Monday, January 19, 2009

"These changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes;

nothing remains quite the same."

After the Fort Lauderdale round trip by car, an Airbus from FLL to Nassau, and 7,037 nautical miles of sea/river travel, we are back home, 34:57:1.84 North. First a bit wired and then just tired, I have been trying to catch up, clean up, and - with not much success - wrap my head around the last month. Jimmy Buffett has been helping with a soundtrack.
A month ago today the MV Explorer was not-so-gently wallowing towards St. Barts, encouraging the development of sea-legs, an appreciation of the differences in wave motion between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, and nausea. Even though I had done my due diligence (appropriate clothing packed well, scoured the internet, and read a dozen or so books in preparation), that was one of many surprises; proving once again the value - the richness - of travel. Expectations just get in the way.
As this is a blog post, and I have not the time, skill, nor energy to write a travel narrative that does justice to those 21 days, here is a thumbnail version.
Semester-At-Sea. A 10 on a 10 point scale. These guys rock. SAS logoMaking such an experience possible for students of all ages takes faith in the best of humanity, dedication, and balls. Time and time again I was struck by the professionalism, attention to detail, and loving care taken by the SAS/ISE staff. A wonderful idea well executed. The program has earned and deserves our admiration, love, and support ($$).
MV Explorer. One hell of a ship. Maybe a bit fancy for a floating campus; maybe my experiences on the Ryndam make me a bit jealous. Still, it feels like a ship rather than a floating hotel/barge. Fast too. Great crew. Home.
Enrichment Voyages. The Institute for Shipboard Education (ISE) sponsors these Enrichment Voyages between SAS semesters, a combination of some of the academic and educational experiences of a Semester-at-Sea with more conventional holiday cruise fare. While I would have preferred more SAS and fewer "fun cruise" oriented cranky old people who expected to have their buns kissed at every turn, ISE struck a good programatic balance on this voyage. The professors and local experts brought onboard to provide our lectures added greatly to my experience. I am especially in awe of Dan Everett. More Dan Everett, less bingo.
Americans On Holiday. Although many - maybe most - of my shipmates knew the difference between a voyage and a cruise, a ship and a boat, and were the full equivalent of my Fall '67 WCA shipmates (albeit much older), I still had opportunity to observe the sad antics and rudeness of Americans abroad. We will be much happier as a nation when we get over ourselves. I am not holding my breath. I wish a few of my shipmates had opted for Orlando for the holidays; we all would probably have been happier.
World Campus Afloat, Fall 1967. I tried, but I still cannot attempt to describe that experience without a lump in my throat, tears in my eyes.
Colombier BeachBlue. It is hard to imagine how many shades there are without visiting the Caribbean.
Tourism. Many of the places we visited and individuals we met rely on tourism for a good portion of their livelihood. We appear at an appointed hour on our (generally) sanitized packaged tours, smile and take our photographs, ask the same predictable questions, and leave some money behind as we head to our next destination. Our hosts generally seem happy to see us arrive, sad to see us go. I wonder.
I wonder what we look like to them, how we sound. How would we feel having our communities toured, photos taken of our homes and families, our ways questioned, especially by people speaking a different language, with different skin colors, who obviously are orders of magnitude more wealthy.
At one stop a tour guide bet our group that we could not identify an object lying on the ground. He was shocked and flustered when several of us - including me - instantly recognized a yoke for oxen. "We are not as dumb as we look," one lady said, much to the amusement of all. "I certainly hope so," thought I. Now if we can only ratchet down the arrogance, self-righteousness, and ignorance.
As you can tell I have very mixed feelings about tourism, even well done. I hope it does more good than harm, for all concerned. I don't feel that way about travel. There is a difference.
The Amazon. Incomprehensible scale, richness. Christmas day about noon we were several hundred miles up river. Churning Up the AmazonI was on the forward observation deck amazed at the width - maybe 3 miles at that point. As I was looking at the right riverbank the trees opened, revealing that the land was actually a narrow island, revealing another river channel about the same width. I was struck speechless. (Actually, prior to being speechless I uttered George Carlin words, a string of them.) Read a book or two about the river, watch National Geographic videos, go.
Brazil. Imagine the United States about 1880. The parallels are striking. Flush with natural resources, an energetic population, and eager to move beyond the sad consequences of colonialism, Brazil may well be beyond being perpetually the "Country of the Future" or the "Land of Unlimited Impossibilities." That said, I visited Brazil's equivalent of the Wild West, the states of Amazonas and Para, parts of the country few Brazilians have ever seen. If their politics can rise to match the strength of its people... yes, the parallels are striking.
Rubber, Sugar, Bananas. Cane Worker Housing, St KittsWe in North America and Europe have little understanding of the true human and environmental costs of these "commodities," or how our industrial revolution was financed. We are just beginning to learn a bit about oil. The number of lives lived in misery and/or lost to put sugar in tea cups, tires on wheels, and fruit on our tables seems to have mattered little when the skin affected was mostly black or brown. Europeans transported hell to paradise, the results easily observed today throughout the Caribbean. And if one attempts to wishfully relegate this story to the past, consider the conversion of the relatively innocuous coca leaf to cocaine, and the misery to all concerned of that contribution of western chemistry. Just the tip of the Caribbean iceberg. And we wonder why some spit out the word colonialism with fear and hatred. Heads up folks, most of us are creoles, in one way or another.
Things I Still Can Do, but Probably Shouldn't. Among the in-port activities I signed up for was a visit to the Wacky Rollers Adventure Park on Dominica and their "survivor-like" challenge course. Wacky RollersYes, I did read the description before hand. But it kicked my butt. I did finish with only one minor slip, but I was exhausted. My companions kept asking me if I was alright. One said she thought I was going to die. I knew I was not, but that was little comfort. I need to either get in better aerobic shape, or become a spectator. I don't spectate well. And I bloody well earned that certificate.
Native Americans. If you think the treatment of the locals by Europeans in North America since Columbus arrived was/is bad, study the history of Central and South America. Two of Our GuidesHard to believe it could have been worse, but it was. Yes, things are better today, mainly because so few natives are left. We seem to revere Chico Mendes, but people still are being marginalized or killed, their land stolen, their forests burned. While today fewer Brazilians with native blood prepare bamboo to be used as roofing material, as our tour hosts are doing in this photo, many are still treated with contempt or neglect.
I Want To Go Back to ... St Kitts, followed closely by Dominica. Both were gorgeous and human scaled. In Brazil Manaus was a bit overwhelming, Santarem deserved more time. Barbados is also worth a second visit. Actually I would go back to them all.
Here is one reason I enjoyed St. Kitts, Greg's Tours.
FeastFruit. I ate some of the most marvelous fruits. I cannot remember many of their names but the memories of flavor remain. I am very taken by the fruit of the acsi palm. Yes, it is being oversold - like most things - in the U.S. But it is wonderful, as is the fresh pineapple, bananas, passion fruit, mango, coconut, bread fruit, pomegranate, assorted oranges, limes, lemons and melons - the usual suspects - plus carambola, guava, sour sop, tamarind, and pawpaw. I really liked the sour sop. Freshness counts.
Biggest Surprise. Trinidad. And I mean that in a good way. Diverse, an economy not dependent on tourism, large. It felt like a country, not an island. Yes, I had heard of Brian Lara before; no, I still do not understand cricket.
Biggest Disappointment. I wanted more time in each port.
Next Goal. Anita and I want to see a student from her university as part of the student body of SAS.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Homeward Bound

Sunrise, DominicaToday we are at sea, heading for port at Fort Lauderdale tomorrow morning. It is the first opportunity for R & R (rest and reflection) since 12/31 as we have been in one port or another for six days straight. I have been too busy, unable to gather my thoughts for blog postings. Your understanding is appreciated. Here is sunrise off Roseau, Dominica as compensation.

The Caribbean is quiet and smooth this morning, the Explorer making rapid (~27 knots) pace. By this evening I expect most of what we brought aboard will be packed and we will have figured out what to do with all the stuff we bought. We might even have figured out our US customs paperwork.

Sometime next week I will probably post a blog or two about this voyage. Thoughts must be collected first. I did the best I could posting a few photos to Flickr; I hope they were sufficient for a thumbnail narrative of our past three weeks. Anita has done a better job on her blog.

The Amazon and Caribbean defy a few clever phrases, even mine. I will never be able to look at a teaspoon of sugar again without thinking of its cost in human lives over the years. I will not soon forget the exceptionally wonderful and professional Semester-at-Sea staff - and MV Explorer crew - who made this voyage possible. The blue waters, the marvelous tastes of local fruits, the resilience of the descendants of the slaves and indentured servants who live in the places we visited, all of these will be remembered.

Next hurricane season I will respond differently as the Weather Channel describes the paths and destruction of storms through places I have seen, harbors where I have slept.

It is a cliche that the world is getting smaller. It is also not true. We are getting larger, as individuals, as societies. Travel has always done that, electronic technology now has speeded up the process. The Amazon and the Caribbean are part of me now, and I am the larger and better for it.