Vacation Gems

Cover2

Table of Contents

 Great setting

Sailing

Philipsburg

Nightcap

Goodbye

Visitors

Great setting

I felt so smart. I’d chosen a hotel, which, aside from offering all the brochure attributes of paradise, sported one extra feature – “only a mile from the Airport terminal”.  Considering I was flying in on American after 10:00 pm I thought that would mean a short taxi ride and that I wouldn’t miss a lot of scenery along the way.  Turned out to be true on both counts.   But with an added surprise the next morning.  I got up and pulled the drapes back and looked out directly on a sandy beach.  Just as the brochure had described.  Beautiful white sand bordering turquoise water stretching to an infinite horizon.   Just a few folks wandering along the shore enjoying the early sun.

A movement caught my eye and I turned away from the seascape towards land and there to my surprise was a giant silver plane slowly turning around at the end of a runway. What?  I blinked to clear my eyes and grabbed my sunglasses.  Was I seeing things?  Nope.  Not at all.  The inside edge of the beach was bordered by a roadway on the other side of which was a chain link fence.  And on the inside of that fence was a macadam runway stretching into the distance.  And on that runway was my American 757 from the night before.

Wow!  I got it.  The hotel brochure was correct and very precise.  “…only a mile from the Airport terminal.”  But absent some extra information – “…at the other end of the runway.”  A thunderous noise jolted me from my introspection as the plane throttled up its engines.  The brakes were released and as the crescendo increased, great clouds of sand blew across the beach and into the water beyond.

Welcome to Princess Juliana Airport in Sint Maarten! Nowhere else in the world can you come so close to a departing plane and get your eyes, nose and mouth filled with sand so quickly without paying a fee.   And, as I was to find out later, you could also stand on the beach and wonder if the incoming flight was truly only 50 feet above your head as it crossed that little bit of road aiming for the terminal a mile away.

In a way I actually felt grateful for my hotel choice.  I mean I could have selected a place on the other side of the island and never experienced the unique goings on at this runway beach.  Choosing a vacation hotel location here entailed a definite trade-off.   I was on the Dutch half of Sint Maarten – the more commercial half which could be both delightful and sober. On this part of the island one found the casinos and the night clubs, establishments absent from the French side.   But the restaurants and shows on this half didn’t have the reputation of those on the French side. And  there is a certain charm, elegance, ‘artiness’, prestige, savoir-faire, and level of wealth on the French side that is unmatched on the Dutch side.

St. MartinThe country is 144 miles southeast of Puerto Rico. Basically it’s an island of only 37 square miles, touted erroneously as the smallest land mass in the world that is divided between two governments. In the early 1600’s both the Dutch and the French established small settlements on the island. They fought together to prevent a Spanish invasion and decided to share the island. According to local folklore, the island was divided by a walking contest between a Dutchman and a Frenchman. The Dutch control 16 square miles, and the remaining 21 are under French control.

Oh, the smaller divided islands?  Finland has a share in 3 of them – Kataja, Märket, and Koiluoto, the first two shared with Sweden, one with Russia.  But to all intents these are rocky skerries, with no livable land-mass.  See the pedant in me?

St. Martin is a mecca for cruise ships, calling at either Philipsburg on the Dutch side or Marigot on the French side. The activities and attractions on St. Martin are similar to those found in other Caribbean countries.  You can enjoy sandy beaches, take sailing trips, eat fine food, soak up some local native culture, and enjoy a relaxed island atmosphere. So why do so many cruise ships stop there?  Well, the stand-out feature of the island is that nearly everything of significant value is duty-free.  That means clothes, souvenirs, liquor, and above all – jewellery.  There are a couple of other semi-unique offerings – casinos where you can lose money just as easily as on board your cruise liner, and ‘clothing-optional’ beaches.   That’s nude beaches for the uninitiated.

In Philipsburg there are, …wait for it, …over 500 shops selling duty-free items. At the pier and on the boardwalk, although they mainly cluster around Front Street and the alleyways between there and Back Street. To be fair, some of the environment is charming, with attractive stores, and European architecture in pleasantly decorated old buildings, but there’s always the noise from the traffic and the radios, and the ever in-your-face offers to ‘braid your hair’ if its long.

Watches, and fine natural gemstones, are at the top end of worthwhile purchases. And there are many reputable, well-known stores that will help relieve you of your US dollars. Nicely.  It helps to  know what you want ahead of time and to be aware of prices back home, but you’ll usually get an honest education at the brand-name stores in any event. Diamond and emerald prices can be between 25% and 50% less than in the US, and there are great buys on rubies, sapphires, pearls, gold and silver as well. The immense popularity of gem buying helps explain the incredibly numerous ‘security’ guards you will encounter every time your path arrives at a jewellery shop window.

Which reminds me.  Changing walking direction can sometimes be an adventure in its own right.  Why?   Well, the cruise ships that anchor or berth at Philipsburg are huge.  They disgorge passengers by the hundreds, if not thousands.  And there can be up to 7 ships in port simultaneously.  Frankly, those are days to be avoided, as the pedestrian crush on the narrow streets can be overwhelming.

Even if you are just sightseeing  – off to see the brown pelicans at Fort Amsterdam, or the small and somewhat crude zoo, or the one-room museum on Front St. – it can be a bit much.   Of course one compensation is that you can sit at a little café and simply people-watch.  That’s a different form of entertainment.

But, I digress.

The roar from my plane taking off subsided, and I headed downstairs for some breakfast.  I’d slept in and it became more obvious as I observed that many of the buffet items were in low supply. The scrambled eggs kettle was actually empty, so I asked a native chap behind the counter if more were coming and he reassured me a new batch was on its way.

“Thanks for asking,” a voice beside me said quietly.  “I hope they won’t be long.”  I turned in surprise as I hadn’t been aware of anyone behind me.   Two girls in shorts, halters, frilly transparent blouses, sandals, and big brimmed hats wore fresh-scrubbed smiles beneath their sunglasses.  “Sorry, Sir, we got in late last night and need to fuel up for the day ahead.  We were hoping we weren’t too late to get a bite.”

Clearly, fellow travellers in the same predicament as me.  “No problem,” I blithely answered.  “Where are you two headed off to?”

There was a hesitation and some embarrassment as they looked at each other and raised their eyebrows.  The taller of the two, and the more suntanned, finally took off her sunglasses, put them in her bag, looked around and whispered “Club Orient.   Ahhh…, we thought since we’d never been here before that we should try it out.”

Club Orient was the only nudist beach resort on the island, boasting one of the finest beaches in the world, with white sand and crystal clear blue waters.   My initial view of the pair had taken in attractive figures and faces, nicely done hair beneath the hats, and fashionable beach clothes.   I guessed they were within a couple of years beyond twenty years old, one black, one white, about the same height.  “Would you like to grab a cleared table together and chat?” I asked. “I see one there by the window.”

We grabbed juices, some fruit, cutlery wrapped in brightly colored napkins, and sat at the booth I’d indicated.  “I’m Graeme, originally from Sydney, temporarily working in California,” I offered.

“And we’re Lisa and Jamila, from Toronto.”    I hadn’t detected the clipped ‘eh’ at the end of any of their sentences and told them so.  I loved some of the names African American/Canadian women came up with, but hadn’t heard Jamila before.  Very pretty.

As I’d watched them approach the table I realized I’d have to adjust my first impressions.  These girls were stunning lookers.  Lisa had long straight black hair that fell halfway down her back.  A pixie-ish face with a cute button nose, brown eyes and a wide mouth which seemed to offer a permanent smile.  High forehead with her hair pulled back and gorgeous teeth.  Her thinness accentuated her height and she walked with a smooth slightly swaying motion that was intriguing in its own right.

Jamila’s face matched her name if that makes sense.  Soft, and attractive, with a small nose, full sensuous lips, and bright shiny eyes, now that her sunglasses were off.  Perfect skin and a frizzy afro lovingly groomed that created a halo frame around her face.  Her body moved with pride as she walked to the table.  Definitely a head-turning pair.

“We love your accent Graeme, so keep talking please.  How long are you staying here, and what sights or activities are you thinking about taking in?”   Frankly, I’d come to get away from it all.   My team at work had recently launched a new telecommunications product which had been well received in the marketplace and after three months of 16 hour days involved in intensive sales and support I needed a break.  I had no plans beyond reading some e-books and getting a tan to show off back at headquarters.  I told them my thoughts, but added “I might go sailing sometime.  Thought I’d spend today finding out what’s available.  Enjoy your day at the resort and on the beach.  But don’t forget to use plenty of sunscreen on parts you might be newly exposing, especially on more tender flesh.”  I couldn’t help grinning as I thought of two nubile bodies soaking up the rays and establishing new tan lines.  I knew that even black women got sunburned.

“Thanks for the advice Graeme.  We’ll be careful.  See you tomorrow maybe.  Come on Lisa, let’s go grab a cab.”

My ears perked up.

“That’s an expensive cab ride ladies. I have a rental car I’m supposed to pick up here this morning.  If you are prepared to wait a bit I’ll be happy to drive you over there.”

“Oh, wow, that would be terrific.  Sounds great.  Thanks for the offer.  You sure you don’t want to go sunbathing with us?  You might enjoy the scenery.”  A great big smile lit up Lisa’s face.

“I’m sure I would based on what I’ve seen so far.”  My turn to grin as both girls offered generous cleavage beneath their filmy blouses and knew it.  Hard not to admire and enjoy. “Thanks for the invite, but I have one last conference call I have to make around lunchtime so I’ll have to pass.  Let’s go find where we pick up a rental car.”

On the trip across to the other side of the island we chatted about our jobs, education, and musical interests.   They were flight attendants for Air Canada, one raised in Vancouver, the other in Winnipeg, and were both strongly into jazz.  Not a lot of common ground, except for a love of travel.  Neither had been to Australia, although I had been to Toronto when my brother had lived there for a period. A fairly bleak windy city in my view.

I dropped them off at the resort entrance between swaying palm trees growing in close cropped grass with white sand and blue waters behind.  At my offer to pick them up late in the day they asked me to join them for cocktails and a light dinner at a bar somewhere in the vicinity.  Sounded like a plan to me!

Back in my room at the hotel I spent time online looking at local sailing excursions then went and visited with the concierge to share my findings and check on reality versus internet marketing hype.   With his experience weighing in I chose one of three tours I’d been considering, signing up for the next day.   I looked forward to being out on the water.

