I've traveled around Barbados on three previous visits to Paint It Jazz, the smooth jazz festival the second week of January, leaving me a bit reticent to repeat the same tourist attractions.
We arrived on Independence Day - a national holiday when all ceases accept those tourist destinations in the countryside. I use better judgment and join a group of travelers from another cruise ship - hire a taxi then design our own tour. My main interest was a return visit to the marvelous Flower Forest in the St. Thomas parish. Kristine and I have made this trip twice in the past with cameras and tripods fully intent on capturing the exquisite beauty that embraces everyone passing through the wooden gate. I tried unsuccessfully the first time to photograph perhaps my favorite of all the enchanting flowers the Dwarf Poinciana with Fuji Velvia -a film ripe with color but rated at ASA 50 - to slow for small wind blown flowers.
As I walk North to Liv's Lookout, a magnificent view materializes with the Atlantic providing the backdrop to the rugged Scotland District, Chalky Mount, Long Pond Beach and over to the left the highest point in Barbados, Mount Hillaby (1115 feet). On the right of the coral steps I find the treasured National flower - Pride of Barbados (Dwarf Poinciana) and immediately to the left a small collection of Yuccas (Spanish Bayonets). The particular tree is located on a ridge overlooking the north coast.
The breeze keeps all the smaller organisms in constant motion. The flowers of the Peacock Flower or Pride of Barbados arise in clusters from the tips of the branches - although red is the common floral color; a yellow variety is also found. Each bloom has five petals and the red-colored flowers have a yellow margin on each petal. The leaves are fern-like, each consisting of a central stem with small leaflets arising on either side - the branches prickly. To my dismay, the season had ended for most of the flowers until resurrection mid-January. The Fountain Plant with its tubular-shaped structures that line most garden paths were also absent. Mostly the decaying remnants of the Bird of Paradise Flower, wilting Poinsettias, Hibiscus, Ixora, a few bundles of Heliconias, "lobster claw" and Red Ginger showed much life. It was along the path towards the exit I discover four epiphytic orchids in robust state. The sighting would leave me with something to cherish.
St. Vincent will forever hold a special place in my heart. Of all my visits to various islands the people of St. Vincent were the most endearing. They smiled, offered assistance and spoke easily with tourist. I sensed something special was happening when I began walking away from the town center through the adjoining neighborhoods. I felt a spirit of contentment and joy in the islanders that seems to elude the Jamaicans. I spotted the tower of an ancient church that appears more fortress than religious sanctuary. I quickly zigzag across town through an ancient graveyard down cobble stone streets until arriving beneath the artful structure. I had been looking at St. Mary's Catholic Church and school.
I then discreetly enter the stone hallways past a water fountain surrounded by a long green floral display with a statue of the Virgin Mary resting in the middle. Beneath the outside stone wall a rather foul looking stream passed carrying plastic wrappers, jugs and various degrees of trash. The solitude was soon broken by the feverish squealing of voices as an army of school children break for recess. It was a cacophony of screams and yelps, thundering feet and slamming gates that created the natural excitement.
I amble near the gates where there must be at least a hundred six and seven year olds buzzing about like honey bees - never colliding but caught in a joyous swirl of harmonious motion. As I begin to raise my camera the inattention suddenly ceases when the children turn and face the lens. One by one the schoolchildren pour outside insisting I include them in an image. The generous smiles and enthusiasm was contagious. Before I departed I visited the class teacher collected her address and promised to forward a few prints by March. Next stop was the market place and the purchase of a bunch of sweet bananas.
We docked not far from the center of Point-a-Pitre. I exit the ship by eight o'clock in a curious mood. I quickly glance in all directions and notice the absence of people. This more than intrigues me bringing back memories of Nagoya, Japan.
Early afternoon I set out to visit the shrines and mingle with people but found the streets deserted. By accident I slip down a side stairs in the hotel - through two large gray steel doors into a world of underground shopping malls swarming with people. I'll never forget the shock of seeing what seemed thousands of bodies socializing as if this were a large outdoor urban center.
As for Guadeloupe - it's these rare occasions when you can step through neighborhoods without catching the eye of locals that offer a clear view of the landscape. The agenda for the day was to get to Basse-Terre National Park and rain forest.
