cienfuegos

Our final port of call was Cienfuegos, the Pearl of the South. We entered port Punta Gorda through yet another a long channel opening up into a massive bay. The day was dawning as we approached, too dark to appreciate the small communities and tidy properties scattered along the flat shoreline.

Our itinerary included two projects: Trazos Libres, a neighborhood collective developed by artist Hermes Santiago, and the Graphics Society of Cienfuegos, a group of printmaking artists who work with children with special needs. This was followed by a walking tour of the historical Cienfuegos city center. But first we had to get there.

We boarded our tour bus at the pier in Punta Gorda. Group 5, independents. Saralie was easily our favorite tour guide of the week. She was warm, friendly, and spoke flawless English, providing just the right amount of information at the right time. She was extremely patient with a group that only seemed to slow by the day.

Our bus made a brief stop at Jagua Hotel in Punta Gorda before getting down to city business. This stop must have been a bid for return visitors. Several group members inquired about the rate and seemed hooked, so in that sense it was a success. Indeed, the Jagua seemed lovely at first glance — but buyer beware.

Adjacent to the hotel is a much more interesting property, unfortunately now closed. Saralie recounted how many years ago, an entrepreneurial housekeeper there opened the restrooms for public use. She collected fees and constructed a small restaurant across the street. Her food was so good that Fidel went out of his way to eat there on his triumphal cross-country tour, post-Revolution, headed to Havana. Yet another irony…

Our first stop was at Trazos Libres. The entire street was transformed to a stage and the whole neighborhood seemed to have turned out for the occasion of our visit. We were greeted by artists in character as the band played and small girls danced and a grandmother kept close watch. This gift of sunflower and smile made my day.

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The neighborhood was beautiful and warm and welcoming. I just couldn’t stop smiling; I loved this place! I met the artist, Hermes Santiago, and brought home some pottery for my friend, Ana, who was born in Cuba. I interacted briefly with a mama holding a beautiful brown baby; neither of us spoke the other’s language but I knew she understood.

Our next stop was the Graphics Society of Cienfuegos. This is a collective that specializes in various types of printmaking. Their are a number of artists in residence. On any given day, they are working with local children with special needs. I was especially impressed with the many modifications Cubans have made to create art with readily available supplies. For example, sone etch on X-ray film!

The walking tour was pleasant enough if not remarkable. We passed several private restaurants and others clearly state-run. We knew that Cuban media is completely controlled by the government and were interested to pass a newspaper office along the way. We passed by a store that sold imported goods on the CUC (convertible peso) market and another that sold only Cuban-produced goods for CUPs (local pesos; green awning in photo below). Cubans and foreigners can shop in either location with requisite currency but I must admit that neither seemed compelling on a quick scan of display windows. Our tour guide noted that Cubans shop at the local store to make ends meet. For example, a bar of local soap sells at a small small fraction of imported soap.  Cienfuegos was clean and tidy, as every Cuban city we’ve visited has been, despite the occasional rubble.

Our walking tour concluded in the historic city center which was lovely. Public buildings included the Teatro Tomas Terry opera house. As typical in Cuba, we could have paid 5 CUCs for the privilege to take photos inside but we did not. The interior was original, from rows of hard wooden seats to hand-carved Cuban hardwoods and Italian Carrara marble. Saralie noted noted that all big acts touring Cuba play here, even though this is a small venue and Cienfuegos is out of the way. Local Cubans can attend for a nominal fee: power to the people!

We had some time to shop the large craft market and local stores, purchasing coffee and Santiago de Cuba brand rum, a few straw hats, and some small leather purses for the grandgirls. We wished for more time on our own; alas, Group 5 was waiting to return to the pier at Punta Gorda. I had one last opportunity at the pier to spend out my Cuban CUCs. I was pleased to find a set of wooden dominos in a handsome box. We brought home just a few coins and a single paper peso for posterity.

