At the port, the missus and I hopped on a taxi and asked to be driven to the island’s waterfalls, volcanoes and beaches.
Within a few yards our driver pointed to a young man, his seventeen year old son, and asked if it was ok to pick him up. I said yes and then tried to strike up a conversation with the young man in the front passenger seat, unsuccessfully. He wouldn't look at me or talk to me. I told him stories about America. Did he know that there were fast food restaurants on the mainland where we did not enter the building but paid through one window, picked up food at another window, and ate in the car? The young man looked at me, incredulously, but remained silent.
Next I told him that we sometimes drove our cars into buildings, and once inside, brushes and water came out of the walls and lathered, washed and cleaned our cars, while we stayed dry inside watching the foam slide by. Each time I told him a factoid, the young man glanced back sharply. This went on but I could not get a peep out of him. I asked his dad if he spoke English and the gentleman smiled and nodded.
We spent the day on the island and at mid-day I lazed under a straw umbrella on Grande Anse beach. Father and son stayed a discreet distance away and had lunch, while I sipped my favorite cocktail, lying on a deckchair with ridiculously huge flippers on my feet, after snorkeling.
The Caribbean islands are surrounded by deep blue, greenish or aquamarine waters. A first encounter with the combination of color and clarity of the sea is quite an experience and it takes a bit of time to believe or comprehend what the eyes see.
As the sun went down, our driver dropped us off at the main dock. I asked the teen for his phone number and mentioned I had a fourteen year old and between the island and mainland they had a lot of information they could share. Would he answer the phone if I called? I got his phone number, his first smile and his only word of the day, "Yes."
The consensus among the locals we met was generally a sense of gratitude that President Reagan had timed the US invasion just right, sending in troops to free Grenada (executing Operation Urgent Fury) in 1983 to rout a sudden communist takeover, preventing another Cuba from taking hold. If President Reagan had sent in the troops before the takeover, that would have been a disaster. If he had waited too long, other communist countries would have jumped in to prop up the revolution. Reagan acted under the pretext of rescuing US students studying medicine in Grenada.
Incidentally, Canada, the UK and the UN condemned the US intrusion.
As we walked to our ship, tiny human minuscules in front of a gleaming white 20 story high symmetrical palace floating on azure waters, I thought to myself, that, traveling the oceans on a boat such as this was like a mirage come true. Due to excellent planning by my neighbor, who had us switch cruises to get on this one, here I was. We paid a little extra to book "outside" cabins with balconies, and every morning we woke up to a panoramic view of a different island. (The ship typically traveled by night and arrived at a port by dawn). While everyone slept peacefully, I took pictures of the sun rising over the islands. I scouted out the best views while jogging on a quarter mile oval red track on the top deck.
The dance floor on the ship (I traveled up and down a glass elevator to video evening dances, much to the consternation of my better half and more so of our shipmates...I was like an unbridled child in a candy store), the restaurants, dining halls, (ice sculptures), decks with indoor/outdoor pools, the miniature golf green, theatre, glass encased gyms, glass encased piano bars, grand staircases with paintings and sculptures on immense landings were simply jaw dropping by my previously modest standards.
Some of the on-board live entertainment was mundane, but others were spectacular. And the wonderful folks who served us and ensured our happiness had quarters and lifestyles not quite as cheerful. One redeeming feature for them was that at international exchange rates corresponding to a strong dollar, they were making attractive money and the non-US staff did not need to pay taxes back home.
Why am I writing about this trip after several years? Each time I return from a vacation, I seem to conclude that this last trip was the best one...but the cruise keeps bringing a smile to my face even today. I am apprehensive about taking another cruise as it may not live up to this one.
We met Charles on St. Lucia, a neighboring island. Charles drove us around for a day, had his windows rolled down and sang with a sonorous voice. The effect of hearing "Candle in the Wind" accompanied by radio music, sung with heart with a deep voice, with the sea breeze in my face was exhilarating….couldn't get enough of it.