The first cab driver quoted me US$100 for my planned tour. Rather than arguing I look at the guy with disdain. I'd had enough of these arrogant price-fixers. I was told to try the bus terminal. Before doing so I decided to try and telephone Kristine.
Dialing home would prove to be another fruitless maneuver trying to connect an outside line. I soon realize the necessity of a calling card. I reach a French-speaking operator who expresses little patience with my dilemma. I then walk center town and try purchasing a long distance calling card at a variety store. I was then diverted to what was advertised a telephone center. Bad news, nobody could or would help. The French in Guadalupe are just as annoyed by inquisitive English speaking travelers as they are in most parts of the world. I tried enlisting the help of a businessman who had a phone both outside his shop but my pleas only aggravated him. He refused to help pointing to the front door. I gave up on everyone leaving the call home to the next port.
Guadeloupe stands in stark contrast to the surrounding islands. Even though it share's much the same breathtaking scenery the architecture is in mourning. Leveled by two violent hurricanes in the twentieth century the few remaining links with the past are suffocated by what resembles seventies style government housing with little ornamentation. There was no eye popping colored facades or points of interest - just a few mid-town cafes.
I quickly stroll up and down the back streets looking for at least one spectacular image to preserve. The moment soon presents itself when I discover an immaculate patch of Peacock Flowers - my beloved Dwarf Poinciana's. These were unlike the frayed petals clinging to the last minutes of life in Barbados. These were in full bloom standing erect before a nearby wooden shack and high stonewall. I carefully focus - relax my breathing until the flowers still and gently press the shutter. I had it. When the negatives came back a day latter the image came with clear sharp lines and much detail just as I had hoped. It was a great day.
I continued walking the next hour until the streets filled with people making the ritualistic trek to work. Eventually, I located the bus terminal far end of town but language would continue to confuse matters. A young man approached me speaking in broken English asking my destination. I explain and he says to wait for a while and the bus will come. I inquired of the price - "six Francs," he says. I asked again just to clarify, "six Francs sir". That was about two dollars US, a far cry from the fleecing near the port. By this point I was so steamed I decided even six Francs was too much to pay for any form of transportation - took the money and bought a slice of pound cake and watched the action on the street from a quaint café. To be honest, I was more than apprehensive about traveling to an area uncertain about the return time. This early in the gig the last thing I want to do is miss the ship.
Most of the day it rained in short hot bursts. I hung around the market area for another hour then climbed aboard the ship.
Day thirteen I awoke early and jump ship at ten to eight with a few other sight-seekers. Another one of those jive-talking swindlers who obviously thinks a sucker arrives every ten minutes immediately accosted me. It may be true in some cases but I found many of the passengers well adept at dealing with the outlandish transportation fees. Eighty U.S. dollars flies out of the mouth of this vulture for a six-mile drive to scenic Brimstone Hill, the site of the magnificent landmark at the rolling foothills of Mt. Liamuiga an 800-foot peak near the sea. This amazing fortress was built of burnt black stonewalls seven feet thick and surrounds a 38-acre stronghold of ramparts, bastions, barracks, and armories. It became known as the "Gibraltar of the Caribbean". There's a panoramic view of Montserrat to the south to St. Bart's to the north.
I wanted to tour the cane fields that spread beneath the island's central mountains and just to the west of Basseterre, Bloody Point where the legendary setting of a battle between Indian and European forces which it is said resulted in the slaughter of 2000 Caribs.
The French and British were involved in violent skirmishes throughout the years with Britain eventually the victor. St. Kitts formed a federation with sister-island Nevis since it's independence from Britain in 1983.
I hooked up with a young British couple for the drive up Brimstone Hill. We first negotiate with another out of the loop cabby who insists on thirty U.S. dollars a person for the six-mile jaunt. We pass on the deal and keep walking until a temperamental gentleman with the demeanor of a stern Baptist minister offers to drive us for ten U.S. a person if we'd be patient until the van was full.
It was easy to first read his mannerisms as arrogant but then again he seemed devoutly sincere assuring us he'd deliver a professional tour.
I choose to ride shotgun with our verbose driver a couple feet away with the portable public address mouthpiece pressed against his lips. "I'm Christopher Columbus your tour guide, the very best on the island. You will see today I will tell you the history and deliver you safely to and from Brimstone Hill. I will tell a joke or two and make you comfortable. If you feel like - laugh."
