In December 2011, I boarded the MV Explorer for an Enrichment Voyage through the Caribbean to the Amazon. I’d been hired to teach a writing workshop onboard, and as part of the course my students — ranging in age from 8 to 80 — contributed to a community voyage journal. This is that journal.
Three entries — by DHB, Estare, and Ian — were chosen by the ship’s communications officer for inclusion in the Enrichment Voyages blog.
December 21-22, 2011
Locals at Nassau internet cafe
As zippy music blared at the internet café in Nassau, hoards of locals lined up to do something with money that I could not figure out. Folks purchased cold beer that they carried out in a brown paper bag, taking a long pull from the container before their feet even hit the pavement.
Cigars In Nassau?
When the 4 AM alarm went off at Aram’s Portland house, I never imagined that fifteen hours later I would be would be asked if I smoked cigars in Spanish by a Cuban who was rolling cigars!
Fortunately our arrival was as planned; in case of the usual foggy December weather, we had decided to leave a day early. That gave us a day to meet the proud Sir Greycliff, whom we encountered just outside the Hilton Hotel. He was one of the earliest businessmen to move to Nassau—when pirates continually marauded the Islands including New Providence, he had them publicly hung, and it didn’t take long until the islands plagued with piracy turned into a commercial crossroads. The Greycliff we met, about to draw his bust—, was in statue form, since he died in the later part of the eighteenth century. But his home, on Hill Street, is still there as the five star Greycliff Hotel.
As we passed by on our wandering walk yesterday, a doorman—either bored or encouraged by the management—offered to show us around the hotel. Why not—we were in fact, looking for old houses in Nassau, and anything else interesting, and so we followed him in, past elegantly appointed rooms, through a garden with the usual lions sculptures—they’re all over Nassau—past an eighteenth century statue of a maiden in contrapposto carrying a water jar (they’re all over France), past a swimming pool tiled with imported coloration shipped in from Italy, to—the oldest part of the building, where it suddenly smelled like a humidor. In a small room were six people, each seated at their own special desk outfitted with trays, wooden frames, knives, and a storage shelf. Each was cutting, flattening, rolling, cutting again the dried leaves to form what to some seem like artful works—perfectly and identically made cigars, bearing the famous (I hear) brand name of Greycliff. One woman was rolling away. I greeted her. No reply. I tried Spanish. It worked. After learning that she made 75 cigarettes a day, she asked, “Do you smoke cigars?” So, it appears that Sir Greycliff’s efforts at commerce and trade are still in effect—but would he actually have imagined this? Women rolling cigars in one of his once elegant chambers?
What we heard first was a building-shaking thump. Snug in big chairs in the empty hotel lobby, we had grown drowsy waiting for our friend Mary Beth to arrive from the airport. We looked at each other, wondering what duties would justify the hotel staff making such a horrendous noise at 10 p.m. Quickly several more thumps shook the British Colonial lobby, walking car alarms in the nearby parking lot. “Fireworks!” I said, and we dashed through the lobby toward the beach. Two hours earlier I had walked into the center of town to watch the opening ceremonies for the new Nassau Straw Market, driven back to the hotel by dull speeches and too little music. The ceremony must have gotten more festive and was now being capped by fireworks. We rushed through the doors out into the hotel’s tended greens and were welcomed by stars bursting directly overhead. A barge slowly was departing the cruise ship terminal a football field away. From its deck mortar after mortar was fired, each shell a comet of sparks followed by a concussion I could feel in my chest and spine. The starbursts came directly above the hotel, with embers coming down and extinguishing themselves in the pool and lawn. I thought, “This is the moment our cruise officially begins.”
