Thursday, June 12, 2008

Terrified and Exhausted

Here in St. Maarten, you see a lot of cars you don't see in the US. They're all tiny and economical, which makes perfect sense here. But I suppose most of them wouldn't pass emissions regulations in California, so they're not available at home.

We rented a Hyundai Getz, and drove to the French side of the island. Like Hispaniola, this island is divided into two countries - Sint Maarten, which is a Dutch territory, and Saint Martin, which is French. We noticed a dramatic difference between the two sides of the island. The Dutch side seems shabby and poorly maintained. The French side seems more affluent, with much better infrastructure. We saw lots of construction of homes and businesses on the French side, but on the Dutch side, all you see under construction are hotels and resorts. Here's the border marker on the road to Marigot - no customs, no immigration.


We drove to the road that leads to the highest point on the island, a mountain called Pic Paradis. On that road is an old sugar plantation called Loterie Farm. It's a tourist destination now, being maintained as a rainforest preserve. They have
an excellent bar, a restaurant, hiking trails and "canopy adventures." We walked through a grove of banana trees to get to the canopy adventure section. I'm always surprised at the weird appearance of bananas growing on a tree.


I found one tree covered with forbidding, inch-long thorns. A couple of fist-sized snails were working their way up the trunk through this treacherous landscape.


There are two canopy adventures available: The "small one", and the "extreme." We chickened out and took the small one. A guy showed up and fitted us in zipline harnesses, and we were each given one leather glove. You used the glove to grasp the zipline, which worked as a brake as you approached the end of each run. He showed us how to use a pair of carabiners to clip ourselves to various anchor points. You were "never, never, never" supposed to leave yourself completely unclipped, even when standing on a stable platform.

We climbed a ladder to the first platform. The course was laid out as a series of treetop platforms, connected by a variety of challenging bridges made of steel cable. Most were fairly simple. For example, there was the two-cable bridge: one cable with another stretched about 4 feet above it. You clipped your caribiners to the top cable, held on, and slid across the lower cable.

Others were sadistic puzzles created by frustrated video-game designers. My favorite consisted of a series of suspended wooden "X" shapes, with suspended rails in between. It was difficult and frightening to cross. Another one looked like a simple two-cable bridge, with wooden treads between them. But the designers had thoughtfully spaced the treads about four feet apart, forcing you to stretch across the yawning gap between them.





I should mention that this was a pretty strenuous activity. Within minutes, we were all sweating heavily, huffing and puffing, our lax TV-watching muscles quivering in protest. The effort was relieved periodically by ziplines, where we got to hook our roller rig over a cable and fly through the treetops to the next platform. At one point, perched on a high platform, I asked my wife how she was doing, and she replied, "Terrified and exhausted."


Somehow during this experience, I managed to split my shorts, exposing my backside to amused hikers down below. My wife has a good picture of my embarassment, but forgot to bring the cable that connects her camera to my computer. So I'll be spared the indignity of showing it to everyone.

After the canopy adventure was complete, we went directly to the bar for frozen mango coladas, and collapsed in exhaustion onto the soft cushions on the veranda. The young and very French bartender asked us, "Deed you do the extreme zeepline? Eet's rilly cool!" He then pointed up the slopes of Pic Paradis to the high point of the extreme zipline, and it was instantly clear that we had made the right decision.

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