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St. Eustatius, Where Time and Space Are Out of Place : EUSTATIUS

November 08, 1987|ROLAINE HOCHSTEIN | Hochstein is a New Jersey free-lance writer. and

ST. EUSTATIUS, Netherlands Antilles — Some say it's eight square miles, others say 12. But how do you measure a hill or a shoreline that changes with every storm?

Do you measure 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 decipher, forget time altogether. Although it's only a 15-minute plane ride from worldly St. Maarten, in other ways it seems light years away.

Minutes stretch all out of shape. Hours shrink. Soon you shove all timepieces out of sight, where they belong while you're on this wayward Windward island.

For some vacationers it might be a problem. Most of the Caribbean-side beach has been washed away. There's no golf. To play tennis you must telephone a man named Juancito Hook at the sports center to put up the net for you. (He'll be glad to do it as long as the school kids don't need the court for basketball.)

To shop you must climb the long and steep "slave path" to Upper Oranjestad, 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.

Changing the Pace

With so little to do, you'd think time would stand still, but the smallest events expand till they split the seams of every minute.

For example, the big decision at the Old Gin House in Lower Oranjestad is what hour and where to have breakfast.

On 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. Or to sniff a yellow trumpet and feel its satin petals.

And here's a young iguana, a foot long, with the look of a baby tyrannosaur. A Statian woman mentions what good soup they make. "Better than chicken soup. So rich it can give you a rash."

You must stop to watch the lobster trappers. After bagging the spiny crustaceans, they toss the extra fish onto a tarp and sell them to the public.

The shapes and colors of the fish are surreal. Dawson Hughes, a light-skinned young fisherman with Irish eyes, points out the swebe, angelfish, goatfish, blue parrotfish, alewife, red salmon, horn fish, doctor fish and grunt.

Economic Flexibility

You ask Daddy Gibbs, who is overseeing the operation from a lazy distance, whether you should tip Dawson for his trouble. "We don't demand it," Daddy says. "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 stretch. Finally an adult steps and slides down, and 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?

Charlie's Special

In Upper Oranjestad 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. It advertises the drink that makes old men young and young men younger. At $8.95 U.S. or 15 florins a bottle.

You take a seat beside Charlie Arnud, 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 up in the mountain--and some brandy.

The special is popular, though Charlie doesn't guarantee results. The oldest man on Statia is 92, while some women are close to 100. One woman recently died at 104. Charlie is only 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 Hamen Dolid Cemetery, 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. Salomon Levy, "a bright example of virtue," died in 1789. Joseph Buraglo de Paz, deceased 1761, "in spite of false friends is praised by the brave." Nearby are the ruins of a mikvah, the Jewish ritual baths. In town there's the shell of a synagogue, the second oldest in this hemisphere.

History is preserved also in the Simon Doncker House, just past the Catholic church and its Buzzy Bee nursery school and across the street from its cemetery. 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."

Bygone Boom Times

Still, his house offers documentation of the 17th-Century boom days when Statia was a center of slave trade and later a port for pirates, smugglers and gunrunners. Archeological exhibits recall older history when Statia was Golden Rock, the site of two pre-Columbian Indian settlements.

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