Some say it's eight square miles. Others say 12. Who cares? How do you measure a vertical hill or a shoreline that changes with every sea storm? Do you go around or across the volcano? Do you count the inside of the crater that has become a sumptuous, Matisse-colored rain forest?
But if space on St. Eustatius (Statia to friends) is hard to ascertain, forget time. Though it's only a 15-minute plane ride from worldly St. Maarten, you might as well be in the Land of Nod. Clocks are screwy here. Minutes stretch all out of shape. Hours shrink. Watch hands perform such a macabre dance that soon you shove all timepieces out of sight, where they belong while you're on this wayward Dutch Windward Island, 150 miles east of Puerto Rico in the Netherland Antilles.
For some vacationers, it might be a problem. Most of the Caribbean beach has been washed away. There's no golf. To play tennis, you must telephone Juancito Hook at the sports center in town to put up the net for you. (He'll be glad to do it so long as the schoolkids don't need the court for basketball). To shop you must climb the long and steep "Slave Path" to Oranjestad's Upper Town, where Mazinga's gift shop and
hardware store, the Windward Island Agency Supermarket and Madge's Patent Medicine Store may be all that are open.
With so little doing, you'd think time would stand still, but just the opposite happens. The smallest events expand till they split the seams of every minute. "Another exhausting day in paradise," one Bostonian put it as he got up to change the angle of his chaise longue. For example, it takes the average guest at the Old Gin House in Lower Town some 90 minutes to roll out of bed, stand on his terrace for a look at the sea, put on a modicum of clothing and make it out to the courtyard. The big decision: breakfast under the roof by the garden or out in the sun beside the sea?
Rousing himself for a walk along the Lower Road, the same vacationer can't take 10 steps without stopping -- to see hummingbirds lighting for sugar from a dish, to watch pelicans nose-diving for fish. To sniff a yellow trumpet and feel its satin petals. And here's a baby iguana, a foot long, with the look of a baby tyrannosaur! A Statian woman tells you what good soup they make. "Better than chicken soup," she says in her lilting English. "So rich it can give you a rash."
You've got to watch the lobster trappers. After bagging their spiny sub-Atlantic crustacea, they toss the extra fish on a tarp and sell them to the public. The shapes and colors are surreal. Dawson Hughes, a young fisherman with Irish eyes, gladly points out the swebe, angelfish, goatfish, blue parrotfish, alewife, red salmon, hornfish, doctorfish and grunt. You ask "Daddy" Gibbs, who is overseeing the operation from a lazy distance, if you should tip Hughes for his trouble. "We don't demand it," he says as he studies the landscape. "But if you feel you want to give it, we don't refuse."
Past the seaside ruins of 18th-century warehouses, you're stopped short by a desperate mewing. You look up at the mountain and there's a baby goat, stranded on a ledge. On a ridge above him, the mother and a few siblings are bleating down instructions. The baby tries but can't negotiate the vertical steeps. Finally an adult steps and slides down, leads the baby to safety. While you've been watching this daytime drama, the sun has arched over the sky. Where did the hours go? When will you get time for a swim in the pool? Your novel? An afternoon nap?
In Upper Town you stop for an ice-cream cone ("Florida's best") at the stand outside Charlie's Bar & Grill. Inside there's a sign: CHARLIE'S SPECIAL. The drink that makes old men young and young men younger. $8.95 U.S. or 15 florins a bottle.
You take a seat beside Charlie Arnaud, the tall, broad, bald, slightly stooped proprietor. He's saved his morning newspaper for you to take a look at. Charlie says his Special is made with a root from the mountain -- and some brandy. The Special is popular, though Charlie doesn't guarantee results. In fact, the oldest man on Statia is only 92, while there are a number of women close to 100. One woman recently passed on at 104. Charlie himself is 86. "Take care of yourself," he advises, "and you get a few more years. Don't go after the whole world."
Time goes backward at the 18th-century Jewish burial ground on the edge of town, where you enter by an iron gate wrought with a Star of David, a tree of life and a burning bush. Inscriptions on the worn marble tombstones are in Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese and English. Salmon Levy, "a bright example to Virtue," departed this life in 1789. Joseph Buraglo de Paz, deceased 1871, "in spite of false friends Is Praised by the brave."