Something had been niggling at my brain based on my discussions with the girls as we drove to Club Orient earlier, and after my conference call I sat out on my balcony trying to nail down what was bothering me. Something to do with their jobs, that’s all I could identify. Earlier in my work life I’d spent time as a program manager at SABRE, the innovative reservation system invented and managed by American Airlines, and had become pretty familiar with airline patterns and procedures.   On a whim I went online again checking Air Canada’s schedules.  And there it was.  Traveling from Toronto their route would have been through Newark, and the only Air Canada flight arrived around 1pm in the afternoon.

They indicated they’d flown in late at night.  Now that certainly was possible.  If the Air Canada flights had been full they could have grabbed what we called non-rev seats on some other airline  – certainly a common procedure for airline employees.  They hadn’t mentioned having to do that and there was always a little risk that seats would not be available, especially to employees of another airline, so I thought I’d subtly check things out further at dinner in the evening.  Why would they lie about when they arrived I wondered, if that’s indeed what they had done.

Thinking about the girls and their day at the Club Orient resort and its beach revived a small interest of mine. The male voyeur in me wanted to see a nude beach for curiosity’s sake, although I felt no need to offer myself in ‘clothing optional’ mode.  I must have had a little shy streak somewhere deep inside. The French of course loved being naturalists, and here they could practice to whatever degree they wanted.  Topless beaches abounded, and many allowed full nudity if desired.  Some had time of day restrictions and others encouraged you to cover up on leaving the beach per se.   Seemed reasonable to me.

I had to try out one of these attractions for myself.  With a little investigation I found there was a small secluded beach not far from where I was staying just across the border on the French side.  These “borders’ by the way were open, in the sense of being non-existent. There were no officials at border crossings, sometimes just a change in language on road signs, nothing more.   I hopped in the rental jeep and headed off on a 20 minute drive, ending up following a track through scrubby trees to a sandy parking lot on top of a bluff.  I wasn’t sure if this was the place so I ambled along the cliff edge until I rounded a corner and came upon a beach twenty feet below.

I immediately knew I’d hit the right spot as directly at the base of the cliff was a blonde-haired woman sitting facing the water with two bikini pieces on a towel beside her.  A naked male sat on the other side, and the pair were engrossed in conversation. Normal looking folk enjoying full-body sun.

Thirty yards away was a totally different sight however.  Nature hasn’t been kind to everyone in the looks and body sculpture departments, but here was a lone woman who sadly had been near the end of the line for those handouts.   This woman was obese. Badly obese. I probably had been conditioned by pictures of glamorous models on beaches wearing alluring outfits, so this visage struck me forcibly. Unkempt brunette hair framed her head, huge black tufts emanated under her arms,  and I won’t describe anywhere else but it was wild and unruly.  I glanced away quickly, totally turned off.

I’m an athletic guy and I don’t like obesity in men or women. Yes, I know sometimes it was natural and unable to be helped, even with medication.   And maybe this was a woman trying hard for a little freedom denied elsewhere, but the picture cast was incredibly unattractive, to the point that I seriously contemplated turning around and going back.   I mean if the sight was gross at twenty feet away what would it be like close-up?  I decided that I would keep going to find the path down to the sand and the water but I’d sure stay away from that end of the beach.   I guess  in reality my attitudes were less tolerant and far more inflexible than I tried to project.

Actually there were very few people on the beach.  Surprising because the sand was soft and fine and the water was calm and clear, with small waves breaking gently about 30 feet offshore. One native chap was walking along the waterline clearly parading his attributes, and another young couple were lying face-up on their towels half-way between the cliff and the water.  It was hard not to stare and I must say I admired the courage they exhibited in their lack of shyness.

At the far end of the beach I came across a sorry sight. The couple had clearly been drinking, even though it was just mid-morning, because as I approached their location she raced in a stumbling, meandering pattern from the bluff towards the water, shouting wildly, with boobs and golden hair flying wildly. Her male friend was totally inebriated because he staggered some twenty yards or more behind her, with a can of beer in one hand.    “Hey you” he yelled to me. “Catch her for me, she’s a bitch.”  In the end she nearly bowled me over in her erratic run.  She came so close I had to stop in my tracks.

I was fascinated in a voyeurish way.  Both drunk out of their minds, showing reddish patches across their torsos, clearly without enough sense to cover up.   She stopped at the water’s edge and dry retched, at which point I’d had enough and turned and retraced my steps to my car up on top.  Ugh.  “Nude beach” at Sint Maarten.  Not this one for me thanks.

The girls seemed no worse for wear when I picked them up later, and I refrained from mentioning my adventure, but listened attentively as they recounted their day’s doings.  Lisa explained how they’d overcome their nerves, first going in the water in their swimsuits, but braving things to go in nude once it became clear that no-one else seemed to be embarrassed or paid any special attention to them.  Jamila had even bought lunch at the refreshment stand, ordering in her birthday suit, feeling quite proud of her bravery.  “Reckless’ Lisa called it.

We drove north-westerly to the little township known as Grand-Case and found a delightful restaurant overlooking the Baie.  It was quaint, and very French, its low-slung Creole architecture evoking the feeling of France’s other New World possessions, such as New Orleans.  Of course both girls had a good smattering of French and so we had no trouble ordering.  They paid for the food, I bought the wine.

I told them about my plan for taking a sailing trip the next day.  They wanted to go back to Club Orient, but planned on going shopping in Philipsburg the day after and asked if I wanted to come along. I demurred for the moment, not being one for shopping, although I did want to see what Philipsburg was actually like.  It crossed my mind that I might have been invited to come along mainly because I had a car and  the town was a good 12 km away.  Come on, I thought. What pair of women really wanted a man along when they were going shopping together?

Around dessert time I steered the conversation to planes by talking about how our hotel was so close to the airport runway.  I asked them what equipment they worked on and was told Boeing 757’s, which is what I had flown in on with American.  That model was one of Boeing’s finest offerings in my view, although I knew that in a few years ahead it would be up for replacement as they extended the 737 models in close capability.

I also knew from my earlier research that Air Canada no longer flew 757’s.  There was something odd about my two new acquaintances….

Sailing

I didn’t see  the girls at all the next day.  I was up early as my all-day excursion included a light breakfast at the dock.  This was on a catamaran sailboat named ‘Maybeline’.  I’ve sailed on many boats and I find catamarans more stable and more comfortable than monohulls. Especially since I didn’t know the captain or the waters the cat seemed a safer bet than other options I had explored.   The boarding spot at the southern end of Simpson Bay Lagoon wasn’t that far from the hotel, so I had a convenient start.

I was also lucky in that there were only six other passengers on board comprised of 3 couples from Germany. I figured they were all in their mid to late fifties, more than twice my age.   But they spoke pretty good English and were in a relaxed and happy mood.  The women wore long decorative dresses so they seemed a little over-dressed for sailing to me.  The men sported golf shirts, shorts and sandals.  I had stowed my tropical shirt and sandals immediately upon coming on board, and was feeling very casual in my  long legged bright red and white swimsuit with bare feet and chest.  I was looking forward to the sunshine and was determined to be as carefree as possible. With such a small contingent of passengers only two crew were necessary – the captain who actually owned the boat and a native girl named Angela who was the friendly all-round ‘jill-of-all-trades’ who managed passenger comfort and the untying of lines, retrieving fenders etc.

The boat was 40 feet overall with a large back party deck off a sumptuous wood-lined air-conditioned lounge interior. Narrow outside stairs led to an upper deck with a driving helm essentially duplicating the one downstairs forward of the lounge. The galley was reached via steps down near the inside helm and there was one stateroom and two toilets down there as well.  She was a medium–sized boat, small enough for one man to handle, but large enough to take a dozen folks in relative comfort for a day’s ride.   Up front a big net with several coloured cushions, stretched across the two pontoons allowed six folks to sit or lie in comfort soaking up the rays.

Upon leaving the dock I made my way as far forward as possible, sitting at the rail with my legs over the side, feeling like a little kid out for his first boat-ride. We passed slowly under airport road, crossing to the French side southeast of Grand Ilet and followed a ferry out through the cut to the wide ocean waters of the Anguilla Channel.

The breeze was measurable and we quickly ran into choppy seas, so that I received frequent small salt-water showers as we dipped into troughs and rode up swells.  We unfurled the sail and tacked across the wind heading for a small island to the northeast about 4 km out named Tintamarre.

Talk about a colourful place.  Today, the island of 80 acres, or 32 hectares if you insist on totally metric measures – I switch between the two, was uninhabited, but I was looking forward not only to snorkelling among the turtles in one of the bays, but searching for the remains of old aircraft, a rail track, and a jungle-overgrown landing strip. Tim, the boat captain promised to show me the way.

Over the centuries the French, the English, and the Dutch all owned the island in turn. At one time it had 150 inhabitants. In the early 1900s a Diederik Christian van Romondt founded a shop there and raised 60 to 70 head of cattle and about 540 sheep, grew fine sea island cotton, and made cheese and butter which were renowned throughout the West Indies.  By 1945 the island was owned by an L. C. Fleming who rented it to Remy de Haenen.  He established an aviation company there since there were no airports on French St Martin, St Barths or Guadaloupe.  Tintamarre offered space for a 500 meter dirt runway, alongside a protected lagoon suitable for flying boats.   Unfortunately, disastrous takeoffs and landings in 1947 doomed the air adventure andhurricanes in September 1950 and later years finally put an end to aviation and economic activity there.

Once we rounded the northeast corner of Sint Maarten the wind abated and we made leisurely progress into one of the many bays on the island.  The water was calm and clear and you could easily see the turtles from the boat.  The Germans sat in the shade of the back deck eating sandwiches and drinking St. Martin’s exclusive guavaberry liqueur.  So I had the beach to myself, save for another boat which pulled in later.  With the other guests enjoying their repast Angela offered to show me some spectacular coral at the far end of the cove.  I think she relished the idea of getting into the water as much as I did since she usually didn’t get much opportunity when looking after large groups of guests.   She loaned me all the necessary equipment and we had a fabulous time snorkeling among varied coral formations where numerous colorful fish species had their home.

I was famished after swimming around so much and Angela quickly rustled up some croissants with tuna salad,  along with some native fruits and ice-cold water.  I wasn’t a raging health freak but I did prefer my alcohol at the end of the day, not in the middle.  The water quenched my thirst and refreshed me.

I thought the Germans would be restless and anxious to move on but the local liqueur was catching up with them.  The men had removed their shirts and had ventured out on the netting to snooze and sunbake while the women had actually retreated to the lounge where they were playing cards.   A funny thought entered my brain . When they got home they could tell their friends how they went on this fabulous sailing trip.  It was so memorable because it was the first time in ten days that Esther had beaten Klara and Helga.  “Ach ja, just as vell ve veren’t playink ‘strip-poker’.”   Shameful thought I said to myself but here they are missing all this beauty, history, sunshine and intrigue around.  To each his own I guess.

