My First Day In St. Maarten

My first arrival at Princess Juliana International Airport

Grand Bahama, San Salvador, Turks and Caicos, Virgin Gorda… As I counted the islands below me, it slowly sunk in me how far away from home I was going. I’ll be away from my loved ones: my friends, my family, and Irene, and I’ll miss the suburban lifestyle I was used to in all its sprawling glory. As the plane was descending, I sighted Saba in the distance, a large rock that seemingly fell into the ocean and stayed there, waiting to be picked up by a giant. My first impression of St. Maarten from the plane was the water, the bluest and cleanest that I’ve seen, and the houses and hotels perched against the rocky slopes, and the white sandy beaches below… wow, this place is beautiful. I cannot believe I am going to be living here, in the middle of the ocean, far away from home.

After months of researching about St. Maarten, I knew what to do. I immediately went to one of the rental car agencies in the airport, and found Alpha Car Rental. They shuttled me to their office right outside the airport and I asked for the most economical car they had, the Daihatsu. It cost me $25 per day + an 8% government tax. Since I was new to the island, I did not know how true it is that the locals drive aggressively (according to value md). I remember in Mexico the police would arrest drivers who got into an accident without insurance, and I sure did not want that to happen here too. So I went ahead and bought the car insurance they offered for $10/day. Two days was enough time to explore the island and get all the groceries and supplies I needed.

The view from my balcony!

Google Earth is my friend. Thanks to Google Earth, I’ve become so familiar with the island of St. Maarten before I even landed. After getting the car, I managed to drive to AUC. It was strange seeing a casino and a golf course adjacent to a medical school, something most tourists would probably not expect. The guards at the gates of campus led me to the housing office to check in early. The building is as beautiful as it was in the pictures, with its grand front and beautifully maintained flowers and palm trees. The dorms are really nice, more like apartments, with its kitchen, living room, and balcony. I live conveniently on the first floor, and I get a view of the lagoon and the mountains in the backdrop from my balcony. My only criticism of the campus is the tacky, gold-ridden decor inside the main building, and the sight of trash laying around here and there. Although this may be superficial, I think it is important to keep up a good image of the school, to at least make up for the fact that it is an off-shore school. This improvement should not be difficult to implement.

After moving everything in, it was time to get some supplies and groceries. I headed towards Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side. Immediately after I passed the airport, I got stuck into the afternoon traffic. It was 5pm, and cars were front-to-back as far as the eye can see. With nothing else to do, I turned on the local radio. There was some French rapping, and Caribbean-remixes of American 80’s songs. Some rapper gave a “shout out” to stopping crime, AIDS education, and Dutch/French cooperation in finding talent in St. Maarten’s youth. St. Maarteners have pride in their island, I thought. As I drove on, I saw people stop and say hello to their friends while driving, despite holding up the traffic for a second. That makes sense, I thought… afterall St. Maarten is called “The Friendly Island.”

Le Grand Marche

An hour later, I reached Le Grand Marche, a Kroger-like supermarket. Everything is a little more expensive here. A bathmat cost me $10, a trashcan $5, and a box of cereal cost me $5. Goat milk is really cheap though, but I can’t imagine what it would taste like. Whatever you can find in the states, you can find here in St. Maarten, and more. They also have a lot of European, Caribbean, Indian, and Chinese products. The diversity of the products of the store reflect the diversity of the people here on the island. To my surprise, St. Maarten is truly an international community, a melting pot. Every aisle I turn to, I hear different people speaking different languages. The languages seemingly have no racial barrier. I see Indians speaking Spanish, Blacks speaking French, Whites speaking Dutch, and Chinese people speaking Caribbean-style English. A little boy bumped into me in the shampoo aisle and said “excusez-moi!” I wasn’t sure what to reply back, so I just smiled… the universal language.

Border between Dutch St. Maarten and French St. Martin

As I drove back, I hit some construction and was forced to take a different route than when I came. The city suddenly became forest and my car hopped around on the bumpy road. I was lost. Suddenly I came across a monument on the side of the road with the Dutch flag, followed by the French flag. The road suddenly became very smooth and wide, and a sign greeted me to French St. Martin. It was the easiest international border that I have ever crossed. No checkpoint, no fence, no fee. Just drive on over. I later realized that the sudden change in road quality is the best way to determine whether you crossed the border or not, as some places have no welcome signs. The capital of the French side, Marigot, is beautiful with its narrow, charming streets flanked by red-roof houses. The signs suddenly become all French, unlike the Dutch side where all the signs are in English. It seems a little bit nicer and more quaint here. As I drove in this country, I wonder how unified do the people on the two sides feel. Do they identify as one people? or two? As a large portion that live here are immigrants, do they even care to identify with a St. Maarten nationality? These questions I have yet to find out, as I become part of the community, as a temporary local myself.

As I got back home, I was exhausted. Everything I witnessed today, I am a part of. It is people like me who add to the diversity of St. Maarten. It is because of people like me why St. Maarten is home to 80 languages. It is because of people like me why 90% of the businesses accept and preferably use American currency. Whatever money I spend now will be to St. Maarten and whatever I consume will be from St. Maarten. I am part of St. Maarten now.

Check out the shots I took while driving around the island today!

**UPDATE 11/5/2009**

Last month, they removed all the gold-ridden “decorations” in the rotunda! What a great day in AUC history!

I also take back the trash comment. The reason why they had trash here and there when I moved in was because I moved in earlier than I was supposed to and they were still cleaning up some of the rooms that previous students had moved out of just a couple of days before. AUC’s campus is actually really clean. Everyday I always see maintenance people mopping the floor and taking care of the gardens.