(Friday January 3). It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten days since we landed in San Diego and, more to the point, about 18 days, give or take, since the last post in Costa Rica. Given how taxing it is on old brain cells to try to remember things that happened even a week ago, I had better try to close the gap and put this puppy to rest while I still have some idea what happened. So here goes.
Just like at any land-based college, the last couple weeks before graduation are a bit of a frenzy on the ship. If there is a difference, it is that since every day is precious in the process of getting enough class hours in the courses so that the kids get credit for them when they get back to their home colleges, and since weekends are just days on the ship and not down time, the kids had a really rude awakening when they got back on board after Costa Rica.
Think of it this way. We got back on board the night of December 15, which happened to be Annie’s birthday, and the next two days were the final class sessions of the term. Some of our ship kids had as many as four papers due in classes during those two days, and many of them also had presentations due in some of their classes.
We tried to be as supportive as we could be for our ship kids, offering them an ice cream break after the Global Studies exam, but only about five of the kids met us, and of that group many came by to say hi, maybe had a smoothie or some popcorn, then begged off to get back to their studies.
That got them to their study day, which was one day before their exams started. Except that they had their Global Studies final the night of the study day, so naturally most of them spent that day cramming for that one, only to then spend the next two days cramming in every available hour for whatever exam was next in line.
I was a proctor for the Global Studies final, one of probably dozens of LLLs and faculty spouses and administrative staff to do so. Unlike years ago, when we all were in school, accommodations for special needs is taken seriously, so there were a lot of us proctoring three kids who needed extra time rather than the main group, which was broken up into four groups spread across the four largest rooms on the ship. I’ve gotten accustomed to the Academic Dean’s office, having proctored special needs kids there a few times during the semester.
Barbara and I spoke with one of the sociology classes about the election during the last class hour of the term. The professor was willing to give us 20 minutes to do our pitch about why it was important to get involved at home and on campus, and to think strategically about where your vote would have the most impact (as a student living in one state but in school in another, and thus having a choice of voting locations). He saw how engaged the students were in our presentation and he let it go for about an hour, and told us afterward that he was really happy with how engaged the group was.
On the first exam day we had a final reception with the faculty and administration on the 9th deck, and that was nice. The evening of the second exam day was a major event, the Alumni Ball, when the students pull out all the stops in terms of dress. It is a ship-wide fancy dinner, done in two seatings in the Berlin restaurant, with dancing around the pool starting at 9 and continuing until 11, and the kids get to buy two drink tickets, the limit for any of the social events they hold on the ship. (This is definitely not your typical cruise ship when it comes to partying. Or alcohol. But then it isn’t your typical college campus in that respect either, right?)
The day after the Ball was a day of re-entry programs to get the students ready to face the world again. We had to sit through one intro program and that was enough for me, but I know some of the LLLs who actually found the sessions useful in getting over their anxiety about returning to a place where they had to take care of themselves again. This went on most of the day.
Gary Rice was nice enough to give me a copy of the exam he gave one of his journalism classes so I could take it. What hubris. I thought I could take it cold and ace it, and after about one-quarter I couldn’t stand the pain any more and said “no mas”. I was cooked. Of course I hadn’t seen a newspaper for four months, and hadn’t sat in on a single class or seen the readings or the syllabus, but I figured I was reasonably well informed. I knew I was underwater from the get-go and had probably about 40% right when I pulled the plug. When I told Gary he told me that more than half of the class had got As and most of the rest had had Bs. The test was entirely short answer, so no multiple choice to fall back on, and he even took off points for misspellings of names, which was a real problem when most of the answers were Isis and Iraqi and Russian and Ukrainian political figures with names I can’t even pronounce, let alone spell. Yet one more indication of how smart and prepared and motivated this group of students was.
On the 22nd, we had our preport, to sort out the process of getting off the ship and through customs and immigration, but before that I still had a bunch of stouts to dispose of, so I invited the guys who had self-identified as the dark ale drinkers on the ship, which included Dean John, Bert Barreto and Ed Sobey, to do a blind taste test of five ales that I had collected in Amsterdam, Lisbon, Cadiz, Ghana and Trinidad. To save the suspense, which I know is killing you, the least popular of the five was …….Guinness (from Amsterdam). The most popular? Castle, which comes from South Africa but we found in Ghana. (When I told Ingrid she nodded knowingly and told us that Castle is great stuff. It is.) Next in line was an Irish stout that was brewed in Trinidad, where we got it, Mackeson. It is head and shoulders better than its better known rival back home. The other two were not that memorable, to the point that I don’t even remember them at this point (but of course that could be me, not the ales). After the preport, we invited our ship kids to get one last ice cream, and six of them took us up on the offer. We had a nice final hour with them before we all went back to our cabins to do our final packing.
The next morning we were up early to see the ship come into San Diego and also to get breakfast before debarking. Breakfast was only served up to 7am, to encourage people to get an early start. Both Linda and Barbara had daughters at the dock to pick them up, and Linda in particular was dancing around the deck once she spotted her family waiting for her on the pier.
After a lot of hugs and kisses, we were on our way. We were in no great hurry, since we had a flight from San Diego to San Francisco at 5:20 and we were off the ship before 10, feeling foolish that we hadn’t taken the chance that we would be off in time to get onto a 2pm flight. We had no idea that the San Diego airport is about ten minutes from the passenger terminal. Live and learn. It did give me time to find the closest UPS store, where I shipped back a box of Annie’s gardening books. All the other books we left on the ship.
The flight to San Francisco on Alaska Airlines was just fine. We were about as mellow as we could have been, looking forward to seeing Callie and Annie’s sister Sarah and the rest of the Duncans. When we arrived we called Callie and she told us she had cooked, so we took a cab and had our first and worst traffic jam since the flooding in Ghana. Welcome home indeed. It was 7pm on December 23rd, so we had no idea what to expect in San Francisco, and it was actually pretty wide open until the city came into view, but from there it was a crawl all the way across the Bay Bridge into Oakland.
It was the first time I had seen Callie’s apartment, which was small but because of 14 foot ceilings seemed really spacious, and she had done nice things with it. It was nice to see her, and also nice to see her puppy of 1-1/2 years, Ofelia, a smart-as-a-whip and beautiful Norwegian elkhound that we have gotten really attached to since Callie and I picked her up in western PA the summer of 2018. After dinner, we Lyfted it back to our hotel in downtown Oakland to get a good night’s sleep before driving up the coast to Inverness, where the Duncans have a house and cottage near Point Reyes National Seashore, a wonderful refuge.
In the morning, Callie fed us breakfast and then Annie and Callie went off so Annie could get a haircut, leaving me with Ofi. We walked along a parkway named after Nelson Mandela that would be an asset in any city. It must run for a mile, a garden pathway down the center of the parkway with three lanes of traffic moving in opposite directions on either side, but curiously not a lot of traffic, so easy to cross streets when walking the length of the parkway. Once they returned, it was off to Inverness, with all our luggage in the back of the car.