Tim and I took the inflatable ashore and trekked through thick brush for a good twenty minutes before coming across a semi-clearing that he claimed was part of the old airstrip.  It was hard to tell since it was so overgrown but ten minutes further into the jungle we came across the rusty frames of two gutted tiny planes.  I took some photos and had Tim take one of me sitting in what was left of part of one of the cockpits as proof I’d been there.  Very cool.  Made me wonder about all the secrets this island must have held from its heydays.

By the time we got back to the beach I needed another swim so while Tim paddled the inflatable back with my clothes and camera I swam, getting a helping hand up and over the transom.  The three ladies were now asleep in ungainly positions on the sofa and chairs and I couldn’t resist taking their photo, holding the flash off so as not to waken them.  The men also were sleeping and a couple of them were showing pink sunburn patches which I’d warrant were going to be sore that evening and next day.

We weighed anchor and Angela gently woke everyone up, offering the men some Aloe, and cold water all round.  We slowly circumnavigated the island and then headed south closer to the St. Martin French mainland.  I went upstairs where Tim was driving and we chatted more about Tintamarre, and he pointed out numerous features along the coastline.  It was actually a long haul back and even after we entered the Dutch side again it took time before we reached Pointe Blanche and swung west.

There were four huge cruise ships at anchor in Great Bay or at the pier at Philipsburg.  And Tim indicated that three more were due in overnight or early morning.  He was well aware of cruise ship arrivals as they generated a lot of business for him.  Tomorrow he had a party of twenty on board.  When he told me that I was very glad I’d selected today to tour. Twenty on his boat was definitely too many for comfort and fun in my view.

We passed Fort Amsterdam, and the three bays beyond, then turned at the Flamingo Beach Resort, crossed under Welfare Road  and pulled into our home dock.

I’d had a fabulous day and handed healthy tips to both Tim and Angela for the time they had spent with me.  I think the Germans were gracious in their thanks but I didn’t see any tips cross palms.  I’d been very lucky, I was well aware.  I shuddered at the thought of twenty folks on board tomorrow. I didn’t envy Angela her next trip one bit.

Philipsburg

I left a voicemail at the girls’ room indicating I’d thought more about their offer and would be happy to join them and drive to Philipsburg on the morrow, suggesting we could meet for breakfast at 9:00.   I was getting ready to hit the sack about 10:45 pm when they called and  agreed. I had trouble going to sleep as I thought about thousands of tourists on the pier jostling for space, conscious of staying away from the edge where they might fall in the water.

At breakfast I warned the girls that 7 ships and thousands of passengers would be present.  While I dreaded the thought, It didn’t seem to faze them, and a couple of odd remarks made me think it actually suited them in some way.   It was 10:00 before we got away and I swallowed my discomfort at the notion of joining the throngs and put on  a happy face. I would have preferred to be there just as the shops opened, purchasing my needs before anyone else arrived.  I told myself I was on vacation and to sit back and enjoy it because I was powerless to make any changes to whatever would be.  Great philosophy on paper I thought.  Not so great in reality perhaps.

I finally found a place to park, and after exploring couple of alleyways we decided to split up.  The girls wanted to do some serious jewelry shopping, so we agreed to meet back at a little restaurant we’d passed at 1:00 pm for lunch.  I thought I’d look for a new swimsuit and headed off towards the pier, not just to shop there but to see the massive liners berthed, and watch the tenders coming in from those anchored half a mile out.

I wasn’t paying much attention to things, just enjoying the sunshine, strolling casually, shrugging off all the requests to “come inside”, when a gal coming the opposite way caught my attention.  It was Lisa.  I thought she and Jamila had gone in the opposite direction. As she came closer I realized it clearly wasn’t Lisa as she had on totally different clothes and there was no one with her.

I’d been told people had seen me in other places and I firmly believed in ‘doubles’ but this was weird.  I realized my mind must have been totally vacant of reality, although I still half expected to see Jamila emerge from the oncoming throng of visitors as well, but it didn’t happen.  I continued to dodge folk who weren’t looking where they were going and soon came to the pier which was chock-a-block with people.  I counted off the 7 huge white multi-deck, multi-funnel ships and was glad I’d arrived on a plane with only two hundred others on board.

I felt like I wanted to hide from the seething masses and ducked into the first men’s beach clothes shop I could find.   It was no better, being so conveniently located.  I exited quickly and retraced my steps back towards town.  On Front street, traffic could hardly move as people walked in the streets with the sidewalks so full or crossed the street at will.  I took an alley to Back Street which had far less patrons.  I refreshed, and regrouped mentally over a cup of coffee at a quaint little café, and as I got up to leave I noticed another men’s shop nearby with wild patterned swim trunks hanging above the doorway.

I loved their selection, in fact having trouble deciding between two pairs – one with blues and purples merging subtly, the other with wavy turquoise and green random images.   Money wasn’t an issue for me as I‘d recently come into an unexpected inheritance and so I bought both.  I felt good.  Probably paid too much, but I didn’t care.  I liked what I’d chosen.

The girls were 15 minutes late getting to lunch but they had big smiles on their faces  and were chatting excitedly so I presumed they’d had success at shopping.   They each dug into their purses and produced small boxes from two different stores and carefully opened the tops to reveal a huge diamond in one and an emerald in the other.  I knew very little about gemstones but enough to realize these were not $100 rocks.   More like ten to twenty times that price would have been my guess.  These gals were wealthier than I had ever imagined.  I oohed and aahed appropriately and they held their trophies up to the light over and over.  Showing off to the other restaurant patrons a bit?  Maybe, I thought.

They’d also bought two huge oversized matching cloth bags, each big enough to hold a small army in my view.  Finally they put things away and perused the menu.  With choices made, they asked me to order for them while they went off to the restroom with their ginormous bags swinging from their arms, chatting away as if they’d just met. Why do women always have to go off to the rest rooms in pairs?  We guys go when we need to.

The shrimp and crab salads were delicious, washed down with lemonade for me and cola for the girls.  The service was good but the noise was a bit annoying.  The restaurant itself was boisterous, but confounding things, frustrated folk waiting in line to get in and the traffic on the street behind created quite a din.  There were times when I found it hard to hear my companions, although frankly they were almost in a world of their own chatting away.  While I could have stayed longer since I had no further plans, they were anxious to try more stores.

We arranged to meet back at the car around 3:30 pm and drive back to our hotel.  I wondered what I’d do for the next couple of hours.  They left me some dollars and took off, so I walked inside to the bar where it was cool and dim and paid the tab.  I told the barman that I needed to fill in a couple of hours and asked if he had any suggestions.  He rattled off a list of spots, the only one having any interest being Fort Amsterdam, probably catching my imagination due to the history of Tintamarre yesterday and the fact that I’d seen the old fort from the water.

I sat and ordered another lemonade and was surprised when out of the blue two huge chaps in dark blue uniforms with ‘Securitas’ emblems on them materialized out of nowhere and sat down on either side of me. One turned and said “Do you know those two girls you had lunch with?”  No introduction, indeed no friendliness of any form.  I wondered from the style of question whether he thought they were prostitutes trying to pick me up.  In any event I said nothing, just sipped my drink wondering why they were interested in Lisa and Jamila. Bothersome. But as I thought about it I realized they weren’t police so their interest must be something different. Had the girls shoplifted those huge bags?  No way, they were too obvious.

The bartender had mysteriously disappeared so I eased myself off the stool and turned to leave. The guys didn’t intimidate me in any way, even with their size.  If trouble came I could take care of myself as I had a 2nd dan black belt.  Not something I advertised in any way.  I leaned into the questioner’s face and said “None of your business, “ and left.

They followed me about 50 yards in arrears, as I walked back to my car, one shuffling more than the other.  At least they didn’t bother me further.  I followed the barman’s directions and picked up Little Bay Rd by the cemetery and headed south. I came to the gated community of Little Divi Resort, and told the guard my interest in visiting the Fort. He showed me where to park and I walked the rest of the way to the Fort itself.  The Fort dates back to the mid 1600s when the Dutch set it up on the western side of the Great Bay.  I sat on one of the benches near the old stone walls beneath one of the cannon openings and admired the view.  This was well away from the madness of the cruise ship crowds, providing a great respite not only from them but also my encounter with the security guards.   I wondered if the girls were in some kind of trouble, because clearly they had been watched while eating lunch.  But why had I been approached rather than the girls directly?  Weird and bothersome.

I walked past an old building which apparently housed communications equipment in the 1920s, and then along a minimalist nature trail with native plants, eventually coming to a spot with an even more beautiful view of the sea and from which I could watch brown pelicans diving for food. Very soothing.

It was nearly time to meet up with the girls again.  My original parking spot was gone of course so I waited near where we’d parked on arrival and guided them back to the car once they turned up.  I couldn’t wait to tell them about my encounter with the boys in blue. Jamila’s face scrunched up and Lisa seemed in shock.  “See, I told you there could be trouble with those guys Lisa,” Jamila blurted.  “I’m so sorry, Graeme.”

“What happened,” I asked.

“Well, we were leaving one of the local jewelry stores called “Gold Leaf”, when this big goon blocked our way.  He asked to see what was in our bags. Lisa told him in some unlady-like terms ‘No’, but he insisted, and he and his buddy forced us into a back room.  I was pretty scared as no female employee came back there to monitor the situation.  They pushed us down on chairs then grabbed our bags and turned them upside down on a table, emptying everything out. They even rummaged through the personal stuff in our purses which was pretty embarrassing, even opening the boxes of jewels we’d bought at other stores.  After a slow tedious look at everything they then told us we could go.  We were both livid and asked to see the store manager.  He finally came, saw all the carnage from our bags littering the table, and listened to our complaints, but did absolutely nothing, making us even more furious.  So we decided to leave well remembered.”

Actually Jamila started to smile at this point and they both broke out laughing.  Didn’t sound too funny to me but I waited patiently.   Lisa took up the tale.  “There was quite a crowd gathering in the store by now so we stumbled out from behind the curtains and sat down in the middle of the floor, peeled off our blouses and yelled ‘rape’ at the top of our lungs and pointed at the two pricks who’d taken us to the back room.  People started leaving the store which is exactly what we wanted, although one dear old lady asked if we wanted her to call the police.  The two big creeps shuffled outside when everyone left and closed the main door behind them.

“Now we certainly got the attention of the manager who started apologizing profusely and asked us to leave peacefully, saying one of the clerks thought we had taken something off one of the counters and slipped it in a bag, and had alerted the security guys.  We asked the manager to point out the particular clerk.  She was cowering behind the other salesfolks who’d formed a small group, so Jamila went behind the counter straight up to her and asked for an apology.  When none was forthcoming Jamila pulled the woman’s hair so hard she fell to the floor whimpering.

