Diary of a Caribbean Cruise – Part Four
Down to the depths, and up to the heavens... (but not on the sea!)
Monday, January 24, 2011
... following a day on the island of Barbados
Cruise lines don’t simply sail a ship into port, park it, and leave their thousands of guests to get off and just wander about. Everywhere their ships go, organizers have arranged for dozens of guided tours to take place – all for an extra fee, of course.
Mind you, there is nothing to say that people can’t simply get off and wander about. In fact, that is exactly what Heather and I (and Werner and Mary) have done several times: we disembarked on our own, and arranged for ourselves how we would experience the islands.
...down to the depths; on land!
However, even before we left Canada, there was one pre-arranged tour that we all thought would be very interesting to do: the “Harrison Cave” tour in Barbados.
Unlike Grenada and other West Indian islands, which were formed as volcanos, Barbados is simply an enormous coral reef. Continental drift thrust it out of the water long ago, and, with its mix of ocean sediment, limestone and coral, Barbados has an extensive network of caves. The largest of these, with more than three miles of interconnected passages, is called “Harrison’s Cave,” and the cruise companies organize convoys of buses to take people to see it. And to go down into it.
Inside “Harrison’s Cave”
(note waterdrops on shirt!)
This particular tour is pretty comprehensive too, because the bus drivers all give well-informed commentary as we make our way to the caves: about the history of Barbados, its culture, and the points of interest that we pass along the way.
As it turned out, both Heather and I loved our tour of the cave. We did not, I hasten to add, do true spelunking – where one crawls along in pitch dark on hands and knees, with a light strapped to a safety helmet. No, we sat in an open tram, and rolled through more than a mile of cave, with a tour guide pointing out the cave’s many features. Our only discomfort was the “cave showers” – water drops that fell like rain from the ceiling.
Harrison’s Cave is a natural wonder that the government of Barbados has turned into an extremely informative and non-strenuous tourist attraction. In a way, our little tram was the underground equivalent of the Lady of the Mist at Niagara Falls.
The tram operators turn off all lights at the deepest point of the tour; and when they do, the darkness is palpable and complete, with no sound but the constant dripping. For the rest of the trip we passed by bottomless lakes, holes that plunged who knows how far down to stalagmites that can break every bone in the body. All of which was not only awesome and breathtaking, but also it gave a very good impression of what the people who first explored the cave might have experienced. 12
We got back to the ship exhilarated.
Naps followed, once more, in the afternoon (it’s surprising how tired we seem to be!). Then, dinner with Werner & Mary, followed by a couple of hours in a rather unique onboard lounge: one that is dedicated to ballroom dancing. Werner and Mary danced – and did so admirably. Unfortunately, although Heather and I took dancing lessons last November in hopes that we, too, might do something creditable on the dance floor, due to the pain that Heather is experiencing daily, this was not to be. But the band in this lounge – one of several groups of musicians on the ship – played the nicest stuff that I’ve heard so far on this cruise. And, the lounge also has the best ambience, hands down.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
... following a day on the island of St. Vincent
From the moment we boarded ship I knew that I love the “floating hotel” aspect of cruising. Indeed I stated right here in this blog, on our first day out, that we need never step off onto a single island, so pleasant is it simply being in this stateroom.
As well, there is at least a little bit of truth to the assertion that if you’ve seen one tropical island you’ve seen them all. And so, while from the outset I have wanted to explore Grenada and St. Kitt’s, I figured I could pass on at least some of the other islands. Last week, after a couple of days at sea, getting off on Aruba and Curaçao made sense, but this week the ship visits a different island every day, and the prospect has been quite tiring.
So I planned early on to miss St. Vincent, and announced as much to the Schulzes and to Heather.
A Change of PlansI thought that Heather was okay with this, because – particularly with those steps on Sunday in Grenada – she has pushed her painful legs well beyond their capacity, and she might well have profited today by giving them a rest.
But after breakfast, we were sitting in the stateroom, and her tears started to flow. In part, this was due to the intensity of her leg pain, but I realized as I got her to talk about it, that she is also feeling cheated by the pain; cheated from enjoying all the islands to the fullest possible extent. 13 In other words, if she could she would get off the boat at every single port of call. Evidently she had long since decided that if I wanted to sit in the stateroom, I was welcome to, but she planned to disembark on her own, do a little shopping, and maybe do a little bit of walking about.
So the tears came today because she was hurting so much that she knew she couldn’t walk anywhere unassisted.
It was clear, therefore, what I had to do. So, with Heather still wiping her eyes, I offered to help her off the ship, and proposed that we hire a taxi, just as we had hired Charles on Sunday in Grenada, and get driven around, if only for a little bit – just to see some of the unique features of the place.