We had great views through our departure sailing of all that we had missed in the dim light of dawn. A few locals here and there waved farewell. As we neared open sea, a large colorful structure came into view. It was impossible to discern its purpose. University? Hospital? Research? Through online maps I determined it to be the Islazul Hotel Pasacaballo, remote but conveniently located for diving. Again I say, buyer beware!

We thoroughly enjoyed Cienfuegos and could have spent a lot more time there. When we return, it will be on the short list!

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

 

crash course cuba

 

We returned from Cuba late on Friday night, satisfied, enriched and exhausted. In a word, I am grateful. I hardly know where to begin to relay our experiences. My head is still spinning! This was a trip unlike any other. Cuba tested my assumptions at every turn.

All I’ve known about Cuba was basic: a socialist state with an official party of communism. As an American growing up in 60s and 70s, continuing my education into the 90s, I learned the evils of communism and experienced the tensions of the Cold War. I couldn’t resist the allure of adventure and determined to visit as soon as it became feasible for U.S. citizens. Still, I had questions and concerns.

What freedoms do Cubans enjoy? (Familiar freedoms, it seems.) How are they restricted? (Hmm. In at least a few ways.) How does this all work? (It’s complicated.) Will I be safe? Will I feel comfortable? (Yes and mostly yes.) Does it matter that I don’t speak Spanish? (Not much.) Should I go now or wait awhile? (That depends.) I’ll get to this and more in subsequent posts, I promise.

Evidence of long history and rich culture abound in the beautifully blended Cuba. There you will find happy people, exquisite art, soulful music, delicious food, lovely language, graceful architecture, diverse customs and traditions. At first glance, especially in Havana, you will notice grand structures in poor repair, literally crumbling underfoot. Restoration efforts have been underway for some time but barely scratch the surface after decades of decay. The old city is particularly congested, infrastructure out of sync with modern tourism. Press on! Plan your itinerary to allow for deeper and broader experiences and you will not be disappointed.

Despite the odds or the obvious, resilient Cubans continue to assert that “the system works.” They extol heroes like José Marti, Che Guevera, Fidel and others. There are irrefutable pride points: low infant mortality, high life expectancy, low crime, free education, universal literacy, free medical services. It’s hard to argue with this logic. They claim medical professionals are an export and health tourism is a thing — yet it’s not clear the source of either, which raises some suspicion.

The country is remarkably well kept, rubble, smokestacks and smoldering fires notwithstanding. Meanwhile, it’s impossible to deny that Cubans lack sufficient resources to maintain their homes, feed their families or enjoy many amenities and small niceties we take very much for granted — not to mention travel abroad. There is no way up or out for most.

Our taxi driver conversed in fluent English. “In Cuba, everything is the government.” All Cubans receive free health care, childcare, and education through to doctoral degrees, if they choose and prove capable. All receive a monthly ration book to obtain staples free of charge such as rice, beans, poultry, cooking oils, eggs, salt, sugar, and matches. Additional supplies may be age- or health-specific, like milk or fish. Supplies are scarce and frequent shopping required to keep the pantry stocked.

Most Cubans earn a meager monthly wage from the government, equivalent to ~$20 USD, regardless of occupation. Even combined, state resources fall far short for daily subsistence. Cubans supplement or find ways to game the system. “Black markets” are robust. Those few who work directly in tourism are most fortunate in that they may earn tips.

Despite his claim that ‘everything is the government’, our cabbie is part of a new and upwardly mobile class in Cuba. It’s a win-win, as taxis supplement a public transportation infrastructure under significant strain. It is only in the last few years that the Cuban government has allowed private enterprise and it is still very limited. Startup requires some capital, often sourced by relatives abroad. It requires initiative and a will to cut across the grain of 60 years of socialist dogma, a belief that you can do better than the state to improve your future. It requires annual licensing fees and monthly income tax payments. Relatively few Cubans can clear these hurdles. Nonetheless, private enterprise appears to be critical for sustaining the state.

