The following is an email that a colleague of mine (we'll call her Sandra) sent out to our team upon her return from a trip to St. Maarten. Although not Cuba related, it's an interesting travel story...
So, yes, I made it back from vacation in St. Martin/St. Maarten in one piece. More or less. The good stuff is that the island is beautiful, the food was amazing. We stayed at an all-inclusive resort with a French chef and a 5-star restaurant. Weather was great--the occasional shower that lasted for a few minutes, but nothing major. There were some annoying tourists, and surprisingly (and shamefully), the REALLY annoying ones were all Canadians. What is it about middle-aged men when they go on holiday that they feel the need to make stupid jokes and comments to every single person who passes by? And why do middle-aged women think it's funny when they get completely hammered and scream for their friends at the top of their lungs every 10 seconds? (For example: Judy, drunken boat cruise lady: "Ruby! Ruby! Is Ruby on the bus? Where's Ruby? Ruuuuuby!!! RUBY!!! I don't see Ruby! Hey, let's sing!" Various people reassure her that Ruby is, in fact, on her way. 10 seconds later: "Ruby? Where's Ruby? I need my friend Ruby! Ruuuuuby!!!" Sandra: "Ruby was eaten by sharks." I now hate everyone called Ruby.)
Anyway! So we left for St. Martin (the French side of the island) on Saturday, Feb. 16th. We arrived on St. Martin on Monday, February 18th. Yes, our actual travel time was the same as if we'd flown to Australia. Good times! Here's what happened. We take off on time, arrive in the air space of St. Martin without incident (approx 4.5 hours from boarding to arrival). Then the pilot informs us that the runway lights at Princess Juliana Airport are on the fritz. And we're running out of fuel (!) so we're going to land in Antigua instead. Personally, I am all for any course of action that delays my eventual plummeting flaming death into the sea. We land in Antigua. The pilot tells us we can't get off the plane, because we're only going to be there for about an hour, and disembarking and reboarding would take much longer than that. So we sit there. 3 hours later, the pilot tells us that the St. Martin airport is closed, and no one can land. So they're looking for a place for us to stay overnight. For some reason, we cannot stay overnight in Antigua. Eventually, we find out that we are being rerouted to Margarita Island, Venezuela. An hour and 20 minutes later, we land there.
Venezuela! I've never been. Exciting. (Wait...I'm on a U.S. passport...we don't have some sort of embargo with Venezuela, do we?) Though it's interesting to be here, we're all really tired after all the hassle. Close to 10 hours on the plane by this point (including flying & tarmac time). So we get off and then we have to line up for customs. I think at this point it was around 1 am. There is one very tired customs guy to check in 332 passengers. We stood in line for close to 2 hours. (Of course, we only had one sad, desiccated little snack on the plane, so no one has had dinner or any kind of proper meal for quite some time. Luckily Brett and I ate lunch at Pearson airport before boarding or we would have been in really rough shape.) We ask if there's going to be any dinner provided. They say they're looking for something for us. We pick up our luggage from baggage claim. Then we line up again for the shuttles that are taking us to various hotels. But it's warm and it's the tropics! Yay! Though most of us are falling asleep on our feet. We are driven around for a while, then end up at some sort of "resort" hotel. We line up for room keys. After a while, we're told we're standing in the wrong place and have to go across the way, a several-minute walk to some other part of the resort because THAT'S where we actually get room keys. The Transat Holidays representative on Margarita Island, who has been roused out of bed to deal with us, is confused and hardly knows what's going on either. She says they're trying to get us some kind of food... maybe McDonald's. After lining up for room keys at the other part of the hotel, just before we're about to get a room, we're told all the rooms are gone. The spoiled teenage girls in front of us in line have a temper tantrum. We grab our luggage and get on the shuttle again to go to another hotel. There, we line up again for a while, finally get a room key and try to find our room. We're told it's "in the other tower." We find an elevator that seems to work and try to get to the 10th floor. The elevator only goes to odd floors. Sigh. After stopping banging my head on the elevator wall, in case this causes the elevator to drop (note, again, I am opposed to plummeting to my death in any contraption), we get off at the 11th floor, in the hope that we can somehow walk to the 10th floor. We can! Yay us! We get into the room, which is one of those apartment-type hotel rooms with a kitchen and 2 bedrooms. It seems a little...decayed. But the roaches didn't scatter when we turned on the light, so we figure this is a good point. Can't drink the water of course, not all the lights work, there's no shampoo, some threadbare towels and one "Bee & Flower" soap that's from China, but at least there's an air conditioner, so we can cut the humidity. The door lock is flimsy at best, so we cross our fingers and go to bed. We're starving, and we're exhausted. Both my ankles have swollen to the size of grapefruits, so I'm glad to lie down. By this time, it's around 5 am.
