I was hired to teach a writing workshop aboard the MV Explorer in December, 2011, during the ship’s voyage through the Caribbean and up the Amazon River. The Explorer spends most of its time as the ship for the college program Semester at Sea through the University of Virginia, but twice a year it hosts Enrichment Voyages for learners of all ages.
Semester at Sea logo on the smokestack of the MV Explorer. (Photo by MB Thome)
Our first stop was Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We hired a driver to take us into Guavate for roast pig: we’d seen the area on shows like Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.” En route, we asked our driver if it was true what we’d been told, that on Christmas Eve most Puerto Ricans are at home, spending quiet time with the family (we were feeling bad about taking him away from his home life). He laughed. “At home? No, they’re all at the mall!” And then we drove by a mall, and indeed the place was mobbed, with parking lot traffic jams. We suddenly felt a lot less guilty.
Waiting for our roast pig feast on Christmas Eve, in Guavate, Puerto Rico. We were the only tourists in sight, which was exactly what we’d wanted.
The open air restaurant had a band; a couple pool tables, too. If you’re ever in Guavate, PR, the name of this place was Los Pineros.
Star of the show: the pig.
The pig’s sacrifice was not in vain; it brought much comfort and joy. (Photo by Ellard)
After the feast, friend Mary Beth tried the local beverages. Our new favorite: mauby. It’s made from some sort of tree bark.
Replete with pig, we headed back into Old San Juan to see the town and Christmas lights.
The palace in Old San Juan.
The MV Explorer in the background, and a replica of the Bounty in the fore.
Playing with a statue in Old San Juan. He didn’t seem to mind.
Christmas Day, we walked to the forts.
El Morrow, Christmas Day in Old San Juan.
In St. Kitts & Nevis, we hired a catamaran and crew to take us snorkeling and to feed us a lobster bbq on the beach. Favorite dish: freshly shredded coconut salad.
The island of Nevis, looking exactly how a Caribbean island should look.
I’m in the white shirt and big hat, determined not to burn. (Photo by Ellard)
Snorkeling with my husband; it was his first time. There’s not much call for snorkeling in the Pacific Northwest, after all. (Photo by Ellard)
Spiny lobster, vegetable salad, and a fabulous salad of coarsely grated coconut which I must learn to make at home. Oh, and the rum punch is topped with freshly grated nutmeg. Pretty darn impressive for a beach BBQ.
In Grenada, we were surprised by occasional downpours. This island of spices is famous for nutmeg, and I brought home a new favorite condiment: banana and nutmeg ketchup. I like it on spicy sweet potato fries.
Downpour in the street. We took shelter on the veranda of a restaurant, and ate lunch while people-watching.
Mary Beth at the Spice Market. We found out later that you can buy the same stuff in the supermarket for a fraction of the cost. Ah well!
The inner harbor, seen from Fort George.
Fort George, Grenada. The MV Explorer is the small ship on the left; the ship on the right was German, and apparently at every stop they unload bicycles for their passengers to use. Love that. Still, I’d rather be on our speedy little Explorer, with a top speed of 32 knots.
This church was devastated by a hurricane, and has no roof. A hush falls upon you as you step through its doors. Somehow, it feels more holy than the churches still all in one piece.
Fragments of statuary hidden under a staircase, waiting for the restoration of the church.
Meanwhile, my husband went fishing with friend John and John’s kids; poor Logan hadn’t taken any seasickness pills, and suffered for it. (Photo by Ellard)
It didn’t take long to settle into shipboard life. My writing workshop classes were well attended, and I organized a talk between civil rights leader Julian Bond and the 8-13 year old children on board.
With civil rights leader Julian Bond.
Teaching my writing workshop.
The Amazon River makes its presence known long before land is sighted: its waters change the color of the sea, for a couple hundred miles into the Atlantic. Our first stop in the river was Santarem, on New Year’s Day.
Santa and his snowmen, looking out of place and overheated along the bank of the Solimoes River.
About the only thing open in town was the fish market. This man is putting dozens of slices into the side of the fish, to cut up the bones.