From the ship, St. Vincent looks extremely mountainous. Nothing is on the level. Houses perch on clifftops and hillsides. Roads appear to go up at 45 degree angles. Clearly Heather would have been quite destroyed trying to walk in a place such as this.
There was another good reason to get a taxi: the weather today in St. Vincent has been very very rainy. I knew before we started that if we limited ourselves to walking, we would end up being soaked to the skin.
The moment I made the offer, Heather cheered up wonderfully, and I knew that I had done the right thing.
And so we disembarked and made our way through the terminal. Like true West Indians, we waited under an overhang for the rain to stop, before going across an open space to the taxi stand. But the rain didn’t let up. So Heather opened her umbrella and we crossed anyway.
Solemn JosephineThe dispatcher told us that “Josephine” was next in line to take passengers. However, she was not to be seen, so he set up a shout for her, and finally she emerged, holding a map of the island over her head as a makeshift umbrella (she had been standing under another overhang).
Josephine is large, very black, and has not a trace of a smile.
We got in, and the car was soon underway. Only then did I realize that we had broken one of the cardinal rules of touring: agree on a price before getting into the car! The rain made everyone, ourselves included, anxious to be under cover, and so there we were in Josephine’s back seat, with no price settled.
And she told us it would be US$100 for a quick tour of the town. Ouch.
Well, I have neither experience nor skill at haggling, but I managed to sound shocked enough that Josephine dropped the price to US$80.00. I shrugged, and accepted. We would see Kingstown, on the island of St. Vincent, and that was what we had come to do. However, for the next five minutes Josephine made various attempts to justify the price, until I spoke rather forcefully, “Josephine, we’ve settled on a price, and there is no need to bring up the matter any more. Let’s just have a look at your home town, shall we?”
It seems that Josephine had something of a chip on her shoulder. She complained that the dispatcher never called for her all morning (the ship had arrived at about 8:00 AM, and now it was nearly noon); that he always favoured his friends; and that when Heather and I showed up the only reason he said that it was her turn’ was because the cab company manager was watching. I forget the other items in her litany of woes, but it was quite a list. However, she also managed to indicate some points of interest as we drove along.
What we had asked for, in this customized tour of Kingstown, was, “historical places, government buildings, and most of all, neighbourhoods where ordinary people lead ordinary lives.” I also wanted to stop at one store: I was considering buying some snorkel gear in one of the shipboard shops, where a Taiwan-made kit comprising mask, snorkel, and fins was available for US$54.00. On shore, would prices be any better?
Well, it was lucky that I wanted to do this, because Josephine had a pretty fixed idea about what tourists wish to see, and the idea of “ordinary people with ordinary lives” was not so easy for her to grasp. However, after she called the dispatcher to enquire what sort of store provided the items that I was looking for, she ended up taking us to a place which was very much off the beaten track: run down wooden buildings badly in need of paint; old people and children peering out of windows or sheltering in doorways from the rain. An odd place for a scuba and swim gear store, you’d think, but the sign over the open door proclaimed exactly the sort of wares I needed, so in I went.
The two store clerks were polite, but not very energetic. Their primary business was swimsuits, not diving equipment, but they showed me a wall of masks and fins, and, with a little urging they took down one of the masks for me to examine. It was fine enough quality, I suppose, but when I saw the price – $90.00 for the mask only – I thanked the ladies very much and beat a hasty retreat
Only later did I realize that this price was probably expressed in Caribbean dollars, 2.5 of which make one U.S. dollar. Such an exchange rate would put their mask at US$36.00, which was still more expensive than shipboard, but much less unreal than I had at first supposed.
But I gave up on shopping for now. Heather, whose legs were paining her mightily, showed little interest in entering stores herself (which shows just how serious the pain was). She just wanted to see Kingstown.
...up to the heavens; on land!
Historic structures were on our “must see” list, and this matched with Josephine’s understanding of tourists, so we were soon off to see Fort Charlotte. Before long, the car was labouring up roads at a forty-five degree angle. With the rain on the pavement I wondered if Josephine would actually lose traction, but the car moved steadily upward. Once, at a particularly steep switchback, it almost stalled, and I became fearful, for there were two tour buses behind us and no possible place for Josephine to back up and take a run at the hill, but... she made it.
I have a problem with heights – I get pretty severe vertigo, in fact – and as the car went ever upward, I began to wonder – not for the first time – whether coming on this tour was such a good idea. At one point there was a horrendous vertical drop on either side of the road, with what seemed to be a completely ineffective roadside barricade. I must have let out a strangled cry, because Josephine said, “You doesn’t worry, man! I be good driver!” Such reassurance did not help.
