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ALONG THE SILK ROAD Vol. 17- 27-APR-12 By Scott Tate Spring is usually a welcome event in those parts of the world with a noticeable change in seasons. It is even more welcome when the winter has been less forgiving than expected. With the winter, one benefit is usually a lighter workload as many things slow down or stop during its stay. The recent winter here in Afghanistan was an anomaly in several ways. Our winter this year had the audacity to start a month earlier than normal and last much longer than it historically has, even encroaching into what should have been spring. Winter also had the gall to give us much colder temperatures and more snow than the Afghani elders had experienced in the last twenty years. To cap off winter's outstanding performance the workload went up instead of down. If I told you the last five months went by in a blur in our confined little world and left little time for the telling of tall tales of worldly wandering, I think now you could empathize. Those of us who have grown up or still live in the harsh winters that the Midwest and similar regions ' can regularly provide, mostly enjoy the benefits provided by the passing off seasons. When winter has been especially arrogant, we Usually become more intolerant of it and seek asylum when possibl e in those more non- Seasonal parts of the world where sunshine and warmth are in regular attendance. Even a temporary reprieve from cold weather provides longer term relief when alter our return to our home winter wonderland we can reminisce upon those precious hours spent in that far away place that knows no end to blue skies and sunshine. It was to one of these places we traveled last Christmas for the antidote to our winter condition. Deep in the Caribbean lays St. Marfin a small island with an internal border that signifies both its French and Dutch sovereignty. With miles of white sand beaches and its plethora of temperate climate, it has Thursday - May 10, 2012 the ingredients required to offset the winter blahs. Besides its natural beauty, it has many of the upscale amenities of " those offered by a European country. Stores are plentiful in the nearby Netherlands capital of Phillipsburg offering everything from high-end jewelry; the latest in unaffordable fashion to locally produced rum. If you are from the United States and looking for a deal, the only deals are typically those items indigenous to the island that don't even exist elsewhere. Europeans might fend luxury items cheaper here than at home, but when basically everything for sale is a luxury item; the name luxury is accurate for the price. This city also offers a full size casino and if cigars are your thing, Cuban cigars are commonplace here. Open-air restaurants adorn the streets and most entrees offered are fish and rice related. Fresh fish is locally obtained and it's hard tO go wrong taking your choice of the many varieties available. ( varietes that can be viewed at arm's lengff. A brief tour includes an education of their cocoon incubator and makes you realize that this" universe is so big there and how much you really don't know. It's a family owned facility and the twenty something daughter is the tour guide with a contagious enthusiasm for butterflies. We come away with a whole new appreciation for the butterfly's pollination role in the circle of life as well as the wow factor of the colors they exist in thanks to the hand of God. At one time, St. Martin was a major supplier of .salt, where it was dredged from internal bodies of water an d shipped over the sea to its destination. As with othe industries, this one ran its life cycle when economics rendered it non- competitive with other worldwide sources. Like St. Martin (if you are French) or St. Maarten (for those who are Dutch), the neighboring island of Antigua was also once a major salt exporter. We travel by ferry to The island has a nrrow road that traverses its perimeter and we venture out several days when time " was of no essence. Most miles of the road haven't seen new paving since its birth and either contain holes big- enough to hide small ponies or it has been worn back down to the fiat. It's not a path to be taken if you are in hurry, but one that requires a slow drive. Beyond safety reasons it also gives one time to take in the picturesque views along the coast and inland that are never-ending. Along the road one day we , encountered The Butterfly Farm. As its name reveals, it is a world enveloped with netting that contains many of the jillion and one butterfly Antigua that is host to many of the top rated white sand beaches found anywhere in the world. We tour the island with our taxi driver / guide and visit the high dollar inclusive resorts found along the beaches with day rates more indicative of those expected on a weekly basis. With a smattering of golf courses, the 'country of Antigua has an economy solely dependent upon tourism. One of St. Martin's French West Indies' counterparts is the nearby island of St. Barts. Within a few hour ferry ride from St. Martin's we travel there one day to see how the ultra rich live. With more private yachts located here than anywhere else in the world, we see the most expensive, owned by a Russian multi-billionaire with its own helipad; as well as a much smaller one owned by the founder of the Hooters restaurant chain complete with real live Hooter's girls. Main Street is a junior version of Hollywood's Rodeo Drive with'stores like Cartier, Yves St. Laurent and Louis Vitton. Exotic cars are more the norm than not and the sidewalk eateries offer chic sandwiches with prices congruent to their surroundings. Mt. Pulaski Times Beyond the glamour, the real jewel to experience here is Shell Beach. The entire beach is made up of seashells and like snowflakes; you'd be hard pressed to ever fred two exactly alike. Like many beautiful places, pictures don't do it justice. But the color and uniqueness of this pristine area is intoxicating when enveloped in its grandeur. The gaudiness of the commercial venues becomes quite apparent after a few breaths of Shell Beach. Every place has its natural wonders as well as those manmade attractions that are usually the incentives of why people visit them in the first place. One criterion that is special to each place is its people and their uniqueness can never be duplicated. Really, it's the people that permanently etch the memories of those travels to new places. That special thing about St. Martin is its people. Most of its souvenirs can be bought nearly any other place and it does not have full ownership of all the white sand beaches and sunshine available. . My travels have taken me so some places where tourists aren't really welcomed, but merely tolerated. Nice places to visit but never really warm and friendly, just barebones acceptance of tourists due to the co-" dependency of the area between the locals and tourists since each had what the other wanted. Differences in cultures and skin color sometimes make for cold and awkward situations even when money is involved. None of this exists in St. Martin and the islands of its surrounding Caribbean archipelago. It's a place where people are talkative and social not because they have to be, but it's the way they are. Every romanticist wants the floating bottle in the sea to contain a message. Likewise, every reader wants a punch line to conclude every story and all loose ends fled. In this vein of believing every rainbow has its pot of gold, the message from this wandering tale is this: "It's nice to be important, but more important to be nice." These islands gave us the short-term memories to get us to spring. The people here welcomed us with the real warmth that provided memories with no expiration. And that in itself is always the real prize from traveling to foreign destinations. 19.