“We figured we’d best leave before our tempers really got the better of us, but I had one more thing I wanted to do.  I picked up one of those machines off the counter that they use for swiping credit cards, reached over and pulled out the power cord from its socket as well.  I threw it in my bag and we headed out.  The two arrogant shits were standing outside with smirks on their faces. They knew full well we’d never have been able to make a case against them.  I turned to the guy who’d first stopped us and looked him straight in his eyes.  As he smirked some more I swung my bag straight into his crotch where the heavy machine caught him full–on.  He howled and bent over. I took the machine out and threw it to his buddy who was standing in shock. And we left.  Obviously they must have followed us to lunch.  Now you know why we were a bit preoccupied there.”

Wow, what was the old edict?  Empathize first, admonish later if necessary. So I did. “That’s terrible that they falsely accused you, but their back-room behavior is even more detestable and unbelievable. That wouldn’t have happened in a non-third-world country I’m sure.  I can imagine how scared you must have felt, especially with no-one else present.  I saw the size of those two guys.  Front-row footballers.  I’m truly sorry ladies.”

At the same time I was wondering at the level of creative violence the girls exhibited.  I certainly couldn’t blame them for being upset but I think most females I’d previously known would have backed off after getting an apology from the manager.  I’m sure theft was a part of everyday life in many of the shops.   But the hair pulling and crotch attacks suggested that maybe these two weren’t the sweet things they appeared to be on the surface.

After a short silence I said, “Well, let’s hope that’s the end of things.  I certainly don’t ever want to get on the wrong side of you two.”

“But you do understand don’t you Graeme?. “Jamila asked.  “Suppose you had been suspected of taking something.  Do you think as a male you would have received similar treatment?”  She had a point.  I had to admit probably not.  I think Jamila, being black, had definitely felt the short end of bias in various ways in the past.  She wasn’t talking black versus white in this instance however, but female versus male.   Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they’d both sort of over-reacted.  To avoid the topic further I told them about my visit to the Fort and the pelicans.  They made small talk responses but were still clearly re-living their day in the stores.

Back at the hotel I didn’t feel like fraternizing too much. I don’t think they did either, as Lisa immediately pulled out her cell phone and wandered off as soon as she made a connection. Jamila went with her, so I headed upstairs.  I figured I ‘d see them at breakfast tomorrow.

 

Nightcap

I ordered dinner through room service and sat out on my balcony after the sun had set doing nothing but watching the headlights on cars and the navigation lights on boats, idly listening to indecipherable chatter on the beach.     There was the tiniest of breezes, refreshingly cool, and I’d turned the lights off in my room.   It was good to simply sit and do nothing.

My reverie was disturbed as the room-phone rang.  It was Lisa.   “Hi Graeme. Glad I’m catching you in. Got a question for you.  Isn’t this getting close to the time of evening when a couple of international flights arrive?  I’m thinking it would be fun to be down there on Maho beach feeling their power as they land.  Could we do that?”

“I guess so,” I responded, my mind trying to refocus ,and not quite with it yet.  “Hang on a sec.”  I checked my watch.  “If American Airlines is on time they should be landing in fifteen minutes or so.  At least that’s when I arrived.  I’ll see you both in the lobby in five.”  I washed my face, put on my sandals, and headed out the door, remembering at the last minute to grab my camera.

No Jamila.   “Ate something that’s not agreeing with her,”  Lisa explained.  “Said she’d try making it tomorrow.”

Of course we weren’t the only ones down on the beach.  This was a great tourist trap after all.   Although I suspected one would feel more engine  blast when a plane took off, the number of locals present suggested there was enough thrill on landing to be around then as well.  It wasn’t what you would call a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd so we took up a position halfway between the road and the water’s edge.  Some stayed right at the fence, while others backed away to the water – a few actually immersing themselves, as the night was still warm.   Everyone looked out to sea, hoping to be the first to spot the plane’s landing lights.

Eventually a cheer went up and low over the water we spotted twin lights growing bigger as they headed our way.  A faint roar reached our ears, becoming louder as the machine got closer and closer.  Suddenly the beams became spotlights, lighting up the beach and the runway with their incredible searchlight-like power.

A giant shadow flitted overhead, and our ears reverberated with the fantastic roar of the unmuffled jet engines. Everyone turned to watch the plane clear the fence, the wheels to touch down, and to experience the adrenaline rush as the mighty turbulence flowed out behind, pushing us backwards.  I’d primed my camera and squeezed off three quick flash shots just as Lisa reached forward to hold her skirt down as the sand picked up around her legs and torso and bit at her face.

She actually fell backwards, laughing hysterically, and I got a shot of her sitting down, trying to wipe the sand from her eyes.  “Oh boy,” she finally whispered when she had enough breath to speak. “That was unbelievable.  Wow.  Can’t get anywhere near that close in Canada.  Amazing.  We have to come again Graeme for take-off sometime. Wow.  Everyone enjoyed that – look at them all smiling and laughing.”

She was right.  The mood was one of gaiety, as if we’d all shared in some personal secret ritual that no-one else could understand if they hadn’t experienced it too. We made our way slowly back to the hotel, carrying our sandals, Lisa still shaking sand out of her dress.   “Too bad Jamila missed it.  I might have to bring her here one evening after I tell her about it.  At least there’ll be other planes to repeat the event.  Thanks for taking me.”

Goodbye

Jamila was alone at a breakfast table in a seeming reversal of last night.   “Good to see you  here,” I offered.  “I  hope you are feeling better and that Lisa hasn’t come down with the same affliction overnight.”

She looked at me quizzically and said “I feel fine.  Didn’t Lisa tell you she was leaving this morning?” My surprise must have been very obvious, especially since I nearly choked on a mouthful of hash-browns.

“No.  Never mentioned it.  Did your nasty experience yesterday have some influence in no longer wanting to stay around or was this always planned?”

“Oh, it was semi-planned as an option, but yesterday made it easier to leave.”

“So I guess she must have had an early flight.  I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.”

“Well, actually, she’s not on a plane.  She left with her sister on one of the cruise ships.”

I was very confused.  Sister, cruise ship?  I put down my knife and fork and took a large sip of coffee.  “Help me out here Jamila.  She never mentioned a sister and with you both being flight attendants I figured you’d fly out, not leave on a ship.  What’s going on?”

“I guess you deserve to know since you’ve been so good to us.  First off Graeme, we used to be flight attendants, but not anymore.  There are three of us in business together. Lisa and me and Lisa’s twin sister Linda.   We did a lot of international flying together over the years and became infatuated with the difference in prices in duty free stores internationally and prices for the same goods back home.  Yes, we are Canadians, but live in Chicago these days.  We decided to make a business out of buying low internationally, selling high domestically.  Especially on the more expensive items such as watches, jewelry, and gemstones.   So that’s what we do these days. It’s a very rewarding venture.  Not without its exciting moments of course.”

“So I really did see Lisa’s double yesterday.  That must have been Linda I nearly ran into on Front Street as she was coming off one of the cruise boats.  Why didn’t she fly in with you?   I presume you met somewhere but didn’t want me to know about her yesterday which is why she wasn’t invited to lunch. Tell me more…”

“If you’d seen Linda and Lisa together you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart Graeme. Not even in bikinis. They are truly identical.  It would have raised too many questions had she joined us at lunch.  Actually, she was in the restaurant and we met in the restroom where we transferred some goodies we’d bought.  Over time we’ve found that the cruise ships are a great source of gem buyers.  Just look how the passengers throng to the jewelry stores on land.

“So Linda does a little business onboard.  She’s attractive.  Males like the jewels she wears and ask where she got them which leads to discussion about sources and quality and prices, and before they know it she’s saving them the experience of negotiating in one of the port stores and making a tidy profit at the same time.   Not always, although I only know of one trip where she never sold a thing and she was ill for half of the days that boat was on the seas

“Of course one has to be a little careful as the ships themselves have duty free offerings, so she’s learned to be very discreet.  She phoned after we arrived here saying the boat she was on had two large excursion groups of wealthy older men and suggested Lisa join her for the trip back to the States.   So she did.  She should be boarding right now as a matter of fact.”

I felt deflated.  While my suspicions about the girls were now readily confirmed, in the sense that they weren’t indeed what they appeared to be on the surface, I still felt sort of cheated. Conned you might say.  I could see how good they would be as gemstone salespersons. “So those rocks you showed me at lunch were really just to keep me true to the charade I guess?”

“Yep. We’d probably given a dozen other purchases over to Linda.  It was the fact that we had a whole bunch of boxes from other jewelry stores that really made the manager mad where we were apprehended.  We were just about to buy a $2500 diamond there when Lisa discovered a very small flaw that was extremely hard to detect and which their salesperson had failed to point out.  Lisa was so pissed that she threw the diamond at the sales guy which is when the saleslady on the opposite side of the room mistook her action as a disguised attempt to grab something else off the counter.  We’ve deleted that store from our list of future purchase spots.”

“So when are you leaving?” I asked.  “I presume your shopping is done here?”

“This afternoon. I’m flying to Puerto Rico, where there’s a cruise ship leaving tomorrow heading west to the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, the Caymans, and Cuba.   Amazing the jewelry people will buy if they think it comes from Cuba.  My turn to do some selling.”

“Just out of interest, am I correct in thinking this really isn’t your first time here?  Surely Philipsburg has great prices for the trade you are in?”

“Yes, I’m sorry we misled you.  We usually come here singly by ship and vary who does the buying so we don’t get easily remembered.   Maybe every two years or so. There are other Caribbean ports – we sometimes use Marigot here – and lots of good bargains in other parts of the world.  If it makes you feel better though, it was the first time we’d been to Club Orient.  Sorry you didn’t join us for the view.”

I smiled.  What view was she referring to I wondered?  The view of everyone at the beach or a view of the two girls au naturel?  I let my imagination roam for a minute as I looked her up and down.  Chauvinist pig.  Now she was grinning…

“You were a decent sport Graeme. You didn’t try to take advantage of us in any way, were sympathetic to our issues, and generous with the transportation.  Here, let me give you our email addresses so you can stay in touch, OK?  Maybe one day you can meet Linda too.

“Now I have to go and pack, so I’ll say farewell.   Do enjoy the rest of your stay and if ever you need a diamond ring for some lucky lady, call on one of us.  We’ll do things right by you.”

She rose, walked around the table, kissed me on the cheek and headed for the exit.  I refreshed my coffee, and sat back, still in shock, unmoving until at last a server asked if she could clear my things. It was time to go.

 

Visitors

I went back to my room, but I was restless.   Somehow Jamila’s information had thrown me for a loop.  I felt like I had been completely duped.