Private homeowners may provide accommodations in casa particulares. These are essential in Havana, where hotel capacity cannot meet demand and most facilities are outdated. Find private accommodations by word of mouth, by wandering and looking for distinct signage or, more recently, through Air BnB. We saw a few properties with Trip Advisor signage as well. Alternatively, sail with Celestyal Cruises, as we did. (More on this option later.)

Private homeowners may operate restaurants known as paladares, serving delicious local fare. Cuban food is disparaged due to lack of knowledge about the distinction between paladares and state-run restaurants. The latter are usually located in elegant properties nationalized after the revolution. They look nice but offer relatively poor quality food and service, albeit on the cheap. I cannot personally speak to the casa particulare experience but assure you the paladare will not disappoint!

We visited three cities on our one-week whirlwind circumnavigation: Santiago de Cuba, Havana, and Cienfuegos. One of our favorite memories occurred mid-trip in Havana at la Moneda Cubana. We were enjoying a rare couple of hours away from the people-to-people program offered by Celestyal Cruises, the “authentic Cuban experience” that meets current U.S. government requirements.

 

We landed at this paladare on the advice of our tour guide and climbed two narrow flights to a third story patio overlooking the old city. We chatted with our waiter briefly, inquiring about his experiences with U.S. tourism, mentioning the reason for our trip. We were surprised when we finished our meal to be served a delectable caramel-coconut flan and Havana Club rum aged 7 years, completing our celebration with memorable flair. Absolutely perfect.

“Mon amour, mon amie,” he said. “I’d do it all over again,” she said.

This relatively simple meal was not a cheap by most standards, ringing in at $67 USD. Of course, U.S. dollars are not generally accepted so we paid 57 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) cash. Such is the nature of business in Cuba, particularly U.S. tourism. But that’s another story. I’ve much more to tell you …

Viva Cuba libre!

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

curacao

This year marked our third visit to the Netherland Antilles, otherwise known as the windward or ABC Islands: Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. I didn’t realize until last week that governance has changed dramatically in the past few years. Nonetheless, they are still very much Dutch and within the Kingdom of Netherlands. These islands are 15-60 miles off the coast of Venezuela and almost as far south as we’ve ventured to date. (I think Grenada is just a smidgin further?) Our final port of call this year was Curaçao.

On prior visits, we’ve enjoyed poking around picturesque Willemstad. It a delightful blend of Dutch Caribbean and absolutely lovely. I enjoy the floating market — although the Hubs prefers to keep a safe distance from stinky fish. Later in the day it is safer, just fruit and produce. ;=) But the drawbridge is currently undergoing repairs and pedestrians must use water taxis, so we didn’t even try to go there. We knew it was time to get out of Willemstad and see more of the place anyway. I was glad we had made alternate plans.

Once you get past the beautiful capital city, most people visit Curaçao to dive or snorkel. We were looking for an inland tour rather than an underwater adventure. I contacted Martin’s Travel Tours. Martin was helpful in laying out the options; we settled on Shete Boka. However, I really wanted to see both sea turtles and flamingos, if possible, please. And we left open the option for a swim as well. Martin met us at the pier as promised and we were off!

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We made a few brief stops on our way north and west. First to a church with extensive crypt cemetery, volcanic rock prohibiting underground burial. Then to a humble two-room abode that once housed slaves. The bedroom, Martin explained, was reserved for the mother; the father and children slept in the other room. An enterprising woman born in this home has turned it into a museum. It is unique as the only remaining wooden structure of its kind on the island.

Then we stopped at a plantation house turned restaurant. In Curaçao, plantation owners had line of sight visibility from one to another across the island. We saw several of these beautiful old homes, all in very good repair, all situated on high ground. The surrounding countryside is completely overgrown now with cacti and scrub brush but Martin assured us this was once cropland. It’s hard to imagine. Old timers say rain was much more plentiful and many kept cattle then. Today, the countryside gives every appearance of desert — although Curaçao is not a desert island. We saw lots of little lizards, which don’t bother me too much, but I was quite relieved to hear there are only two snakes in Curacao, both scarce and only one venomous!