I typically extract taxi stories from cabbies all over the world (that blab fest is on hold for now). This time Charles handed me one involving myself. On the way back to the ship after sightseeing and local dining, without any notice or hint of what he was about to do, Charles asked me to say I love my wife (who was the only other person in the taxi). Now some of us older gentlemen from the Indian peninsula never quite get around to ever saying that, and I asked him, startled, "What did you say?"
Charles: Say you love your wife.
Moah: Where did that come from? What happened, suddenly?
Charles: Just tell your wife you love her.
Moah incredulously, petulantly: Why?
Charles: Look mon, just say it or we're stopping right here. (And he actually slowed the taxi down).
Moah: I love you (The missus rolled her eyes upward).
Years later, I realized why Charles may have done what he did. Earlier, I'd asked him to take us to a place called Emily's Height on the island because I wanted to buy a T-Shirt for our dear friend and neighbor, Emily. Perhaps Charles was trying to do whatever he could to pre-empt any funny business between me and Emily. Never mind that he mentioned quite a few indiscretions of his own during our tour. (My now ex-neighbor wore this shirt to a lunch rendezvous years later).
We did some modest shopping on the island of Tortola. The missus claims I reverse bargained. A sweet old lady with a singsong voice asked me for 17 “dollahs” for a hat and I told her I wouldn’t pay her a penny over $22. Being delirious and giddy in that straw environment, I could have been guilty. My better half never recanted her version of that transaction.
Are you getting whiplash between St. Lucia and Tortola? Wait there’s more.
If it's Tuesday, it must be Antigua. We visited a unique waterfall where young men who appeared to be local toughs were hanging out. My spouse warned me not to speak with them. So I went up to them and said hi. One of the young men asked me our names. I told him our names. Without another word he turned his back on me, ran towards the waterfall and started climbing up to the top using his bare hands and legs.
Spouse to moah: Look what you've done now.
I still had no idea of what I had done. My eyes were transfixed, watching him ascend without any safety gear up wet slippery slopes, using his fingers and toes to cling and climb.
When this gentleman reached the top, he jumped off the cliff and dove shouting our names over and over again for all to hear.
It was a precision dive into a circle of water flanked by vertical/angular rocks and I thought he deserved a handsome tip. The missus tried to cut off my impulse with a stern look. I explained to her that this was a dangerous livelihood, and it certainly was an escape from my typical paper pushing (now electron pushing) day.
When this lean, lithe, wet, gleaming specimen of a human being clambered back to the ground where we stood, I gave him a $20 bill, and said he deserved more. He was surprised to the point of growing misty eyed and his face aged visibly. He had many kind words to say. We exchanged contact information, shook hands, hugged and parted unwillingly.
Our son and his teenage friends came along with us two oldies to Maho beach, which has a runway of an international airport right next to it. Airplanes fly (very) low over the ocean and beach while approaching the tarmac. Most of the incoming flights initially appear as dots on the horizon but are Jumbos in reality and rapidly loom large as they get closer. In fact, they have quite an impact on the mortals on the beach, just before touchdown.
I wanted to capture this experience on my ancient camcorder. We couldn't actually touch the bellies of the airplanes as they flew over our heads, but the jets were strong enough to sandblast the public on the beach and send us scurrying around.
Maho beach is panoramic. The kids were swimming already and I gave strict orders to them to get out of the ocean in half an hour, then rest under umbrellas. They must have felt terrorized (I have a rather unfortunate reputation) and they actually did as I said. After they rested, I told them they could go back in the water for another half hour.
One of the kids remained curled up under his beach umbrella (the umbrellas were not in the direct line of blasts from the tarmac). Next what happened was what I had been apprehensive about months ago. I had shared my concerns with parents accompanying us on our cruise. This kid had had a major stomach surgery about four months prior to the cruise. (I had suggested that we make sure our ship had a helipad for emergency evacuations, and it actually did).
