Irma’s Aftermath

Hurricane Irma tore into St. John about 18 months ago. The island was in the wall of the eye of the storm for more than two hours. Survivors describe it as a truly harrowing experience.

Signs of the devastation wrought by the storm are still found all over the island — as is seen in the remains of the restaurant located next door to our lodging. The damage followed a distinct pattern. First the storm lifted the roofs off structures and blew out their windows, then it rained flying debris that knocked down walls, then the exposed innards of homes and buildings were exposed to drenching rain — which was compounded when another storm blew through the region about a week later and dumped still more rain.

But St. John has bounced back. Much of the damage has been fixed already, and repair work is underway elsewhere. In some cases, insurance snags have delayed the rebuilding efforts. Many of the residents who survived the storm and remained on the island will tell you it was a kind of rite of passage. Some people left, but those who stayed rolled up their sleeves, worked together to clear debris and help their neighbors, and jointly experienced the aftermath period when only generator power was available and you couldn’t buy a drink with ice. New and lasting friendships were formed, and you’ll hear people saying that the island is stronger than ever because of that.

We came to St. John for some sunshine and heat to break up the Midwestern winter, and we definitely got that — but we also got a lesson in the resilience of the human spirit.

Which End Is Which?

On this morning’s hike we encountered this colorful critter puttering his way along the rocks on the slope of Margaret Hill. He was bright and highly visible against the gray granite and the backdrop of green plants and about the length and thickness of an index figure. Which end is the front, you ask? He was moving right to left, so you’ve got to think the red knob at the left end was its head — but then again it might have been trying to trick us by backing up.

The Perils Of Plastic

We’re staying at a terrific little beachside resort on Ambergris Caye in Belize.  It offers snug, thatch-roofed cottages, excellent food, a beautiful beach, and an infinity pool, among many other amenities.  Every day, resort workers rake the sand, cart away excess sea grass that has washed ashore, and leave the beach in the pristine, white sand state that resort-goers demand.

Just down the Caye, however, is an unattended section of beach, and here we get a glimpse of the impact of our plastic, disposable, consumer culture.  Belize lies at the western end on the Caribbean, where the prevailing winds blow.  On this section of beach every imaginable bit of disposable debris — a huge range of differently sized bottles, jugs, tubs, bits of strofoam, storage containers, and even soccer balls — have collected on the sand, mingled with the sea grass.  It’s disgusting, and unsightly, but mostly it’s sad.  Whether through thoughtlessness or inadvertence, the human plastic culture has left its ugly mark on an otherwise pretty beach on a fine, sunny morning.  If one small section of beach is bears this gross collection of crap, we can’t really begin to imagine the impact of the junk on the sea as a whole.

Via Tropic Air

Kish and I decided to get away from the grey Columbus skies for a few days and chose Belize as our destination.  Tropic Air is one of the local airlines, along with Maya Airlines.  We and a dozen other passengers took this sturdy propeller plane across the bay to Ambergris Caye.  I’m used to prop planes that make an ungodly racket, but this plane was remarkably quiet.

You really know you’re in the Caribbean when you cross over that sparkling, crystal clear, blue-green water.

Cruise Control

IMG_3834Kish and I are back from a seven-day cruise through the islands of the south Caribbean on the Windstar, the flagship of the Windstar Cruise Line.  While we are still experiencing a bit of the adjustment back to solid ground after a week on a ship, it seems like a good time to reflect a bit on taking a cruise — and how it compares to other forms of travel.

First things first:  Windstar is a very good cruise line that covers all of the basics you expect from a cruise — lots of well-prepared food (and interesting food sculpture, too, as shown below), multiple excursion options, friendly cabin attendants and other staffers, an exercise facility, evening entertainment, and good pours from the bartenders.  The Windstar, however, is a much smaller vessel than the massive floating hotels that you find on other cruise lines that carry thousands of passengers; our ship held only about 130. That significant size difference plays out in multiple ways.

IMG_3993Unlike the huge cruise ships, on the Windstar you feel like you are actually on a ship.  On a windy day you feel the roll of the ocean and you acquire your sea legs — which is why we’re still adjusting to dry land today.  When you are walking on deck you need to be ready to grab hold.  I liked that aspect of the experience very much, because I thought it gave me a sense of what it must have been like to travel on smaller sailing ships in days gone by.