At first I thought this guy part jive - part evangelist, but as the drive proceeds I begin to respect his dignified production. "You see the sweet potato growing over there, they say it prevents cancer. I eat sweet potato every day. My daughter she destroys her young body with McDonald's".
After an uninterrupted twenty-minute lecture with few breaths in between, I was ready to unplug Columbus. I longed for silence without the intruding crackling noise emanating from the three-cent wall speaker and precious silence to savor the magnificent scenery rising in the distance. I wanted more of the delicious scent of cane to fill my lungs through the open windows but the accelerated speed prevented the sweet aroma from staying a reasonable time. Columbus was on a roll.
Brimstone Hill offered me an hour of freedom locked inside the eyepiece of my 35-70 ml lens. Every direction I point the camera the most gratifying images appear. The mountains in the distance gather light before falling beneath the edges of passing clouds. Rain clouds hang above the peaks of tree lined forests coating the whole area in a soft mist. I found myself transfixed on the lush scenery. I could only imagine what it would be like to walk the slopes through high grass to the summit and peer out over the distant ocean. This is one of the most beautiful views I've ever seen.
Saturday past - downtown St. Kitts had been victimized by a five inch downpour that roared from summit of the mountain down the ravines into the center of town smashing several trucks and automobiles leaving them looking as if they had all been victims of a massive hundred-mile-an-hour head-on collision. It was a frightful scene.
Day fourteen was to be a day of relaxation on Serena Cay, an island off the south coast of the Dominican Republic owned by various cruise lines. Instead foul weather struck making the whole affair a gloomy fiasco. There would be a long ferry aboard one of the tenders over rocky currents. On land you could buy drinks and swim. None of it seemed appealing to me so I paced about the upper two levels of the ship, wrote and read until evening. In the distance I could see Santo Domingo. We traveled some three hundred plus miles for this desolate landscape at break neck speed.
Day fifteen at sea had a strange vibe. Most of the two week passengers were bored to the brink of contempt, mostly fixated on the unusually long flights home. When word came of potential delays, a near mutiny occurred in the My Fair Lady Lounge. One disgruntled passenger's question evolved into a heated exchange with travel coordinators and surly passengers who'd spent the past three days under thick clouds and persistent rain idling about the sea. It was also a period of long good-byes. I strolled most corners of the ship in search of the many lovely people who I shared much conversation and laughter the past couple of weeks. I then coaxed them into letting me capture a black and white snap of each. The rest of the day I paced in misery. I wanted so bad to speak with Kristine, needing to erase the loneliness. I'm sure she didn't need this grief.
Aura and I played 6-6:30 p.m. for the Captain's table, a routine reserved for special quests that receive a handshake and private conversation with Captain Alfredo Romero, a rather handsome fit man who makes it a point of welcoming new arrivals and returnees.
Aura was particularly annoyed dealing with four pestering children whose persistent request for pop tunes interrupted while she was deep in song.
I played a few jazz favorites - 'Gravy Waltz', 'Mr. New Orleans', 'Stella By Starlight', to satisfy the requests. Aura sang wonderful renditions of 'April In Paris', 'Cry Me a River', and 'How Deep Is The Ocean'. Beyond that it was time to collect roll number twelve of negatives from Barry and Reece, the ship photographers. You've got to appreciate the fact that the Sundream has a photo lab on board. Looking at the daily strips of negatives gives me great satisfaction and a reason to proceed.
Day sixteen finds us back at home base - Montego Bay awaiting the exchange between old timers and new arrivals plus the load in of produce and goods.
All was not well for those returning to Britain in Gatwick and Manchester airports. Just as when they arrive - the Brits suffer appalling delays, up to seven hours due to horrid weather.
I ran about most the day passing heart-felt good-byes to the many wonderful people I'd shared conversation and answered numerous song requests in the Midnight Lounge.
I left the ship around nine to place a call to Kristine in the Freeport telephone center whose sordid ethics bordered on thievery. I required help placing a Bell Calling Card collect call. Not a chance, this was a three dollar and seventy-five cents U.S. a minute fleecing.
I then went in search of a public telephone to further discover my inability to get an operator without first purchasing a local calling card. No one in the local gift shops had one for less than twelve U.S. One failed attempt after another sent me packing in a taxi with eight other tourists on our way to Margarittaville, a sports bar a half-kilometer beyond the town center.