We drove on for awhile before turning down the narrow dirt road of the Turtle Trail at Boka Ascension. We scampered through a rock cave and climbed several sets of narrow wooden stairs built into the rock to find ourselves at the top, overlooking the cove. Cacti loomed large and prickly over the narrow path of sharp volcanic rock that we followed to the edge. From here, Martin thought we might see some turtles. And we did!

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The water was so clear that we observed perhaps a half-dozen leatherbacks feeding on the bottom. Occasionally, they would surface, all too briefly. I managed to capture a couple shots (look center of photo far R, above) but sure was wishing I’d brought my zoom lens along. The current here is very strong and sea urchins plentiful, so only foolish tourists snorkel or swim. Locals fish for crabs and others find their way, as we did, hoping for a glimpse of the amazing turtles.

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From there we drove on to Shete Boka, the park known for dramatic water sprays as the surf spouts through any of seven natural coves along the shoreline. We walked on narrow trails to view each, up close and personal.  I was surprised and delighted to see an Inuksuit village at the first, reminding me of our Yukon Territory experience. “Those crazy Canadians,” Martin remarked.

Well-marked crushed stone pathways and viewing platforms help keep boka tourists out of trouble. Sharks, Martin noted, are ready and waiting otherwise. The shoreline landscape changed dramatically, so spare that it seemed like another planet. The last of the seven bokas was a short drive along a rutted, hard packed trail. Indeed,”the pistol” (below) sounded quite like a gun going off.

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The sun was high and hot by then. I was quickly wilting and quite relieved for AC on the return loop — despite a missing rear window due to recent break-in. We stopped by Kanepa Grandi (“Kanep” to the locals, below, L), a favorite swimming spot and reportedly the “bluest water in Curaçao.” It was stunning. Who said Curaçao doesn’t have much for beaches? Maybe it’s not the silky soft sand of Aruba or Barbados, but these are beautiful beaches all the same. I think it’s a ruse — whether to help keep tourism manageable on Curaçao or entice tourists to other islands, I cannot say!

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Martin made another brief photo stop (above, R) before driving on to Playa Lagun (below) and the Bahai Apartments and Diving establishment, where we settled in for lunch overlooking the gorgeous bay. From the restaurant high above, a steep staircase leads to the shore. We enjoyed a delicious lunch and tried another pair of local brews — the Venezuelan Polar and Curaçao’s Amstel Bright. (Although it’s kind of strange to think of Venezuela as local, eh? We got a kick out of their polar bear mascot.) Bright won the second round! Martin also noted that this is one of the best bays for snorkeling in Curaçao. (And we’ve an eye on those apartment villas for the next vacation!)

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It would have been perfect if not for the creepy iguanas. I was vaguely aware of them, my chair in the corner against the stone wall, my back to the sea. As we ate lunch, the Hubs was watching them, watching them, watching them. However, he didn’t bother to mention until the last possible moment that, “You might want to move.” At which point, I turned to discover three huge monsters surrounding me and jumped with a yelp! He gritted his teeth and growled at me not to make a scene. “Too late!” I shot back.

The hostess appeared immediately to shoo them away. She patted my shoulder reassuringly, “They are our pets. Harmless.” The neighboring table returned to their lunch and we resumed eating in uneasy peace. It was the one small blemish on an otherwise beautiful day.  But those fellas were big! One, I’m sure, was a grandaddy iguana (photo above L). I videoed from a safe distance as they slithered along the wall, posturing with head and neck to make sure we knew we were trespassing on their territory. This, I am also sure, serves as sufficient evidence for the grandchids of GiGi’s narrow escape!

DSC_0082Our tour wrapped up with a visit to the flamingos on the salt flats. I couldn’t get nearly close enough and, once again, wished for my zoom lens, tucked safely away at home. On the final leg, we stopped by a bright and familiar grocery store, whereby we discovered English was a bit of a hurdle. We came out empty handed while Martin bore a bucket of muffins. A few miles later, he dropped us off at the Rif Fort in Willemstad, a lovely collection of shops and restaurants and an open market not far away. I picked up calabash instruments for the grandboys and macrame shoes for the grandgirls. Finally, we found our way to a round of refreshing adult beverages before boarding the ship. All in all, it was a great day in Curaçao!

~ René Morley

aruba

IMG_1253Aruba, Jamaica, oooh I wanna’ take you…   or so goes the song, for good reason. Aruba is a small island with miles of remarkable silky-white soft sand. If you can find a beach chair and umbrella, you’re set.

This time we visited a small island off the island. De Palm Island is a self-contained water wonderland. So many options! Bright white sand beaches on calm, shallow bays; a selection of water slides; snorkeling, snuba and Sea Trek adventures. The ticket price is all inclusive of food (two restaurants) and beverage (including adult beverages) and most facilities.

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We plunked down in the shade of a tiki-style umbrella at the beach furthest from the entrance with frozen fruity beverages for several hours aaaaaahhhh. The water was so clear I photographed fish from my iPhone. The surf was so gentle and shallow I imagined the delight of wee ones learning to swim. I watched a little boy snorkeling and screaming with glee every time he found a fish. His sister entertained herself playing in the sand and sea. I so very much wished our grandbabies were with us. We recorded a short video to let them know we were thinking of them.

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IMG_1265Next time I vow to take advantage of the snorkeling. I hear the parrot fish are stars of the show. “They’re on the payroll at DePalm!” Before we left, I snapped this photo near the dock. The sea is the most intense turquoise blue you can imagine. Just gorgeous! It was a wonderfully relaxing day.

We returned to the ship to shower and change, and soon disembarked again to meet up with family members who live in Aruba, Linda and Ricky. We asked them to take us to their favorite restaurant. We landed at the Old Fisherman, not far from the pier. They serve what they catch daily, so it is very fresh. They have plenty of non-seafood options, which suited the Hubs.

We enjoy trying local food wherever we travel.  The Hubs and I each tried a local brew and agreed that the Balashi Chill, served with lime, was the best. I tried the fish cakes, on Ricky’s recommendation, and they were good. The most notable new flavor at the Old Fisherman was an appetizer of small bites of a crunchy-fried bread (funchi) served with Dutch cheese. It was delicious!

After dinner we toured around the Oranjestad area. It was fun to get Linda and Ricky’s perspective on island life. I’ve always wondered why so many ships are at anchor in the harbor, within in sight of but not too close to shore. Linda explained this is because everything is shipped in by container. Everything. (As a desert island, that makes sense!) Container ships must wait their turn to unload, so it’s a ship parking lot, so to speak. This also means that the cost of living in Aruba is extremely high — basic commodities generally cost double what we pay in the States. Yikes.

Beaches in Aruba are all still public, fortunately, but it was disheartening to see the overgrowth of tourism since our first visit more than twenty years ago. Miles-long stretches of white sand so accessible then are now completely obscured. “It’s Little Miami all over again,” Linda proclaimed. After dark, the area was ablaze with shopping, dining, hotels, and casinos and congested with people. During the day, Linda noted, a 15 minute commute now takes over an hour. Beaches are busy with vendors and water sports. Claiming a quiet spot is quite a challenge. I was all the more thankful for our day on DePalm!

~ René Morley

limin’ in nevis

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On Wednesday, our ship sailed to St. Kitts. We enjoyed a day there not long ago, touring beautiful Brimstone Hill and other points of interest. So again, we chose to visit a neighboring island for something new. This time the ferry crew was local, which is always more interesting. The ferry took about an hour to get from St Kitts (L) to Nevis (R).

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Again, we broke into smaller groups for guided tours This time, we were loaded into the ubiquitous Caribbean taxi: mini-minivan. This van is no bigger than a granny van in the US but equipped to hold driver and co-pilot, followed closely by a bench for three, then two sets of three that are split with two seats on one side with a narrow isle and jump seat on the other, and finally, a bench for two in far back. Hard to imagine, but yes, you can cram 13 adults into this one smallish vehicle.

Our guide was a fairly young man and chock full of island history, facts, and figures. He took his job very seriously. I do appreciate the effort but found the details in the details just a bit wearying. No doubt that had something to do with the up close and personal mini-minivan dynamics. (That guy from Queens was quite something.)

We visited a hot stream that continually fills a public wading area and public bath. Fueled by dormant volcanic activity the water is mineral rich and believed to cure all kinds of aches and pains. Some locals soak daily and religiously. I hate to but have to admit I did not go in. I just couldn’t do it; the sun alone is easily too much for me. We also visited the Hermitage plantation turned hotel, a lovely hillside property.

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We didn’t see wild donkeys, unfortunately, although they are considered nuisances. Left over from cart-labor days, they have free range but are apparently inclined to raid trash cans and make a mess. We didn’t see wild monkeys, either. They are even more problematic. Early French settlers imported Vervet monkeys as pets. Their descendants now run amok on orchards and gardens. The locals, according to our guide, hate the monkeys, who destroy an entire mango crop with one bite out of each fruit. They will eat just about any fresh produce. Guns are illegal on Nevis so locals contact the police for assistance in shooting them. And then, sometimes they eat them. Our guide suggested that was only fair!

Along the way, we saw small herds of free-ranging goats and a few sheep. Every goat or sheep belongs to someone, although I couldn’t tell by looking at them. They are trained to return each afternoon to their owners’ whistle.  We passed by Gallows Bay, where escaped slaves and convicted criminals were once hung. That was a sobering moment, thinking on the desperation which drove men and women to that horrible place. Fortunately, this particular site has since been claimed by Nevis fisherman, who haul in each morning with the day’s catch. Later, they work their way around inland communities, blowing a conch shell to call buyers.

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“Lime” in Nevis (and other places, as I recall) means to “hang out.” All over Nevis we saw small signs on shopfronts announcing Lime and calling folks in to “top up.” But it is a rather quiet island. Charlestown is a sleepy little capital. There are 25 other small settlements on the island. Friday night is the one night of the week when folks do not cook dinner at home but go out to socialize over the local bar-b-que. Everything is closed on Sunday, when most everyone is in church. Sixty churches to choose from is an incredible church : resident ratio. It is like a Baskins-Robbins flavor selection for worship, eh?

We took in some lovely panoramic views of before settling at the Lime beach bar for a hot lunch of Grouper or chicken with lime-infused rice, fresh vegetables and then a delightful swim. Lime provided good food, friendly staff, clean facilities and beach umbrellas and chairs on the waterfront. Piney Beach was not silky-soft white sand but grainy grey, no doubt a result of the volcanic activity here, yet it was very nice. Another a good day; what could we possibly have to complain about?

~ René Morley

flying fish

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Today was a sea day: no wake-up alarm, no tour, no schedule. We were looking forward to fully relaxing, even if we are up at the break of dawn. This day started with a flash, literally: the phenomena of hundreds of flying fish!

Flying fish are not uncommon, in our experience, along a Carbbean cruise route. This morning was a bit unusual, as we observed them for several hours and many nautical miles. Sometimes two or three or four, sometimes a dozen or more, surfacing from beneath the sea, skimming across the trough of the wave, a sleek flash of silver before resubmerging. From our 9th deck balcony, they seem tiny. At sea level, they are perhaps the length of a man’s hand?