Because the ship is smaller, of course, the entertainment choices and bars are fewer, and there is no “Lido deck” where you can get frozen yogurt and ice cream 24 hours a day.  There was a small casino (which we never used), a small plunge pool and hot tub, and a husband and wife duo that covered multiple musical genres in their shows, but no big pool with drinking contests, no comedy club, and no sports bar.  Some people might find the lack of such options a problem; we enjoyed the more intimate setting.

We also liked the fact that the size of the ship allowed the Windstar to visit little islands that a massive cruise liner could never approach — and, even if it could, that would be overrun by the discharge of hundreds of passengers.  Rather than tying up at the cruise ship terminals at the main ports on the bigger islands, the Windstar moored in little harbors next to places that we never would have seen otherwise, like tiny Mayreau and Bequia.  We were looking for some time away from the rat race, and we found it — as well as a chance to enjoy some beautiful sunsets at sea.

One other thing about cruises is worth remembering, and that is the issue of control.  If you are traveling on your own, you are free to come and go as you please and adjust your itinerary if you choose to do so.  That is not an option on a cruise ship.  You select from a menu of excursion options or can wander through port towns, but you have to be back on the ship by a set time.  Certain types of people like the security of that kind of schedule, and others feel that their freedom is constrained by it.  You may not know exactly how you will react until you try it.

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The Pathes To Bathsheba

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The east side of Barbados is mountainous, and the Sea U Guesthouse where we are staying is on the edge of a rocky hillside. There is no direct, easy route down to the water. Instead, two options are presented.

First, you can head south and downhill, the loop back north and follow a worn trail that runs along the coastline. This route will take you past boats under repair, steps that lead to nowhere, and abandoned concrete foundations, and the grasses growing along the path will tickle your ankles as they sway in the ever-present sea breeze.

Or you can head north and uphill to find the main road, and then follow that route as it switchbacks down the hillside to the ocean. This route requires the walker to keep an eye out for traffic — which proceeds on the wrong side of the road, from the American standpoint — but also offers a stunning view of the sweeping arc of Bathsheba beach and its pounding waves, as well as a bird’s eye view of the footpath far below.

Two distinct paths to one destination. Very zen-like, and very Caribbean!

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That Delightful Ramshackle Quality

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There’s lots to like about the Caribbean. The sun is hot, the native beers are cold, and the people are warm and friendly.

But one of the things I like the most is the ramshackle, what-the-hell approach to life that seems to be found throughout the islands. Consider this colorful derelict boat that looks like it met the same fate as the SS Minnow. It appears to have been at this location forever — and the location is a prime spot of waterfront right next to a hotel.

Well . . . why the hell not? It’s as good a place as any to store a boat that is falling apart. Say, do you know if that beachfront place has Banks on ice?

Craving The Carib

IMG_2706It’s cold here, and next week it’s supposed to get even colder.  I wish I were down in the Caribbean, with toes in the sand and a cold beverage in a wet, beaded glass in hand, looking out on sailboats moving languidly across the blue water!

As a noted philosopher once observed, however:  You can’t always get what you want.

Steel Drum Setting

Music often evokes time and place.  Hearing a particular song that was playing at the time may vividly bring back, for example, making out with your high school girlfriend in the basement of your parents’ house, or a drunken, late night bull session with your buddies at your trashed college apartment.

IMG_2621Few genres of music, however, are as tied to a location as steel drum music is tied to the Caribbean islands.  Perhaps ukelele music and Hawaii, or oompa bands and Germany, or koto music and Japan could compare — but that’s about it.  Rock music, classical music, jazz, big band: all could be, and have been, successfully played just about anywhere.  Steel drum music, though, really needs to be played outdoors, on a warm evening, with sultry breezes ruffling the leaves of lush tropical vegetation and crowds of happy, relaxed, rum-stoked people moving slowly to the ringing and tinkling sounds made by striking those gleaming steel drums.  Try to imagine hearing steel drum music in a snowbound northern location, with people bundled up and their breath visible in the cold.  I bet you can’t, because the juxtaposition is just too jarring.

My association of steel drum music with tropical warmth and beauty is so strong that I can make good use of it after I return home.  When the cold, gray, gloomy days of winter close in, I put on some steel drum music and can almost feel the sun on my skin, smell the coconut scent of suntan lotion, and see the bright turquoise waters of the Caribbean.  It makes the winter just a bit more bearable.