A house in Belterra, Henry Ford’s failed rubber boom village.
At the rail of the ship, while cruising up the muddy Amazon.
900 miles up the Amazon, we stopped in Manaus, once known as the Paris of South America. During the rubber boom, money flooded this city. What we saw during our very short visit in the present day was a very busy port along the water, and signs of the tech industry (cell phone company, for example) further inland.
The main transportation in Amazonas is, no surprise, boats. Rivers are the most reliable roads. Here, some boats at the dock in Manaus. (Photo by MB Thome)
Ruins in downtown Manaus. (Photo by Ellard)
For fun, we climbed a ceiba tree. I’m in the blue, and I was scared out of my wits. The tour company should you ever wish to attempt such a thing yourself: amazontreeclimbing.com (Photo by MB Thome)
My husband, up the tree. That’s the river in the background. (Photo by Karla Thomas)
Having survived the horrors of the tree climb, we went out to dinner at Bufalo Churrascaria, a Brazilian BBQ restaurant where they bring you all kinds of meat on skewers until you plead for mercy.
The next day, we took a small boat tour of the river areas around Manaus. (Photo by AJ Ellard)
Somehow, I doubt this one will float again. (Photo by Ellard)
Buildings along the outskirts of Manaus.
You can see the effects of the constant erosion.
A small floating home housed girls and the animals they let you hold for a couple dollars. As one of my friends said, “We get to exploit both children and animals!” On the other hand, I’m sure the cash was much welcome. And the anaconda seemed untroubled.
At this spot, we fished for piranhas. When the kids get dirty, they jump in the water; turns out piranhas aren’t the eat-everyone fiends they’re made out to be.
Once out of the Amazon and heading back north, we stopped in Trinidad and took a day hike with Emile, the super-guide of the island, and owner of Nature Trekking. If you’re heading to Trinidad, we highly recommend him; among other virtues, when he laughs he sounds like Yul Brynner.
On the beach with Emile. He loves Trinidad, and after a few hours with Emile, we loved it, too.
Our hike was along the shoreline, to Paria Bay. Muddy, tiring, and absolutely wonderful. (Photo by Ellard)
Muddy feet, en route. The white anklets are mine. I don’t think they’ll ever recover.
Standing on Turtle Rock, looking at the shoreline.
Emile took us to a waterfall, to swim. Every romance writer should swim at least once in the pool at the base of a tropical waterfall. It’s in the job description.
In Barbados we snorkeled with sea turtles. It was good, but I was still too exhausted from our fabulous hike the day before to enjoy it.
Our guides had bait they hand fed to the turtles, while the rest of us swam with our fingers tucked in for fear of getting nipped. (Photo by MB Thome)
By Dominica (pronounced doe-min-EEK-a) I’d revived. Or was it just the prospect of ‘canyoning’ that got my engines restarted? Canyoning is rappelling down waterfalls; or, sometimes, leaping down them. You know the adrenaline is going to flow when your tour outfit is called Extreme Dominica. Extreme as they might be, we never felt in danger, and were aware that they were running us through the easy, beginner part of the canyon — which was exactly our speed.
Geared up for our canyon adventure. A fellow participant runs a dive shop in Hawaii, and scolded us not to pee in our wetsuits. (Photo by MB Thome)
This was way more fun than it looked. The tree climbing in Manaus was much more frightening for me. (Photo by MB Thome)
Me, amidst the chaos of water. (Photo by MB Thome)
Having cocoa tea and rum cake afterwards; the cocoa is grown on the grounds — that’s what you see drying in the big tray. The odd look on my face is me realizing that I’m eating the best piece of cake I’ve ever had. Plus, I want my cocoa tea.
And then it was back to Florida, and the flights home. It’s not the end of my adventuring aboard the MV Explorer, however: I’ll be teaching writing on a 50 day voyage around Europe in spring, 2013.
The MV Explorer, ship of Semester at Sea and Enrichment Voyages. (Photo by MB Thome)