The place was closed. I happen to notice a Holiday Inn in close proximity. Eventually, I enter the hotel where a desk attendant graciously allows me the use of a house telephone.
My conversation with Kris is most loving and sad. I miss her and my son Jesse deeply and am greatly pained by the problems she must deal with while I'm away. I can hear the tears in her voice and the quiet loneliness. I realize it's much different for me surrounded by a thousand plus passengers and a busy schedule but there's nothing that will sooth the emptiness I feel but her touch.
I thought it best to walk away the somber feelings along the two-lane highway through town and to the cruise ship.
As soon as I begin walking harassment arrives. All I long for was to be left alone but in Jamaica that is not possible outside the walls of a fortified resort. I can honestly say at the moment I loathe this place.
No more than five minutes in my walk I'm approached by a couple of dreads offering me only the finest ganja. When I refuse to do business the scene gets a bit anxious. I quickly out pace the duo and head towards center town.
As soon as I hit main street I can sense timing may not serve me well. Everywhere I look there are hundreds of young kids idling about on a hot Sunday morning. Normally, the setting would find the presence of an outsider a mere distraction. In my case it was reason for explanation.
I attracted a group of men who viewed me ripe for commerce. I remained calm and pleasant while declining each sales pitch for ganja. Soon the girl friends arrive shouting obscenities. I try not to make too much eye contact knowing full well someone will justify it as an offense, deserving severe action.
Half way through town a voice screams "Pussy boy come here !" The coarseness and severity of the demand helped me quicken the pace. "Pussy boy get over here now!" The order arrived like a knife to the back.
Just when I thought confrontation was near an older gentleman pulls along side and advises I leave the area immediately. He then escorts me back to the main highway and flags down a cab. By this time my body was shaking from anger and fear.
"Mr., you're crazy. You have no business up here by yourself," says the man.
You're lucky this cab driver stopped for you. Next time you won't be so lucky."
I settled in for the short ride. " Mr., you have some trouble over there." I thought for a moment before answering. "I did. I felt like I was in a big game hunt. Even had someone call me pussy boy."
The driver laughs for a minute, then asks me in a sober tone if I understand the implication. "No, I don't. I have a feeling it's not a friendly greeting."
He pauses for a moment they says, "Pussy boy is what a man says before cutting you up. You're lucky I saved your ass. I'd be more careful where you walk. These kids don't give a shit about you. They've nothing to fear. Things are about as bad as it can get for them."
The incident repeated itself in my head throughout the evening, long into an uneasy sleep. By morning the things were back to normal.
Mostly spent the day catching up on writing and ignoring a persistent down pour. Began reading where I had left off in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "A Hundred Years Of Solitude", a most welcome change after deciphering every sentence in Guy Vanderclay's "The Englishman's Boy", although it isa feat in writing - it began to wear the brain down.
Heading towards Cuba Thursday, already planning to visit Hemmingway's home. "A Farewell To Arms" still lingers in my heart. I finished the novel in solitude under a black starlit sky in my favorite chair. As the last pages fell from view I could no longer contain my emotions and wept. I'll just leave it at that.
I played longer hours tonight to noisy passengers. I was quite tired. Musically, I'm holding up well. The piano is lovely. I touch up the tuning periodically. I spoke with departing Captain Romero for a minute and really respect him. He'll be leaving for grander duties for one of the other competitors. The notice didn't sit well with his bosses, who striped him of his ship after twenty-five years with the company with no words of gratitude. He's hanging about with his wife until leaving later this week.
The ship arrived at about 10:30 a.m.in Calica, Mexico and docked near a limestone quarry a distance from the nearest town. I had planned a trip to Chichen-Itza - residence of the foremost Mayan pyramids but our late entry caused the cancellation of the three and a half hour one-way expedition. So, I did the next best thing and taxied into the sea town of Playa Del Carmen, a wonderfully ornate hamlet brimming with color and activity.
For a first look at Mexico this view spoke well of the country. I shared a cab with two people from the ship, one crew, the other an older gentleman from Pickering, Ontario who bragged of his four-month visits to Cuba to meet his "whore". I thought about the implications of what he said, examined his rather pallid late sixties physique, drooping left eye lid, and understood clearly why Cuba possibly offered him a last meal of young flesh. He'd pay dearly in Canada for the opportunity, if it even exists.