I don’t know much about them, really, except that lost-at-sea survival stories often mention the life-sustaining gift of flying fish. Gazing across the vast expanse of ocean rolling under a blazingly hot sun and nearly cloudless sky, neither a speck of land nor another ship in sight, I try to imagine the joy of receiving such a gift.

* * *

All week long I pondered this phenomena. It is quite magical: fish with wings! It happens so fast that you are not quite sure you see what you thought you saw. In a flash, it is there and it is gone. As I thought about flying fish, I realized that from time to time I have received another version of flying fish. By this I mean a wholly unexpected, largely undeserved, and all too fleeting gift.

The day my dad passed over was a flying fish — an extended period of lucidity and sacred immersion as we ushered him to the other side. The birth of each of our three children was a flying fish — a precious few hours when joy is unspeakable and the promise of a new life boundless, full to overflowing. Imagine my surprise and delight to discover the birth of each grandbaby to be a flying fish, too!

In the crazy-stressful-busyness of raising children, you might miss a lot of flying fish. I’m sure I did, no matter how reflective I try to be. That’s the biggest benefit to grandparenting: perspective. I didn’t know until this week that what I treasure most today might also be called “flying fish” experiences with each grandchild.

Sometimes it is when they learn a new sound or word, perhaps “moooo” and especially “GiGi.” It is in the warmth of recognition when they have come to know me and let me know that they want to be with me. It is in the pit-pat of tiny feet taking first steps, in their little arms wrapped around my neck, and in every sweet snuggle, settling in for rocking, reading, or lullabies. Unexpected, undeserved, and all too fleeting gifts.

Before we left for vacation, I was overcome with the sense that I would miss each of them terribly. Between my work travel schedule and our vacation and their parents’ vacations, February through April can be pretty tough for GiGi! It was 8 o’clock and I hadn’t begun to pack yet but I was compelled to do something to remind each of my love. I went into the glass shower where the acoustics might help the effort, sat on the bench, and recorded a song for each. For Rosie, “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” For Oliver, “Down by the Bay.” For Sadie, “Bicycle Built for Two.” For Henry, “Baby Beluga.”  Silly, I know. But I couldn’t help myself from leaving behind a smile and a song, just in case they missed me, too.

All week long I experienced flashbacks to our vacation a year ago, when 9-mos old grandboy Henry was on board with us. What a treat it was to vacation together! As the wee lad took his first flight, learned to peek-a-boo and to clap, savored mashed potatoes, enjoyed his first sail and the sea, and even when he peed on his GiGi we experienced a fleeting gift, not unlike a flying fish. Now Henry is almost two years old, growing all too quickly into an independent little boy. A couple of days into our trip, his mama sent a video of Henry singing his favorite new song, Snuggle Puppy, while playing his xylophone. Such a sweet performance! His Pops and I picked up the tune, singing along as I replayed it over and over, a lifeline in lonely moments away from our four grandbabies.

My dream has been to vacation regularly with each of our grandchids, to share experiences afar and adventure together removed from the responsibilities of home and work. I know that won’t happen anytime soon, farm responsibilities such as they are. Yet we are immeasurably blessed that they all live near by. In the daily routine, life is busy and can be stressful — for their parents as for us. I hope and pray we know flying fish when we see them.

~ René Morley

st john, usvi

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Most Caribbean cruise ships of any size stop at either St. Thomas U.S.V.I. or Sint Maarten/St. Martin (Dutch/French). Most of our itineraries have taken us to St. Martin, one of our favorite islands. But sometimes, as was the case this year, we visit St. Thomas. It is a shoppers mecca. U.S. residents, for whom it is duty free, go nuts for the shopapalooza of designer brands. (St Thomas (L) and St John (R) harbors)

On a big cruise day, six or more ships and 20,000 or more cruisers might descend on Charlotte Amalie, the capital and largest city in the U.S.V.I. This is the down-side of cruising: you won’t go far without a few thousand of your closest friends. Classy shops from beautifully repurposed old stone buildings set on a grid of narrow streets become a congested maze of bargain hunters, elsewhere known as outlet shopping. Sigh. When in St. Thomas, we look for something else to do. Sometimes that is a beach break or catamaran cruise. This week we realized we were long past due to visit neighboring St. John U.S.V.I.