This kid came over to our umbrella bent over, holding his tummy, and said he was in excruciating pain and that one of the stitches on his stomach had snapped.
My spouse struggled to open a bottle of pain medicine. Once medication was administered we got all the kids out of the water, hailed a taxi and made a beeline for our cruise ship. The medication had an unintended effect on the patient. He couldn't stop talking and became a man of the world. As we passed enormous billboards advertising nightclubs with feminine forms displayed in wild abandon, the taxi driver and the teen had an elaborate discussion on the quality of nightclub dancers on the island compared to the ones in NY and LA.
Once back on the ship, the resident nurse took over the situation and the child was subsequently ok.
Later that afternoon, my good neighbor (Emily’s husband) bought me a few beers as we lay on a nearby beach. I stared at our ship shimmering in the distance over the clear aquamarine water and wished our cruise would never end.
The rain forest and the quaint town of San Juan are the highlights on this island. A historic storm had passed through the lush green forest and the path it had taken was clearly discernible because of the trees knocked down.
San Juan is a walking town so much so that you can sit down for lunch at a table in the middle of a street end. We floated from street to street on our new found latin legs and explored the town. Ramparts, forts and castles provide a historical perspective. San Juan also has an influx of new age restaurants that serve traditional and experimental cuisine.
Back at our hotel, two giant colorful Macaw Parrots initiated me into the Spanish language saying "Hola" as I approached. The oceanfront hotel also had a giant tortoise, Koi fish in a pool, and a peacock walking freely around (I was able to video it as it fanned and shimmered its tail upwards).
If I remind you of one of those annoying tourists who have a camera glued to one eye as they walk, I plead guilty.
St. Thomas (different trip)
I had read on Fodor’s about Glady’s Café. Apparently, Glady’s sang as she cooked and what she served was worth the wait. We ordered a goat dish among other things and sure enough saw her sing and sway while she stirred the pot endlessly. And Fodor’s was right! (This was more than a decade ago).
(I tried to replicate Glady’s cooking back home by preparing lamb curry the Indian way and then lowering the heat and stirring for a long long time until the gravy was thick - and not a liquid any more. The taste was close but it wasn’t exactly like Glady’s).
The island next to St. Thomas is St. John. I intended to rent a four wheel drive on St. Thomas, tour the island, put the car on a ferry boat, cross over to St. John island and drive around there also. We reserved a jeep for the purpose. However the lady at the counter informed me that unfortunately they did not have any jeeps, only cars. I rented a convertible and she told me sternly that this car was not to be taken to St. John island.
After reading through the fine print, I drove straight to the ferry, put the convertible on it and went over to St. John island. St. John is a stark contrast to St. Thomas, and is very green as the natural habitats on this smaller island are protected. We enjoyed the sea breeze as I drove along lush green hillsides overlooking the ocean, with the top down. And soon I realized why the lady at the rental counter said what she said.
We came to a hairpin left turn hugging the hillside on the right. There was a short but steep climb just before the turn. I had slowed down to take the turn and did not have the momentum to get over the incline prior to it. We stalled. I pushed the accelerator down, the wheels turned but we went nowhere. As I pushed the pedal harder the tires began to smoke as they rotated faster on the asphalt. I had the family step out and tried again. Finally when my wife and child pushed (a move that I would not recommend to anyone, particularly from the wrong side of an incline), and I stepped on the gas, the car went over the hump.
The rest of the three hour ride around St. John was uneventful but spectacular. We saw the largest chameleons I have seen and they went through partial color changes. We also saw hotel rooms perched on trees connected by walkways, landings and ladders, overlooking the sea (I think they were hotel rooms from the rustic signage I saw...we didn’t stop to explore), on the leeward side of the island.
