I don’t take naps unless I’m very sick or very tired. The soothing beats of Peace Orchestra fill my ears as I admit how very tired I am and try to nap on the plane. I nearly succeed in falling asleep, of beating my natural inclinations and the discomfort in laying my head back after a bicycle accident the day before, when a chihuahua runs across my lap. Its owners apologize and put it back in its purse-like container. I didn’t know you could bring chihuahuas on planes. They had a letter saying it was okay.
It was fitting, though, the sleeping and the dog and the neck pain, because nothing about the next week would be normal. I was being hurled in a metal tube over 500 miles per hour away from my home and towards the last place I would expect to find myself: the tiny island of Sint Maarten.
Sint Maarten, and its French counterpart Saint Martin, sits just 1,200 miles north of the equator. I’m the guy who scoots his lawn chair up against the house to find the last bit of shade at a Fourth of July party. I’m not used to sun or heat or salt water, but comfort zones are no fun. It’s a vacation: let’s do something different.
My father in law’s custom is to stop at the Sunset Bar & Grill as soon as they get in. It’s right by the airport and you can watch the planes come in, ridiculously low, and out, throwing out such a forceful gust of air that stupid tourists hold on to the fence and try not to get blown away.
What beer is there in Sint Maarten? Nothing too mind blowing. At the bar I’m given a Carib, which the banners hanging above describe as “What we drink.” It’s what they drink in the same way that Budweiser is what we Americans drink, but when in Rome. When in sunny, hot, burn-your-British-Isle-skin-like-a-witch Rome.
Like many beers presenting themselves as light and refreshing it’s served with a slice of citrus in the top. I appreciate the gesture, and I’m not offended at my beer being doctored up, but the lime just gets in my way, man. It’s an acidic, ill-fitting lid (A day or two later I find out I’m supposed to squeeze it and then drop it in the bottle). I know I’m supposed to hate, or at least feel derision for, these light lagers, but honestly? I wouldn’t order it over literally any craft beer, but when it’s hot and you just traveled for 11 hours, it does fine.
The adage is that beer like this is like sex in a canoe: it’s fuckin’ close to water. It doesn’t have a ton of flavor, I’ll grant you that, and as far as I can tell it was maybe shown a picture of a hop cone while fermenting and nothing more, but it’s more than the fizzy yellow water I’ve been told to expect. There’s a bit of sweetness, and when cold and effervescent it does a good job of being enjoyable. Not my usual, but nice.
At dinner (seated across from a two person band serenading us with ballad versions of Gnarles Barkley’s “Crazy” and The Cranberries’ “Zombie”) I opt for water. I regret this decision for a few reasons: for one it’s my birthday, dammit, and also because the concept of free tap water doesn’t seem to exist here, just as it didn’t in Scotland, my only other international trip. The bar by the pool is advertising $2 beers: if the choice is pay for water or pay for cheap beer, why am I drinking water again?
(Given that I’ll be sweating for a week straight, this does of course mean that I’ll need to be extra vigilant about hydration. We’ve brought plenty of collapsible water bottles, so I’ll be sure to drain them frequently.)
By day four I’ve seen, and tried, everything the local bars have to offer. Carib, Presidente, Heineken, Red Stripe. All fitting for the climate and all tasting nearly identical. Heineken is the lightest of the lot and dominated mostly by its carbonation. Carib is probably my favorite, though that might be because it’s what I’ve had the most of: my father in law prefers it and it’s fun to say “I’ll have what he’s having.”
The selection in supermarkets is a bit better: the duty free in the basement of our hotel stocks selections as exotic as Boston Lager! They also have Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, which I believe is a different (and better) version than the kind we can get at home, and at a larger market my wife picked up a six pack of Leffe Bruin.
The Leffe is my beer to sip at night while I read on the balcony. The light lagers rule the daytime: on a sweat-and-sun filled trip to the open markets and boardwalk of Philipsburg there are carts advertising $1.50 bottles of Heineken that you can take with you as you walk. We pop into a bar and pick up a bottle of Red Stripe for the walk back. By the time we get to the car it’s finished, and I fill up what little free space is left in my stomach after fish tacos and beer with water. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Day five and much of the magic is gone. The Presidente has skunked, leaving me to curse whoever thought green glass this close to the equator was a good idea. I really do enjoy Carib as my island fling, but my wife and I seem made for weekend getaways instead of extended trips. Snorkeling at the beach is amazing, and the food is wonderful; then everything we touch for the next four hours is covered in sand, and we discover our portion of the bill is $80.