We stepped from the air-conditioned peaceful MV Explorer into the noisy warm Nassau morning. Bombarded by venders, “Tour mister,” “How about a buggy ride,” “Bead your hair missus,” we wended our way through the crowds on Prince Georges Wharf. Clutching a map we dodged cars, greeted people and found our way along busy Parliament Street past the pink government buildings, the Garden of Remembrance and the round, pink public library. Following our map and street signs we found Fort Fincastle, the Water Tower, and the Queen’s Staircase all in a cluster atop the hill. The view from the fort was beautiful, well worth the $1.00 admission. Down the sixty five steep steps of the Queen’s Staircase we went, thankful we didn’t have to go up.
We continued on our quest to see historic downtown Nassau. Next we passed Princess Margaret Hospital. The Bahamas Historical Society museum was closed. So past banks and churches we wandered, dodging cars, until we came to the pink Government House. We were allowed to walk past it staying inside the yellow line. The Christopher Columbus Statue was a short flight of stairs down in a garden. Wonder how many Columbus statues we will find on this trip? Then it was down Blue Hill Road to Bay Street for a visit to the Straw Market and a bit of shopping. Finally hot, tired and thirsty we sought the oasis of the MV Explorer and time to reflect on our impressions of Nassau
The Internet Cafe
As zippy music blared at the internet café in Nassau, hoards of locals lined up to do something with money that I could not figure out, while folks purchased cold beer that they carried out in a brown paper bag, taking a long pull from the container before their feet even hit the street.
–Knit Purl Girl
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Arriving in San Juan on Christmas Eve did not sound promising. We had been warned that everyone would have shut up shop and gone home to their families. However, we decided to wander ashore for a look around and soon managed to board one of the free trolleybuses (apparently sponsored by Mastercard) that ran regularly around the popular areas of the old city. The driver made a stop to pick up some tourist maps which he handed around, before we crawled up the hill to the St Cristobal Fort . Entry was only $3 and the views were wonderful from all angles. From the courtyard gates we could look back over the old town to see our vessel moored between the Bounty replica and a larger cruise ship. From the battlements on the seaward side we had about 300 degrees of uninterrupted vision, invaluable for the Spaniards, and much later the U.S.Army who occupied this Bastion during the Second World War. There were carts and cannonballs and other relics from the Spanish times and information boards bringing history to life for those who cared to learn more or imagine the past. Our only disappointment was that we spent too long there and missed being able to explore the second fort from the inside also. Our walk along the coastal ridge and past the cemetery to the fort’s lawns, where numerous families were out picnicking and flying kites was a pleasant exercise; as was the walk through the old bluestone cobbled streets, still busy with cars and people despite the latening hour. The Christmas lights strung across the streets added a festive air, and we were surprised at each piazza by yet another lit or decorated Christmas tree or Nativity Scene. We arrived back at the ship by nightfall and in time for dinner, promising ourselves to explore further in the morning.
San Juan, Puerto Rico and at Sea
Rain Forest Walk
Vaguely threatening, the foliage seemed to be reclaiming the narrow, muddy track that had been hacked through it. Tendrils of vine crept in on each side, while tree-borne variant species joined forces overhead to block out the sunlight. Being enclosed in this green darkness made me feel insignificant and expendable.
Basseterre, St. Kitts
Isle of St Kitts
On the Isle of St Kitts, our tour bus drove slowly past a dumpy house on stilts. I wonder: in case of a flood? In the doorway two little boys about four and six, brothers I would imagine, stand side by side. The oldest and tallest brother looks out with sad, wide eyes. He is sucking his thumb. As the bus moves on, I crank my head to get one last look at the little boys. “It is a sure bet,” I whisper to myself, “that there is a ring of snot coming right out of his nose.”