Next day, back on St. Thomas, the famous Megan’s Bay was serene and peaceful. Unfortunately the staff at the beach stores were an unhappy, unfriendly bunch. On the ride back from the bay, we passed a stand selling exotic fruit drinks. I saw it too late after we turned a corner and debated if I should back up or not. I did not and still wonder about the taste and the vista I missed. An ATM at a local bar swallowed my credit card and kept it, when I tried to withdraw money. It was disturbing, but later, I found out that my card had just expired, and there was good reason for its confiscation.
From St. Thomas we took a boat ride to Virgin Gourda and the captain kept us sozzled. During the trip we watched a handsome young man, Jeremy, establish a relationship with the girlfriend of another young gentleman much to the discomfiture of the latter. The dashing handsome devil was otherwise on his best behavior, accompanied by his elderly parents, and genuinely friendly with all of us on the boat. He even took my young one under his wing for most of the trip, showing him how to jump off the top deck into the water. But Jeremy seemed to be oblivious of (or secretly relishing) the fact that he was rattling the pretty young lady’s companion over and over again.
A highlight of the Virgin Gourda trip was the afternoon on Devil’s Bay beach. We crossed from one beach to another through a large cave with natural lighting using stepping stones, some of them submerged in shallow water from the ocean, The first beach was adorned with natural giant rocks and an offshore island, and was picturesque. The beach on the other side of the cave was even more exotic because of the color contrasts between water, rock and sand.
On the way back, Jeremy kept us entertained with his guitar and general antics. At the dock in St. Thomas he walked away with a wave to our son, who had become a rabid fan, following him around like a puppy all day.
The Bahamas is unfortunately the least naturally exotic of the islands we visited. I include it to mention an incident that is not to be forgotten.
We were greeted at the airport lounge with local drinks served by smiling island ladies. We then got on a taxi and following my unfailing interrogation of the driver (about his life story, which my wife invariably deems to be an inquisition), we were dropped off at our hotel. As we checked in my wife realized that she had left her bag in the taxi which had driven off. The receptionist called the airport taxi station to alert them about the missing bag. We checked in. (I had my wallet with me). Once in our room we called the mainland and started cancelling credit cards one at a time.
Then we got a call from the receptionist that our driver had returned the bag to the front desk and left. We were not able to tip him. The hand bag contained cash and jewellery and everything was intact.
The straw market on the island remains on my mind because of the innocence of the bargaining and the sing song voices that accompanied it. The Bahamas is also the place where I danced my first limbo dance (you shake your shoulders, bend backwards and pass under a horizontal bar which is lowered after each pass with raucous limbo music in full swing). Of course the island kids had me beat long before the finish where the horizontal bar was hardly a foot and a half above the ground.
Dominican Republic (DR):
DR is a part of one of the poorer islands but they still maintain smaller nearby islands in their pristine condition where no human habitation is allowed. We were able to visit one of these islands on a day trip. The beach had miles of white sand backed by a dense green forest of palm and other trees. On the trees were flocks of large green birds. The birds looked down and scolded us endlessly for intruding. The island was a mingling ground for international tourists. A Russian lady posed with us in waist deep waters with her left leg (held by her left hand) pointing at the sky while she balanced on her right.
There are reportedly 27 waterfalls in the Dominican Republic. We visited a couple, the taller one being El Limon falls. The local guides have somehow not been jaded by the tourist trade. They provided us with horses and walked a slushy, steep, rocky, hostile quagmire of a landscape to the waterfall, in front of us, always turning around making certain that we were safe. They were young men with baby faces, and when we reached the falls, one of them accompanied my wife hundreds of steps (down to the falls and then back up again), holding her hand throughout.
The waterfall emerges from lush green foliage at the top and widens as it drops 150 feet to a pool below which in turn is the source for another smaller waterfall. Local youths band together and climb up the face of the waterfall using their fingers and toes to a height of about a 100 ft, while the water gushes down on them. Then the young men let go of the rocks to flip and tumble into the water below.
