. The other couple is fortyish and from Los Angeles. “But his practice is in Long Beach,” the woman adds.
“What kind of doctor is he?” I ask.
“Plastic surgeon,” she replies.
My mother and I are the travel agent and her mother from Michigan. On day trips everyone becomes a cliché.
We begin our ascent. I walk beside Mrs. LA, casting furtive glances at her. She doesn’t have the shrink-wrapped Stepford Wife look of the typical plastic surgeon’s wife. The proportions of her face are perfect without being too noticeable. She is beautiful.
Like everything else on Saba, the steps are steep, and before long our group spreads out. I drop back to be with my mother. Her shirt is soaked with sweat. “Go on up ahead,” she tells me. “I’m fine.”
Mr. and Mrs. LA have stopped to wait for everyone to catch up. Mr. LA is tall and thin. I don’t think he’s said a word the whole day. When we are all together, Mrs. LA says, “I’m glad I wore my bathing suit.” She strips off her tank top. Ms. North Carolina and I follow. We’ve both worn bikini tops. Mr. North Carolina sets down the small, hard-side suitcase that he’s lugging and whips off his t shirt. Mrs. LA looks at me and grimaces.
“What’s inside the suitcase?” I ask.
“Video camera,” he wheezes.
I walk to the side of the trail and look over. We have entered the clouds.
And up we continue. Mist swirls around us, obscuring the moss-draped trees. It dissipates and reappears. Dancing phantoms.
Mrs. LA walks beside me. “At least I’ll be getting a workout today. I was so disappointed that our hotel doesn’t have a gym. We are allowed to lay out nude, though. The first day I was too shy, but then the next day the top came off, and the following day the bottoms.” Her laugh is exuberant and empty. A socialite’s laugh. She waits for me to answer.
“Oh,” is all that I can think of to say.
“I have a daughter about your age,” she goes on. “Twenty-three.” Again the expectant look.
I smile. “I’m twenty-nine.”
Her face hardens and she looks away. It hits me that she was expecting me to compliment her. I sigh. Mainstream tourists are my client base, and yet I’ve had little experience traveling with them. I don’t know how to interact with them in the real world.
“My name’s Julie, by the way.” I hold out my hand.
She smiles and takes my hand in hers. “He’s Sam and I’m Eunice.”
My eyes widen, and before I can stop myself, a snicker escapes. Eunice? Maybe she is older than I thought.
She scowls and walks up to her husband. I shake my head in annoyance. I’m acting like the catty women whom I despise.
We round a curve. Another series of steep steps is revealed. We pause for the others. Faint indignant chirps reach our ears. Ms. North Carolina is not happy. My mother is the first to round the bend. She catches sight of the new ascent and groans. She walks over to the bench and plops down, shaking her head in frustration. I walk over to her. “I’m sorry. I had no idea that it was going to be this difficult.”
She grits her teeth. “I really need to quit smoking.”
Mr. North Carolina appears next. His eyes widen. “Oh, shit,” he wheezes. Gut quivering, moobs jiggling.
Ms. North Carolina’s voice reaches us. A breathless, screeching drawl. “I’m gonna tell my momma what you made me do!”
Mr. North Carolina hollers over his shoulder, “I bet you will!”
My mother and I exchange a look, stifling our laughs. “I bet they’ll grow old together,” I whisper.
After a few moments, we set off again. It is the last section of stairs and after a few moments, we reach the scenic lookout at the top. We take turns at photos and signing our names in the guestbook that’s chained to a rock. Everyone is beaming. All conflict is already forgotten. Such is the way of reaching the heavens.