–Knit Purl Girl
Basseterre at Night
The country of St. Kitts and Nevis only has about 40,000 residents. Its economy was until recently devoted to sugarcane. Those days are gone and now the focus is on tourism, particularly cruise ships. Our ship, full of lifelong learners and left-of-center liberals, wasn’t quite what they expected when they built the tourism ghetto around the docks. The jewelry shops, t-shirt emporiums, and margarita-focused bars were empty and closed by the afternoon. I took a solo walk after dark and probed through the spooky neighborhood of shuttered stores, drawn by a steady thump of music. Soon I found the real St. Kitts. The streets were packed with locals. The ferry terminal near the cruise ship port was ringed by street vendors selling rum drinks and chicken from charcoal grills. Each stand boomed Caribbean music at full, full volume. Taxi vans with names like Da King and Up2DeMinute airbrushed onto their hoods honked horns and flashed lights to draw attention. People clustered on the sidewalks or sat on the curbs enjoying the evening cool and each other’s company. They were often obscured by the dim streetlights and drifts of chicken-tinged grill smoke and several times I nearly walked into the center of a conversation. No matter. I received many hand waves and friendly hellos as I strolled through town. The world is full of cookie cutter tourist shops. Capture this, I thought, and St. Kitts would have something unique for their visitors and their dollars.
— Jeff D
Riding for miles through winding narrow roads not far from the shoreline, we finally turned inward and quickly began to climb. We were perilously close to the edge of the road where there was a steep drop off. I felt somewhat apprehensive about this, yet reassured by the knowledge that our driver knew this road well.
Upon reaching the spot where the road ended, we got out of the bus. The rest of the way to the fortress on Brimstone Hill would be negotiated by climbing a wide stone walkway enclosed by walls just high enough that we could see the changing view as we climbed.
Finally emerging through the highest level, the view was spectacular, well worth the ride and climb on foot.
The scenic railway train was swinging and swaying along to its own rhythm. We were relaxed and immersed in the lush tropical scenery, enjoying the singers. Suddenly the rhythmic swing and sway turned into a loud chatter and the train shuddered to a stop. Passengers sent inquiring looks to each other. What happened?
The train had jumped the track and the ties on the trestle were askew. Anxiously we wondered, “How do we get out of this?” Quickly the train crew had everything under control. Our carriage, the one on the broken bridge, was quickly evacuated to another car and we were continually reassured that all was well. In no time at all busses backed down the track to pick us up. Soon we were on our way across fields and dirt roads to the highway. Relieved and happy we continued our island tour with an added bonus, our abandon train adventure.
St. Kitts Memory
The bell tower beckoned me, its ancient gray stones exuding the history of the place. Curious and thankful for the opportunity to climb the steep uneven steps to get the blood flowing, I ascended quickly and made for the cool darkness of its interior, sweating and slightly out of breath. Accustoming my eyes to the darkness, I felt the rough coolness of the stones. I began to breathe normally. I closed my eyes imagining what had happened here 300 years earlier. The slaves, their sweat, toil, heartbreak, broken families. The gloom enveloped my thoughts … the memory of all that torment. A child cried. I started … and looked out onto an Edenic scene bathed in sunlight – green gardens, fountains, flashes of crimson, yellow and white, distant hills of lush foliage. Glory. Happiness. Thankful.
Visiting St. Kitts
We sit patiently waiting in the bus. Others were running to and fro, trying to locate lost souls. Quickly this turned to frustration and anger. Finally all was resolved – and with a jerk the vehicle leapt into life and we were off!
As we travelled through the streets with deep drains I contemplated the heavy rains that must fall from time to time. Now our ears were filled with very loud music as we bumped along. Most of the shops were closed but young black men lounged on street corners, laughing, joking with their friends – mostly imbibing soft drinks – the evidence of which lay everywhere; plastic bottles had been tossed aside; they lay everywhere.
I saw two egrets picking their way as they stepped delicately amongst the rubbish, looking for a choice morsel.
St. Kitts Promontory
We stood next to each other surveying the placid scene below, two massive bodies of water split by a thin strip of green land. Hernan spoke quietly to me, until a few minutes ago, a perfect stranger.
“There, you see, the very place the hurricane hit, a thing of roiling black clouds and screeching winds, hurtling everything and anything in its fury. The rains grew angrier, the roaring wind, deafening. I could barely stand, my arms stretching forward helplessly toward my lavender house down there. Oh, how my Clarissa loved that color. I struggled to descend the slope to reach her. Too late. I could not fight the fury of the storm. I was hurtled like flotsam headlong into the side of my rocking van. I must have lost consciousness. For how long, I do not know. My last thoughts: I must crawl over there, slide down the hill, get to my home, my wife, the babies.
“When I came to, I was lying covered by palm fronds and some sort of canopy. The roaring ceased. The rains stopped. Silence. Sunshine. Peace. I tried to stand up – rubber legs. I scrambled on all fours to the edge of the cliff and peered out breathlessly, anxiously. The spit of land, my heaven, my haven, my home – No more,” he choked, head hanging down.
I made no attempt to wipe away my own hot tears.
A loud pop!
I smelled burning. My curling iron had plunged the bathroom in darkness.
I stumbled out into the room—the only room—of my ship’s cabin. I needed help for my hair so I plugged my curling iron into the power strip of electric outlets.
Now I’m really at sea!
The tousled head of my companion was half hidden under the bedclothes. Every so often she emitted a sharp cough which woke me up. There were grunts and sniffles half stifled by a blanket but it was very evident she was coming down with a cold. I brought her some food but she declared brightly she had no appetite. Being on the portly side a meal or two missed would not distress her.
She was well travelled and extremely independent. She was blond, pretty and slim in her youth – but she loved to curl up with a book and was not keen on too much exercise. Her figure had slowly expanded over the years. Her appearance was Scandinavian; her mother was Swedish, her father Russian.
She was used to some degree of danger, having been in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive; a scary time when there were shootings at the American Embassy. But what was she really like? Not an enigma certainly. She enjoyed being the centre of a conversation; she had a cheerful small laugh and studied others critically. She was judgmental and observant but she had a kind heart and was always there for a friend.
St. George’s, Grenada
Slogging one foot in front of the other, I descend the endless muddy trail of milk chocolate-colored slime, uncertain, slow, holding my breath, stomach tight. I signed up for this? The shadow of trees, cooling; the lemon- green ferns, gigantic; the rich nameless bushes, all a thing of peripheral vision, barely noticed. Step after step, no thought, all attention. Does it ever end? Knees beginning to pain. Got to ignore it. Ahead, blessed sunshine. Rushing water, a welcome sound. “It won’t be much further,” screams some inner me. Ah, finally, the clearing … two waterfalls, not one; two pools, not one. I do a fast-forward strip down to my bathing suit and edge my barefoot way cautiously over mud, stone and rock … and ooze my tense being into a cool, liquid heaven.
We parted the curtains – the windows were misty as the droplets, one after another, trickled down the outside porthole. We got dressed, had breakfast and still there were the droplets, but as we left the ship we were greeted by squalls which made us squint and hold our rain jackets closer to our bodies. We splashed through puddles, bent and pressing forward, scanning the scenery for signs of the bus.
The houses perched on the hills were as individualistic as the colours they were painted; cheerful colours mainly green, red and yellow – could this be a reminder of their national flag? We passed them by as we began our journey by minibus along the narrow and twisting roads. We winced as we looked out of the window. The side of the road dropped steeply to the ever present jungle of trees and colourful plants. Looking right, steep vertical cliffs effected a hugged feeling which was not comforting!
Then came a bus from the opposite direction. We veered so close to the drop below as we almost touched the body of the oncoming bus. The engine screamed like it too was nervous and worried as we persevered up and over the mountains.
It had rained. Water rushed down the gutters. The streets were wet and slippery. Our driver seemed oblivious to the danger as he raced up the “wrong side” of the steep narrow streets and careened around corners set at rakish angles. Oncoming and stopped vehicles only added to the challenge as he honked and went swiftly around them. It seemed that whoever honked first had the right of way. I was grateful I wasn’t driving in Grenada.
Grenada in the Rain
Liquid sunshine was the way the native referred to the drenching downpour he was sauntering through. Hitting hard enough to rebound to an impressive height, water came in a deluge. It beat a strident percussive beat on our meager umbrella. Already thoroughly soaked, we too abandoned our futile attempts at shielding ourselves and simply enjoyed the warm cleansing.
There seemed to be a distinct lack of plumbing in Grenada. The dwellings we passed as our small bus crept up the hill either had no gutters, or else water was pouring through the holes where the down pipes should have been. Further along, a woman doing laundry in the river seemed unfazed that she was becoming as soaked as her washing. Her daughter, nearby, naked, did not care less. Certainly, we were heading for the rainforest, but did it really have to be so wet, the one day we had in port there.
The stilt walker
Yesterday watching a clown man on stilts dance, returned me to memory lane, age 8. He could collapse to the floor and return to tall and sturdy, to the beat of drums. His face was disguised with paint and cloth, however to me, his body motion revealed a sadness.
January 1, 2012
Santa in Santarem
Sunny, hot, humid. Perfect tropical weather that inclined us to take a taxi into town. Little did we know what wonders awaited us. We got out at the turquoise cathedral and immediately spotted Santa. After the requisite cathedral photos we made a beeline across the street to Santa Claus. I had to look up and up to find his rosy cheeked face. He was resplendent in his red suit and black boots. Easily the tallest and most elegant Santa Claus I’d ever seen. He must have led the parade for behind him was another wonder, a float full of snowmen enjoying the tropical weather. We marveled at seeing such a sight on New Years Day in this town along the Amazon. A memory that will brighten our holidays for years to come.
We took a tour into the Amazon jungle and we rode a bus to this picnic area with a bunch of fruit trees. We ate mango, banana, and watermelon. Then we took the bus to a trail into the Amazon jungle. There were these spiny trees with spikes on them. I saw a big cicada and also a tarantula hole. After that, we went back on the bus and went through town. One person went to the market but we went back to the boat and ate lunch.
–Ian, age 8
Our group went on a tour. The first thing we did was we all got onto a smaller speed boat and went to the Meeting of the Waters. This is where the Amazon River meets the Rio Negro, or Black River. We saw dolphins in the water. The second thing we did was to see floating houses and we went to one place to try to catch pirarucu, very large scaly fish. The third thing we did was go to a restaurant with a buffet lunch. The fourth thing is we went on a hike to this swamp and my brother with his eagle eyes saw a yellow caiman’s head. We also saw giant water lily pads and termite nests. Next, we went to this floating house and these kids had wild animals: an anaconda, a baby caiman, and—my favorite—a baby three-toed sloth. Next, we went to fish for piranha. I got two piranhas—the guide caught one and he gave me his fishing pole, but I caught the very first piranha of the day all on my own. Then we came back to the ship and ate dinner and that’s it.
–Ian, age 8
The Rain in Manaus
Frommer’s says it’s an easy walk from your ship to the opera house, the famous Teatro Amazonas. That was our plan. He doesn’t say anything about rain. We disembarked, made our way to the port building and out a covered walkway to the street. Soon we had reason to be thankful for that covered walk. As we stepped out on the sidewalk we felt a few sprinkles. A little rain never hurt anybody, this is the tropics after all. Then the dark skies opened and a true tropical deluge started. We ducked back under cover to wait it out. After many years living on tropical Guam we knew it should let up in about a half hour. It grew darker and darker as It poured harder and harder. Just when we thought it couldn’t come down any harder, it did. It drummed on the roof, it filled the parking lot. It gushed out of the rain spouts. The street became a river that cars raced down throwing up wakes like speedboats. Trash floated by. Those soaked souls caught in the watery onslaught raced for cover under the roof. We all stood and stared at the rain and waited and waited. Finally it started to let up. The hardiest made a run for it. When it was nearly stopped we stepped off the curb into calf deep water. Oh well, so much for those shoes. Dodging puddles and trash, damp and bedraggled we found our way to the Teatro Amazonas in time for the last English tour of the day. What a dazzling experience, well worth the adventure of getting there.