It’s the paradox of the vacation, isn’t it? It’s theoretically about relaxing but you’re so intent on making the most of things that you stuff in more meat than your casing can hold. Two consecutive days of early rising and late bedtimes would drain anyone. We only want what every parent does for their kids: for them to just go to sleep already so we can sit in peace.
I sip rum out of a wooden goblet I bought at the market. It helps.
The next day is better, as I knew it would be. I relax by the pool all morning, either bobbing about or reading about a superintelligent ape on Mars. I continue to drink the Presidente at night. It’s still skunked, they all are, but I have a strange aversion to letting anything to go waste. It’s why I have more abdominal fat than I’d care for: let no plate go uncleaned.
Our final two days pass by in a haze of heat and sand and Carib. Water is $2 and beer $2.50 or $3: beer it is, lunch and dinner. Carib is like a summer camp fling, who I talk all to every day and kiss behind the boathouse, but when school starts again I pretend I don’t know. Just let is be what it is, Carib. Live in the moment.
The final night is spent in Merigot: I’ve convinced my son, nephew and brother in law that we should Geocache (even though the GPS on my iPhone is useless), so after traipsing around Fort St. Louis for an hour (a spot I’d recommend you check out, because ruins on top of a hill are my thing) we settle on a restaurant for dinner. It turns out that the poisson en fricassée I thought I ordered was actually fricassée de poisson: not fish stew but stewed fish, a red snapper served whole, head and eyes intact. Whatever: I got to sing “Le Poisson” and make the “snap to it!” reference from Animal Crossing.
After that it’s packing time. We’ve only been there for a week but it is of course a scientific fact that children increase entropy in a system exponentially. We’ve got two, with a nephew down the hall: where is the sleep band for my Fitbit? My son says he put it in our suitcase. Why? You mean when you were supposed to be sleeping you took something off the nightstand, went into the closet and shoved it somewhere? It’s morning and the final beer can’t come soon enough.
We’re back at Sunset by 11, saying goodbye to the island over Carib and rum punch and pina colada. Then it’s off to the airport: farewell, sand. Goodbye, car seat that would decapitate my daughter if we got into an accident. I’ll miss you, 100+ degree days. Wait. No I won’t. None of us ever got burned thanks to the legacy of Franz Greiter but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t touch and go most of the time.
A three hour layover in JFK seemed interminable, until we caught the dinner showing of security theatre. Immigration, customs, get bags, re-check bags, train to terminal 5, security check. I realized I had only eaten a bit of fried seafood, seven hours ago. Wait in line for pizza, pay a lot of money for pizza, sit wherever I can and shove pizza in my face.
As a final farewell to the trip, and a welcome back to the States, I picked up a bottle of Boston Lager. It was warm. It was $6.50. It lacked the hop character I remembered from the beer. But whatever: I needed a damn poetic ending for this blog post, so I was going to drink it anyway. (Does that ruin the symbolism?)
I bought one for my father in law too: he put us up in his timeshare, it was the least I could do. He in turn bought a second round for us. Okay, twist my arm. We had to ask a bartender to open them for us, as his cashier hadn’t offered. He grabbed one, made a face and said “You can’t drink this.” He reached into the cooler and got us two cold ones. Shout out to that bartender.
By then our three hours were almost up. I took the bottle to the gate and collapsed into a chair. I’m usually the asshole parent who makes a face at the thought of watching too much TV, and my son had watched The Ant Bully two and a half times on the flight in, but sure, kid. Have my iPad, watch Despicable Me. I sat and sipped my beer and checked Twitter for the first time in a week.
A short plane ride later we were home. Back to reasonable temperatures, to ubiquitous wifi, to a Wegmans bill for the week that cost less than one meal out. Vacations are a fun escape, but I was the kid who looked forward to school by the end of August. I was ready for real life to start again.
And for a beer that wasn’t Carib.