Somehow we didn’t arrive at Inverness until around 6:30 on Christmas Eve, by which time the Duncan family, including most of Mike’s siblings and their families, had finished their cocktails and were sitting down to dinner. Dinner was something new to us: pots and pots of Dungeness crabs, with just a salad and some bread on the side. We didn’t realize what a delicacy these crabs are, and how lucky we were that this was one of the better seasons for them in awhile. Last year they didn’t have them at all. I’ve never been a fan of crab, but these were delicious. I would love the chance to try them again. Of course, with the overfishing we’ve been talking about most of the voyage, there’s no telling how long there will be many of these in the Bay Area at all.
The next morning Callie and I took Ofi for a long walk then we met Sarah, Mike and their girls Ginny and Annie for breakfast. After that, we piled into the cars and drove down to the Point Reyes beach and walked and walked. Yet another Pacific Ocean beach, and just as beautiful as the ones five thousand miles farther south, if a bit colder. From there, back to the house for a light lunch of tomato soup, an hour of just hanging out and then back into the car to drive to the airport the other side of San Francisco to get on a red eye flight to Boston. Yes, I know this all seems a little nuts but Dan was leaving for his stint in Antarctica at 8am on the 27th, and our flight was leaving SF at 10 and arriving at Logan at 6:30am on the 26th, so at best it meant we could see him for what, a day?
By the time we got to the airport it was shut down for the night. We arrived at 8:03, and we could see people in all the shut food places cleaning up for the night. Of course we had just the bowl of soup all day, and no food coming on the flight to Logan. Even the vending machines in this terminal only took cash, and only provided nuts sand candy. So no dinner for us. Fortunately the flight was easy. Jet Blue, on time, funny attendant, aisle seat. Who could ask for more? Once we got to Logan, we walked to the express buses to Woods Hole, which were right outside the baggage claim and were ON TIME (leaving and arriving), so, again, who could ask for more?
Dan was waiting for us at the bus stop, which is about 100 yards from his house so we walked from there with our bags and put them in the house, then went into town to get a decent brunch. After that, we checked out his house, which looked a lot better with the current housemates than it did last year with another group around, then checked out his lab at the Oceanographic Institution. He showed us the equipment he worked with and the projects he’s involved in, as well as gave us an idea of what he would be doing on the ship that will be both his home and lab at the Antarctic. It was much more of a tour than the one we had last time in Woods Hole.
We had an early dinner at Water Street Kitchen, the top rated restaurant in the area and the one Dan worked in before landing his gig at the Institution. We’ve had a lot of memorable meals since we left home back in early September, but this one was right up there with the best. After dinner, we left Dan to finish his packing and headed to our motel for an early bedtime. It had been a long day, and a long three days, actually. And we had to be up before 7 to meet Dan and take his bags down to the bus to see him off for Logan.
We met him at 7:25 and took our stuff out of his car, which was our way of getting home to New York, and loaded his in. It is a Jeep and has limited storage, so it couldn’t hold everything, which will become important in about an hour. Trust me.
Dan’s bus was scheduled for 8, so we drove down the hill at five before and waited. And waited. At 8:15 Dan went into the stationmasters office and asked if they knew anything, and they said the bus should be there in five minutes. So we waited. And waited. At 8:30, I was on the phone with the bus company, which assured me that the bus was on Woods Hole Road, which runs between Falmouth and Woods Hole, so no more than five minutes away. So we waited. At 8:40 I suggested we put Dan’s bags back into the Jeep and plan to drive him to Logan. We were out of time to wait, and he couldn’t miss this flight, since he had two connecting flights to get to the tip of South America to join his research ship.
As we drove up Woods Hole Road we saw the bus disabled on the side of the road, and wondered if they understood that this wasn’t just a commuter bus going into Boston, but one taking about 30 people to Logan who had deadlines, even if not so urgent as Dan’s. None of those people made their flights. Dan made his. We were at Logan shortly after 10, and his flight was at 12:20, so he was good. But us, on the other hand. What we had planned as a quick drive down after seeing the bus leave all of a sudden turned into the drive to Logan, then another drive back to Woods Hole to get our bags from Dan’s house, then lunch, then the drive down to New York. It all went about as well as it could have, but what should have been a 12:30 arrival turned into a 7:30 one, and were we ever wiped.
But we were home. And it is good to be home.
So, looking back, what are our takeaways? What were the highlights? What were the disappointments? What were the biggest surprises? Where do we want to visit again, and which places have we seen enough of? Most importantly, will we do Semester at Sea again, and would we encourage you to check it out?
1. Don’t underestimate this generation. They have such tools at their disposal and they know how to use them. And they do use them in ways that take your breath away. I’ve written before about the quality of the presentations these kids put together in their courses despite the miserable wifi that they had to work with. Don’t think for a minute that they don’t get what is happening in the world or that they don’t care. Yes, their life on the ship was a dream, but they worked, and they cared about how they performed.
2. The ship was an acquired taste to someone who had been on a voyage on the old SAS ship, as we had been. It grew on you, though, as you settled in, and the more time we spent on it the more we overlooked the inconveniences in the configuration of the classroom spaces and appreciated the pool deck and the movie theater, and the rest of the amenities that we didn’t have on the old ship and that made this even better for the geezers like us.
3. As for highlights, we had a few. Annie giving a presentation on the importance of native plants was one.
Annie getting her hair dyed was another.
The markets in Tangier, in Guayaquil, in Accra, in Takoradi, in Cadiz, in Lisbon. Okay, all the markets.
The people we met in Ghana, in Accra. Just so damn nice.
Being able to spend so much time with old friends including Barbara and Linda and Ingrid and her boys, and with new friends like Sam and the Barrettosand the Sobeys and Dean John and the Roupps and the Rices. We’ll make it a point to try to stay connected to these guys and hope we’ll see them on another semester in the future.
The Sea Olympics on the ship and Neptune Day.
Listening to Fado in Lisbon, first with the Roupps then the next night with Ingrid, Linda and Ingrid’s son Cameron.
Eating street food in so many places and not getting sick once.
Krakow and Auschwitz. Not sure if describing it as a highlight is the right word. Most powerful moment, and one that will stay with us for a long time? For sure.
The Panama Canal
And did I mention Morocco?
4. Disappointments, there were a few of those as well. High on the list would be Brazil and even higher would be Croatia. And yet for many these would be on their highlight lists. Different strokes for different folks.
5. Biggest surprise: for me it’s Ecuador. I want to get back and explore so much more of this country. We heard nothing but raves from people on the ship who went off in different directions from where we were. This is to be continued.
6. Other places to visit again: just about everywhere that made the highlights. Sooner rather than later, Portugal and adjacent parts of Spain, Ecuador and adjacent countries like Peru and Chile, and of course Morocco.
7. Would we do it again? In a heartbeat, but there’s always the issue of how it interferes with the gardens and the growing seasons. Once we sort that out we can do another full voyage. If that is too hard, maybe the first three months of the Spring or the last three months of the Fall. One way or another, I think we’ll be back on this ship.
8. Would we recommend it to you? Come on. If this blog isn’t a recommendation what is? Go, and have the time of your life. Just don’t expect it to be the typical cruise ship, with all the drinking and all the gambling. Trust me, you won’t miss that. And if you have any questions or concerns about it, but you are interested, just call us and we can talk about it.
So here we are. Getting back to a routine. All the accumulated papers are sorted. The first two pies have been baked. The bills are paid up to date. Most of the laundry has been done, but not all, but what’s the hurry anyway?
Thanks for joining us on this adventure. We look forward to our paths connecting soon and frequently in the new year. Let’s make this one that counts, and let’s help save the planet and our country in the process. Happy New Year!
We decided early on that by the time we hit Costa Rica we might need some down time, so we booked four nights at a resort in Playa Panama and that’s what we’ve been up to since we left the ship in Puntaremas four days ago.
We’re not used to this. Frankly it’s a bit disconcerting after the poverty we’ve witnessed in port after port, country after country, to end up at a resort where the waitstaff comes to your chaise lounges around the pool and even out on the grounds with glasses of ice water to be sure you don’t need anything. Not when we wave to get their attention; they circulate and ask every few minutes. I guess most people are asking for mimosas or whatever; it’s just not our thing.
The resort is right on the Papagayo Peninsula and right on the water. It is a gorgeous setting. Needless to say, where there is this kind of tourist draw there is big foreign development money snapping up the prime locations, and the property we visited is just such a location. Playa Panama, as best we can tell, is little more than a handful of such resorts set on a strip of pristine beachfront. So where’s the problem, you might ask. The answer hits you between the eyes as soon as you walk through the entrance of the resort proper. On your left is a glassed-in room with a huge flat screen TV playing a loop day and evening with one message: Buy your timeshare now, while there still are slots available. Get in now on the ground floor before it is too late. Of course, by that time the whole coast will be overdeveloped and those who buy now will wonder what they were thinking.
We knew from what we had read in the guidebooks and what we had heard on the ship from our inter port lecturer and student that Costa Rica saw itself as the next member of the OECD, verging on being a developed rather than a developing country, and in so many ways it is as advanced, or more advanced, than we are back home.
Based on the usual measures (my usual measures, at least), it is very advanced. There is a reason why it has become a haven for American expats and retirees. The cost of living is closer to that in the States than the other countries we’ve visited in this hemisphere, but it still isn’t high for the quality of life it offers. Healthcare is so good that it is one of the draws for the expats and retirees. Education is reasonably good.
A lot of this started after the country ratified a new constitution in 1949, establishing a democracy after the American model. One thing the first president did was lobby to abolish the military, saying the money the country was spending on soldiers would be better off going to education, healthcare and infrastructure. The legislature agreed, the military was dissolved. Costa Rica is the proof in the pudding. It does work.
More than any country we’ve visited Costa Rica really is a tourism driven economy. Everywhere you turn you stumble over an eco lodge or a national park. A large percentage of the country has been reserved for green space, mainly the parks, but some other eco-driven attractions as well. Just about everywhere you go the prices are either posted in US dollars or in both dollars and the local currency, the colon. Even the ice cream stand we visited had its prices in US dollars.
As you drive around most of the other land that you pass is planted in sugar cane, at least as you drive to the north, where we have been, with some planting in rice but not much else. I know that there is some cocoa and some coffee growing in other parts of the country, probably in the higher elevations. Whether because of the tourism or just the agriculture, this country just looks and feels as green as any I’ve ever seen.
The second day at the resort we took a day trip with a group to visit a farm that was up in the hills, with a hike included through rain forest. It was kind of light after all that we’ve been doing in Brazil and Ecuador, even if it was fun, and Annie did get to milk a cow and feed a calf. I passed on that opportunity, but I did take pictures.
Once we returned to the resort we agreed that we didn’t need to do any more day trips – we’re tour guided out by now. It was just one too many hours in another van bouncing around unpaved roads back and forth to this farm.
The days here have given us a chance to do some reading. Annie has flown through a book about Teddy Roosevelt’s ill-fated expedition to the Amazon after he had lost the presidency. The name of the book is “Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey – The River of Doubt” and she gave it four stars. I’ve worked my way through another one of Paul Theroux’s travel books, this one called “ The Last Train to Zona Verde”. It is a singularly depressing book, more so because of the stark contrast with the irrepressible optimism that filters through all of his earlier works (I’ve read many of them). I couple years ago I read another of his books, “Dark Star Safari”, which chronicled an overland journey along the east coast of Africa from Cairo to Cape Town, through some very dicey areas in between.
This book, written a decade later when he was 70, picked up that thread and tells of his attempt to go overland starting in Cape Town and continuing up the west coast of Africa through Angola and then into the interior of the continent. The difference is that the optimism is gone. He’s reached the point where he no longer can look at a shantytown or worse and see a positive side of it, because every time he leaves one and then returns years later it has only become more sprawling and chaotic, the numbers increased exponentially, with no relief in sight. And he no longer can pretend that the corruption and waste that has turned places like Angola from what should have been one of the most prosperous places on the planet to one of the most desolate is just another issue to be overcome. Over time, the wealth of the top fraction of one percent has become beyond calculation while the rest of the population of Angola not only doesn’t benefit from the oil and the diamonds, it doesn’t even get jobs in those sectors as they have all been auctioned off to the Chinese, who are ubiquitous in Africa. As someone who has spent most of his life traveling, working, teaching and writing in Africa and other developing areas, to read how disillusioned he has become is really depressing.
There is no place where we have docked on this voyage that is anywhere near as depressed as the places Theroux describes. SAS wouldn’t expose its students to the kind of unsafe environment these places represent. In all the places we’ve visited we’ve left with a sense of optimism, of progress made and being made. In all the development classes on the ship we’ve concentrated on the positive results from programs on the ground around the world. And Theroux does write about a lot of people who stick it out to try to improve lives in settings as bleak as the chaotic shantytowns of the cities of Angola. His message, though, is that for the change that is needed to occur it will have to come from change at the top, not from the bottom up, and that will be wrenching.
The guidebooks don’t even reference the port that we are docked in, Puntaremas, and it looks like any industrial port from the little that we have seen of it. We walked from the ship to the start of the pier, where a driver met us to take us to the resort, and by the time you read this we will be back in his car on our way back to the ship for the last leg of the voyage. The city is far enough from the port that we’re just heading back to the ship, well rested for the last leg home. We’ll be back in touch once we land in San Diego.
(Monday December 9) Really getting into the homestretch at this point. I sat in on three classes today as well as the Global Studies and LLL sessions, and all three of the classes broke early so students could get to work on their final presentations. It seems like college classes today are as much about live presentations as final exams. Probably useful skills to develop in today’s world.
Only 13 days until we reach San Diego, and the next five of those will be spent in Costa Rica. Lots of long faces as we walk around the ship, but that’s to be expected, I guess. I’ll return to the mood on board, and the frenetic pace of activity here, but first, I need to tell you about our six days in Ecuador.
I know I’ve mentioned how, between the Global Studies sessions, the evening presentations by the visiting speakers from the approaching countries, the presentations made by these and other speakers to the LLLs and the pre-port briefings, by the time we land in port we have a sense of where we are and what to expect. I have to confess that I didn’t focus a lot on any of these presentations for Ecuador since I was totally focused on the four days that we had lined up in the Galápagos Islands.
Some of the presentations did sink in though, through the ether. I did learn that Ecuador was kind of on the same plain as Brazil economically, maybe a bit more stable because it had dollarized its currency some time ago after a period of wild exchange fluctuations that were wreaking havoc on its economy. I didn’t know that there are about a dozen countries that use the US dollar as their currency, which isn’t as crazy as it might seem. Ecuador, like these other countries, simply buys physical dollars on the open market with its reserves and then circulates those dollars as the country’s currency. It is kind of weird to go to an ATM in the Galapagos and find that for once we don’t have to do a conversion in our heads to figure out how much we are withdrawing to get some amount of the local currency. You actually have to remind yourself when you look at the screen that the numbers you see are in dollars.
I also learned that the country was, not surprisingly, very religious and almost entirely Catholic (there’s some evangelical flavor creeping in to satisfy those who need more charisma than the Catholics can provide). There also is universal healthcare and universal free education. At this point we’ve gotten to expect this everywhere we go, and it’s beyond sad that our own country, the richest in the world by far, is such a laggard here. Maybe we can start to change all that in 11 months.
One of the things Burt Barreto has been showing in his Global Studies presentations on the day before port in each country has been a chart showing the growth in per capita income in each country. Another is a population pyramid that projects where that country will be as its population ages over the next 30 years. He’s shown these charts for each country, then shown the actual income change in comparison to each of the other countries we’ve visited. Again, not surprisingly, the European countries have higher per capita income but also higher income growth over the past several decades. The lowest growth rates we’ve seen sadly have been in Ghana and Morocco, while the next two weakest rates have been those of Brazil and then Ecuador.
So when we hit land we did so with some preconceptions and armed with some info of questionable usefulness, but there it was. We docked in Guayaquil. The guidebooks on the ship had little that was positive to say about it, which I guess is why I didn’t spend a lot of time learning about it. Guayaquil is maybe the largest city in Ecuador – it seems to trade that distinction with Quito each time a count is done – and in any event by far the largest port in the country. It also is sprawling, so that the actual port is between 30 and 50 minutes by bus to the center of the city, depending on traffic. We hit both ends of that spectrum on our trips into Guayaquil. The guidebooks said that the city lacked any character, that it was a jumble of boxy construction to keep up with demand, with residential and business growing along with the growth of the port area over the last couple decades.
All the info we had drilled into us, and all that we picked up from the guidebooks, had us thinking that spending a few hours in Guayaquil on our first day in was just a way to pass the time before we left for the Galapagos early the next morning. Surprise! Actually a lot of surprises. And all of them pleasant. How about that!
Our main goal when we got on the shuttle bus was to find a place on the promenade that tracks most of the city’s waterfront where we could get a decent lunch and use some wifi. Our secondary goal was to find a place where we could get some plastic water shoes that we thought we would need for the Galapagos. The instructions for our excursion stressed this, and we had nada to get us through four days on the islands.
The shuttle bus took us to Simon Bolivar Park, which is three blocks from the promenade in the center of the city. It is a central meeting point in the city, the closest thing to a bus station that there is even though it is just a ramp off the street. It is flanked on one side by the city museum, on another by a couple of hotels, on the third side by the city’s cathedral and the fourth side has the bus drop off area with shopping across a wide street. The park is teeming with parents with small children, tourists waiting for buses, locals out on errands. It is alive and authentic. It also didn’t hurt that on the side of the park where we pulled in at either end of the block you would find kiosks selling all manner of trinkets, a few magazines, and, most important, bags of potato chips, yucca chips and PLANTAIN CHIPS.
I can’t say for sure if it was Ghana, but somewhere along this voyage I became addicted to plantain chips. Fortunately the trajectory of the voyage has been from one country where you can find them to the next, so I’ve been able to stock up on them each time we’ve been in port and the supply has been more than enough to get me through to the next place where we could get a fix. So it was here, but even better because plantain chips in Ecuador are dirt cheap! It was heaven! 50 cents for a decent sized bag! I was buying at least three bags each time we took the shuttle into the city, on the first day, the fifth day after we got back from the Galapagos and on the last day before we headed back out to sea. At this point I think we have enough to last until we hit San Diego.
So right away I am thinking that there is more to Guayaquil than meets the guide books. From the park we walk over to the promenade, which is a wooden boardwalk with none of the continuity of the Jersey shore, but so much to captivate. It goes on for about a mile to the left of where we came in and a little less to the right. What makes it though is that there is no overarching theme but somehow that in itself becomes the theme, and it works. It is outstanding. There are historical monuments of all shapes, periods and sizes at intervals up and down the walkway but other than that from one section to another you couldn’t predict what you might stumble upon next.
We turned right, because the map we saw showed shopping along that direction and we were looking for the shoes. After a couple blocks, a couple kiosks selling ice cream and then a short run of local fast food restaurant booths, we got to the last thing we wanted to see, a glass-enclosed shopping area that was in full Christmas stride. It was loud, it was green and red decoration hanging in all directions, it even had a 20 foot metal tree in the middle that was just a mass of colored bulbs. We closed our eyes as best we could and emerged into the fresh air at the far end of this obstacle course as fast as we could. At that point we were pretty much at the end of the promenade other than what was described as a crafts area, and that set off my radar so that we changed direction and headed out of the promenade as soon as we saw an exit.
By now you should know that my radar also extends to stumbling upon the best sprawling outdoor markets in every city we visit. We had no idea that Guayaquil even had a permanent outdoor market and we certainly weren’t looking for it but there it was as we exited the promenade! This was just an amazing development! Annie and I plunged right in, sure that this was the perfect place to find the Crocs or whatever else passed for plastic water shoes in Ecuador, and sure enough, after about a block we had already seen a couple booths that passed the test.
Unlike Lisbon, or Cadiz, or any of the medinas in Morocco, or any of the wonderful markets we’ve visited in Accra, Takoradi and Tamale in Ghana, this market actually has taken over a rabbit warren of streets in the center of the city. I guess there are shops behind the stalls of the market, but as you walk through all you see are the stalls continuing block after block, with stalls heading off in perpendicular directions at each intersection. It’s really hard to tell how big this market is. We didn’t walk the whole length of it, and we didn’t even notice the way it ran off in a different direction at each intersection until the second time into the city when our shuttle bus passed over parts of the market on an overpass that had to have been built to allow the market to morph over time. In New York Robert Moses would have razed the whole thing to the ground to make room for more highway lanes. Good thing the Ecuadoreans had better sense.
Now we have our shoes, at a great street-market price, and we know where we can get plantain chips on our way back to the shuttle, so we’re already playing with house money and we’re just getting started.
We get back onto the promenade farther down than the glass abomination I wrote about and this was where it hit us just how ingenious the design was. There was a tall monument from about 1900 that is kind of a landmark on the promenade down the same street that the buses stopped on. That is one of a couple monuments that really stand out as you walk along. Between the two, and then continuing to the left all the way to the end, another mile or so, there are large areas with children’s play equipment, rides and games, several of them each large enough to be a destination but small enough and close enough to the others to create a flow in all directions. There are a couple places selling coffee and sweets, a couple more that are bars with menus. Only a handful over the span of a mile. Ice cream kiosks at decent intervals, but not so far apart that you would feel like you missed them. There were a couple more large pop-up shopping areas, more crafty than the glass box, and there were gardens, spectacular gardens, just below the promenade and running parallel to it for about half of its length. There also was a huge Christmas village with a life size crèche scene and lots of other full size middle eastern-looking buildings that somehow seemed right for a really religious country. The overall effect of all this was just wonderful. The damn thing was just so well thought out and executed, and it was just so alive! There were families with kids delighting in the rides and play equipment, there were tourists taking selfies in front of almost everything, there were couples enjoying the moment. And all this in a city that the guidebooks essentially said to avoid.
We ran into a bunch of other SASers and all ended up in one of the two bars on the promenade for lunch, which provided not only decent food but decent wifi, so the day was complete. After ice cream, it was back to the ship to make it an early evening since we had to be up at about 5 to leave for the airport for our flight to the Galapagos.
To say that we were pumped for this excursion would be an understatement. When we signed on for this voyage, stopping in Ecuador with the likelihood that we would be able to get to the Galapagos was, along with getting up the Amazon, the real draw for us. We’ve been looking forward to seeing these islands the entire voyage, and now we were on our way.
I am assuming that just about anybody who is reading this knows the significance of these islands in the development of the study of biology and more recently in raising worldwide awareness of ecological change. There probably are islands that are more unspoiled in places around the world, but not any that have the profile or the tourist presence that we found in the Galapagos.
We arrived at the airport on the island of Santa Cruz, one of the larger islands in the Galapagos, late morning. The next four days are kind of a blur. You might remember that I have been dealing with bronchitis and related congestion since the hammocks in Brazil, so the flight to Santa Cruz was not so simple. No one else in our group complained about air pressure, so I guess it was me, not the plane, but my ears were like two balloons ready to pop by the time we arrived. Our local guides met us at the airport and took us to the harbor where we had a boat waiting for us.
When we arrived at the harbor we found it packed with what appeared to be luxury yachts that we figured would be used for guided tours of the islands like the one we were about the start. The SAS description of our excursion started out saying we would climb aboard the yacht Aqua for four days sailing around Santa Cruz, with lots of hiking around the island and time for snorkeling and kayaking. It seemed like just the cure for what ailed me.
But then we boarded the motor launch at the pier that was taking us out to our yacht, and why were we motoring past all the new yachts, well out into the harbor, toward what seemed to be a dive boat? Unfortunately it had the word “Aqua” painted on the side, so this was to be home for the next four days and, more to the point, three nights.
Now, no complaining here. Just the facts. The unvarnished facts. We didn’t come to the Galapagos for a luxury experience sitting on a yacht. We came here for the animals and the flora, much of which is endemic to these islands and doesn’t exist anywhere else on the planet. On that score, the excursion was brilliant. Our tour guide, Fabian Sanchez, was brilliant. He was encyclopedic, funny, energetic and as put off by the dive boat as the rest of us. (In the Galapagos, all the guides are nationally licensed. Fabian wasn’t an employee of the tour company, but rather was hired by them to lead this particular tour, and it was his first time on this boat.)
The first afternoon we spent first snorkeling and later hiking around one of the other islands that was much more unspoiled than Santa Cruz. It was just what we hoped for. Everything you’ve heard or read about the Galapagos is true. It is fiercely protected, to the point where even a gum wrapper dropped on the ground of one of these islands would be almost a capital offense, as you hike around you have to stay strictly within well marked pathways, you have to keep a distance from the animals (and in the water from the fish and sea lions, who will swim right next to and all around you) and most importantly you have to make sure not to touch any of these animals, since a part of their evolution includes, at least with respect to the sea lions, one remarkable trait. If a young sea lion, one that is still nursing, makes contact with a human (or maybe some other kind of creature that is not another sea lion), its mother and all the others in the group will abandon and shun it, it will not get the nutrition it needs to survive and it will die. Doesn’t matter if it goes into the ocean and washes off. Apparently the scent or whatever it picks up from this incidental contact is indelible, and the effect is permanent and deadly.
I know, you’re thinking they are just trying to be motionless so we won’t notice them, but that ain’t it at all. They are so used to humans passing them as they live out their lives without any disruption that they just go about their business as if we weren’t even there, as if we were as non-threatening to them as the boobie is to the sea lion, as a goat would be to a cow. There is one exception to this rule, and that is the sea lion. It is a highly intelligent mammal, and very social, so if you are swimming in its waters it will play with you, and if you are passing pups cavorting on the beach (the more mature ones just lay in the sun soaking up the rays when they aren’t busy diving for food) they might make a bee-line for you to play and you have to be careful that you stay a distance away from them so they aren’t contaminated by human touch.
Because the islands have been a paradise forever, unspoiled and without human intervention to freak out the fauna living there, none of the animals we saw over the three days that we hiked around moved an inch as we passed them on our paths. We were within inches of marine and land iguanas, sea lions, birds as varied as the endangered boobies (several different species), frigates and even one species of hawk and not one moved an inch to get away from us.
The first hike was a microcosm of all the hikes we did over the next few days. We saw dozens of blue footed boobies, a wonderful bird that does a mating dance that is jaw-dropping, and we were fortunate enough to be on the islands and in the nesting areas for various species of boobies as well as frigate birds as they were going through this periodic mating ritual.
The male boobies start their dance by approaching the female they have chosen and get right in her face, er, beak. The male then starts his dance, which consists of lifting one leg high off the ground slowly, then bringing it back down to the ground and repeating the process with the other leg. There is no sound involved. This ritual is repeated for several minutes. At some point during the process, the male might bring a stick of straw or a twig to start a nest. It will present the twig to the female, then lay it on the ground. This too may be repeated for minutes on end. While all this is happening, the female may remain impassive, a sign that she just isn’t interested. The male probably will be undeterred by this, at least for a good while.
If the female is attracted to the male, she might pick up the ritual at either the dancing stage or at the twig stage. Once the male thinks he has made contact, he may fan out his feathers, which is impressive when you see it because the bird doesn’t look like it would have such a wingspan as it is dancing around. Then the main thing you are attracted to it the bright blue feet. Oh, yes, the feet. These are birds, not ducks, but their feet are webbed, not claws, so they can paddle in the water, and the damned things are huge (for the size of the birds).
The real highlight of the dance and nest making ritual is when the two birds mimic each other in perfect time, with both raising their legs in tandem, and both laying twigs onto the new next in tandem. This is magic. And there is nowhere else on the planet you can see it. We were very lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
The boobies weren’t the only birds going through a mating season as we passed through. The frigates also were in this process. The frigates are long and thin black birds that hunt by gliding over the water and then swooping down to catch their prey, usually a fish too close to the surface of the water but sometimes a fish that another smaller bird (a boobie?) had caught and was flying away with. The frigate will just come along and wrest it out of the beak of the lesser bird. The frigates have a wondrous wingspan and when they are gliding, circling the water surveying what pickings there are below, they are serenity personified.
The frigates’ mating ritual is just as unusual as that of the boobies. The males have a red gullet, kind of like what a turkey has, but most of the time it appears as just a small marking on the throat, not some kind of growth. The females don’t have the red marking. When a male is hunting for a mate, it impresses her by getting in her face and blowing up the red gullet as if it were a balloon. In full display, the red balloon, because I don’t know what else to call it, is larger than the bird’s head. It is freaky. It is also quite wonderful. I’m not sure what the female does to show she is interested. We saw several males in full throated display, but didn’t see the females doing anything in response.
The iguanas are endemic to most of the islands, and these particular iguanas are also unique to the Galapagos. Many were endangered but there has been a lot of work done to set up protected areas where they can repopulate, and it seems to be working. These animals have been in this part of the world for millions of years and you have the feeling when you are walking past them that this is the real Jurassic Park and these are the real dinosaurs. It is amazing what they have survived, and it will be a real test if they can survive this latest bout of climate change. The iguanas feed on cactus and apparently only certain species of cactus, which is why they are on these barren volcanic islands where little else grows. We did see some eating, carefully tearing off bits of the flesh of round pieces of the cactus. It can be a very slow process.
So that was our basic routine, to visit various islands that were otherwise uninhabited and hike around to see what was there, and to see what they were up to. It was only on our third day that we actually set foot on Santa Cruz, which is the island that has most of the population of the Galapagos (about 30,000 in total), most of the support services, including the restaurants, the hotels, the banks, the tour companies, the main port and one of the two airports. Santa Cruz also has the Charles Darwin Research Center, one of the crown jewels of the islands.
Of course it was Darwin who was one of the first Europeans to explore the Galapagos, and much of his theories of the evolution of the species was the result of just a short time spent on these islands. Darwin explored and wrote at length about the islands, but he was in the Galapagos only for about three weeks. (If I am off a bit, again, please forgive me – this is entirely from memory and that is getting more suspect with each passing day.)
We were on Santa Cruz, actually, to make a visit to the research center, because it is very important in the breeding and preservation of endangered giant sea tortoises. These magnificent creatures can live almost forever, but with the advent of fishing nets off the coast of Ecuador the population was being decimated. The center has an active and successful breeding program where young tortoises are raised to the age where they can survive in the wild and then released. The main celebrity at the research center is one great old tortoise – I think his name was Stanley but that could be wrong – who is estimated to be hundreds years old and has fathered more than 800 offspring. We saw him in his enclosure with his current harem, numbering three. Once a female is impregnated, she is removed from the enclosure and nursed through birth, while her place in the enclosure is taken by another female. Given this almost endless supply of mates, there’s no telling how many offspring Stanley will account for by the time he hangs it up. (He seemed active enough when we saw him.)
So our days in the islands were idyllic. Unlike the hikes we did in the Amazon, which were devoid of fauna of any kind, our hikes on the islands were filled with encounters with some of the most unusual fauna we will ever see. Very special. The dive boat, er, yacht, though…. that was something else. All seemed fine as we settled into our cubbyhole of a cabin for the night the first night. The bathroom was on two levels, which made it a challenge to use it, but I won’t write anything more about it here. If you want the details you’ll have to ask me. We had had such a great first day, and with the flight and all it had been a long one. So getting to sleep was no problem.
Then all hell broke loose. At 3 am, it sounded like there was an explosion and the cabin started to vibrate violently. We had been docked for the night, or so we all thought. Turned out that at 3 am the captain fired up the engines and started off to our next morning’s destination. Also turned out that our cabin was directly over the engine. You can guess how much more sleep we got that night. In my case, I’m trying to nurse myself back to health, and after a short night the night before to get up to get the plane, the last thing I needed was to be up all night in the engine room. It put kind of a damper on things, you might say, but we tried to block it all out during the day, trying not to think of what awaited us once we were back on board.
Fortunately the second night we were docked in one place all night, so we were able to sleep, but for the final night we were motoring from 10 at night right up to seven in the morning, when we docked back in Santa Cruz to get back to the airport for our two hour flight back to Guayaquil. This was one instance where the advertising was creative, and what purported to be a five star accommodation actually turned out to be about one half star, but in the grand scheme of things it didn’t matter. We saw what we came for, and we were glad we had had the chance to be there.
The flight back was much like the flight to the islands, in that my ears were shot completely by the time we landed (a week later as I write this they still are popping but getting better). While it would have been nice to have part of another day in the islands, traveling in a group limits your options, and the only flight we could get at the price point the tour operator factored in was early morning, so we were back at the ship by lunch time.
On the way back from the airport I told Annie that maybe just resting was a good idea, but after lunch I was itching to get back into Guayaquil for the afternoon, so that is what we did. No way you could have predicted at the outset that we would have looked forward to spending more time in Guayaquil, but damned if we were really glad we had the extra time to get back in to walk the promenade and explore some of the surrounding streets.
We didn’t walk to the promenade this time, but walked parallel to it for about half a mile three or four blocks inland so we could visit a few plazas and small parks, with the requisite churches and cathedrals facing out onto the plazas. In South America, if you see a park or plaza in a town or city you can lay odds that there will be at least one church opening out onto that plaza, and it certainly was the case in Guayaquil. We had run into Gary and Sherry Rice on the ship, and they confirmed something that Linda had told us, which was that they had found that Guayaquil had a ton of good and cheap Chinese restaurants (Sherry is Chinese) so we kept our eyes peeled for them as we walked around, and also noticed that we passed the main shopping street in the city, which was in a state of heavy activity. Once we got past the plazas, we headed over to the promenade and walked back in the direction of the shuttle. It had been a simple enough afternoon, one that was a good decompression from the flight and buses and stress. It was good to be back at the ship.
Our last morning in Guayaquil we joined a group of faculty and a couple LLLs and headed in to get to the city’s fruit market to check it out. Our plan was to do that, then walk up to the end of the promenade and check out a hillside neighborhood that supposedly had some neat galleries and cafes.
The fruit market was covered and was much more than a fruit market. It was a large square space, and once you entered and got to the center you found different things depending on which corner you went to. The far left corner was a meat and poultry market (unlike Morocco or Ghana everything was under glass). The near left corner was a long row – had to be 100 feet long – of people serving “desayuno” (breakfast). There had to be 25 people selling impromptu breakfasts, but we had just eaten. Another missed opportunity. The near right corner was just a grocery market – the usual paper products, and toiletries, and housewares, and whatever.
The far right corner was the fruit market we had come to see, and it was huge and the offerings were fabulous. We grabbed some guava, and some mango, and some berries, and something that looked like a relative of a pineapple that I couldn’t even pronounce when we were there and can’t remember now, as well as a couple more things that just looked like we had to try them. We found a table in the breakfast area and about a dozen of us sat down there and shared everything. All these fruits were fantastic, so much better than when they get off the refrigerated boats in the harbor at Newark.
After this treat, Annie and I peeled off from the group, which dispersed in half a dozen different directions as everyone headed off for their final hours in Guayaquil. For us that meant one more pass down the promenade, with a stop for coffee (and cocoa) at the cafe with the good wifi, then a stroll down toward the end where we fortunately met some others from the ship who told us that the area up the hill was basically closed for the day – the galleries and cafes were all closed – so we turned around and walked back through the gardens until we reached the shopping street, where we turned off the promenade. We had made note of a Chinese restaurant on one of the side streets off the shopping street so that was our destination.
Before we got there, though, we figured out what all the commotion was the day before. The street was set up with pop up kiosks and booths that went on for blocks, with stages and sound equipment blasting out music, and red and green banners crisscrossing the street and Christmas trees interspersed along the route. It was a Christmas market, Ecuador-style, and it was lots of fun. We checked it out, bought some soaps and other things, and I was about to buy some artisanal craft beers to bring back to the ship when Annie reminded me that it was past noon and they would be confiscated and this time, not returned to me, so just as well that she caught me in time before I made the purchase.
Lunch at the Chinese restaurant didn’t disappoint. It was just as Sherry had said it would be. It was greasy (which she said was a good thing; it reminded her of home), the portions were huge, the food was delicious and it was ridiculously cheap. After lunch it was already going on 4 – it had been a much longer day than we had planned and we had to be back on the ship before 6 since we were sailing. We headed back to the shuttle, making one more pit stop for plantain chips, what else?
Looking back on it all, it had been a delightful week. Ecuador had been all we expected and more. Talking with others who had headed off in other directions, everyone had come back with really enthusiastic reactions to Quito and Cuenca and other places. No one was disappointed. I have a feeling we will be back, heading off to other parts of the country, but I also am pretty sure we will make the extra effort to really learn some Spanish this time. One thing we did note in Ecuador, and that is that it is not Europe. Not everyone (hardly anyone actually) speaks English.
Sailing toward Costa Rica, and thinking about packing for home. For us the next two weeks will be a breeze. For the students, not so much. We’ve been seeing presentations in classes the past week, with more to come, as well as exams and some final papers. More to come once we depart Costa Rica.
(Wednesday November 27) Wow! It’s hard to believe but it’s less than four weeks until we leave the ship in San Diego. Also hard to believe that it’s been ten days since we left Salvador; since then we’ve had all kinds of on the ship and a brief stop in Trinidad.
We’ve had a lot of time to concentrate on shipboard life and all the things we have to keep us busy in addition to our classes. It seems like we’ve gotten into a nice groove. Earlier in the voyage we got away from the Global Studies course and to some extent to the LLL gatherings in the morning. One reason was that we had signed on to so many classes that doing both of these in addition to the rest made it too long a day for anyone.
We’ve changed a bit. Global Studies has improved a lot, as other profs and the inter port students and lecturers have taken on a more active role, and the focus of the classes has tied more into the upcoming ports. I’ve already written about our Brazilian lecturer, who was refreshingly candid. The lecturer and the students from Trinidad were even a step above. Maybe it was the language or just the body language, but they fit right into the ship community from the minute they boarded, and their messages were powerful. The lecturer was a dynamo, a young woman who took it upon herself to rid the island of plastic and so far has developed a successful program to involve youth in the effort that has resulted in the island banning single use plastics starting in January 2020. Yes, you read that right! There is a lesson there that we could learn.
The presentations to the LLLs have really stepped up their game. We’ve had many of the profs come in, several students with compelling stories, the same interport lecturers and a few of the LLLs too. Annie did a presentation a couple weeks ago about native and invasive plants and landscaping that was really well received. Yesterday one of the profs came in and talked about the Galapagos and some of the fauna there. She’s been working there and visiting on a regular basis for more than 20 years, starting when she was just an undergraduate. The day before we heard from one of the students who did a presentation about YouTube and how for his generation it has the potential to be the dominant media.
Today we heard from another prof, Gary Rice, whose area is journalism, who talked about coverage of the Vietnam War. Although I’m not in any of his classes, we’ve become friends over meals and he’s been generous in letting me sit in on some special events that he’s arranged for his classes the past couple of weeks. Last week he had a conference call with Michael Shear, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times who has been their White House correspondent during most of the Obama years and all of the Trump era. We heard him dissect the Times’ recent special report on Trump’s tweets, which was done by his team, as well as a lot of more general insights about being in the line of fire with this White House. Today, just an hour ago, Gary engineered an interview with Peter Arnett, who was CNN’s top international correspondent for many years and prior to that AP’s correspondent in Saigon during the Vietnam war. His accounts of his time in Vietnam, in Baghdad during the first Gulf War in which he was able to get an exclusive interview with Saddam Hussein when he was the sole remaining foreign correspondent in Baghdad, and of his interview with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan during the period after that Gulf War but before the attack on the twin towers was absolutely riveting.
So now our mornings routinely start (after breakfast) with Global Studies followed by the LLL meeting, which gets us to 11. From there I have either two or three classes depending on whether it is an A or B day, ending either at 2 or at 3:30. Lunch is always on the run between classes. After the classes are ended, I try to get on the elliptical machine at least every other day then spend some time doing homework for the next day’s classes, have dinner and then go back into the Union for the evening’s presentation. Yesterday was one by our Ecuador lecturer that was supposed to focus on the development of socialist movements through the South and Central Americas. The lecturer was a banker/entrepreneur, not an academic, and he spent the first half of his presentation talking about mindfulness and happiness, which was kind of strange. The talk didn’t improve a lot once he got to Latin American politics. Fortunately this one was an outlier – most of the talks have been excellent and informative.
After that presentation I participated in a session giving students tips on networking. In the past couple of weeks I’ve met with a number of students interested in law and also helped judge a “shark tank” for nascent entrepreneurs. We’ve definitely spent more time reaching out to students and others on this voyage than we did five years ago. We’ve also found time to get together with others in the faculty lounge, and we’ve met with our extended families after each port for dinner on the first night back and breakfast the following morning. If it sounds like we have full and interesting plates, we do.
We’re in the middle of an 18 day stretch essentially at sea, with a break for a day in Trinidad a couple days ago, which was really scheduled so we could refuel, another day transiting the Panama Canal, which happens in a couple more days, and one day last week where there was a break from the classes for a regular event on the ship, the Sea Olympics. It is really just a way to break up the class routine, which can get to be a bit much when you have an 18 day stretch without much of a break and when every day at sea is supposed to be a class day.
The Sea Olympics is really kind of silly, with the events designed for kids and the rest of us to let off steam in events as varied as the frozen t-shirt contest (the first team to take a balled up frozen t-shirt and get it thawed enough for a team member to put it on), tug of war, synchronized swimming, relay races carrying various objects across the deck, reverse spelling bees, a lip sync contest (this is the one I participated in) and about a dozen more I can’t describe. Each had a serious element to it but also a real sense of how ridiculous it all was. It was all good fun, with the winning team getting to choose from such prizes as being first off the ship in San Diego and choosing their seating for the end of voyage ball. The LLL team (which also included faculty and the ship kids) finished a respectable third out of seven teams.
