Written by: Ankie Nieuwenhoven
Our plates are designed and changed annually on St. Maarten. In the Daily Herald, one of our two local newspapers, you will find an advertisement for companies to bid on the design for the year. This is when you realize IT has started again.
When the paper announces, “The new license plates have arrived!” the stampede begins. A few facts about our license plates:
- They are an awesome and unique part of living in paradise.
- Every year features a new vibrant color. This year was green (my favorite), last year yellow, before that orange, then there was purple.
- The license plate numbers are also unique. Mine is: M5163. The lower the number on your plate, the longer you have been on island. If you pay your road tax on time, you get to keep your number.
- It really ups your island coolness factor to be one of the first cars with the new plates.
- Our license plates are divided into the following categories: G is for governor; then you have M1, M2, etc., which are reserved for the ministers (never quite figured out how many of them there are); L is for law enforcement; V is for vendors, vans, and pick-up trucks; Z is for Zwaar, probably one of the only Dutch words surviving in the government language which means heavy and is used for large trucks; B for bus; T for taxi; and an M or a P before a number is reserved for us regular folk.
- Every number is unique which means if you are a regular at Bada Bing, El Capitan, or Casa Blanca (our island’s adult night clubs), you might want to deliberately not pay your road tax on time so you can get a new (read: unrecognizable) number.
In theory, once the plates have arrived, you can go to the Federal Receiver’s Office to pay your road tax and pick up your new plates. Ah, how I wish it were that simple. Reality is just a bit more involved…
To start the process, you go to the FRO and pay your road tax. Then you wait in line at another window for your plates after submitting proof of payment. The lovely new pieces of colored metal are all stacked up on wooden shelves waiting to be admired or despised by their new owners. If you are island savvy, you will have already pre-paid your road tax so that you can smugly walk towards the back of the room to the window behind which you can see all those gleaming stacked license plates. The people standing in line to pay their road tax are left looking at your back and you can almost feel the daggers and hear the drooling as you pick up your plates. If you have not paid your road tax in advance (which most islanders do not do, of course), well, you’d better bring a book, lunch, wear comfortable shoes, and bring a scarf! Be sure your Patience Meter has been fully recharged to handle this day.
The security guard at the FRO has been there since he left school. He is in his 50s now and is like a little dictator. Although you are not allowed to wear sunglasses, flip flops, too short shorts/skirts, indecent clothing, etc. (you get what I mean – island government propriety rules of which I’m sure you’re familiar with on your rock), this does not seem to apply to the little dictator. He wears very dark, wrap around shades and a thick gold chain. Let’s just say, if he was not in uniform, you’d run the other way. It is best to go into the office wearing a nice big smile, greet him, state your business, and allow him to assign you your place in line.
Do not think you can hang back in line to stay out of the path of the blasting air conditioner. No, no, no. The little dictator will come over and tell you to move up those 6ft – coldness be damned. If you have forgotten your scarf, coat, or wrap, you can guarantee that you’ll be calling in for sick leave the next day – it’s frigid.
In the past, you were allowed to pay for as many cars as you wanted. This resulted in you thinking that you were #9 in line when you were really #46 because everyone ahead of you was paying for all of their brothers from another mother. Thankfully, rules have tightened up a bit on this front, and you may now only pay for two brothers from another mother in addition to your own license plate needs.
It is quite an experience to stand in this line if you are new to the island. You can always pick out the newbies. They are all business, properly dressed to a T, and are looking around as if lost in a bad film without a director. Also, they are constantly looking at their watches. The Federal Receiver line is a place of social cohesion. You want to be amused or hear gossip? This is the place to be. Of course, the main topic is how illogical this whole process is and everyone’s varying opinions on the color and design of the new plates. As soon as the first car on the island is spotted with a new plate, this discussion opens and is very entertaining every year without fail. This usually lasts up to three months, because that is how long you have to change your plates.
After receiving your prized new plates, you are once again in possession of two old plates. What to do with them? Send them to the poor, freezing people in other parts of the world, of course! You can even sell them. They have become a favorite souvenir of St. Maarten lovers worldwide.
And so begins another year to enjoy your new plates, brightly colored with a background of a location on St. Maarten stating, “St. Maarten, The Friendly Island.”
When you think back and want to bitch about the ridiculous amount of time spent on the new plates every year, STOP! Think the following instead: your beautiful, discarded plates are hanging in a horse barn somewhere in Edmonton where it is -40°C – and those people would love to be waiting in line in St. Maarten for a chance to rock their plates in the sunshine.
I cannot wait to see what color we have in store for us in 2017… oh, wait – looks like it has already made news: