Friday, January 30, 2009

Travel Blog #13: The Great Shirt War

Jill R. from Salem wrote in to ask if I was EVER going to get back to Photoshop stuff. Yup. Shouldn’t be too long now – because the trip journal is over half empty. Vacations are odd that way – particularly vacations that start off on the longish side.

We are at sea for two days now. Then we put into port at Santarem – which is the beginning of the actual Brazilian Amazon.

At sea days are lazy days. Sheree and I spend hours on the balcony cutting pictures, talking, playing endless games of Yahtzee on my iPod and watching the Amazon whisper by. We watch the shore with binoculars and through telephoto lenses and get excited every time we see a human on land.


It’s quiet out here on the balcony. You hear the soft whoosh of water as the ship moves. People on shore stop and watch. Many of them are in canoes and they wave their paddles in the air and wait for those on the ship to do what people on ships do best: waving back. I wonder what we look like to them in this relatively enormous boat, floating down the brown water of their Amazon.

Nights here are interesting. Adrian, the deck attendant, told us that at night he goes out with a huge broom to sweep a carpet of beetles off the deck. They are apparently drawn by the light. Sheree and I have been out several times at night in the hopes of seeing a living carpet of writhing black, but have only found a few beetles, usually on their backs kicking their stick legs in the air.

They run the ship with a minimum of light at night for that reason. They’ve also closed off the back portion of the Panorama deck – the outdoor seating behind the buffet – because too many bugs come into the ship when the doors open.

“I hate bugs,” one pudgy woman in way too-red lipstick tells me in the buffet line. She looks to me like I am a kindred spirit in bug-hating. “I just hate them. Don’t you?”

“Well. It’s the Amazon,” I explain. Sheree has made frequent observations about my inability to be social with most people. I agree with her, so I have decided to be social. “Bugs live here.”


“Well I hate ‘em,” Pudgy sniffs and pokes at the corn salad with the tip of the serving spoon. “Don’t much like corn either.”

What happens to otherwise mature people on cruise ships? I wonder. Do they forget what a blessing it is to be on the freaking Amazon River, experiencing things and people they would never have the opportunity to see otherwise? Can a trip like this actually revolve only around corn and bugs?

I smile at her and ladle a spoonful of corn onto my plate. Carbs or no carbs. I am making a point that appears to be lost on her. She sniffs and then waddles away.

The water of the Amazon is a tan brown. Not green. Not blue. Brown. And there’s a never-ending parade of foliage floating on it: tree branches, logs, leaves. The air has become more dense. Humid. Heavier.

We ramble around the ship. We are prepared to gamble about ten dollars a day on the penny slots in the casino – which takes about twelve seconds. I go to the Library room – a place with great leather wingback chairs, listen to my iPod, cut pictures and write. We’ve been to a wine tasting (wine is a great passion for both of us) and we’ve soaked in the hot tub.



Currently we are sitting in deck chairs in the hot sun. I am reading a photography magazine, pretending I don’t know Sheree is looking at me with That Look in her eye.

“You should take your shirt off,” she says finally.

I make the non-committal-but-never-effective sound, like I am simply too engrossed in my magazine to possibly pay attention to anything else.

“David?” she says. There’s a sharp tone now.

“Ummm?” I say.

“Your skin is white. You need to take your shirt off. Get a tan.”

The whole matter of whether I tan or not is of much greater interest to Sheree than it is to me. Besides, I am a big guy and I’d rather not take my shirt off. Really.

“Mmmmm,” I say.

There is a profound difference between ‘Ummmm?’ which finishes on an upward inflection and ‘Mmmm’ which has a downward inflection. The upward inflection says “Pray – please continue.” The downward one signals that I am done talking now. Sheree has chosen not to grasp this yet.

She sighs.

“No one cares, you know.”

“Mmmmm.”

“Take your damn shirt off. Tan,” she says.

I look up at her.

“I don’t want to take my shirt off.”

“Why not? Give me one reason. Just one good reason,” she says. Whenever she says this, I know that no reason will be good. All are destined to be blown out of the sky, poked full of holes and shot down in flames.

“One reason?” I ask, playing for time.

“One.”

“Because if I take my shirt off, Greenpeace could come along and try to put me back into the water, thinking my navigational sense has become confused and I have beached myself. Then the media will come out to cover the story. They’ll run headlines: “Pasty White Mystery Creature Found on Cruise Ship.” Nah. Better to keep my shirt on.”

“That’s not a reason,” says Sheree.

“Nope. But it’s funny.”

“Only to you,” she says.

“Well…that’s all that matters,” I respond, snapping the magazine open again to signal that I am now returning to my reading and she should leave me alone.

Time passes. Precious little time.

“So you’re not going to take your shirt off?”

“Nope.” I don’t look up.

“I think that’s just stupid,” she says. “You look so much better with a tan.”

“Mmmmm,” I respond.

Time passes. She sighs again.

“It’s part of a growing experience,” she says. “You’re the only one who cares.”

I sigh – look around me, and surrender wordlessly. After all: she’s right. I ease out of my shirt, burrowing back into my chair as quickly as possible, holding the magazine so it covers most of me. Okay…as much as possible.

“Was that so bad?” she asks.

“Mmmmm,” I respond.

Time passes.

“Look at that,” says Sheree.

Since I have already lost the shirt war, I have nothing more to lose and I look. She is pointing to an inlaid design on the deck.

“It looks like that thing da Vinci used,” I say. “You know? The one where the perfectly proportioned man stands there with his arms spread wide. You know?”

We saw a da Vinci exhibit in San Antonio last year. I am not only being conversational, I am telling my wife that I did, indeed, pay attention. While no woman has run screaming to her death in the vast ocean at the sight of me without a shirt, I am pretty sure it’s just a matter of time.

“You’re right,” says Sheree. “You should stand there.”

Blood turns to ice. “What?”

“Stand there. Spread your arms. I’ll take a picture of your shadow.”

“WHAT?” I ask. The worst ones are the ones you never see coming. I have this instant image of myself making a spectacle of myself in the middle of the crowded deck. It’s a hot day. Everyone’s out here. People will wonder what I am doing and they will look.

“You’re kidding, right?” I say.

“What’s the problem?” asks Sheree.

I am tongue-tied at the prospect of having to explain something so obvious. Finally I shrug and start to put my shirt on.

“No shirt,” says Sheree. “I don’t want lines of clothes in the picture.”

“What?”

“No clothes lines.”

“Want me to take my pants off too?” I ask. “Cause there is as good a chance of that happening as there is of me standing up in the middle of a crowded deck with no shirt doing an airplane impression.”

She stares at me. I stare back. I think there are sparks flying off in all directions just behind the blue of her eyes.

“Not gonna happen,” I say.

She continues to stare. I return to my magazine. She continues to stare. I have read the same line seventeen times. She stares. What exactly am I so hung up about? I ask myself. So what? She's doing a good thing for me. I am sitting directly in the middle of great steaming piles of personal growth here. I sigh. I think: so I stand on a deck with my arms spread for a minute. What’s the big deal?

Wordlessly I get up and promote my own personal growth. I stand with my arms spread.

“They have to be on the corners of the compass,” says Sheree. “Put them precisely on the corners. And your head in the middle. No! Over to the left.”

She’s talking loudly, which is what she does when she is excited. People are looking. People are studying. I’ve already told you that people will watch anything on cruise ships. Right now they are watching us with great interest. In fact it feels like every pair of eyes is fixed on me right now, a big guy steadfastly telling himself it’s no big deal.

“Take the picture,” I hiss – reaching the end of my personal growth tether for the day.

“Just a second,” she says. “I need to change my settings. Don’t put your arms down.”

Crap. I resist the urge to make sputtering airplane noises and I stand there. If I make stupid noises and actually draw attention to myself, people will think it’s my idea. My profound hope: if that happens, I will be laughing with them.

Seven years later, she has her picture.

And I still haven’t seen it.

We’ll be in Santarem tomorrow.

One other bit of information: We start our Malarone tonight, by the way. Malarone is a “holy crap” expensive pill designed to reduce our chances of getting malaria. It has a long list of side-effects that don’t sound pleasant. But apparently most people never feel a thing. This means, of course, that we are probably doomed.


Sheree and I don’t even take aspirin…that should be interesting. We've been drinking pitchers of lemon water to ensure we don't get dehydrated in this humidity...but not drugs yet.

Hope you remembered your Mararone. You don’t want to go home with a case of virtual malaria, do you? We start tonight, okay? You are supposed to take them on a full stomach. This, fortunately, is never a problem on a cruise ship.

But at least I get to put my shirt back on. For now.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Travel Blog #12: Devil's Island

An emaciated Steve McQueen stands at the edge of a cliff looking out at a furious sea. As he counts the waves, his lips move. Suddenly he does a little shuffling celebratory dance. He’s figured something out: the seventh wave is always the strongest. He has this plan: to lash coconuts together, fling himself into the sea and paddle his way to freedom.

You saw Papillon, right? It’s a classic movie about a man trying desperately to get off of Devil’s Island. Today we went there…on purpose.

Here’s some interesting stuff: the area we know as “Devil’s Island” is really three islands in a chain called the “Salvation Islands.”

The French penal colony was set up on all three islands: St. Joseph Island, Royale Island and Iles du Diable (Devil's Island). Today each of the two remaining islands, St. Joseph and Iles du Diable have one, that's one guard posted on each. These guys live there all alone twenty four hours a day...seven days a week, rambling around deserted prison islands. There's a great short story in that somewhere.

Prisoners were told they were being taken to Devil’s Island because if they were told they were about to be imprisoned on Royale Island in the Salvation Island chain, it didn't sound nasty enough. We went to Royale Island – where the main prison was located. But it became, and remains, Devil's Island to me.

When we arrived, the sun was hot – like warm fingers on our skin. The scent in the air was green and humid and the ground was littered with coconuts and leaves that moved wetly under our feet.

The last time I was in a place that had such a strong atmosphere about it was on Route 66. There's an undefinable something here. It's a thing you can't quite describe (at least I can't) but it's there all the same. Palpable. It’s exotic and wild and you fancy you hear a hundred voices rising up from the past, each one whispering something different.

There were a lot of people imprisoned here. A lot of people suffered here. It may just be my overactive imagination, but they seem to be here still, standing silently watching us pass by. Yeah, yeah. I know it sounds overly flowery...but that's the way it felt to me. We arrived on this island, fat and happy, from a cruise ship. We have five hours here and then we leave. The prisoners were here for four long years. Most of them would die before being released.

The only business on the entire island is the hotel, which puts guests up, primarily rich French tourists, in the buildings the guards used to occupy. They come here for two weeks at a time. The prices, apparently are higher than St. Barth's, but what a place to spend time! What a place to sit on a rock by the sea and let your imagination take you for a ride. What a place!

The Destination speaker, a guy named “Hutch”said something in his talk that I latched onto, body and soul. He said there was a children's graveyard on the island. A children's graveyard. It's the place where the children of the guards and staff who died on Devil’s Island were buried.
The idea of a children's graveyard on Devil's Island fires my admittedly over-active imagination and makes me sad at the same time. It makes me think of images from the old horror comics I consumed as a kid where whispy-white weeping ghosts in period costume come to lay their children down for the last time.

What is it about graveyards that interests me so much? It may be the fact that they are peaceful…and the older I get, the closer I come to a grave of my own. It may be that I find the things written on gravesites so awfully interesting. What exactly do people write as “lasting testimonies” for those who have died? The most commonly written word on those lonely tombstones was "Regrets" -- but I am getting ahead of myself.

There was also talk about monkeys – lots of monkeys on the way to the graveyard. These are monkeys who appear in the expectation of bananas. Yup. Monkeys are cool – but it was the children’s cemetery that fascinated me.

I admit it. I photographed the monkeys because, c'mon, you have to photograph monkeys. But I was obsessed with getting to the graveyard. I just knew there was something there for me to find.

But I am ahead of myself again. Let me go back to the "getting onto the island" part. As we got off the tender boat all the rest of the people headed left toward the building compound. We turned right on the pathway that ran alongside the sea.

Ruined buildings, many reduced to simple facades by the twin ravages of time and sea, dot the pathway. They appear at random times out of nowhere.

Sheree and I were together, creeping along pathways, until we got to the aforementioned monkeys. She loves monkeys. I think they're cute and all...but there's an actual graveyard here somewhere. No contest.

I saw Hutch, walking up the trail toward us. I asked him where the graveyard was and he jerked a finger over his shoulder and muttered something about it being behind him.

I muttered something to Sheree about going onward and she muttered something back as she concentrated on photographing the monkeys. I don't think either of us actually heard the other one as our brains were otherwise engaged.

I walked on down the island path and eventually I came to a tromped down area in the bushes to my right. Was this it? The sunlight was playing on the trees and a shadowed archway of foliage within like an invitation. My heartbeat quickened. Honest it did. I walked into it.

For a few moments, and yes I made them last as long as possible, I was living in the pages of a novel. The air was vibrant and green, full of the promise of adventure. Green plants crunched underfoot and the idea that there might even be a snake lurking inside them just an inch from my sandaled foot was as intoxicating as it was frightening.

I was alone on Devil's Island and there was a by God real children's cemetary just feet away from me. It doesn't get better than this.

I passed through the trees and saw ancient wrought iron gates. Written upon them in French were the words "Cimi..... Des enfants." (The picture is at the top of this blog.) There was sunlight dappling the graves and the far off sound of insects and the thrum of tropical life. And I was alone, for a precious ten minutes, in the graveyard of Devil’s Island’s dead children.

I walked into the cemetery, my camera hanging unused around my neck. I paused there, with my eyes closed and breathed deep. I thought about the parents – guards and their wives – carrying their children to their last rest. Maybe they wept. Maybe they stood stoically while their children were put in the ground.

Think what you want – but the magic of this place was here for an instant…a magical fragment of time. I fancied I could hear the sounds of voices long gone and the grief they must have felt.

I couldn’t keep it to myself and I re-traced my steps to find Sheree – who was still photographing monkeys.

“Come with me,” I said. “The light…the colors. You need to come with me.”

My wife trusts me and she stepped away reluctantly from photographing monkeys. I really wanted her to feel what I'd felt. I took her through the pathway I had found in the trees. I prayed the place would still be silent and crackling with atmosphere so she could feel it too. Of course it is sometimes hard for me to know what she is feeling, because Sheree lives in the moment, regardless of where she is.

This time the graveyard wasn’t the same. A man and his family had arrived while I was gone. He leaned casually against a gravestone. He chatted with his family and made jokes about the dead people planted there. His harsh voice and the braying and forced sounding laughter of the women threw a new and unwelcome atmosphere over the graveyard. Dignity fled in the face of those sounds and we were standing in a place with tourists. I sighed.

Sheree photographed gravesites…and I did too. But there was a different feel here now. It wasn’t precious and private anymore. I so wished Sheree had been with me the first time.

We spent time here and the minutes started to slide away. They became "lots of minutes" – and by the time we moved up into the Devil’s Island compound we had only an hour to make the tender back to the ship.

The difficulty was that we had no idea where the tender boat was. We'd struck off in the opposite direction upon arrival. All the instructions had been given using the building compound as a reference point and, to be honest, I had been concentrating on getting to the graveyard and hadn't really paid much attention.

We had no reference point. We had only 25 minutes to find the tender boat...not enough time to re-trace our steps around the coast of the island. Sheree was photographing what she called “cute fat little guys” – which were huge rodents native to the island. She paid no attention to the time and I had noticed there were no other cruise ship people around. Everyone was long gone. Everyone.

I went to the hotel, the only remaining business on the island, and asked the woman behind the bar for directions. She spoke only French. Despite being Canadian, the only French I know has been gleaned from examination of cereal boxes. My sense of isloation grew.

I tried showing her with my hands what a ship looked like. I tried talking very loud and slowly. (I don't know why I thought speaking slowly would make me any more understandable, but I did.) She didn’t understand. Finally she went to fetch an old guy who came around. He spoke a smattering of English. He pointed down front of the main building and then jerked his thumb sharply to the right.

We had twenty minutes. Sheree went off to pee.

I looked down the path and was reasonably certain this was the right way. I waited for Sheree and when she finally re-appeared, we had twelve minutes.

I walked down the pathway – but an old french guy called out: “De boat?”

I nodded eagerly.

He pointed down a different path and we went that way, after profusely thanking him.

We walked down a cobblestone pathway, thick green trees on both sides. It was unfamiliar territory, but we spoke reassuring words to each other anyway.

I saw the tender boat some distance away. Sheree paused to make a picture of the Pacific Princess moored some distance away. I went to talk to the irritable security guy, Allen, while Sheree finished her pictures.

As we went away on the tender boat, I felt a profound sense of loss. There were so very many places on Devil’s Island we had no chance to see…to explore – or just sit and be quiet for a long moment in.

I loved Devil’s Island. I really wanted to stay there for at least another couple of hours. But that would have ended in a very long swim through apparently shark infested waters -- so I got onto the tender boat. It's not often a place speaks eloquently to my spirit, but this island spoke to mine.

It would be guilding the lilly to say that as the tender boat chugged away from Devil's Island that I thought I saw two ghostly children standing on the dock, arms around each other watching us leave with somber dark eyes. So I won't.

Travel Blog #11: The Momentus Event

I waken one morning. Sheree is clattering around the cabin. Doors opening and closing, drawers being ransacked great meat platters being dropped from thirty feet above. Okay. Maybe no meat platters. But it sounds that way. It is just before five and she is up and about. I, on the other hand, being a genuinely slothful man, lay in bed waiting for the noise to stop.

“What are you doing?” I ask with just enough irritation to let her know I mean business.

“Capturing the Amazon sunrise,” she says.

“Ah,” I retort, thinking quickly.

The door slams as she leaves and I am left with a dilemma. Do I go back to bed or do I throw on clothes and capture the sunrise with her? My body tells me that an Amazon sunrise is no big deal. My mind says I should haul my lazy ass out of bed and get some pictures. Then I thought of you guys – sitting in rapt attention before your computers, aching for the latest update, probably refreshing the screen every five seconds or so. Probably.

So I grabbed the camera, put on my Great Hat and headed for Deck 9. I have to tell you about the Momentous Event that occurred this morning.

Sheree was in conversation with a rail thin Oriental man and a guy who looked like retired army. Rather she was standing there with a bemused smile on her face while they faced off with each other.

“East that way,” insisted the Oriental guy.

“Well, the boat is headed into the Amazon,” Military Guy began patiently.

The Oriental guy jabs a finger toward the back of the ship.

“East there,” he says.

Military guy strokes his chin. This is how I can tell he is thinking. Finally he speaks.

“Well the boat is headed into the Amazon,” says he with certainty.

I am just out of bed and pissy enough to speculate whether he was taught that shrewd navigation at West Point. I mean we are on an AMAZON cruise. It’s pretty obvious that we are headed into the Amazon. I await the next pearl of wisdom that will drop uninvited from his lips. But there isn’t one. I smile at Sheree and she smiles back.

The captain knows where we are going.

We head out to the back deck, fingers poised over shutter buttons. But it is a grey morning. The water around us has turned a light brown. (Sheree is calling it “khaki – the color of chicken gravy” but she says I can’t use the metaphor. So I won’t. She is here, beside me on the balcony and we are both writing blogs.) Anyway – the water has turned a light brown. Ummm. Sort of the color of chicken gravy. Ahem.

There are chunks of plants floating on the water and the air is really humid. Putting the lens cap on a camera isn’t a good idea since the glass mists over almost immediately. You can’t see much through the glass doors because of the humidity. The air feels wet – like you just turned off a shower.

Anyway – I have to get back to the Momentous Event.

Said M.E. (Momentous Event) began as we got onto the Panorama Deck. This is where they put the buffet and progressively rounder tourists graze on rich food from early morning well into night. So many of my fellow travelers lack the will power to pass by food without eating it.
Following breakfast, we headed out to the back deck and there we saw two people huddled around rectangular handheld boxes.

I was curious enough to introduce myself and ask what the heck they were doing.

“These are GPS units,” said a man introducing himself as ‘Dennis from Bristol’ with more than a flicker of pride. “We are very close to the equator.”

He smiled in a way that invited me to enter into the excitement.

“We are less than two minutes away,” said the short birdlike woman, who later became known as ‘Thelma from Martha’s Vineyard.”

“Two minutes, huh?” I said. “Is that close?”

Simultaneously they both looked at me as though I’d grown a third eye in the middle of my forehead.

“Less than ten minutes,” said Dennis.

“She just said it was two minutes,” I observed.

“Well it takes about ten minutes to go two minutes,” said Dennis.

I looked at him and blinked. He liked that – which I thought he might.

“Position is measured in minutes and hours. When she said two minutes, she was referring to our position.” He paused to look down his pointy little nose at me. I was instantly back in college. “That is why it will take ten minutes to travel two minutes in position.”

He settled back with a self-satisfied look, folding his hands over his paunch.

“Do you think the captain will honk his hooter?” asked Thelma.

“Almost certainly,” said Dennis enthusiastically. “We should at the very least all give a cheer.”
I looked around at the other six sleepy tourists, sipping coffee and looking for all the world as though they could give a shit about crossing the equator.

“On the last cruise, we were all gathered on the deck,” began Thelma. “We were tracking our progress.” (I should point out that as she said ‘track our progress’ she sounded exactly like the president and sole member of the Science Club in High School.)

Dennis nodded excitedly. Since I sensed the tale was reaching its climax, I nodded too.

“But the captain honked his hooter nearly two hours early. He just wanted us to leave so he could get on with business. But we knew. We were tracking our progress.”

“Imagine that!” I said, aghast.

Dennis made a tisking sound and gave his head a sad little shake.

“Like we wouldn’t know he was lying?”

The three of us took a few seconds to contemplate the sad state of affairs the world has slid into when the captain of a south American ship prematurely honks his hooter. I broke the silence.

“So is there going to be a dotted white line?” I asked finally.

They both turned to look at me. I smiled back into blank faces – expecting at least a smile, if not gales of laughter.

“What?” asked Dennis.

“When we cross the equator will there be a dotted line?”

“There’s no line,” said Dennis evenly.

“No line,” agreed Thelma with a sharp birdlike nod.

“It’s on all the globes,” I said. “You can see it. There’s a line. Sometimes it’s solid. Sometimes it’s dotted. But there’s always a line.”

Thelma snorted. Not a pretty sound.

Dennis examined me for a long moment. “You’re having us on, eh?”

“Yes. I am,” I said.

Dennis made a sharp barking sound in what could only be considered a polite laugh. Thelma just glared at me. One of the sleepy passengers laughed out loud – bless his heart.

“Less than one minute,” said Thelma.

“What does that mean in terms of time?” I asked.

Dennis paused expansively and looked upward as he did the necessary calculations. “We are less than half a mile away from the equator. Roughly five minutes.”


“I do hope he hoots his hooter,” said Thelma.

“Me too,” I said.

They compared GPS settings and sure enough they were exactly the same.

“Three satellites are providing us the information right now,” said Dennis with an impressed looking shake of his head. “It’s really quite precise.”


“Less than one minute,” said Thelma.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” began Dennis. “May I have your attention please? We are about to cross the Equator. Perhaps we could do a countdown?”

Passengers on cruise ships are in a different state of mind. They will watch anything. Yesterday Sheree and I watched in rapt attention as a Filipino man did an ice sculpture demonstration, transforming a block of ice into a fish. It was mesmerizing. I actually applauded.

So crossing the equator was a pretty big deal.

“Less than thirty seconds,” Dennis announced.

“I hope he hoots his hooter,” said Thelma.

“I hope there’s a dotted line,” said I.

“FIVE…FOUR….THREE…TWO…ONE!”

Dennis gave a little whoop. Thelma pumped one fist in the air. I took a picture for you. It looks just like this.


That was it. No hooting hooters. No tap dancing dolphins. No change in the brown water.
Dennis and Thelma finished their celebrations and decided to go back to their cabins to lay down, presumably to recover from all the excitement.

Sheree and I took some pictures, swatted at a few bugs and then came here to write to you guys.

We get five hours on the legendary Devil's Island tomorrow. I have been looking forward to this since Sheree and I started talking about this trip in our bedroom ages ago. You remember Devil's Island, right? Steve McQueen and lepers and nasty prison guys.

I was really excited about being there. But I didn't know my most remarkable moments on Devil's Island would be spent with dead people. At the risk of sounding a little like a radio serial: I'll tell you about that tomorrow.

Travel Blog #10: Terror in St. Lucia


With apologies: I have been asked to keep these blogs a little shorter. I will do this...but the blog that follows is REALLY long because it details true jungle terror on St. Lucia, the port we visited today. I wrote it in our stateroom the same day it happened. So here it is, unvarnished and stark. I hope you enjoy it. I didn't.

The day felt bad from the very first waking moment.

Hands poking at me, fingers stabbing urgently into my skin and a way too fast rise out of deep sleep and into a cold and hostile world.

“Wha…” I stated with what seemed, at the time, commendable clarity.

“The door. Someone’s at the door,” hissed Sheree, who has the unsettling ability to wake up instantly, ready to pole vault out of bed and paint the house.

“Wha..?” I said again, since it was obvious that she hadn’t understood the first time.

“The food’s here,” she said.

I looked at her dully – which, trust me, was the absolute best I could do.

She rolled her eyes and stabbed a finger into my arm, which kind of hurt. “The food.”

I had a vague memory of ordering food for delivery at 6:30. I figured I would be awake at 5:30 and had visualized myself calm, collected and smiling as I greeted the little guy who delivers the food in the morning with a suave smile – not the hairy scary fella in underwear and a t-shirt, shambling to the door, stubbing his toes on everything, softly swearing, moving by pure force of will.

“I’d like to do the zip line today,” said Sheree – and not for the first time.

I made a non-committal noise as I had each time she’d mentioned it before. I don’t even like standing on a footstool in the safety of my own home. The thought of flinging myself off of a tower into sheer space ranks right up with a colonoscopy and a root canal on my “List of Things I Must Avoid.”

I studied my coffee cup as though one of the secrets of the universe was hidden there, shot a look at Sheree and saw her looking intently back at me. I hate that. Avoidance is not an option. So I made another non-committal noise, flashed my most winning smile and was rewarded only with that stony gaze.

“It’s something I really want to do,” she said evenly.

When forced to comment – I’d said that it was fine with me if she wanted to zip-line. I’d also said that I could stay on the ground where the possibility of soiling my own underwear is relatively low.

She was still looking at me.

“Are you coming or not?” she asked.

I frowned and tried to figure out a way to decline without looking like a little girl.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll go.”

There’s a part of me that is eternally aghast at the stupid things I commit to. The internal conversation was instant and vehement: “Are you freaking NUTS? What did you just say? THINK about this! You’ll look like a suck for a minute…but death is forever. You moron. Idiot moron. Idiot moron poopypants. What the hell is wrong with you?”

The internal gibbering continued as I made a show of staring into my coffee cup. But sweat ran tiny ranting rivers under my arms and my smile at my wife lacked conviction.

“Really?” she asked.

I made the non-committal sound again and she rewarded me with a smile.

I don’t actually recall much about the “in between” part. I know that we hired a cab for the day (the hourly rate for most cabs is $25-$30 per hour, by the way) and I was aware only that each moment drew me closer to the zip-line.

I am a pretty big guy. Maybe there’s a weight restriction. I laid all my hopes at the feet of that one possibility and had nearly convinced myself that it would be so when we arrived. The cab driver was an efficient sort, getting us directly in touch with the zip line people, and costing himself half his tip in the process.

“I’m probably too big,” I said to the zip line guide. “Too big, right?”

He looked me over appraisingly. “No, mon. You’re fine.”

I glared at him and considered brandishing my wallet for emphasis. “Are you SURE?”
“If you can get the harness on – you can zip line,” he said with the air of someone granting another someone their fondest wish.

Hope was fading.

“Can I try a harness?” I asked. Already I was defeated. The one faint hope was that the harness would not fit.

“Yeah, mon,” he said. He sounded like a Jamaican instead of a Saint Lucean.

He winked at me in a hollow effort to reassure me. I swallowed.

He returned with a complicated mess of loops, steel thingies and nylon. He handed it to me and nodded encouragingly. I turned it over in my hand, looking dumbly at it. I caught his eye and raised my eyebrows in a “so what now?” gesture.

“I am kidding. I will help you.”

It took squeezing and pulling. We tightened and loosened. We cajoled. Okay: he squeezed, pulled, tightened and loosened and cajoled. I worked to counter purposes at each turn, taking deep breaths whenever it would make the harness tough to put on. If I could have increased the size of my thighs, I would have. The little bastard prevailed and eventually I stood in the harness, feeling like Charlie Brown after Lucy jerks the football away.

“See, mon?”

I looked over my outfit with a sinking heart.

“Isn’t this GREAT?” said my wife chipperly. (Yes. I know “chipperly” is not an actual word. But she did speak ‘chipperly.’ Honest.)

I nodded and wondered: if you fake a heart attack, does it start with the right arm or the left? Maybe I should just sprain my ankle. Maybe I could develop a sudden attack of narcolepsy. But I just stood there like a horse in a too tight saddle.

My bride put her hand on my arm: “You are going to love this, David.”

I smiled and swallowed back the bile creeping up my throat.

The first part of the zip line trip/ordeal/personal growing experience isn’t so hard. You get into a tram that takes you through the rainforest. It’s high. Really high. But you have the illusion of safety because the gondola is made of a sturdy looking metal. (Like that would protect you if the steel cable suddenly frayed and snapped and you plummeted hundreds of feet directly downward to a crashing mashed bloody screaming death.) I held tight to the guardrail, knowing without the slightest doubt that the worst was yet to come.

I took some pictures. I don’t remember them and I think most were out of focus.


We got out of the gondola, the safe precious gondola, and hiked into the rain forest. I truly understand how it must feel for a man walking toward his gallows. Each step is precious. The scent in the air is sweet and life is a wonderful gift. So precious.

“I can hardly wait,” enthused Sheree. Poor girl. At least the Lord gave me love before my life came to a crashing splattery death on some rainforest floor.

The walk ended too soon.

We stepped out of the trees and looked at a platform high above the ground. There was a steel cable soaring through the trees to another platform. They are kidding, right? Someone is gonna jump out of the trees any instant and say “GOTCHA! You didn’t actually think we were going to make you ride that thing, did you? HA! You should see the look on your face.”

The true horror of my predicament settled on me like a blanket when no one appeared..I looked at the nylon harness, listened to the laughter and chatter around me and wondered what in hell I had done to wind up at this exact point in my life: standing on a tiny platform waaaay off the forest floor, seconds from sailing over the rainforest at fifty miles an hour.
I suspect you may be sitting in your comfortable home reading this and thinking it sounds wonderful. Uh huh. It’s different when you are standing on a platform in a thin nylon harness.
The guide was speaking. Sounds were coming out of his mouth but they weren’t making sense. My brain wasn’t processing the information. He was showing us how to zip.

“What did you say?” I asked, my voice sounding far away from me.

The guide smiled: “You put your weak hand here,” he said, clamping it onto the harness. “Your other hand goes on top of the cable. You brake with your palm. Like this.”

The guide rested his hand on top of the cable and gently pressed it against the cable.

“That’s how you stop?” I asked.

The guide nodded. I think he had already identified me as the “problem guy on the tour who just might freak out at the top of a platform somewhere.”

“But don’t brake too soon. If you do, you’ll be stuck on the middle of the line.”

The guide held up his open hand, swaying it slowly from one side to another, to convey the idea of a body trapped on a cable. Trapped.

Oh
shit.

“Who’s first?” asked the guide.

Hands went up all around me. Morons all around me.

The first person was a sweet little thing from Romania. She weighed all of about a hundred pounds, mostly white teeth and blonde hair. She sailed across the distance like a pixie and landed on the opposite platform with grace. Everyone whooped and clapped.

Just like camp.

I hated camp.

“Next?” asked the guide.

I stepped onto the platform. Yes. It felt like there was someone else operating my body. But I really needed to get it over with. I really did. Backing out at this point would make me look like a coward in front of my wife. Somehow that seemed worse by far than simple death.

I stepped up on the platform and looked down. Bad idea. Have you seen those movies where the camera trains on the ground and then suddenly pulls back with sickening speed? That happened inside my brain. My head snapped up and I looked at cable stretching across the abyss.

Also a bad idea. Looking at anything at this point was a bad idea. Closing my eyes wasn’t an option. I was well and truly screwed.

The guide was strapping me onto the wire. I was thinking of every lethal injection scene from every awful movie. They strap you in so you can’t flop around like a fish frantically trying to draw life out of air.

My heart was beating inside my ear. My internal coward gibbered: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? GET DOWN GET DOWN!!! You IDIOT!”

“Settle back,” said the guide.

“What?” I said. My word sounded sharp even to me. “What?”

“It’s like you are settling into a chair. Lean back.”

Oh my God.

I lean back, breath coming fast. The cable looks like a strand of silk to me. I feel like an elephant.

“Okay, mon. Let go and zip,” says the guide like he is giving me a great gift.

“What?” I said, stalling for time.

All eyes were on me. I didn’t care. I kept my butt cheeks clenched tight and chewed on my lips like a crazy person.

“Just step off the platform,” said the guide.

“Why?” I asked, panic tight in my voice.

Confusion crossed his face. “So you can zip.”

My nostrils flared. I mean they FLARED. I wondered briefly if there was any way out.

Then the madness came. I stepped off the platform and into nothingness. Seconds later, I sailed into very thin air. Holy freaking crap.

This is the proper time to say that something cut loose inside me – that I cried out in triumph and pumped my fist in the air – and that my companions on the other platform applauded and the music rose and the credits rolled.

All I can say is this: I did not pee in my pants. Much.

My wife was having the time of her life. I wasn't.

There were ten towers – each one a little higher and a little longer than the last.

I was first across nearly every time. There were ten towers. Ten zip lines. TEN.

Around the eighth tower the guide strapping my washboard stiff body onto cables looked at me: “At first I thought you were an eager beaver,” he said with a glint of sudden inspiration in his eye. “Now I see you just want to get it over with.”

I thought something very very unkind.

I nodded and took the moment to ask the question that had been burning in my mind.
“Do you really like this?” I asked. “This whole zip line thing?”

“Yeah, mon,” he replied with the same tone he’d use if I’d asked if the fall really would kill me.

“No. Really. I mean do you really like this?”

“Yeah, mon.”

I braced myself and prepared to sail off into my ninth potential oblivion.

“Have fun, Dave,” encouraged Sheree. My poor misguided bride of twenty plus years was STILL having a wonderful time. “C’mon! Holler when you go across this time.”


The sentiment was echoed by others on the platform.

I launched myself into the air and zipped in terrified silence across space. None of the previous trips had been this fast. The platform was coming up too fast. I braked too early and just as my feet touched the platform, I started falling backward.

“Help,” I squeaked weakly.

It was in that moment that the guide insured a tip. He caught me and pulled me in before anyone saw.

“Thank you,” I whispered and meant it.

“You’re doing fine, mon,” he said softly. “Almost done.”

“How many more?” I whispered.

“Two.”

“Okay. I can do two.”

So I did.

As we walked toward the tram for the return ride down, Sheree looked up at me, smiling brightly. The sunlight played across her face and her eyes sparkled. She crackled with life. She smiled at me. I smiled back at her and my heart did its familiar two-step.

“Wasn’t that great?” she said.

I made a non-committal sound but realized I was still smiling at my bride.

I have now zip-lined above the rain forest. Am I glad I did it? Sure.

Would I like to do it again? Not while there is breath in my body.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Travel Blog #9: Seeking Heaving Bosoms and Voodoo Priests in Dominca

"You're going to Dominica?" asked my friend.

"Yup," I said. "Dominica. Cool, huh?"

I am the only person I know who still says 'cool.' But I have to tell you, that going to Dominica for me eased into the "way cool" category a long time ago.

"Be careful there," said my friend. "There are a lot of pickpockets and the food can make you really sick."

I nodded and asked him what parts of Dominica he had been to.

"Well I haven't actually been there. But you hear stuff," he added with a significantly arched eyebrow.

I nodded and made a mental note to ignore every additional piece of advice he offered in the future. Still I would have been reluctant to give the real reason for why I was so looking forward to seeing Dominica. I suspect it would only make sense to me. But here it is anyway.

When I was a kid, I was a constant reader. And in one of the books that consumed my attention, there was a hero who had opened a sugar cane plantation there, only to have his lady love abducted by voodoo priests. There followed a wonderful narrative of guys skulking around in the dark, midnight rituals, hidden caves and lots of heaving bosoms. This book took place on Dominica and it instantly became a breathlessly exotic place in my mind. I have wanted to go there ever since and as we cruised into port, I could barely contain myself.

We ran into nary a single voodoo priest (or a heaving bosom for that matter) but my first impressions of Dominica were splendid. This is a rugged place and the aura of mystery could have been a part of my own expectant invention -- but it felt like a perfect setting for an adventure.

Enter Louis. We were casting about for a cab driver that looked like he would be able to give us a great look at this little island -- and along came Louis. He was an angular black man with an easy smile and a shirt loud enough to be seen from outer space.

"Welcome," he said. "Can I show you the island?"

It was done. We hit the highway for a day of great pictures, wonderful people encounters and lovely weather.

As we left the main city, the first thing I noticed is that the roads here are rutted, narrow and place unreasonable expectations on the skill levels of the drivers. Plus they drive on the left side of the street, a sensation I never quite got over. I often pumped my non-existant brakes (which provided the easy-going Louis with no end of entertainment) and came dangerously close to soiling myself on more than one occasion as we whipped around a mountain curve directly in the path of an ancient truck lumbering directly toward us.

The image at the top of this blog interested me.

"What's this?" I asked Louis.

"It's called 'Red Man,'" he responded with a mysterious smile.

My heart quickened. Red man? Could it be some arcane sign? Was some creepy old voodoo guy marking his territory? Memories of my book came back, washing over me.

"What's it about?" I asked as evenly as I could manage.

Louis shrugged. "Maybe some guy gets drunk and comes here with a paint brush."

That crashing sound you just heard was my imagination coming back down to earth. But it was a very cool (whoops there's that word again) image. Maybe the photo doesn't show you the scale: but the nose of the image is a jutting rock and all the additional writing looks Christian in nature. You see "Jah" all over the place in Dominica. It's the shortened familiar form of Jehovah, one of the names of God.
Louis took us to beaches and small villages. The image to the left was taken during a mini-trek into the jungle. You really can feel the rain forest here. It's like a humid presence pressing in around you. (See? I have not totally given up on the voodoo priest/heaving bosoms thing.)

What amazes me is the variety and intensity of life on Dominica. We're not even in the Amazon yet -- but there is so much life on Dominica. You can smell it. You can sense it. You can hear it -- the air hums with it.

Everything seems to coexist with everything else. The vine grows on the tree to the left. The tree feeds on the rich soil. Insects feed on the tree and birds spread the seeds. I stood there for a long moment in a place where the canopy of trees was so thick I could not see the sun, and really wondered at the perfect balance life has struck in this place.

The air is, very literally, sweet. There's green growing magic all around you. You take a deep breath and it's not unlike being in the mountains on a perfect morning. There's a sharpness to the air, like the air itself is an active part of the living forest.


The towns are a stark contrast to the jungle. They teem with people: little people in very english looking school uniforms, merchants, travellers -- men sitting together watching the people and the time pass with equal degrees of experienced disinterest.

There are merchants selling everything from beer to souvenirs. There is fresh fruit everywhere and juice and meat, covered with hungry flies.

Dominica was wonderful. Earthy and gritty and lovely enough that I decided to forgive it for failing to produce voodoo priests.

This was the third port day in a row. We were up early and onto the tender boat or the dock each time. We really put a lot into the ports. I am getting just a little tired. The world has taken on this etherial glow. We wake up, go to a place we've never been before and go back to the neverland of the ship for a meal and to cut pictures. The next morning we are in a new place where the whole drill repeats itself. It's wonderful...but I am not at all opposed to the sea days that come our way after tomorrow's port.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Travel Blog #8: Some Tobago Travel Magic...

Our Tobago cabbie was fearless. I suspect he’d driven photographers before because he understood perfectly when Sheree and I began making inarticulate but very excited noises from the back seat. He understood that we had seen something and he was supposed to pull over.

He didn’t care if we stopped on a hairpin curve on one of Tobago’s narrow roads. He didn’t care if he had to back the car up. He was…well…fearless. And after the initial “getting to know you” period, he understood we didn’t want to see the standard tourist stuff. He started showing us old graveyards and places where the people go.

We were on one of these anonymous roads when we saw a view through the trees that sparked one of those “we photographers think you should stop here please” seizures.

The break in the trees was to the left of a ramshackle hut. But the beach below offered a view that could easily have appeared on a postcard. We piled out of the cab, wiping lenses and rushing toward the Great View lest there be an earthquake that stole it away before we could get there.

We were happily engaged in this task when I became aware of a small person behind me.

She was maybe eight or nine. She was still in her school uniform (you see hundreds of children in school uniforms here, and I find it simply charming), holding a book bag, looking shyly at us. I smiled at her and made a tiny wave. She smiled back and took a tentative step forward. I stayed where I was, since I am a big guy and have entertained kids long enough to know that moving too quickly freaks them out.

The screen door opened and a woman holding a baby stepped out.

If this had been North America, I may have expected a rebuke and a stern warning to get off their land. But this woman and her child were smiling at us, almost as though they were the visitors and we owned the home.

“What a lovely place you have,” I said.

The woman laughed and thanked me. She told me she had been living there for six years and we chatted for a while in the easy comfortable way people here have. We chatted like old friends and soon we were laughing and I stood there thinking “THIS is what travel is all about.”


Sheree has business cards printed using a variety of her photos. She offered the package to the girl and her mother. I was convinced by now that the girl was much more outgoing and the mother was happier staying in the background. That's why I shot them this way.

I held up my camera and asked if I could take their picture. The woman nodded and I started shooting. I noticed the young girl edging closer. She wanted to see my camera so much her fingers were twitching. It occurred to me that this kid had probably seen thousands of tourists wielding cameras, but she’d probably never been shown what her picture looked like on an LCD screen before. I took her picture and asked her if she wanted to take a look.

There was a whoosh of air and she was there. Her large eyes were fixed on the camera. I showed her her own image and she laughed with unabashed delight and waved her mother over to have a look. The mother came and they both examined the LCD with interest.
I asked her if she’d like to take some pictures.

Her eyes widened and her smile was radiant. This would have been an excellent picture. But you know something? It would have been wrong to shoot it. This moment was for her.


I took my camera from around my neck and gave it to her. She took it into her hands with reverence, held it to her eye and took a picture of her baby sister. She jerked the camera away from her face and looked at the image. She whooped in delight. She took a shot of her mother. She took a picture of her house. When Sheree came over to see what the fuss was all about, she took a picture of Sheree too.

Each picture was taken and the LCD screen was always carefully examined.

She brought the camera back to me without being asked. Just before she gave it back, she took my picture too. The photo’s right here. Not half bad, huh?

She handed the camera, a thing that had provided such incredible joy to her, back to me with nary a misgiving. There was no regret on her face, no expression that said “Gee I wish I could keep this.” She’d used the camera – enjoyed it thoroughly and handed it back. I thought that was the most remarkable thing of all. This was a great kid who knew how to enjoy something and then give it back.

It was a wonderful moment. I don’t know their names. I know I could never find their house again. But it now a frozen golden moment of time burned into my memory where two people from frozen Canada shared laugher and photography with three people from sweltering heat of Tobago.


And people ask me why I travel.


Geez.

Travel Blog #7: Tremendous Tobago

They show a commercial repeatedly in Canada. You see this young couple, obviously on vacation, walking hand in hand along a pristine beach. They are talking about how lovely everything is. Along comes the voice over warning us about the dangers of getting nasty viruses from unexpected sources.

Next there’s a close up of a glass with a tropical drink and ICE floating in it. The woman makes an “oooh” sound at how good it looks and you just know that twelve seconds after finishing her drink, this lovely young woman is going to keel over dead into a pool of her own vomit. You never know about those foreign viruses lurking inside a seemingly innocent looking ice cube.

As we are bound for Tobago today, I had that commercial in mind. Being an intelligent man, I had vowed to avoid all beverages with little umbrellas floating in them.

After the sanitized and prissy-clean St. Barth, I was really hoping we weren’t going to get “Caribbean Lite” again. But where St. Barth’s is clean, Tobago is gritty. Where St. Barth’s is “way civilized,” Tobago is wild. Where the people of St. Barth’s look at you like bird poop that suddenly fell out of a tree and into their caviar, in Tobago they smile real smiles and welcome you to their country.

We had decided not to take an excursion from the ship. It’s always a good policy to book a cabbie. At most of these ports, cabbies can be hired for about $30 an hour. This isn’t a lot when you also consider that if you choose wisely, you get a tour guide interested in making your trip as perfect as possible (since the thirty bucks doesn’t include their tip.)

He drove us all over the island.

We saw wonderful seascapes. We popped by a “mall” on a cliff overlooking the city. Our guide called it a “mall” but it really was just a collection of huts where people were selling crap to the tourists. I don’t care for the crap, since most of it is destined for garage sales somewhere down the road. I like the people. And while you really should purchase something, what I am after is a picture of the people, usually proffering their crap to the camera. This guy carves wood into the most amazing things. He speaks only the faintest trace of English.

He was charming, though, and very polished in working with the tourists. He passed each wooden carving to prospective customers with both hands, like he was handing over a precious gem. He charmed the women and smiled at their husbands.

I liked Tobago. I liked the laid back pace of life. I liked the friendly people and the warm sun.

Tobago is what you think you are getting when you think about South America. You’ve got fabulous beaches, wonderful sun and wonderful people. Speaking of “wonderful people,” one of my favorite travel moments of all time took place that very afternoon.

You’ll hear that story tomorrow.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Travel Blog #6: St. Barth's

Eddie Murphy spent New Year’s Eve in St Barth on his boat. Other travelers have seen Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington and a ton of other luminaries. Apparently they come here because the climate’s great, nasty tropical hurricanes rarely hit here and the prices on everything are high enough to keep the riff raff away.

The last time the ship was in port, there were over two thousand yachts in the harbor. We’re not talking your twenty foot skiff either. We’re talking multi-million dollar yachts like you expect to see really wealthy places. These have their crewmembers in white pressed linen and their passengers seated on chairs so comfortable that you can’t imagine ever wanting to move.

During the “At Sea” days, we developed a great relationship with a few crew members. This is a great idea, by the way. They’ve been back to the port often enough to know it well. Once they believe you aren’t a jerk, they are very friendly and often supply great information. One of these crewmembers is a deck attendant named Adrian. He’s from Croatia.

“Going to St. Barth’s tomorrow?” he asked with the kind of sly smile designed to spark the obvious question.

“Yup,” said I. “Why?”

“Take your charge cards. Oi! Very expensive!”

He made a flapping motion with his hand.

“Are we talking “oi” expensive or “Oh-my-God” expensive?” I asked.

Adrian paused to consider this. Then he smiled: “What is higher than “Oh my God?”

We tendered into the port the next morning anyway, glad to be off the ship for a while and instantly got the same feeling that came through loud and clear in Monte Carlo: this is where rich people live. And they don't like you much. They know you are there, of course, and they are happy to feed on the little bits of money you spend (which is how they got rich in the first place, I guess) – but there is a chasm between them and us and the bridge between us was torn down and dynamited a long time ago.

Our destination speaker told us that many of the shops actually close when cruise ships are in town since they don’t want the browsers wasting their time. We’re talking about shops that sell two thousand dollar shirts and women’s dresses that run upwards of $20,000 USD. (You wouldn’t want to get a chicken gravy stain on one of those babies.)
The place drips money and just a touch of scorn.

We arrived in port, and stood there for a minute drinking it in. An old guy approached us almost instantly.

“Do you want to split a cab?” he asked, introducing himself as Joe. “They are so pricey. We thought we could split the fare with another couple.”

He spoke very loudly and I saw two huge hearing aids that looked a little like tumors sticking out of each ear.

“Yes,” said Sheree instantly. “Let’s do it!”

So we piled into a cab run by Celine – a woman who claimed to be fluent in English. She was pleasant enough: but most of the commentary was confined to: “Over der une building.”

We sat and waited for more information. There wasn’t any. Yup. It’s a building alright.

There was great beauty in the places she showed us. The roads were narrow, but very expensive looking little cars zipped over them with ease.

I guess the thing that bugged me just a little was that everyone looked so well coiffed. Even the blue jeans were pressed, and that’s just a law against nature. You have the notion that even the jeans that have holes in the knees were put there on purpose before they were sold by some little guy in a sweatshop somewhere who probably wondered what the heck was wrong with people who wanted holes put into perfectly good pants. Isn’t it perverse that one of the fashions of the rich is to look poor?

I didn’t have the sense that there was anything wild left on St. Barth…and those things that looked wild were first domesticated and then re-created into the image of what people would expect to find on a tropical island.

Napoleon “discovered” this island and named it for his brother. (Here’s another strange thing: how come places are only “discovered” when white people get there? Didn’t the ‘natives’ count? They were already there…so….??)

But St. Barth landscapes were breathtaking and the marinas well stocked with yachts.

We paused at an ice cream shop and got two very small gelatos and a bottle of water. Total cost: $22 USD. At first I thought he was kidding. But he just smiled and put out his hand. Yikes!

Part of the challenge of travel, for me anyway, is to try very hard to set aside negativity and enter willfully into enjoying a place. This is something Sheree does quite naturally. But it doesn’t come easy to me. I tend to keep seeing only the stuff that bugs me.

It was on this trip however that I got over my uneasiness with a polarizing lens. I bought this little wonder a year ago, played around with it and concluded it wasn’t going to work for me.
But polarizing lenses are wonderful for reflective subjects. Once the filter is attached to your lens, you’ll notice that an outer part of the filter can be turned with your fingers. Point the camera at water or sky (or in this case a deep hued chain), turn the outer ring, and you will see the subject darken. It’s the same effect as looking out at the world through very cool sunglasses where you can adjust the lenses at will.

If you point a polarizing lens at water, the fish become clearer. You can shoot through glass much more easily. Before long I was shooting most things with a polarizing lens. You just have to keep in mind that your subject really determines whether you use one. And it is going to mess up your camera exposures, so be prepared to play around and bracket your shots.

So we pulled away from St. Barth’s happy enough that we’d come here. We saw nary a celebrity. But we did see David Letterman’s house from a distance. And that should be enough for anyone, huh?

We go to Tobago tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Travel Blog #5: Sea Days

Life on a cruise ship is split into two kinds of “days.” A “Port Day” means you get off the boat and see stuff. A “Sea Day” means you are going to spend the day on the ocean going somewhere. We’ve got a couple of “Sea Days” coming up.

The ship plans activities from the lame to the really lame to cover the time at sea – which is why I use the time to process pictures, write, eat and hang out. Sea days are a real pleasure after you’ve been to several ports in a row. Since on Port Days we start first thing in the morning and work to get off the ship as soon as possible – and get back on as late as possible (usually with just enough time to cut photos and then fall exhausted into bed) these are really busy days.

This is a very small cruise ship as cruise ships go. We’re on the Pacific Princess, which, if you are as old as me, you will remember was the ship on the classically awful series “The Love Boat.” They show re-runs of that series here all day and some of the places look familiar.

Activities that looked really stupid when you got on the ship become quite interesting as sea days pass. One of the highlights of one at sea day was a screening of “Mama Mia” – starring Meryl Streep and a host of others. You could not have gotten me into this movie with a shotgun to the face before…but now I can hardly wait. There’s an ice carving demonstration later that I may check out as well.

Some ships offer courses in computers, Photoshop, guest lectures, destination speakers (people who dispense the straight poop about places you are about to go) and a bunch of courses in everything from western line dancing, ceramics to bow tying. (If I ever go to any of these, please please just shoot me.)

You can also sit on the balcony and watch the world pass by. These are my feet on the rails.

Here’s always a casino, bingo, art auctions, tons of bars and more. There are shops and a pool with deck chairs. There’s a pizza place, an ice cream parlor and a buffet. There’s a library and a card room. There’s also an Internet cafĂ© where you must simply agree to turn over all you earnings for the next twelve years in order to get onto the web.

You’d think it’s impossible to get bored, right?

It is.

There’s an amiable peaceful Neverland feeling to it all. You have merely to pick up the phone and order food – and minutes later, it’s delivered to your room. We started each day with a carafe of great coffee and a pitcher of ice water with lemon.

Sounds cool, huh?

It is.

The hours slide together and soon you are in a happy place where you are not sure what day it is. You gage the passage of time by the position of the sun in the sky and the meal or activity you are currently planning.

At night there are shows and music and a night club not to mention supper in the formal dining room.

The “formal dinner” puts you back in touch with the same people at the end of each day. There are four courses served and this meal can be one of the day’s highlights as you chat and laugh with new friends – or a horror. It all depends on who you are seated with.

This cruise put is in touch with Jack and Jenny (not their real names, by the way.) These two are out of Vancouver and are really experienced cruisers. They are travelling with Jenny’s father: Frank. Frank served in World War II as a fighter pilot. He’s still got a sharp mind – but he needs to go slower and he has hearing aids that make talking with him sound a bit like a friendly shouting match. I really liked Frank. He wore his medals proudly and he told wonderful stories about the war and the people he served with.

Jack’s favorite topic is Jack. He has an opinion on everything, even if it is a subject he’s never heard of before. If you have been to the hospital for a routine operation, Jack has operated on himself and successfully removed his own brain tumor. If you are into Photoshop (like me), Jack used to use it but has moved on to more sophisticated software since then. Actually he’s designing software that will make all other software obsolete, despite the fact that he is an electrician by trade.

You try very hard not to make eye contact with Jack because he will talk to you. Even when your eyes glaze over and you start tying your own noose, attaching it to the nearest rafter, he will keep talking. I have the idea that he would continue discussing himself with my softly swaying no longer kicking corpse.

Jenny doesn’t have much to say. She’s a realtor in Vancouver and she makes all the arrangements for their trips together…arrangements Jack does little except complain about. She even cuts his meat and picks lobster meat out of the shell for him.

They have decorated their metal cabin door with magnetic stuff, including a Canadian moose. If you squeeze the hand of the moose it plays “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.” It’s their doorbell. Jack thinks it is hysterically funny. Every time.

We were invited to their suite for a ‘cocktail party.’ Since we were at sea that day, any distraction was welcome and we went.

Their suite was a mirror image of ours. We were at the back of the boat and they were at the front. We had a relatively smooth ride. Theirs was a lot roughter.

“Ask me why I am wearing these sea bands,” said Jack, brandishing his wrists in my face.
“To keep from getting sea sick?” I offered weakly, realizing that this whole cocktail party had probably been a really bad idea.

Jack nodded and cast a sly look Jenny’s way. “Bingo. Now ask me why I have to worry about being seasick,” he demanded.

I offered him a blank look. It seemed pretty obvious to me…

“Because a certain someone booked our cabin at the front of the ship,” said Jack with perfectly synchronized jerks of head and thumb toward the hapless looking Jenny. “Betcha you two have a smoother ride at the back.”

I made a show of considering this. Jack didn’t care.

“All night. Up and down. Up and down,” he said, sticking his tongue between his teeth, cocking his head to one side and making a loud gagging sound for effect.

I nodded and looked around the room to signal the conversation was over.

He continued talking and I continued nodding and making interested noises.
The desk in their suite was occupied with cans of pop and huge…and I do mean HUGE – bottles of liquor.

“Ask me how much I paid for those bottles,” asked jack.

I considered faking a heart attack.

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Go on. ASK,” said Jack.

“I really don’t --” I said.

Jack punched me in my arm, a little harder than he had to.

“C’mon,” he said. “Guess.”

I sighed. “Six hundred dollars?”

“HA!” said Jack. “Ten dollars a bottle. We go to the PX on the base with Dad here,” he gestured toward Frank. For the first time, although not the last, I wondered if Frank actually had any hearing problems or if he was faking them. I would have.

I looked around the cabin. Jenny had put suction cups on the mirror so they could hang their matching Australian bush hats there. Said bush hats were covered with pins from all over the world. I worked very hard to control rampant envy. (If Sheree and I ever get “samie” hats, just shoot me.) Then I caught Jenny’s eye looking at me looking around their cabin, reminded myself I was a guest in their home and felt like a shithead.

“We scrapbook,” said Jenny half apologetically.

Suddenly I liked Jenny. She was a gentle soul but she had a look about her that looked worn down. Tired. She told us that on the sea days she and “Dad” and Jack got together to cut photos and paste them into scrapbooks she had purchased for that purpose. She opened a Tupperware container and showed me her carefully kept scrapbooking kit. I kept her talking because as long as she did, Jack was silent.

You meet people on a small ship. And photographers draw other photographers to them. We found ourselves shooting beside a spare woman of about 50 from Germany, who specialized in horse pictures. We talked at length with a geography teacher from England who was videotaping the trip for her students. Even the ship comedian had a brand new Canon 5D. He was everywhere with it. There was a guy from California, a software designer from Intuit, who also had a 5D…and no idea how to use it.

On a small ship there are people you nod to, people you’ve exchanged a few pleasantries with and people you’ve spent some time with.

And the Pacific Princess is a very small ship as cruise ships go.

Tomorrow we are putting into St. Barth’s – playground of the really rich and famous.

I am absolutely ready to get off this ship.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Travel Blog #4: Ship Stuff

The key words to getting onto a cruise ship are "submit to the processing." You get onto a bus with a bunch of other people who look just slightly confused and really hungry. One guy told me he hadn't had more than three meals in the four days so he could get his money's worth out of the cruise. He was all a-quiver at the idea of getting at the buffet.

No sound system on any cruiseline bus really works. The person imparting the information usually sounds like Mickey Mouse on steroids talking through a pound cake. But they smile as they speak. It's not so awful because you know you are in the arms of the cruise ship company and will stay there until you get off the boat.

You get into a line-up with everyone else and baby-step through the whole process. For this cruise you must have a visa from Brazil as well as certification that you've had your Yellow Fever shots.

The woman doing the processing was Rita, who was professionally cheerful.

"What happens if someone has forgotten to get a Brazillian visa?" I asked, making conversation.

Rita froze. "You do have a visa," she said with dread in her voice.

"Sure I do."

"Sometimes we can get them to the Brazillian embassy in time."

"And if you can't?" I asked.

Rita looked crestfallen. "They can't get on the ship. No way."

I nodded. "Has it happened before?"

She dropped her eyes. "Yes."

We give them credit cards to cover all our purchases onboard and are awarded a cruise card. This is the most important card in your life for the next two weeks. You need it to buy anything, to get on and off the ship -- to get drinks. Without the card, I think they throw you overboard. (I'll bet they apologize first -- but they feed you to the sharks anyway.)

Then there's that first moment of looking into your stateroom. Ours was wonderful.


As I stood on the balcony with Sheree, I had visions of sitting on the plastic chair provided, snapping shots of colorful birds and smiling natives as we cruised slowly down the Amazon.

"Keep your balcony door CLOSED," said Mary Rose, our cabin steward, appearing in our room. She's from somewhere in the Philipines, as are most cruise ship staff. She's got a broad smile and a warm manner.

"Why?" asked Sheree.

"The bugs in the Amazon are drawn to the light. You will see them all over the glass doors. I spent hours killing bugs. Please please keep the balcony door closed when we get to the Amazon."

"All over the doors?" I asked.

She nodded emphatically. "All over the doors."

Mary Rose paused at the door and looked at me "ALL over the doors."

I nodded.

Message ingrained on my mind. I have a new image there: me battling eight foot grasshoppers.

I have this wonderful tickling excitement happening in spite of images of snakes and cannibals and things that go "Buzz Snap Snarl" in the dark. I am going to countries I have never been to before. I am in a good place.

Even as the ship sails away and the ship band "Alaska" launches into a real whitebread version of "I Will Survive" (which I do my best to tune out) I see people all around me with the same smiles on their faces.

We're all at the start of a long journey. We are going to the Amazon. What could be better?

The pictures: The fellow on the top is at a safety drill in which every passenger must participate. Here you see everyone on the ship from the dancers to the shop clerks wearing the same awful orange life-jackets and expecting you to do the same.

That's Sheree in the middle image on our balcony. Try to tell me she doesn't feel the same excitement. The last image is of a couple I saw sitting by the pool together.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Travel Blog #3: Waiting in Fort Lauderdale

Fort Lauderdale is full of old people. They sleep a lot. They sleep in comfy lobby chairs. They sleep by the pool and start turning the most alarming shades of red. They even sleep in restaurants between courses.

Usually it’s the women taking care of the men. They pass them pills and hand them stuff their men have put down and forgotten. The women make arrangements at the front desk for the rooms while the men stand silently looking like mildly confused lizards and wait to be told where to go and what to do.

During meals the guys don’t say much. Usually they fix their attention on the plate of food in front of them. When they comment it’s usually just a few words, but they don’t look up.


This hotel looked ideal on the Internet. Great rates, breakfast and just minutes away from Fort Lauderdale’s cruise ship terminal. None of the pictures made it look like a holding facility for old people.

The problem is that it’s not close to anything. It’s parked in an industrial area and we get to it so late that it’s really not worth going out to take pictures since night is falling. So we decide, with very low expectations, to try the hotel restaurant. I usually hate hotel restaurants. They’re not exotic and they seem so awfully bland. This particular hotel restaurant is outstanding.
They offer a HALF POUND cheeseburger. Since I am about to get onto a cruise ship, and need to watch what I eat, this is what I order. And I eat it all.


Outside there are some very limited photo opportunities. A billboard catches my attention, not because of anything except the way the tree seems to have formed to suit the curve of a shark fin. I am bored enough to take several images here, much to the merry amusement of the hotel staff who have seen most things this world has to offer – but have never seen a guy in a great Tilley hat concentrate on eight million different angles to shoot a billboard. Little do they know.

I hate flower pictures. I really do. Yeah yeah – they are pretty. But there so many of them out there. I saw this red one (and no, I have no idea what it’s called) and started using my macro lens. I took several shots but they weren’t very interesting. So I took several different exposures and made it into an HDR image.

Tomorrow we get up early and board the cruise ship bound for the Amazon.

I am really excited about this.

Can you tell?

You guys ready to come along?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Travel Blog #2: Airports on New Year's Eve

I want to apologize. I had every intention of filing a blog each day I was away. But the internet on the ship, in addition to being about 40 cents a MINUTE, was very undependable and slower than most glaciers. So I blogged for you on my computer each day and will file them here one a day at a time as the events unfolded. Here's what happened on New Year's Eve at the airport:

We arrived at the airport in plenty of time. I was a happy camper. As a chronic watch-checker on trips, I knew we’d run the New Year’s eve gauntlet and were actually ahead of schedule. Our boarding passes were printed. Thus meant that we simply had to check our bags and lounge about at the gate.

Airports are ethereal places to me at the best of times. On New Year’s Eve they are even more “ethereal-er.” Planes are taking off for places all around the world. Tearful goodbyes and joyous reunions take place with numbingly intense regularity. I love airports, since nearly every trip we take starts with one of them.

The cab dropped us off at the Air Canada door and we saw an enormous line-up.

New Year’s Eve suckers, thought I. No line-ups for us. Nope. We were just going to cruise through the check-in process. We proceeded to the Baggage Check area and waited. Then we waited some more. I cleared my throat. The counter staff ignored us.

I stood in front of one of the desks, resting my hands on it. The woman didn’t look up. I cleared my throat and she still ignored me. I finally simply asked what they were doing with the “express boarding people.” She didn’t look up from her screen. She just jerked a thumb at the back of the lineup.

“We already have boarding passes,” I told her patiently. She was missing something, I thought. She looked haggard and probably needed just a little explanation.

She looked at me like I was something both unexpected and distasteful she had found on the bottom of her shoe.

“There are only three of us working tonight,” she said. “What do you want us to do?”

I nodded with what I sincerely hoped was a suitably sympathetic smile.

“So it’s just the three of you on tonight?” I observed shrewdly.

She looked even more tired (a thing I had not thought was possible) then without responding at all, turned back to her computer screen.

Great, I thought. I’ve been on vacation for exactly ten minutes and I’ve already made my first stupid observation. I turned to break the news to Sheree.

After I’d spoken, Sheree looked at me skeptically. I hate it when that happens.

“That makes no sense,” Sheree told me finally. “Go back and make yourself clear this time.”

We don’t need to go through the conversation that followed. It’s your standard “we’ve been married a long time and I remember every SINGLE time over the past twenty plus years when you were unclear in expressing yourself” stuff.

In the end I decided the safest course of action would be to to antagonize the haggard woman than to irritate my wife. So I went over and just sort of stood there until she looked up again.

“We already have tickets,” I explained again.

"Uh huh," she said.

"We printed them at home," I said with a suitably virtuous blush.

"Uh huh," she said. Again.

She jerked a very clear no-message-missed thumb at the back of the line.

“Is there usually someone to do the baggage tags?” I asked, knowing that I would really need something to take back to Sheree.

“Yes,” she said. “But as I have already told you,” she added with a don’t-piss-me-off-any-more-or-you-are-likely-to-find-my-pen-embedded-in-the-middle-of-your-forehead-you-dense-moron, “There are only three of us…Sir.”

I nodded and smiled in my very most understanding manner.

“We’ll just go to the back of the line-up,” I said cheerily.

“There’s a plan,” she muttered.

So we waited. And waited. After a period of time…a long period of time, we came right up to her again. I don’t think she recognized me. At least I hope she didn’t.

When we finally got on the plane, the flight attendant was counting down from ten to one. So we were making our way to the seats as 2008 died and 2009 was born. Then we sat some more. I started getting a little twitchy, because we had only an hour and ten minutes to make our connection in Toronto.

After fifteen precious minutes, the captain announced that we were waiting for a crew to come and de-ice the wings. I wondered why no one had noticed that there was ice on the wings over the previous half hour.

More time passed and, sitting there doing the math, I realized that we had exactly enough time to make the trip as we pulled away from the gate. The flight, which I think took eighty-nine hours, began with that most absurd of airplane rituals: the safety talk.

Does it strike anyone else as utterly ridiculous that the plane will get lost or crash if you listen to an iPod? (I have this vision of a wild eyed terrorist brandishing a Palm Pilot, screaming and threatening to turn it on in mid-taxi unless his demands are met.) Does the notion that you will survive a screaming plane crash if you lock your seat in an upright position seem ridiculous to you? The part of the film where the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling and the utterly calm people put them on always makes me smile. If a plane I am on ever falls out of the sky, I plan to cry like a little girl, make a point of reclining my seat and rearranging all the crap in the overhead bins.

We caught a headwind and got to Toronto with about half an hour to spare. Sheree, who is impervious to any time pressures, was calmly snapping pictures. I reminded her that we still had to get the suitcases, clear customs and get onto the plane all within half an hour.

She made a sound that indicated she’d heard me but planned to continue doing exactly what she’d started doing. I sighed and went ahead to get the bags.

We hit customs with twelve minutes to departure.

“Paging passengers Thiel and Zielke,” the announcement came.

“That’s us,” I observed.

“What is?” asked Sheree absently as she snapped a picture of something I couldn’t even see.

“That’s the moron announcement. They’re paging us.”

“Who is?”

I sighed. “The airline. They are paging the two morons who aren’t on the flight yet.”

“They’re paging us?”

“The flight leaves in just a few minutes,” I said as I threw my shoes into the little tray they provide.

“No they’re not,” she said.

“Can I look in your bag?” asked he sloth customs person.

“What? NOW?” I asked. It’s never ever a real question. You can’t say no. I would have. But if you fuss, they think you are trying to sneak a rocket launcher loaded with anthrax onto the plane.

I sighed.

“I have nine minutes to make my plane,” I said, wondering why they never ask to look in my bag when I have a six hour layover.

“Uh huh,” said the customs sloth.

She poked through my bag and precious seconds ticked by.

“This is the final call for flight…” our flight.

Geez.

She very slooooowlllly put stuff back into my bag and I pulled it out of her hands and started rushing toward the gate. I have this image of myself, like one of those guys with crap hanging out of his suitcases, and flapping shirt tails, tripping through the hallways.

I looked around me, eyes wild and saw Sheree sauntering toward me.

“We have eight minutes,” I said.

She nodded. What is it with that woman? I wondered. Why isn’t she frantic?

“They won’t leave without us,” she said.

“Yes they will,” I protested, hopping on one foot as I tugged on the strap on my sandal.

“No they won’t,” insisted Sheree, who will generally argue about most things only at moments when it is least productive to argue.

I went ahead to the gate, told them who we were and insisted they wait for my wife.

“There was ice on the wings,” I explained. “We were really late leaving Edmonton.”

The gate attendant sprang into action and got on the radio with the plane. They waited for us. Just like Sheree said they would. Customs could use a good woman like that.

We made it.

Next stop: Fort Lauderdale.