Yes, I’d had some questions about the girls.  But heck most people project themselves as they want to be seen, not as they really are, right?  And why should one reveal all one’s private information to a stranger? In retrospect my initial concerns seemed really trivial in light of the revelations I’d just been made privy to.  So they weren’t flight attendants, and they’d been to Philipsburg before.   I don’t think I even told them what I did for a living.  Private information, not necessary to share.   I guess I’d just reinforced that old maxim – ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’.  I wondered what else I’d learn on my vacation.

I wandered out to the balcony in response to the roar of a plane taking off.  Was Jamila on board that one?  We never made it down to the beach together where folks were currently recovering from the departed jet’s blast.   A thought struck me.  Of course, that was it, the other thing that had been bothering me.  Lisa hadn’t even said goodbye.  We’d spent a short time on the beach last night  and had had fun.  She knew she would be leaving in the morning but couldn’t even tell me. I thought we’d become friends.  Guess not – I’d been used for my transportation means, nothing more.  Damn…

The room phone rang, and a gentleman identified himself as a Philipsburg policeman and asked if I wouldn’t mind meeting him in the lounge downstairs.  What on earth was going on I wondered?  When I asked what the meeting would be about he indicated it concerned some questions about the women I’d had lunch with the previous day.

Oh, oh.  This was the police calling, not a security company.  I really didn’t want to be involved if they were going to ask about the girls’ actions in the jewelry store. Of course since I hadn’t been there I couldn’t add any actual details and I certainly didn’t have to reveal what the girls had told me.  But why did the police want to talk to me anyway?  Surely this was an issue between the girls and the store. It had nothing to do with me.   All they could know was that I’d met the girls for lunch.

I reckoned that the two Security guys had passed on my jeep’s license plate number and the police had approached the rental car company where they’d determined my name. They’d lucked out finding me at the hotel as I could easily have been out enjoying the scenery and sunshine at some local attraction for all they knew. Damn.  What on earth did they want with me?  I was seriously wishing I had gone out sight-seeing.  This could only be troublesome.

The detective introduced himself and his partner and reassured me right off the bat that I was not in any trouble of any form.  They simply wanted me to corroborate some information if I could.  My internal gut reaction was a self-bet that they really wanted more than ‘corroboration’ but I said nothing. Before the questions started flowing, they told me how they’d been able to find me. I was right. The security guys and the rental car number.  They asked me why I didn’t respond to the security guys, and I reiterated that my relationship with the girls was none of their business.  They then asked me point blank if I knew where the girls were. I was amazed they didn’t know, but I truthfully answered “No”.

OK, I’d been told one was probably on a cruise ship and the other probably on a plane.  But I certainly didn’t know for sure, and in fact how was I to know if what I’d been told was actually valid based on previous experience?  They asked how I’d met up with the girls in the first place. I came back and asked why that was relevant to anything, and refused to say any more. I was courteous with my words but I still didn’t see why they were talking to me, although I was beginning to wonder if there was something more I didn’t know.

Sure enough, there was.  One of the men threw a sheet of paper on the glass table between us and asked if I’d read the hotel’s morning island news summary.  I hadn’t, whereupon they suggested I might want to read a particular article.   The heading was ominous. “Major thieves at work.”  The text indicated that 7 separate well-known jewelry stores had experienced thefts of high-value gemstones the previous day to the tune of over $125,000 and that police were warning other stores to be doubly cautious and vigilant in their dealings.  The chief of police said they were suspicious that the robbers involved were either two women acting as a pair, or possibly independently, based on information from a separate incident at an 8th store.

I laughed inwardly.  What a threesome!  They weren’t in the business of buying and selling fine gems, they were in the business of stealing and selling them!

Another thought occurred to me.  Native service on the island was universally recognized as languid – tolerated, although not excused, by rationalizing that with the balmy climate and the desire to enjoy it, things were done on ‘island time.’ If the police had been more alert and not acting on ‘island time’ they could easily have picked the girls up last night.  Now, it was too late.  The birds had flown the coop.

The more aggressive cop asked why I was grinning, and I told him I was thinking back to lunch where my two friends had shown me the diamond and emerald they had bought.  Perhaps I should have asked if they had more hidden in their purses or those huge bags.  They seemed like ordinary shoppers to me.  The big native cop didn’t like my response and said “You’re not being very co-operative Sir.  We hoped you could tell us something that would help our investigations.  Perhaps your acquaintances are totally innocent and you could help us establish that fact.”  ‘Acquaintances’, not ‘friends’.  So far they were being precise, but well beyond ‘corroboration’ questions.

“All I know officer is that the girls were flight attendants on Air Canada, that they went to Club Orient the first two days here, and the next day shopping to Philipsburg – where they were falsely accused of stealing. I drove them back to their hotel, and must admit they didn’t seem overly protective of their bags if they had thousands of jewels rolling around in them.   They just tossed them in the back seat of the jeep.  I don’t know where they are now.”

“Ah, see you can be helpful. What hotel did you drop them off at?”

I put on my most sarcastic tone and asked “You mean you really don’t know?  It was this one right here where we are sitting.  How do you think I met them in the first place?”   I was getting fed up now and wanted to get away from the whole discussion. I was definitely protecting the girls, although I wasn’t quite sure why, and I wasn’t sure how long I could keep up the act.  Even so I couldn’t resist adding. “You’re detectives, and you hadn’t even found that out?  Maybe you’d better wander over to reception across the lobby and find their room numbers. Their names are Lisa and Jamila.  I have no idea what their last names are.”

The smaller chap got up and sauntered across the tile floor.  Amazing.  No sense of urgency.  Island time.   I got up too.  Enough was enough.  The big surly chap stood up and towered over me. He was very deliberate in saying “I’d be very careful to obey all the traffic rules during the rest of your stay Sir.  Sometimes members of our force get over-zealous with foreigners driving rental cars. And it can take ages to get paperwork completed in our system – sometimes overnight even.

“And, since you are such a smart-ass, let me just tell you that female robbers apprehended in the past have been found to store highly valuable gems in certain body cavities you may not be familiar with if all your other friends are boys.”

I thought if that was the best he could do – accuse me of being gay –  then he really was as slow and stupid as I thought. I looked him in the eye and laughed in his face and left. I hated cops anyway, ever since I’d been wrongly arrested, charged, and released during a fracas at college. Dipshits most of them.   Not only back in Australia, but here as well apparently.

Right now I had to go off and deal with my half-truths, my protection of the girls, and my reluctance to help the authorities catch them.  It didn’t take long to come to the realization that I actually admired them in a way. Not for stealing, but for their ability to fool me, and probably many others as well I assumed.  Con men – or rather con ladies – of the first order.  Sure had me fooled, and I knew I wasn’t unintelligent.  More naïve and trusting than others?  Must be the case.  Boy they had been good.  And yes, I bet they did have all those jewels with them at lunch time – hidden wherever and transferred in the ladies room to Lisa’s sister Linda – if that was her real name.  Boy, what a system they had. Incredibly smart gals I had to admit, and natural salespersons.  Con ladies?  Female con men?

Whatever – they were very good at what they did. And they were so much smarter than the police. Had picked the busiest of tourist days with 7 ships in port, knew their timing, had used an intermediary, me, as semi-cover, shopped at different stores separately sometimes, but never revealing the full trio team in any one store, and had enormous bravado – especially hitting the arrogant security officer where it hurt. Yep, they had moxy and deserved a little credit to be sure.   More guts than me.

I gave the cops an hour before I went downstairs again and out to the rental car lot.  I exchanged the old black jeep for a much newer blue Toyota sedan.  Not that I was going to do much more driving but the change renewed my self-confidence.   I hoped old smug face had told his cop friends to harass anyone driving a black jeep with the license number they had used to find me.  I felt sorry for whoever rented the jeep next.

The next two days passed slowly.  I went to Club Orient and even went skinny dipping.  Very refreshing, and as the girls had found, far less embarrassing than I expected.   I also drove  to Marigot and strolled the seaside streets – so much more pleasant than Philipsburg.  I never went near that town again.  I tried a couple of different restaurants in remote locations, but frankly, even though the food was good, it wasn’t much fun eating alone.  I didn’t find any more friends, although the waitress at one place flirted openly with me. I actually enjoyed that.  A bit of harmless fun.

I lay in the sun on Maho beach each day, out of the way of the jet blast streams.  My skin turned a golden type brown. Not dark, but definitely noticeable.  I wore my new swimsuits and they complemented my color nicely.  I visited a couple of bars offering island music after dinner each night and thoroughly enjoyed watching visitors and locals alike dancing to the beat of steel drums and guitars.  Good stuff.

But I couldn’t put off the inevitable, and reluctantly hauled myself to the airport terminal one morning – a full mile away! My flights back to San Francisco through Dallas were totally unremarkable, although I enjoyed reminiscing about my diamond-stealing friends.  I wondered what the police might have learned in their ‘zealous’ pursuits.  Thinking of them on the flights reminded me that I’d never examined the photos I took the night Lisa and I stood on the beach.

Surprisingly, after checking that everything was shipshape in my apartment, the first thing I did was pull the pictures off my camera. I had lots of shots of sand, water, palm trees, relics, and restaurant settings.  But only one of the photos of Lisa in the jet blast had come out well enough to send.    I dug out the email address Jamila had provided,  penned a few words and attached it as a souvenir.

Test6

 

She must have been sitting at her laptop somewhere because I got a slight ping, announcing mail no more than a minute later.

I anxiously opened the response from her, and laughed out loud.

 

“Thanks Graeme.  Great photo.   I love it.   Am I that sexy in person?

Thanks for making Sint Maarten more than just a diamond in the rough….

Yours,

Lisa.

Foreign Friends

Cover

Table of Contents

 

1.  Hullo there……. 1

2.  Stopping point.. 6

3.  Tourists…………. 8

4.  Surprise……..    11

Map1

 

 

 

 

1.     Hullo there

I was holidaying in New Zealand and there was a road I was dying to drive. Northeast out of Masterton through Te Ore Ore and Whangaehu and on to Bideford.  From there I would follow the river for a while then cut northwest towards Ihuraua.  I was tired of the major roads and this wasn’t much of a detour so I was looking forward to checking it out.  As it happened, things turned out much differently than I had anticipated.

I’d recently come into an inheritance and had decided to spend some time alone, thinking about where my life was going and what I would do with the substantial amount of new funds that were now in my possession. I was a long way from home, luxuriating in an uncommon absence of care and responsibility.