We get up on Sunday morning and rush down to the lobby with our luggage, leave it in the hotel, and go eat breakfast at 9am. The "resort" doesn't look too bad, even though the beds were really uncomfortable, everything looked decayed and we see in the morning light that there's a sharpened wooden stake fence and barbed wire everywhere. Oh goodie. Breakfast it turns out is not at the part of the resort we're staying at, but several blocks away. We limp to the other part of the hotel, avoided stray dogs and cab drivers and trying not to fall into the giant uncovered square holes that are used for... no idea. Breakfast isn't all that nice, but at least it's food. Some peculiar egg dish and possibly some sort of curried fish thing? But it's a buffet and you can pick and choose. Brett tells me the pancakes are good. Really, at this point, some of those stray dogs were looking pretty good. (Fun thing--seeing Venezuelan cereals: CRONCH!) Back to the other side of the resort to wait for the shuttle to take us to the airport. We had been told the night before that it would arrive at 11:30. We're ready and waiting by 10:30. Then we're told the shuttle will be there at 12:30. We sigh and resign ourselves to the wait. Is there liquor anywhere? But, surprise surprise, the bus does actually show up around 11:30 and we end up at the airport. But...more lineups. The aiport is now actually open and there are more staff, so we think it'll go more quickly. Um...no. Because all 332 passengers from our flight are checking in at once, plus everyone else who would normally be flying. So we're in line an hour or so to check in and check our bags. Then we have to line up again to go through customs. (I once again hope my U.S. passport isn't going to be an issue.) Then it turns out there's airport tax. Before any of us have time to get really irate, we realize that Transat has paid it for us. Whew! After that, we wait at the departure gate. We still don't know when the plane is leaving. Brett and I buy a couple of beers and wonder if we should stock up on food too...nah. We'll be in St. Martin tonight. Our plane finally arrives and we board. By this time it's... 3:30pm? Something like that. We think it's going to be okay, but... no. The Venezuelan customs people start pulling people off the plane for random baggage checks. They won't let us leave. Guess who gets called? Yep. Me. Then I have to wait about an hour with a bunch of other people to go into the special locked room where I hope all they're doing is looking through our bags. I get in there--yep, just a baggage check, no rubber hoses or other torture. Yet. Turns out it's Brett's bag they pulled, not mine. I don't actually know what's in there. I fervently hope he hasn't got anything weird stashed in there. Oh wait... His "S is for Shot in the Face by Dick Cheney" shirt is in there. But that's okay. I'm sure they hate Americans anyway. Oh crap--we left our luggage in the resort lobby when we went for breakfast. What if we've become unwitting drug mules?! Aaargh!!! But it's fine. They zip up the bag and I limp back to the plane. (Note: still no lunch.)