Our St John tour made use of comfortable ferry service with an interior AC option that sure came in handy on the return trip. The entire crew were Caribbean transplants. Their spokesman was an aging, bleached-blond sailor dude from Florida. He enjoyed hearing himself talk but his local knowledge as we sailed also made for pleasant company.

We were split into smaller groups upon arrival in Cruz Bay, St John, some heading off to snorkel and others for the island tour. We boarded a comfortable open air safari style vehicle for the next couple of hours. Our tour guide was an older man with great pride in his island home and culture.

A well kept primary road forms a continuous loop around the island. It takes more than an hour to complete the loop. There are many sharp turns, each limited to one-way traffic. The on-rushing vehicle beep-beep-beeps it’s way through and everyone else patiently stops or at least slows and waits their turn.  Entirely civilized, eh? On the one occasion where a near miss occurred between safari vehicle and jeep resulting in a long angry beeeeep from jeep, our driver’s reaction was classic, laid-back Caribbean: “There’s no damage…” <big smile>.

St. John has 27 beaches, all of which are public.  We saw several on our loop, a good way to get the lay of the land for a return trip. Good luck finding parking at any of them in high season, though. Cabbing from Cruz Bay is probably the best bet unless you have a rental car and are staying awhile.

Accommodations do not come cheap, however; Caneel Bay Resort runs several hundred dollars per night and a meager cottage at the Cinnamon Bay campground costs $150 a night. (For $90 a night you may pitch a tent!) Kenny Chesney has a place at Upper Peter Bay Estates, and Carol Burnett, who filmed Four Seasons at Hawks Nest Bay with Alan Alda, also purchased a home. Much of the island is preserved through a national park, including surrounding reef; a portion of the island is privately owned. Land is especially precious as a result. Oh, and there is no airport service on St. John. Well, I suppose that’s why this island seems so sane.

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The famous Trunk Bay (above) and snorkeling trail was every bit as beautiful as promised and the sea seemed relatively calm. I would like to return with a snorkeling buddy. From all accounts, I should do so soon as the reef is threatened by the invasive lion fish and other environmental hazards.

IMG_1177Sugar plantation ruins dot the landscape and wild donkeys, descendants of cart labor days, roam free.We did not see any donkeys but observed plenty of flora and fauna as we made our way around the loop. Our guide stopped to point out a plant that requires only air to grow, developing roots, buds and leaves from tiny spikes at the edge of the leaves. And we learned, as we often do in the Caribbean, how fruits of the land cure various ills for which no self-respecting local would consider taking medication. Did you know papaya is the “Caribbean prune”? But wait, there’s more! In addition to being a great source of fiber, it aids blood pressure and inflammation. Pass the papaya, please. (In this photo, a papaya tree overlooks Maho Bay — where you can drop anchor for up to a week for a mere $15 a night. Best buy on the island, if you bring your own boat!)

IMG_1185We returned to the lovely little community of Cruz Bay with time to shop and relax. There is a nice collection of shops and restaurants there. I enjoyed browsing a bit while the Hubs found a friendly watering hole. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try a couple of Virgin Island brews. The Tropical Mango IPA, I am pleased to say, is perfectly fruity — in other words, not the least bit sweet, which is quite a feat. The Hubs enjoyed the Island Summer Ale. I carried the refreshing daily special back to the ferry — a local concoction called coconut and lime.  All in all, a very pleasant and low-key day in St John. This was not our most adventuresome tour but it was an easy launch to a long week of port of calls. No complaints!

~ René Morley