Unexpectedly, I hadn’t seen a car traveling in either direction since leaving Masterton, and that was probably sixteen kilometres behind me as I slowed down to fifty kilometres per hour for Bideford.  From here on, according to the map, the road would become narrower and even less travelled, as this was part forest, part range country, not open enough for grazing, nor dense enough for lumber.   The roads probably followed the original tracks made by oxen traversing between Palmerston North and Masterton in colonial days.

Just as I sighted the speed de-restrict signs up ahead I saw movement at the side of the road where what looked initially like a large bundled object suddenly stretched upright to become a human with backpack and an arm swinging for a lift.  Backpacking is common in New Zealand and I’d often seen pairs of hitchhikers thumbing rides.   Usually two men, or a man and a woman.  I’d never stopped for any of them as my sports car was primarily a two-seater and frankly I was enjoying my privacy. I’ve always been a bit of a loner, enjoying my own company more than others’.  But two things caught my fancy as I came abreast of the hiker.  First, this was a female, seemingly alone.  I say ‘seemingly’ because sometimes fellow travellers remain hidden until a car pulls up. What struck me particularly was that while she had on the standard summer attire of sandals, shorts and a rolled up sleeved shirt, her backpack was quite small and her head was bare and sported two blonde pigtails, a fashion that has always appealed to me for some inane reason.  Little girl/innocence personified perhaps.

Beyond that, my second reaction was pure animalistic male.  What were this woman’s chances of getting a ride way out here in the middle of nowhere?  Almost nil based on the dearth of traffic I’d encountered.    So, somewhat surprisingly, I found myself slowing down and pulling up some forty feet beyond the black diagonal signs. I turned and enjoyed watching her trotting up to the car, especially as I could now see her breasts were a good size and were jostling nicely as she ran.   She leaned over the passenger door and said with a faint European accent “Thank you for stopping.  Not many cars here.”

“Where are you headed?” I asked.Map2

“Auckland,” she replied.

“That’s nearly five hundred kilometres from here,” I said, somewhat dismayed, and expecting an answer like Taupo, or Rotorua, common tourist spots. “A very long way.”

“I know,” she responded.  “Can you take me part way?”

Actually, Auckland was exactly where I was headed but I was planning to take ten days or more getting there. I was in no rush.  I was honest with her and said, “Well, that’s my ultimate destination but I like driving back roads and seeing out-of-the way places so I wouldn’t get there for many days.   Do you have an immediate destination closer to here?”

She looked at me coquettishly and said, “Well I don’t have to be back in Switzerland for another three weeks so there is not the urgency for me as well.”

My primal instincts took over my thinking and I felt a bold response forming.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to be saddled with a stranger, albeit promising, for a long time, and I wondered if I might get lucky and be ‘rewarded’ for a small jaunt before dropping her off at a nearby bigger town.  “Tell you what, I’m happy to provide a ride but there’ll be a price to pay – sex every hundred kilometres. What do you say?”

Amazingly, she looked me straight in the eyes, and with a smile on her pretty face, threw her backpack on the backseat, opened the small door, climbed in, and said “My pleasure.  Let’s find a spot by the river up ahead.”  She reached back and pulled the seatbelt snug between her breasts, pointed forward and said “Go.”

Too easy I thought.  She’d agree to anything to get a ride and save a long walk from that desolate spot.  But even if I didn’t get my dues, maybe she’d be pleasant company for part of the ride.  I decided to relax and enjoy the moment.  “I’m Graeme, from Sydney, touring the North Island just for fun, something I promised myself two years ago.  I finally took extended vacation and here I am.  You?”

“Brigitte, from Zurich.  I’ve been in New Zealand a month.  My boyfriend and I traveled all over the South Island.  Then near Picton where the ferry sails, he suddenly dumped me for a black American girl and her lesbian friend. So I am alone now.  He left me not much money, but I have my plane ticket home from Auckland, so I am trying to arrive there.   An old farmer tricked me into coming on this back road.  I walked ten kilometres this morning before you came along.”

Her tale got to  me.  Was it true I wondered, or made up?  A ploy for money?

Time to test things.  “Ouch, that sounds very mean,” I responded, and meant it. “Where were you before Picton?”

“Ah, the best place on our trip.  Do you know Blenheim?  There is a famous Swiss family there that owns a winery and top restaurant just like the one they have outside my home town.  The name is Herzog.   They let us stay in their loft for three days and we ate wonderful food. That is where my boyfriend fell for the American girls who came to dine one evening. He played waiter for their table while I worked in the kitchen. He thinks he can convert the lesbian pair.  Wants to make out with the two of them. Sick man.  More immature than I know.  Now I am glad to leave him.”

I actually knew of the Herzog winery from my reading about vineyards in the Marlborough region, which is famous for specialty white wines. Hans and Therese were legends in the area.  But I hadn’t visited their place.

“So where did your travels take you before Blenheim?  Were there other Swiss businesses you visited?”Map3

“No.  I only knew about Herzog because they are famous in Zurich.  We started in Queenstown, and visited Milford Sound, then Dunedin and Invercargill, then Christchurch. Beautiful country – as rugged and pretty as Switzerland in the Alps but we do not have the fjords.  Better in Norway.  Sometimes we hitchhiked, but if it looked like rain we bought bus tickets.  No fun standing getting wet waiting for a ride.  Just as well sun is shining today as I do not have enough money for the bus and food both.  Why do you come this way?  It is not a main road.”

There was that bit about money again.  Had her boyfriend really kept most of their funds or had she walked off in spite once he told her to get lost?  I’d probably never really know.  Then I thought of something.  “Are you hungry?  There are apples and energy bars in my bag on the back seat if you want to reach back there.”

“We stop soon for sex right?  I will eat then.  Thank you.  I’m already getting hot.  No sex since before Blenheim.  But you look like you might have good equipment.  Strong hands and fingers on wheel.  We’ll see yes?”

I wasn’t a tall guy, but I worked out and had an athletic body.  I doubted I’d disappoint.

Oh boy I thought, what more could a guy ask for? A gal already sizing me up and anxious to party.

The portable GPS unit on the dash was showing my planned back-road turnoff a mile ahead.  I was aware that right after the turn-off, the road crossed the river – perhaps a good place to look for a grassy spot on the banks beneath a large shade tree?

Yes indeed, we will definitely see…

Sure enough, I could not have designed things better.  Not one hundred metres from the turn-off we clattered over a narrow one-lane wooden bridge, at the end of which a series of weeping willows laced the banks in both directions.  A gentle slope ran down from the road to a shady grove, and I eased the car under bright green fronds that just cleared the windshield.  The river was more of a series of streams at this point with sand bars defining narrow rivulets through which perfectly clear water flowed.

I placed the car keys in my pocket, conscious that in so doing I wasn’t yet sure about their not being stolen from me by my new companion and used to get away, leaving me stranded instead. Just born with a suspicious mind I guess.  I grabbed my bag and headed closer to the bank, finding a delightful patch of grass between two willows through which the sun shone in little patches.  I quickly cleared the area of twigs, and sat down, leaning against the trunk of one of the trees.  From the bag I pulled two apples, two energy bars, and two bottles of water that I’d filled at the motel that morning.

Brigitte leaned against the nearby trunk and smiled contentedly. “This is perfect,” she muttered, then said something more that sounded like a phrase in German, but I couldn’t really catch the words. “You are not Kiwi, and not true American but I hear lots of American accent,” she continued.  “My guess is Englishman living in America, or maybe Australian.  Am I right?”

Pretty good I had to admit.  I was born in Australia, now resident in the USA with what many called a ‘Pacific’ accent – formed of necessity to be understood in both countries.  I let her know. Before the current jaunt I had been visiting relatives in Sydney.   Between bites she said “Aussies are fun.”

I don’t think she had eaten for a while as she devoured the apple and energy bar quickly then swigged most of the bottle of water just as rapidly.    I was halfway through my bar when she rose and unashamedly shed her shorts and thong, holding them aloft to catch my full attention, although her long shirt falling free now covered what I really wanted to look at.   “Now, for promise. You eat, I play.”

So saying, she tugged slowly on my boots causing me to slide down the tree trunk.  My water bottle slipped from my hand, and the next thing I knew my shorts and boxers were being pulled down together.

Map4Nature followed an obvious course and finally when play finished, she laughingly asked “Will that hold us for the next hundred kilometres?”  I grinned and cheekily responded “Well, that wasn’t bad for starters, but we’ll see if we can improve things at the next stop.”  Her eyes grew round, unsure if I was joking or not, then when she finally worked it out she jumped up and suggested: “Come on, let’s wash in the river.”

We took off our footwear and I threw off my shirt and we raced for the water’s edge.  The nearest stream was only two feet deep, but cold. The water must have come from a glacier way up in the mountains.  We washed off the good parts and then sat on the bank in the sun drying out.

Using the backroads we drove through Ilhuraua, and Alfredton, to Tane, then picked up a better road to Pahiatua.  I loved the old Maori names, finding them so much more attractive than the English ones. But it was boring country compared to earlier. Ok up through the foothills of the Puketoi Range but then into grazing country.  Countless sheep and cows, although I saw one field of domestic deer.   Brigitte fell asleep on me, satiated in a couple of senses apparently.

The traffic was incredibly light, and the road surface smooth, so I decided to up the ante and push beyond any mid-country stop and head for Napier on the coast.  My maps suggested it was about one hundred and seventy kilometres, or just over one hundred miles, ahead.  I still had to do those conversions between the measurement systems to understand timing notions.  Roads could be twisty even in the countryside so I calculated it would take somewhere just over two hours, barring hold-ups. No big deal at all.   I wondered how long Brigitte would sleep.

Map5

2.     Stopping point

She woke some thirty minutes short of Napier, and immediately asked how long she’d slept and how far we’d travelled.   Napier would bring up about two hundred kilometres since Bideford, and even though only half awake, she whispered, “I owe you again.”

I’d had plenty of time to develop plans with the easy cross-country jaunt.  Initially I’d considered the option of dropping her off at the InterCity Coachlines Bus Terminal if I could find it, but then I thought why not enjoy her company as long as we got along OK, and she still gave forth readily on the sex front.

Actually I readily rationalized not dropping her off at the bus terminal – it was the sex opportunity that really drove the notion of keeping her alongside if I was honest with myself. I simply thought, ‘why not take advantage of the situation, for we may never meet again’.  That last bit came from some poem or prophetic saying that I half remembered. It did occur to me that I knew more about her body than her background, history, likes, dislikes, education, skills, and family, or, for that matter, literally anything in her life, beyond an apparently misguided fantasizing boy-friend.  I was pretty sure that dinner and overnight accommodation would allow us to rectify all that.

She seemed truly grateful when I suggested I’d put us up at a motel after some sightseeing and dinner.  The little I knew about the city indicated there was plenty of history and sights to explore. Indeed, one of my heroes, Captain Cook, recorded a visit to the place in 1769 – a year before discovering Australia.