History is preserved also in the Simon Doncker House, just past the R.C. church and its Buzzzy Bee Nursery School and across the street from its cemetery, where each above-ground grave has its own sunbathing goat. Doncker was governmental secretary in 1738, "but," according to a plaque at the museum entrance, "already in the next year he was fired for fraud." Still, his house offers interesting documentation of the 18th-century boom days when Statia was a center of slave trade and its later history as a port for pirates, smugglers and gun runners. Archeological exhibits recall older history, when Statia was Golden Rock, the site of two pre-Columbian Indian settlements.
Upstairs, amid some old furniture, is an anachronistic, quilt-like, Klimt-like wall hanging, completed in 1985 by Catherine Mary Williams after nine years (2,000 hours of work). Expressionistically embroidered in 165 colors are the flowers of Statia -- or most of them: verbena, mimosa, hibiscus, frangipani, plumbago, spider lily, Christmas tree, flamguoyant, allamander, golden shower, morning glory, colorita, yellow trumpet and many more, plus a lone interwoven hummingbird.
Past and present converge at Fort Oranje, which was built in 1636 and restored in 1976 in honor of the United States Bicentennial. At that time a set of flags was presented by the Kiwanis Club of Yonkers, N.Y. Within the ramparts is a plaque from Franklin D. Roosevelt, commemorating a nine-gun salute fired to an American warship in 1776, which made the Netherlands (through its colony St. Eustatius) the first nation to formally recognize U.S. independence.
The fort is both town park and municipal center. The old stone prison is now the Sports and Culture Office, while the old wood barracks serves as Census Office. Here, as everywhere on the island, a respectful egalitarianism exists between Statians and tourists. There are no dangerous neighborhoods and no locks on the doors of hotel rooms. If you're in the Upper Town on a good night, you'll follow the sound to a side-street shack where a crowd of locals is listening in at open windows and door to a rehearsal of the local band, the Kili-Kili. Half a dozen young men, playing on an assortment of homemade and electronic instruments, singing in strong voice with sharp lyrics, are already popular professionals throughout the Eastern Caribbean. You stay for the free concert.
Even on Statian time, people get hungry. You might choose L'Etoile for a meal or a sit-down snack. An upstairs room on a back street, four tables and a tiny counter, L'Etoile offers a limited menu, but what they don't have, they'll gladly go out for. When my husband asked about curried goat, the waitress offered to run next door for the makings. He settled for the whelk stew, which was on hand, and I tried spiny lobster in garlic sauce (but thereafter stayed with grilled-cheese sandwiches). The tasty, dense bread -- baked in the stone ovens outside many residences -- seemed to me to be the island's pie`ce de re'sistance. One restaurant, in fact, is called The Stone Oven. My husband stopped by one afternoon to scout the evening's menu. The proprietor flapped her hands and replied, "I don't know yet."
For exotic cuisine, there are the Old Chinese and the Young Chinese, whose claims are somewhat analogous to the Bookbinders of Philadelphia. The Old Chinese is new, having come to Statia more recently and taken over the restaurant of the Young Chinese. The Young Chinese (who has the suspiciously Korean name of Kim) has set up his old restaurant in a new location. It was he whom we patronized on the recommendation of several Statians. Kim let us move a table out to the porch. All Statia, coming in for takeout, greeted us enthusiastically as we sat eating curried vegetables and sweet-and-sour chicken with parts I didn't know chickens had.
Most dinners we took at the atmospheric Old Gin House, where the cuisine is nouvelle Carib -- a grapefruit soup, seviche, bacon-wrapped filet mignon, that lobster. You dine by candlelight in a brick-walled room with a fireplace and antiques. One side is wholly open to the lush courtyard, where a fountain plays into the swimming pool. The owners, a pair of cheerfully displaced New Englanders, explain the fountain's primary duty: keeping the bats away.
Should you get tired of the seaside, you can call Mr. Richardson, Mrs. Henriquez or Chester Glover for a taxi ride to La Maison sur la Plage, where you can dine a` la franc aise and al fresco while the resident donkeys cavort in the near distance. Afterward, you can cavort in the ocean or on the expanse of black sand beach.
The long and the short of our week in Statia is this: My husband and I never got to climb the Quill, the famous volcano with the beautiful crater. We didn't attend the popular diving school or even go snorkeling to view the treasures (natural and piratical) of the sea. We didn't even take a day trip to neighboring Saba or St. Kitts, though we really wanted to. We just didn't have the time. Rolaine Hochstein is a short-story writer and novelist.