The Venezuelans finally decide that they're bored with messing with us and give us the all-clear to take off. The entire plane cheers! The pilot comes on and announces: "Um, you're not going to believe this. The St. Martin airport is closed again. We can't fly there." The whole plane practically starts screaming. No more Margarita Island! We can't do it! The pilot leaves the plane to call Transat Headquarters. I ask the flight attendant: "Can't they just fly us to St. Bart's or somewhere with a ferry to St. Martin?" But the decision comes back: they're flying us back to Toronto. Rumours abound as to the real reason we can't land on St. Martin. Problems with the runway lights. Airport workers on strike? The St. Martin army won't let us land. (St. Martin HAS an army?) Transat hasn't paid its airport taxes so they're not allowed to land on the island. Who knows? So, on Sunday night, we land back in Toronto. Of course, we have to clear customs on this end too! Do you have anything to declare? Why yes! My intense hunger and rage! Then we line up to hear what the Transat people have to say. Turns out we have 2 choices--(i) we can skip our vacation and Transat will give us a full refund; (ii) we can try for St. Martin again on Monday morning, as there's a 9am flight--Transat will put us up in the Airport Sheraton for the night. Also, they'll recompense each passenger $600 for the lost days of their trip. And we got a travel voucher for $100 off our next Transat vacation. Um yeah, cause THAT'S gonna happen. Brett and I decide we're going to the Caribbean if it kills us. We clear customs, we claim our luggage (shockingly, it hasn't been lost by this point), we line up for our hotel & meal vouchers. We go to the Sheraton, we check in, and we head to a conference room where there's the promise of food! Yay! They've given us sandwiches. All the good ones are taken and we end up with ham & cheese with some sort of weird mustard that makes everything taste strange. We hoover them down snarlingly like angry lions. The Sheraton has the best, nicest, cleanest, softest, puffiest beds ever. We sleep for 2 hours, then have to get up to check in for our flight. We grab breakfast (free!) and check in our luggage AGAIN. The flight leaves on time--they show us the only 2 movies Transat has to offer that no one has seen yet. (By the way, if you haven't seen Across the Universe, it's really good!) As we get closer to St. Martin, no one can believe that we're really gonna land. But we figure it's daytime...surely they can SEE the runway? And so, after all that... we LAND on St. Martin. The flight attendant says, "Welcome to Punta Cana!" Everyone laughs, then bursts into tears. We get off the plan to those clear blue skies, the colour of which you only see in the Caribbean. At last! I go to the bathroom and change into lighter clothing. We clear customs. Ours are the only two bags left on the carousel... geez, that was quick! Um... isn't Transat supposed to be sending a bus for us? Oh crap...an airport guy sends us scurrying in the right direction and we make it onto the Transat bus in the nick of time. We drive through the Dutch part of the island and end up on the French side at our hotel--the Mercure Simson, by Nettle Bay. We're almost crying with relief. My ankles are still swollen but I don't care! We made it! After two days. : ) But, we're getting a big refund, so really, no complaints. Hotel's nice, food's great, the drink of the day is an amaretto colada, and the sun is shining. All is forgiven.
So, no more drama for the rest of the week. Oh wait. There WAS one last thing... On Wednesday afternoon, we go to a different beach with a couple we met at the hotel. The undertow is a bit strong, but the waves are gorgeous. (Our hotel's on a lagoon, so not much wave action.) I'm about to try some snorkelling, when a wave kind of mashes my foot against a rock. It hurts, and I limp out of the water--I've stubbed my toe. Really badly, as it happens--my big toenail on my left foot has been ripped almost entirely off and it's at right angles to my toe. Completely gross. In good news, the woman we're with used to be a nurse! And in further good news, a French lady on the beach tells us that there was a "grand poisson" with a fin in the water. A shark? Maybe it's a good thing my toe issues got us out of the water! We go back to the hotel and they call the doctor for me. I get 3 needles in my big toe to freeze it. I don't reccommend this--it really REALLY hurts. But fixing the nail without anesthetic would probably have made me pass out. The doctor gets tweezers and picks all the sand out. Trims my toenail, then bends it back into place. SO glad I can't feel this. He wraps it up and tells me I have to keep it dry for two days, and change the dressing every day. So, no swimming for me until Friday evening. Anyway, it was all quite vile and I wasn't looking forward to when the anesthesia wore off. But, I survived it. Go me. But I'm tired of all these injuries to my feet!!
But that's the worst of it. We survived. My toe still hurts, so I'm limping again. And hoping a new nail will grow. Got a bit of a tan. Ate too much. Swam a lot (except for the days I was supposed to keep my toe dry). All in all, it was pretty good. But now you see why I wanted to tell this story only once...hence the e-mail. I'm actually glad to be back. Please don't step on my feet. : )[/i]