We pulled into the first Information site we came to.  There are multiple such sites in towns across the country, some in cafes, some in petrol stations, others in chamber of commerce buildings in the larger towns.  Based on the descriptions in a local promotional directory, I had the friendly volunteer lady call three motels and allow me to chat with each receptionist. I’d found that most motel owners went by the book, but if a motel had more vacancies than they liked on the particular evening, they were often willing to negotiate and offer a ‘student’ price. It didn’t bother me to make multiple calls to save forty or fifty dollars.  That was dinner at a nice place.

We also got some suggestions on which sights were really worth visiting and which sights were tourist traps.  Very helpful.

It was only four pm with plenty of sunshine hours left so Brigitte asked if we could check in and have a shower first, before doing more exploring.  My concurrence was a mistake, as this girl had other ideas.  She obviously had a certain pride of commitment, almost compulsive in a way, because no sooner had we dumped our bags than she peeled everything off and lay down on the sheets and invited me to entertain her.   Being a red-blooded male I needed no extra bidding, and we had more unexpected fun.

“Race you to the shower,” I offered when I eventually pulled away, anxious to avoid falling asleep. And before I realized it she was jumping off the bed ahead of me, and beat me there by a full step.   We ended up soaping and shampooing together, enjoying more touching and caressing.

Dressed again, we headed out to do some limited sight-seeing, holding hands like the lovers we were.   As we drove off I realized that I was starting to enjoy Brigitte’s company immensely.  Sure, the sex was one thing, but she was highly flexible, non-complaining, easy going, and sincerely interested in learning about the country.

I was coming to think that as much as she’d lost her boyfriend and didn’t say much about that issue, it hadn’t dampened her desire to explore.  It wasn’t as if she were crying in her boots, longing to get home and get over her loss.  She was up for making the best of her situation.

She hadn’t tried to take advantage of me in any way, going along with all my suggestions.  It struck me that when we were back at the information booth she could easily have said goodbye, thanks for taking me along.   It wouldn’t have been hard to pick up an alternate ride from there and leave me to wander onwards alone.   The bus from Napier to the Auckland airport took about eight hours, involving a simple transfer in the middle of the city, and cost less than forty dollars.  She could have been out of my life and headed home in no time fairly inexpensively.

As we drove to a local attraction called Cape Kidnappers for a ride along the beach and a view of the local Gannet colony, I exposed my thoughts.  Surprising myself in so doing.  We males aren’t good at the emotional sharing function.  I think she was taken aback by my forthrightness. She listened quietly then reached over and hugged me and planted a kiss on my cheek.  I took that as a sign that she understood and appreciated what I said, although she didn’t offer much verbally in response.

Perhaps I was just the rebound kid, a fortunate happenstance and conveniently available substitute for her past mate. Maybe I was just a short term entertainment investment, to be enjoyed while the spirit and opportunity lasted, however long that might be.  In the recesses of my mind the idea had already seated itself that I could possibly take her all the way into Auckland, where I too was eventually headed.  I kept this thought in reserve, waiting to see how things developed between us.  I wondered in fact whether she might even raise it at some point.

3.      Tourists

There was one small thing that kept niggling at my brain.  Strangely, it was the size of her knapsack.  To me it was tiny and clearly not filled.  I had two large bags, she had this one small bag that easily strapped behind her shoulders.  How on earth was it carrying changes of clothes, toiletries, spare shoes or sandals, a purse etc etc.   I decided to ask her, as she had brought nothing into the car with her and had put on the same clothes after her shower as she had worn all day.   The answer I got shocked me.

“My boyfriend and I had big fight after dinner that led to breaking up.  He pushed and shoved me while shouting in my face.  He never physically really hurt me but it was clear from the way he twisted my arms, pinioned me against the door, and kneed me in the stomach that he wanted to.

“I originally had a very large backpack matching the one he had, and a smaller carry-bag, the one I have now. He was so furious that during the night while I was sleeping he apparently got up and used a knife to cut my big bag and all my clothes in it to pieces.  He must have been very quiet as I didn’t sleep well. In the morning when I woke and found what he had done, I was very confused, and incredibly upset.  I had not seen this side of him before.  I remember him looking at me with this chilling look as I picked up bits and pieces of what he had left untouched and rushed out of there as fast as possible.

“He must have had a violent streak in him that I’d never known about. Perhaps I was lucky he didn’t use the knife on me.  I think maybe he is how you say? bi-polar? and I didn’t know it, but I’ve never been so scared in all my life.   I found the knife as I was scrambling for my things, and took it away as a reminder of his action.  It’s at the bottom of my bag back at the motel.

“One day maybe I will understand the symbolism of his ruining my clothes.  Maybe a psychiatrist doctor would have an answer for me.  Probably something to do with sex, who knows.  Maybe the black lesbians had some effect.  I’m sorry I tell you now.  I’m just glad he is gone from me.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I felt for her, and part of me wanted to cuddle her and reassure her as she shared her vulnerability. What a terrible experience! A totally separate thought quickly entered and exited my mind when I thought about the knife, glad she hadn’t taken vengeance on me, although I realized I probably wasn’t the first male she’d encountered after leaving her boyfriend.  Did she keep the knife for protection?  And what had happened to her boyfriend and his two new acquaintances?

And then an obverse thought hit me – one of support.  Good for her getting out in a hurry and looking after herself.  And reinforcing my earlier feelings about not despairing and simply rushing home to Zurich for family-available solace and understanding.  I did immediately think of offering her some funds to buy more clothes. Question was, how would such an offer be perceived?  As an investment buying more sex, or as pure sympathy and empathy, unconditionally and sincerely offered as help? Had she had time to come to know me enough or understand me enough to be able to appreciate the latter?  No real way to know in advance I thought, so we’d make it a real decision.

We were actually passing through a little shopping center, and as I was wondering about what to do, a lady pulled out of a parking space not thirty metres ahead.  I pulled in and Brigitte looked at me. “Coffee?” I asked.

She nodded and we walked past a few shop fronts heading for a café I pointed out to her.  Two doors before it was a little lingerie shop.  I stopped, pretending to be interested in the display, and when Brigitte grabbed my arm steering me onwards I used the grip to pull her instead inside the doorway.  She looked at me quizzically and I dug out four twenty dollar bills and said “Buy some underwear.  How do you have your coffee?  I’ll order for you.”  She told me with a grateful smile playing around her eyes, and I left her, finding a nice outdoor table for two at the café.

She plunked down a brown paper bag and started to hand back a ten dollar bill.  I made her keep it and gave her five larger denomination bills and said “When you are finished your drink we need to buy you some outer clothes.  So look for a nice shop that will work.”

She reached across the table and laid her hand gently on top of mine.  “Thank you Graeme, this is very kind of you.  You are most sweet.”  Good, gift accepted without guilt, without fake resistance.  I liked this girl. What on earth was wrong with that boyfriend?  On the way back to the car I replenished my cash reserves and topped them up with a heavy download from a convenient ATM.

We had a ball at Cape Kidnappers, forgetting any cares, enjoying the ride along the beach an the dunes thoroughly.  Our minds were present in the here and now, the past forgotten.   Way to go.  She’d switched into new shorts and a blouse she’d bought and on exiting the clothing shop had simply asked whether I knew if the motel had a laundry.  Not something I’d been thinking about when selecting a place to stay.  We’d have to check when we got back.

Before returning though it was time to find somewhere for a light dinner.   We hadn’t thought to ask for restaurant suggestions, but back in town on one of the side streets we found a spot advertising Italian cuisine, including local seafood.  Yum.   Turned out to be a perfect  choice.  We both had fresh Tarakihi in a light local sauce and shared a bottle of Marlborough Pinot Grigio to wash it down.  Tiramisu for dessert and hot black espresso coffee finished off a great evening.

Back at the motel, Brigitte provided a fashion show of her new purchases.  More functional than anything else, but with nice touches of femininity especially on the underwear.  A new thong, black lace panties, and a white cleavage-revealing bra.   Khaki shorts, dark blue slacks, and a white frilly blouse completed the range.   “Thank you for being so generous Graeme.   I think you deserve more reward, so hurry up and undress and join me under the sheets.”

Once again I didn’t need further coaxing.

Afterwards I happily snuggled in beside her.  We fell asleep in each others’ arms quickly.

It was late before we struggled awake in the morning.  I’d had dreams during the night and between brushing my teeth and getting dressed I offered to take her all the way to Auckland so long as I could stop at a few towns I named along the way including Taupo and Rotorua.  She agreed readily.  I’d come to like this gal.  She didn’t talk a lot.  Which actually was OK, but when we did explore family, travel or educational areas I found we had more in common than I would have expected.  And she was clearly very adaptable to the circumstances she found herself in.  Reserved, certainly.  Well, except for sex, but I’d noticed before that Europeans had a different attitude towards sex . More open.  But she was quiet, knew her mind, and was markedly self-confident. Yet there was both hidden enthusiasm and youthfulness in her make-up.  Actually fun to be around in a way.

Before leaving town I wanted to stop at the local aquarium which boasted the country’s largest captive display of aquatic life.  While that was interesting in its own right, something that had caught my eye in reviews of local tourist spots was that, surprisingly, the aquarium also sported a Kiwi enclosure.  I’d never seen one of the native birds which were the country’s emblem, and I thought it would be a good chance to learn what they were really like.

The idea of seeing a Kiwi was all that was of any interest to Brigitte so she agreed to come along.   The fish held no attraction apparently.

We decided to get some coffee first and drove towards town. I became conscious of a cop car right on my tail and made sure I obeyed the speed limits.  I’d rented a bright red BMW Z4 for the thrill of it and because I could afford it financially.   But I’d been conscious ever since I had pulled out of the rental car lot that it was just the sort of machine cops love to watch for.   We found a spot near the café of yesterday and I was relieved to see the cops drive on by without giving me undue attention.  I just didn’t like cops.  There’d been an experience when I was at college where I’d been mistreated as an innocent witness to an incident, and despite apologies I felt the police had abused their authority with me.

4.      Surprise

As we arrived at the aquarium I was surprised to see two large tourist buses in the parking lot and another loading up out front.  Clearly a popular place.  There were still plenty of compact car slots left and I found one just forward of the local taxi rank, close to the front entrance.   We hopped out and joined the line of folk buying entrance tickets.  Brigitte had her backpack on and when I asked why she hadn’t left it in the car she smiled and indicated she’d need a restroom sometime inside.  Such a sensitive guy I clearly am not.