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that I could climb the steps up about 150 feet back to the horses without exhaustion. On the ride back to our car, the horses once again had to step gingerly between rocks, slush and stones, sometimes needing to speed downward into miniature crevice like formations then slow down abruptly when climbing out. The guides found time to point out the local flora and fauna. One of them actually climbed a tree to pluck a pod of vanilla. My pea sized brain had somehow construed vanilla to be an artificial flavor prior to that experience. The little guy climbed down from the tree and opened the pod to reveal the milky white succulent fruit and offered it to us. It was sweet.
This island lays claim to being one of the most beautiful ones on the planet. Brilliant white washed dwellings hang off cliffs over ink blue waters, along with small blue domed churches. Santorini is a part of Greece at the “confluence” of the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. The island imports water and exports wine.
The breathtaking beauty of Santorini belies the natural violence which carved out its current crescent shape.
The island blew up in a volcanic eruption (around 1,600 BC) and what remains today is mainly a piece of land in the shape of a crescent along with a few smaller nearby islands. Tsunamis 600 feet high ensued when the eruption occurred. A caldera was created within the crescent. The Minoans who lived there escaped (reportedly no human bones were found at the Akrotiri excavations on the island). Traces of civilization uncovered by archeologists and on display today include underground street plumbing, buildings with bathrooms, and dainty frescoes on the walls of some of the dwellings. The original island is buried under 197 feet of volcanic material.
The last eruption at Santorini occurred in 1950. There have been 9 other eruptions prior to 1950, in the last 2000 years. The eruptions have been more frequent as the centuries progressed and the current gap of 65 years or more possibly brings the next one closer.
Back to the palpable presence of quaint Greek island architecture: Islanders and investors have taken advantage of all the ledges, caves and crevices on the jagged edge of the island facing the caldera and built foundations and non-linear structural surfaces (curved walls and roofs) on the very edge of the island at different elevations. Whitewashed hotels, homes, shops and restaurants cling precariously to the cliffs over the deep blue waters. The spectacle is photogenic and surreal. As the sun climbs higher, these whitewashed stuctures suspended over the water, radiate contrast, brilliance and dazzling brightness. At sunset and for a while later, the twinkling lights from these suspended abodes peep out from the soft white curvature of the external walls. Tiny blue domed churches stake out their pictorial space interspersed between the dwellings.
The northern part of the crescent is where the concentration of human habitation is located with scenic views and picturesque narrow lanes running inbetween them. The sunset viewed from Oia, near the northern tip of the crescent, is legendary and we were able to soak it in, having arrived early to claim a vantage spot.
A mule ride up the steps and cliffs of Thirasia (part of the Santorini archipelago) unsettled the missus much to the amusement of our son. Later, we sat down at a quiet rooftop restaurant overlooking the other islands with the deep blue caldera in the middle. We ordered the fabled combination of local yogurt and honey and experienced the tranquility and silence of the surroundings. An Australian couple sat at the only other occupied table. The gentleman broke the silence and said this is how life should always be, and I couldn’t agree more.
We visited Nia Kameni, an island created by lava in the middle of the caldera and parts of this formation are still actively steaming and some stones felt warm to the touch.
We had a hotel booked but never made it to the island (see Paros).
I can’t claim we got shipwrecked at Paros on the way to Mykonos as our ship was intact, but we were dumped unexpectedly and unceremoniously on the shores of this island. We had planned to cut transit time between Santorini and Mykonos short by booking a ride on a CAT (fast catamaran) which zips across the water faster than ships. In this case the tortoise won the race because all ships scheduled to reach Mykonos that day did so. Halfway through the trip on our CAT, the waves got higher and the sea started rolling. After battling the storm for an hour the Captain took an executive decision to dock at Paros. He then made an announcement that all passengers needed to disembark at the port and stay near the boat to be within earshot of announcements.
We witnessed a clash of cultures. A fellow Yank walked up to the Greek Captain, pointed to his watch and said, “So, when do we leave Paros to get to Mykonos?” The Captain stepped back, looked at the American tourist and told him, “The sea is sick. When you are sick, do you know when you’ll get better?”