He quickly withdrew the "whore" line after I shot him a disdainful glance. The other passenger was a young woman named Tracy, who was scouting shopping venues for future tours. We allotted an hour and a half browsing, with noon our scheduled rendezvous. I fiddled with the street telephones trying to place a call to Kristine. with little success. Can't any one get a system together? I can place a collect call to America through AT & T by dialing 090 and put it on my calling card but not to Canada. Don't these countries realize Canada treats them genuinely better than the Americans? Eventually, I located a telephone center and made the long awaited call.
Next stop Cancun. I got back in time to ride the complimentary bus to Cancun some hour and a half away. A downpour struck as we left the dusty road right side of the lime stone pit in the port of Calica and stayed with us most of an hour.
Our tour guide provided fine details of the Mayan countryside, the fifty varieties of snakes, forty-nine of which are lethal - scorpions, tarantulas, black widows, fire ants, alligators or about any kind of deadly varmint you could possibly fear roaming the jungles both side of the roads.
I drifted beyond conversation and keenly focused on the long, wet, narrow lanes that vanish into thick vegetation. You could see the framework of homes made from mud, palm and rotted planks - thatched roofs - utilizing whatever means to bind things together. You could also see people going about life passing each other along ominous throughways in the most squalid conditions. This was poverty below the mean streets of the USA, the shanties of certain Caribbean nations - certainly light years away from the "quality-of-life" conditions in Canada.
Translated,Cancun means "snake nest ". You wouldn't know that to see it. It's an island transformed into a tourist Mecca with world class shopping and resorts. There is no history, only thirty years of development. Although a nice reprieve from the isolation felt in the past two weeks - a current addition of USA Today and Vanity Fair - this was not the cultural trek I had envisioned. I was hoping for something more organic. Somehow the brain conjours images of Robin Leech's :Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous", and the "Dating Game" - exiling lucky couples for a holiday here.
The ride back sent one woman into a violent throw-up. It wasn't long before the putrid aroma wafted about challenging my nasal passages with the sickly stench. After a prolong period of heaving she passed out leaving her lower jaw hang open like a piece of kitchen pottery.
Cozumel, just the sound of the word smells of ancient history. At least that's how it played in my mind the night before. It was the closest I could get to Mayan ruins, deep culture and such. Usually, when we tender from ship to port it's sixty to seventy people cramped together for a short ferry to the mainland. The sorry person who gets the farthest seat back of the boat gets a continuous sniff of burning petrol - enough to make the lungs cry. This time a larger vessel ferries alongside.
I slipped by for the early bird special at eight and saw a few locals milling about in preparation for our arrival. Little did I know they were getting the merchandise warehouse in order?
As soon as we boarded I heard, "Buy this blanket $5.00 US. How about a silver bracelet, necklace, or what about Mexican Barbie doll?" Man, I wasn't ready for this. One woman bought two blankets, jewelry, wrap around dress and was last seen struggling with her old man over a twin set of Mexican Barbies. The best was to come when we returned from five hours of blanket pushers, onyx brokers, leather merchants, and several dudes running around with scrap books filled with photos of mopeds and autos all ready to whisk you away for a day of scuba diving - beach time near favorite ruins.
I was one of the first to abscond a seat when I was accosted with all the above items plus a cowboy puppet with no mouth. I asked the man why the puppet had no mouth and also told him I wasn't interested unless the little tike had all the accurate parts. As I speak the plaster creature slips and lands on its head making a distinct plunk sound like cheap pottery. The guy then picks it up and offers it to me. I tell him I don't want a puppet with a fractured skull and no mouth. He doesn't get my humor. Unfazed, he returns to the doorway, crams the shoddy merchandise in the face of each returning person. With each rejection he follows the passenger continuing the unmerciful the sales pitch. I thought Montego Bay was bad. These guys speak the same language. It's as if they traded dreads for sombreros.
As far as Cozumel, it was pretty, mostly uninteresting, saturated with vendors.
I walked along the coastline to what appeared a castle situated in the far distance to discover it was a yachting club. I walked miles for this in penetrating heat? I tried to call Kris or Jesse, forget it. I don't know why Bell calls my calling card "International" when all I get is some yokel from the U.S. who can't do a thing but advise me to get a operator in my vicinity.
It's 11:42, going on midnight and I'm just beginning to access the bizarre day that just passed in Havana. By 10:00 a.m. we ported in Havana after a rough night at sea battling gale force winds. I tried withstanding the mighty currents by planting my feet and gazing upward at the billions of stars but kept finding myself losing footing and wobbling about. By 10:30 Cuban immigration officials and police boarded from a mid-size pilot boat amidst a treacherous sea.
Once aboard, the process of examining the papers of all 435 crew began. We watch passengers freely exit with passports and stamped visas a floor above while we suffer two officials who closely examine and cautiously stamp one passport at a time. We were told the whole process would take about an hour and a half leaving noon our embarkation time. Well noon came and went.
I drifted by B level to check out the progress. The room was full of Filipinos waiting for the Cubans to free them in Havana. It wouldn't happen to nearly three o'clock. I almost lost my mind. More than ever I was determined to get off the ship and capture some frames anywhere within the allotted hour I had left. Once the Cubans finished, we had to wait as crew pursers checked IDs, cross-checked the list - then released passports. A hundred Filipinos swamped the makeshift desk poking their IDs in the face of the attendants. There was outright pandemonium. When I finally cleared the ship and Cuban customs I entered a world beyond my most surreal imagination.
I can't even begin to describe life in the back streets beyond the wide boulevards. I'm seriously talking about poverty on a scale that's almost inconceivable - poverty within the walls of the most opulent architecture in this hemisphere. I had heard Havana described as the Florence of the East. The most appetizing architecture broken and humbled by thirty-eight years of a cruel American embargo and draconian communist dogma. It's truly criminal. I absolutely love this place and what it could be. The people are genuine, hot blooded, beautiful humans. I have much compassion for them.
After spying the degrading poverty in Mexico and watching the Cubans suffer such indignity, I'll never complain about the land I cherish and call home. Fortunately, the Cubans didn't hit you with the fire sale the Mexicans or Jamaicans do when trying to cram your hands full of unwanted trinkets.
I started out along the sea front boulevard in "old Havana" and walked with a few people from the ship into an arts and craft market then slowly edged away choosing to free myself and define my own agenda. As I cleared the nearest corner I read the inscription on what looked to be an official government building that turned out to be the Museo Nacional De La Musica, or museum of music. With my pedestrian grasp of Spanish registering below idiot I employed the most comical sign language to explain myself. A young lady tried communicating to me the entrance fee. I figured that much out. She then lead me past rows of ancient pianos - all which formed a perimeter around a decaying white Steinway with ornate trim. She went on to explain that a new piano lasts only four years in Cuba. Voracious termites devour everything but the metal strings and framework.
We passed rows of Afro-Cuban percussion instruments, sheet music and photos of famous Cuban composers like Ernesto Leconia - ballet legends, brass instruments etc. As we clear the top stairs I view a unique sunlit courtyard with white wrought iron benches and offer to pose my tour guide for a photo. A bit shy she summons a friend standing nearby to voluntarily take her place. The friend quickly begins grooming - a little straightening of the hair - a swipe of lipstick and she was ready. I didn't let either escape and posed both. They were very sweet.
Later, while walking the back streets I did have a wonderful run with a couple men in their early twenties who insisted I come to their house to buy cigars - only the best Monte Cristos and Cohibas. With Christmas in mind and knowing how much Jesse and the Minocio love cigars, I ventured in.
What a depressing place, with no lights, just a tarnished old throwaway couch and battered Formica kitchen table and chairs. My host was very sweet and salesmen like. I didn't want to buy the massive amount of product being offered, so we bartered. A deal was struck and all were satisfied. The two didn't leave with me. They quickly stuffed the remaining goods in a plastic bag and left me to sort my way through unfamiliar neighborhoods to a main street There were about four other young boys hanging near, watching out for police or unidentified snoops.
When I returned to the ship, I heard reports of a woman being mugged; passport, money and purse stolen. Another passenger was punched in the face, and still another failed to return, but we sailed after waiting nearly and hour. Somewhere in Havana is a lonely cruiser.
Isla De Pinos now renamed Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) was the haunt of pirates and buried treasure centuries ago. It is reputed to be the inspiration of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. From the 19th Century until the revolution, its main function was as a prison and both Jose Marti and Fidel Castro served time there. Castro closed the prison in 1967. The building is now decayed but you can wander around the rotundas and guard towers - see the numbered cells and imagine the horrors of incarceration there. The island is now an ecological park whose surrounding virgin waters are lined with precious coral and myriad of marine life.
I awoke to rough seas once again as a rainstorm and high winds made resting on the upper decks near impossible. Even the sixth deck where breakfast buffet usually divides into two long lines was nearly empty. I filled my plate with the usual; melon slices, peaches topped with yogurt, a bowl of musilai, maybe a sweet roll.
I spent the first hour chatting with the one-man-band comedy act from Britain and a retired merchant marine. "One Man", I'm guessing he is in his late fifties. His skin is permanently bronzed and taunt from what looks to be a lifetime under a malicious sun and a career smoking habit that leaves him looking a shade healthier than British actor Peter O'Toole, in fact he has the same fetching eyes. The ex-merchant marine has spent his life traveling with no intention of slowing down. Both shared some delicious antidotes.
I looked forward to our arrival in de Pinos. It was taking a bit longer than anticipated so I lie down, fall asleep and raise an hour and a half later as passengers line up for the trip ashore on tenders. It was difficult climbing in the small craft in choppy waters.
A closer view of the island offered nothing unique making me question the reason for including this stop on the list. As we ferried closer I caught a glimpse of the ocean floor through a portal. The clarity was beyond anything I'd ever witnessed. Every fish, plant, and moving object was visible deep to the ocean floor.
The dock stretched some three hundred feet out beyond the shoreline. Three quarters of the way an acoustic quintet of musicians played Guatanamera while their counterpart's hustled snorkeling and scuba diving expeditions. I opted for a trek to Castro's prison. Since their where no signs offering direction, I walked into the jungle - spotted a makeshift road and began my journey. Before I knew it a couple adventuresome Brits joined me. As we moved forward I sensed we were quickly becoming a gourmet meal for a host of unspecified flying insects. It didn't take long to figure out the road led deep into rarely traveled jungle, to where, who could possibly know. Later we found out that the trip takes three hours of intense two-wheeler action through ungodly vegetation, hostile insects and snakes to the nearest town. The prison for all I knew was the island itself.
After aborting the expedition I walked the shoreline up around a bend, waded knee deep in a clear sea, and stopped along collecting bits of coral. Meanwhile, the other passengers stayed close to the dock, lounged about on plastic recliners and sipped some concoction from one of the three makeshift mini -bars erected along the way. Perhaps a day of sunshine would have remedied the situation.
Today's rumors say four people were mugged in separate instances in Havana; one a wheel chair bound lady and her attendant.
Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover the Cayman Islands. On 10th May 1503, son Ferdinand noted in his diary "We were in sight of two very small and low islands full of tortoise as was the sea about, in so much that they looked like rocks." It was for this reason that the Cayman Islands were originally named Las Tortugas, meaning The Turtles. This name however did not stick and after being briefly called Lagarotos, it was again changed, to Caymanas. This is derived from the Carib Indian word for crocodile.
I had the wonderful fortune to sit next to a couple on the tender ashore who had in their possession a little flyer that had the connecting codes for dialing long distance assistance in various countries making my calls with Kristine a breeze.
I was in the tender ten past eight. After speaking with Kristine I walked circles around a mostly non-descript town. Nothing of an architectural or visual nature captivates the eye. Since I'll be back a couple more times I thought it best to get a street feel for the place. Six and a half hours later I still feel indifferent about the landscape. Most passengers I spoke with were overjoyed with the forty-minute boat ride to the coral reef where a school of stingrays were in a playful mood. They were encouraged to feed them squid. The thought just aroused my allergy. They were said to be like fun loving children. Maybe next visit.
Without a great plan I walked through rain, stopped at a couple camera shops and bought a small tin of splendid rum cake then met up with Bruce, "One Man Band, Comedy Dude" - Andy Rudge; Richard the guitarist in the show band and the two week subbing drummer. We headed to a wharf restaurant for beers and chow. What we got was a lot of good humor. Bruce, now renamed "Mr. Sun Dried", tried luring us beyond the awning out into the blistering heat so he could continue baking his already roasted white skin. We stayed put. The conversation mostly centered around cruise women and the desire of the young single men to sleep with them. "Sun Dried", appearing nearly sixty years of age, although I would learn later he was forty-six, sat leering at one of the nineteen-year-old show girlls, contemplating a move on her presumed virginity. I just howled at this pipe dream.