Moments later, we went through a tiny opening in an ancient wall, and the car came to a stop in a small enclosed rainswept field. The parking surface consisted primarily of mud puddles. A man opened our door and offered to guide us around the fortification for $5. The price, being so much lower than Josephine’s $80, seemed quite reasonable. However, it turned out that the entirety of the fort could be covered in about a minute, so this was no bargain either.
The installation, perched on the top of a narrow peak with a vertical drop of 600 feet to the sea on one side, and a somewhat lesser drop to the town on the other, consisted of a wall, a gate, a rampart, and a single stone building. Inside the building was a series of simple oil paintings, with hand-lettered signs under them, depicting the history of the island. The history itself was fascinating, and full of sorrow: shipwrecked slaves making a life for themselves, then being recaptured and shipped to Central America, local Carib natives being slaughtered, and battles between the French and English, with what was left of the locals as cannon fodder. Our $5 guide, whose name is Tony (a very fine name), believed that his primary duty was to tell the story of the island as portrayed in these paintings. He also told us that out of sight of the tourists, but adjacent to the fort on that very hilltop and part of its structure, was a prison. A women’s prison. There is one person in there serving life – which means exactly that: her term ends when she dies. Another has a forty-two year sentence. The rest are petty criminals doing a couple of years for marijuana use and crimes like that.
Tony (our guide) talked about the island’s justice system, which is pretty strict, and he boasted that in their prisons “there is no cable TV or other luxuries such as you get in your prisons.” I told him that Canadian prisons are not the hotels that he imagines.
St. Vincent continues to have capital punishment, and the national gallows is also part of Fort Charlotte’s adjacent prison complex. There can be no more stark reminder than a gallows, that this is a sovereign nation with life and death control over its inhabitants and its visitors.
Fort Charlotte, as seen from sea level
– a 600ft vertical drop to the sea
Meanwhile, the picture on the left gives some sense of the enormous height of the hill on which the fort is built, and of the sheer drop to the ocean from almost all sides.
Tony, our $5 guide, also pointed to a structure, built in the pounding surf far below the fort (I don’t think it can be seen in the photos). Long ago this was used, he said, to wash off lepers in salt water. Openings in the structure allowed the waves to crash into a depression at the centre where the leprosy patients were compelled to sit, or even lie down. Such forcefully applied salt water was considered a good treatment for the fearsome disease. Most interesting, if true. I’m merely passing along to you what Tony told us.
Back in Josephine’s cab, we returned down the mountain (a journey I accomplished by trying not to look out the window), and then we drove past a courthouse, a small legislature, and a variety of small stores. Josephine’s route next took us to a beach area, and along a road beside the airport (the place where Josephine spends most of her days, unless a cruise ship is in). We looked at everything with interest, but did not get out anywhere.
Finally the car once more went up a steep hill, and we found ourselves in “Cane Gardens,” a clifftop subdivision of Kingstown, overlooking the harbour and our cruise ship. It was a spectacular view. All about us were homes of the extremely wealthy, whose great houses were perched on top the cliff like cake decorations.
From there, we returned to the terminal building, and our rather expensive tour of St. Vincent-in-the rain-was over. We thanked Josephine and wished her well, then boarded the ship. Painful legs notwithstanding, on our way back to the gangway, Heather did manage to look into a few of the tourist shops. A good sign.
12 In the interpretive centre there is an account of a group of adventurers who went into the cave in the 17th Century. All their torches failed. Some in the party managed to feel their way back to the surface to bring in more lights, while the rest waited. Apparently no one perished.
13 In addition to dealing with pain (which was particularly bad today in St. Vincent, perhaps because of the steady rain and humidity), Heather has been coping with a sorrow of another kind altogether: I go online once or twice a day, to update my FaceBook status and to collect email. On Sunday night a message came in from our niece, Tawny Brown, to say that Heather’s 93 year old mother had fallen the day before, had broken her hip, and was awaiting surgery. Since the accident, Tawny has posted a daily update online – sometimes twice a day. My Mother-in-law has now had the surgery, and is recovering but continuing in Intensive Care. In hospital, partly as a result of incipient dementia, and partly due to the effects of anasthesia, she was at times very uncooperative, removing her IVs and getting out of bed, only to fall and hurt herself even worse. Heather takes in all this information. She knows she can’t return to Winnipeg before next Tuesday or Wednesday, but there is a certain amount of guilt at being on a cruise while her sister and niece do all the caregiving for this extremely elderly woman.