We joined giggling schoolgirls and parents with families looking at the penguin exhibit, then walked slowly through the large diameter glass tube underneath the water, threading our way between sharks and other ugly denizens of the deep (or shallows really – those glass tubes could only stand so much pressure and there was far less water above them than what people thought).  Once beyond, Brigitte suggested I go ahead and find the Kiwi exhibit while she visited the rest room, planning to catch up with me later.  There was already a long queue of girls and women backing out of the side corridor, so I knew she’d be a while.  I checked out the little gift shop and purchased a book on the Kiwi and followed the signs to the enclosure.   I wandered through leisurely, thoroughly enjoying the exhibits, noting things to point out to Brigitte when she arrived.  I rested at the front of the enclosure reading the introduction to my book.

I was surprised when ten minutes passed and Brigitte still hadn’t shown up, so I walked back to the entrance area, thinking maybe she’d also stopped at the gift shop.  She wasn’t there however and I could see across the vestibule that there was still a long line waiting outside the Women’s.  After a while I boldly asked one of the receptionists if there was a second female toilet somewhere in case she’d switched, but was told, yes, but only for staff.  Now I was non-plussed.  It seemed totally unreasonable that she was still in a stall unless she’d suddenly become ill.   I mean it had been well over twenty minutes.  Where was she?   I think if there’d been no queue at the bathrooms I would have opened the outer door and yelled her name to see if she were still inside. I retraced my steps through the penguin exhibit and glass tunnel, and even back to the Kiwi exhibit.  No sign of her.

With some embarrassment I dragged a receptionist aside and told her my dilemma and asked if she would mind checking if anyone answered to the name Brigitte inside the Women’s toilet area.    I slipped her a ten dollar note as encouragement, feeling incredibly weird about the situation.  She wasn’t particularly happy but headed off and soon returned shaking her head.  “Everything is normal in there Sir.  I really am sorry.”

Slowly, the truth dawned on me.  I guess I had been taken for a ride after all.  She’d skipped out on me!

Or – was there hope that if I ran outside I’d find her sitting against a tree in the shade, or in the car, ready to tell me that the hundreds of fish in close quarters had made her sick and she’d had to be free of their captive environment, or some other odd reason?   Certainly a possibility, but somehow it felt more like wishful thinking than something that might be real.

On an impulse I pulled my wallet out of my pocket and choked up as I realized the four hundred dollars I’d taken from the ATM was no longer with me.   I hadn’t noticed when buying the entrance tickets with my credit card.

Idiot!  Blinded by sex, just another fool thinking he’d been in paradise.

With heavy heart I walked outside, feeling horribly alone and stupid, and thoroughly annoyed at how easily I’d been taken advantage of.

Conned.  Totally conned.  Hook, line and sinker.  Oh shit!  How pathetic was I to have been so gullible?   Dummy, dummy dummy.

Head down, I wandered back to my car.  I walked around to get in the driver’s seat when a uniformed gent stopped me, and said “Do you have a minute Sir?”

I thought once more, ‘Oh shit.’ It was becoming that kind of day.  I supposed now that I had parked in a limited time zone or some such thing and had yet another problem to deal with.  What else could go wrong?    I walked back to the sidewalk and sat down on the grassy verge, put my head in my hands, and said “What’s up officer?”   There were two of them I now observed, one on each side of me. “Are you Ok?” the second one asked.  “Not really,” I replied, surprised at his somewhat sensitive attitude.

“You don’t look so good, but we just have a couple of questions.  Can you tell us where your blonde friend is you were with this morning?”   Oh no, this wasn’t about a parking infringement, they thought I’d done something to Brigitte.   Another ‘Oh Shit’ situation.

“No Sir.  I’ve been looking for her.  We split up inside when she had to use the toilet and I haven’t seen her since.  I assure you I did nothing to hurt her.”

“We understand Sir, and are not making any assumptions about your behavior.  But we would like to ask you some more questions.  You can ride with us to the station or follow up in your own car if you’d like.  We’d appreciate your co-operation.”

Now I was more upset.  What in earth was going on?  Brigitte had disappeared and they wanted me for questioning.  They seemed to be very reasonable about it but I was suspicious.  I said I’d follow them, half conscious that my Z4 had a top speed well over two hundred kilometres per hour if I wanted to try and run away.  No, that would be silly. Best I co-operate.  It wasn’t as if they had handcuffs for me.

But of course, the second officer hopped in the passenger seat and so I tritely followed his pal in the cruiser back to the police station, which actually was quite close by.

On the way the chap beside me asked “Have you kept up with the local news over the last few days Sir?”  I admitted I hadn’t.  I’d been so absorbed traveling along with Brigitte that we hadn’t watched TV and I hadn’t even opened my laptop in two full days.   He said he’d explain more at the station.

I don’t want to repeat and regurgitate the whole session there.  Suffice it to say they treated me well, bringing me coffee and chatting easily across a table in a pleasant office, not an interview room.  They asked questions about Brigitte – where had we met, what did I know about her, where was she going, and so on.  I told them where I had first picked her up, and how she was headed to Auckland to fly home to Zurich.  How her boyfriend had abandoned her and treated her badly back in Picton and how she had few belongings.

They then showed me a news clipping from the morning papers which claimed that two young American women had just been found murdered in some out-of-the-way spot south of Picton in the South Island.  They‘d been raped and choked to death and left nude, with their clothing neatly stacked beside them.   I was flabbergasted and now increasingly concerned.

How the women had been found was unusual in itself.  Apparently men had been out trimming one of those large hedgerows used as wind breaks and found their bodies stuffed between the trunks of the cedar trees.  A sheer fluke apparently as the hedgerows were only trimmed every five years or so.  I’d always wondered how they trimmed trees twenty feet vertically and on top.

Oh oh. This looked serious and was most unpleasant. I felt a headache coming on as I started to really wonder.  The two women, both of whom were black, had been seen once with a man and a blonde woman, but the two of them seemed to have completely disappeared. Did they think that man was me?  No, I realized.  I would have been in an interrogation room by now with handcuffs if that were the case. How…?

I answered my own unfinished question…Of course.  The car.  They would have checked the license plate, found it was a rental, gotten my name from Avis and probably determined when I’d arrived through customs in Wellington.  Relief.  No evidence of being near Picton on the South Island.

I opened up and told them how Brigitte and her boyfriend had stayed at Herzog’s and how she’d mentioned her boyfriend’s obsession with two American black women they’d befriended.  For some inexplicable reason however I didn’t mention her story about his accosting her and cutting up her clothes, and that she had a knife in her bag, even though I hadn’t seen it.

I was already thinking that her boyfriend was very bad news. I described how she’d known about the Herzog family from their estate just outside Zurich. One of the officers left the room, but came back after a few minutes with a curious look on his face.  He asked if I‘d ever seen her passport, and I had to say no.

At this point they explained that she was a person of interest in the two-murder investigation.   They admitted there were other single blonde women they wanted to talk to, as well as a number of men.  But the Herzog’s had never heard of her, nor employed any strange Swiss male, as they had a permanent local staff with high culinary credentials.   I wondered about the link to Zurich, but the chap who’d been absent for a while said it was all on their website.

There were no customs records of a pair of Swiss visitors arriving in the past six weeks from Zurich at any New Zealand port.  There was however a pair of Australians, the photograph of the female bearing some resemblance to the minimal descriptions they’d received from their inquiries to date.  It was the nice lady at the information booth who had mentioned the pair of us to the police who then traced us to the motel and followed us this very morning.  They had no hard evidence, but when they showed me the photograph of Brigitte taken at the immigration counter in Auckland, there was no question of identity.

Except she wasn’t Brigitte, but Anna of Russian descent, living in Melbourne.

So, my gullibility was complete.  The cops didn’t know where her original companion was, or why they had split, or whether indeed she was connected in any way with the murders.  It at least seemed probable, although why she and her boyfriend were not still together seemed odd.   An alternative thought was that she may have in fact killed her boyfriend and that his body was still to be found, which could explain why she was traveling alone.

And I still didn’t mention the knife.  Why?  Because I didn’t believe she could kill.  Too demure?  Too friendly?  Why was I being protective?

One supposition was that the police closeness this morning might have frightened her if she was guilty in any way and that she was on the run. I still didn’t buy it, thinking that the clothes and the money provided new freedom and opportunity.  The police expected to find her on a bus headed to Auckland, possibly on some less than direct route.  They’d alerted their network which was now anticipating picking her up wherever she alighted along the way. It was clear however that they really didn’t have any evidence to hold or charge her, just suspicions.  Me, I thought she’d have found another ride, looking for another sugar daddy as she explored the country.

I was cleared of any involvement, being perceived as an innocent player who’d be taken advantage of by a master at the con game.    I told them that I still felt like the stupidest man in the world to have been so taken in.  They let me go, asking me to contact them if I had any new thoughts or recollections that might aid them in catching up with her.   I nodded my head vaguely, anxious to be gone from their sympathetic, but tolerant, amused looks.  They’d been fair, but I really wondered what jokes would pass around the station after I left. My last thought was ‘screw them all’.

No cop car or motorcycle followed me back to the motel thank heavens, so I stopped at the office and paid my bill, including a half day extra.  I parked in front of the unit, packed my clothes in my bag, threw it angrily in the backseat, then returned to the bathroom to pee before hitting the road.

I opened the door and was confronted by streaks of smelly black hair dye across the wash basin and on the towels, and a bright red lipstick message scrawled across the large mirror.

“Goodbye Graeme.  Thanks for the ride.  I hope you enjoyed all your rides too.   My knife is now in your bag.  Please forgive me.  You were a lot of fun.  Brigitte”

And so I travelled on, to Taupo, Rotorua, Hamilton and Auckland.  I drew solace from the sunshine on backroads, from the cool waters of Lake Taupo, and the classy Maori displays in the museum at Rotorua. I sped past hitchhikers, and screeched my little red sports car around hairpin bends.

I clung onto the knife, and packed it in my bag that went into the airplane hold on my flight back to the States.

It was nine months to the day of my return when I received an anonymous email with no subject but two separate one-line links in the text body area.  One was for a video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0nxGzur3i8,

the other for an article:

image001-300dpi ‘Men trimming a hedgerow in a field south of Picton, came across a partially decomposed body of a young man today.  The local coroner estimated the body had been lying there at least nine months and that various animals had attacked it during the period.  He found at least twenty stab wounds apparently caused by a small knife, although no weapon was found at the scene. Police are wondering if the death has anything to do with the murder of two foreign women nearly ten months earlier whose bodies were also found stashed deep within a shelter belt not two miles away.  Police would welcome any leads that might apply to their investigation.’

 

I dropped my head in my hands and swore. My shame was complete. The gal had fooled me from go to woe.   All the worse since she was such a sexy little thing!

 

Test for books

Purely a test