The American insisted at length that he had schedules, itineraries and obligations that he needed to accommodate. A dialogue commenced with precise questions and laid back answers.
Finally, the Captain shrugged and said, “We have to wait for the sea to calm down.” Then he abruptly got off the boat, got on to a scooter available at the dock and rode off. End of conversation. I guess we were on a sheltered side of Paros as the sea seemed plenty calm (shades of George Bush) at that time to me.
We hung around the quay long enough to miss the cancellation window of our hotel at Mykonos. And the PA system on our boat then said that CAT wouldn’t be leaving before the next day and even that was in question.
Luckily lodgings in Paros were reasonably priced and easy to get. We approached a whitewashed house with a hotel sign on it. The townsfolk must have heard of our plight. Also this may not have been the first time for such an occasion. The owner of the first house we approached took us in, showed us clean rooms with spotless linens and towels, and charged us a ridiculously small amount for rent compared to Santorini, Mykonos or Athens.The catamaran had about 200 passengers and they all settled in for the night.
This put the missus in a good mood and “we” decided to go shopping. She had been eyeing Greek jewellery at Plaka (a pleasant tourist trap) in Athens and had balked at the price. Surely the prices on an offbeat small island would be better. They probably were and so we chalked up another thousand bucks for Greek gold on the trusty old credit card.
We checked with the CAT staff the next morning and there was still no definitive time of departure. The adjoining bay (near the docks) was shallow a long way out and we spent ample time on the sand and water. When afternoon came with no update on the departure time, we made alternative plans. The big ships plying the Agean were not hindered by weather and we booked seats on one to Athens that evening. It was adios to Paros. I was skeptical about the height of waves and windspeed at ground level but when the ship departed and I stepped out on deck a hundred feet above sea level, the wind pushed me around, and my hat went flying. I chased after it only to see it take off and land on the waves, far below deck.
The first thing about Singapore that hit me was the over the top Changi airport. There were enormous aquariums, aesthetically decorated, with shoals of colored fish big and small swimming around. There was a large garden inside the airport building and birds were flying freely between the trees. There is reportedly a rooftop swimming pool with a swim up bar.
The most important thing that impressed me about Singapore was the coexistence of religions that are bloodying each other in different parts of the world. Active temples and mosques thrive freely instead of having to be cordoned off or guarded.
The established architecture is solid British and there are modern towers as well along with quaint ethnic architecture. The Mass Rapid Transit Train platforms have transparent walls separating passengers from the tracks. Doors on the trains align with sleek doors on the platform when the trains stop, and both sets of doors (on the patform and on the train) open and shut simultaneously.
I was in a taxi with my dad going in one direction when we passed a museum we were planning to visit, on the other side of the road. I requested the taxi driver to take a U-turn. He looked at me, mildly shocked, and said U-Turns are not allowed in Singapore. (Feel free to look up Singapore NUTS – No U Turn Syndrome). The driver explained if he was caught, not only would he have to pay a fine, he would also have to clean a local beach for half a day. He made the U Turn anyway and dropped us off at the museum.
It reminded me of the US citizen, Michael Fay, who was supposed to get six lashes of the cane in Singapore for vandalizing cars and stealing street signs, but was let off with four lashes and a reduced jail term due to President Clinton’s intervention.
The diversity of dinner options reflects the population in Singapore. South and North Indian food, both readily available in close proximity, reflects a clash of sub continental culture. At a Southern Indian restaurant, vegetarian fare, mainly idli and dosa was served on washed banana leaves. The cuisine served at the North Indian place was aggressive and colorful, with an emphasis on non-bovine meat. I tried a large Pomfret fish as big as a dish, in a mall setting and it came carved similar to a pineapple skin, with each scab having a distinct taste. I’ve searched for that Pomfret preparation all over but I guess I need to return to Singapore to sample it again.