Two weeks ago when we crossed the equator, before Brazil, we had another traditional highlight of the voyage, Neptune Day. This day also is scheduled to break up a long stretch at sea, usually somewhere in the Atlantic during the crossing, and it happens when the ship crosses the equator. It is a tradition in sailing from time immemorial to celebrate the crossing by initiating those doing it for the first time. Annie and I went through it in 2014 as “pollywogs” and this year participated as “shellbacks”, those who have already been initiated. (We actually are Emerald Shellbacks, the designation for those whose crossing of the equator took place precisely at the prime meridian, which we did in 2014.) Most of those who have already made the crossing dress up in costumes as part of King Neptune’s court, and the pollywogs have to first be slimed in fish oils, then dunked in the pool, then they have to kiss a fish, then swear allegiance to the King and his queen, Minerva, at which point they are declared shellbacks.
The final, and optional, part of the ceremony is the shaving of the head, and about a quarter of the guys and about six of the girls went through that test this time. Dean John was King Neptune, Ingrid was honored to be named the queen, and other major roles were given to Colleen Cohen, Barbara Harris and Linda, who had the dubious honor of holding the fish for a couple hours while the initiates kissed it. (I never made it to the planning sessions where assignments were passed out so I didn’t get one of the plum roles.) Linda surprised us all by having her head shaved, which she had passed on in 2014, when I did have mine shaved. It bent the rules a little, since only those who are being initiated should have their heads shaved, but who could object if Linda wanted it done?
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. It’s the first real holiday we’ve celebrated on the ship, and it is still a class day, but there are a load of activities scheduled including some star gazing, a drink night (two max) for the kids, line dancing and some other stuff. I look forward to the dinner and will give a full report on it in a couple days. Friday we traverse the Panama Canal. Depending on WiFi (we’ve been told the Canal is really well wired) I might try to send off a report as we travel through. If not, it’s only a couple more days before we get to Guayaquil in Ecuador. As of today, Wednesday, we have just eight scheduled class days remaining, eleven days on land, and the last few days for exams, presentations and packing. It will be a hectic last month.
(Thursday November 28) Happy Thanksgiving! Just another normal class day on the ship, at least until classes are over for the day. We do have what looks like a traditional Thanksgiving dinner this evening, with most of the trimmings and vegan and fish alternatives for those who don’t eat meat. Ed Sobey warmed us up for the next 30 hours by spending most of the global environmental problems class talking about the Panama Canal, and he will be doing the evening presentation tonight on that topic. I’ve seen it once, but will go there again tonight to watch it again. This is a big deal, one of the highlights of the voyage, and as best I can tell no one on board can get enough of the Canal right now.
My understanding is that Ed will also be at the microphone for about 10 hours tomorrow commenting on the full passage in real time. It is his fifth traversal of the Canal, so he knows it well. Barbara (Harris, not Sobey) at lunch today said that when she did it (on SAS a few years ago) she planned to spend some time out on deck and the rest of the time inside, but ended up spending the whole ten hours of the passage on the deck, and I suspect that will be the case for most of us tomorrow.
Jeez, it just dawned on me that I never said a thing about Trinidad. Our time there was brief, much like what a Caribbean cruise ship would spend in port, but we did have a really good time there and would go back for sure.
We arrived in Trinidad on the morning of the 24th at the port in the capital city of Port of Spain and we were cleared to leave the ship at about 8 am. Mercifully the port is walking distance to the old city, which hasn’t always been the case where we’ve been docked in other cities. Originally we were told that the students would have to stay on the ship while we were in port – we were there to refuel – but that the faculty and LLLs could leave the ship. Understandably a lot of us were uncomfortable with this and told Dean John and others, and to their credit SAS worked out a day program so that all the students could go on excursions on either Trinidad or Tobago for the day at SAS’s cost, which was great. The original concern was that students wouldn’t be back at the ship by the scheduled departure time, but since they all were on programs the concern went away.
We made plans with Samantha to go into Port of Spain in the morning, then have lunch at a hotel with good WiFi so I could send out the last post, then take off with a local guide on a drive around the city and nearby parts of the island.
Trinidad is unusual as far as Caribbean islands go. First, if you look at the geology, it really is part of the same land mass as Venezuela, so it is much more a part of South America than the Caribbean. Unlike Russia, which only Sarah Palin can see from her window, Trinidad actually is so close to the coast of Venezuela that you can see it from the island. The feel, though, is very much Caribbean. Its economy is much more advanced than most of the Caribbean, though, since it benefits from the same oil-driven geology that made Venezuela an economic force fifty years ago. So it all is a bit weird. It is definitely a Caribbean island, but it seems first world in so many ways, having benefited from an oil economy for half a century or more without the problems that have devastated Venezuela during the same period.
Port of Spain is a small city, maybe 300,000. Of course the population of the whole country is less than 1,400,000. (Forgive me if I have this wrong.) There is an old British colonial feel to some parts of the city, but most of it is the same undistinguished glass box construction that we’ve been seeing all around the world. Sooner or later people are going to look back on this period of development and recognize what a waste it has been, at least in an architectural sense.
Anyway, we walked from the ship into the city, past some government buildings and some newer glass box hotels – the usual suspects. Once out of the port area we traversed some of the older colonial buildings as well as some nicer and newer construction, including some national museums. It was a Sunday morning – we seem to be trying to situate ourselves in too many of these cities on Sundays – so much of what we would have wanted to check out was closed. We were in search of street food and also some place to check out snacks to bring back to the ship, and we walked up Independence Square, a double wide boulevard heading into the center of the city with an open grassy area, Brian Lara Promenade (Lara was a legendary footballer) between the traffic flows. We figured this would be as good a place to look for street food as anywhere, and it was. After a few blocks we started to see umbrellas popping up along the promenade (it was about 10:30 and things were just starting to come to life) with the vendors getting their street food offerings ready.
Back in the 1830s the British emancipated all slaves throughout the empire, and this hit like an earthquake in Trinidad, where the sugar cane economy at the time was heavily dependent on slave labor. The response from the British was to import labor from India to do the work that previously had been done by slaves. The population at the time was probably about a million; I think about 300,000 Indians arrived to do the work on the plantations. (The guide book that I checked had Indians as the largest population group on the islands today with about 400,000 out of a total population for T&T of under 1,400,000.)
All very interesting, you are (hopefully) thinking, but why this departure? Well, the effect of the influx of the Indians has been to infuse Trinidad with a hybrid culture and cuisine that is unique. The street food that I was just about to write about – it is all Caribbean takes on the traditional Indian dosa breakfast, and it is just about all you will find. And it is very good. We had something called “doubles” that most of the carts seemed to be serving. It is two thin pieces of a soft flatbread, kind of like a very thin naan, with a large ladle of kind of a spicy lentil curry or daal, poured over the bottom piece of the bread, with the second one then deposited on top. It is served in a piece of wax paper, which is supposed to hold the extra curry from dripping all over your clothes, your shoes and the street. It sort of did that, with the wax paper serving as sort of a funnel to keep the curry moving in the direction of your mouth. Napkins were a must, and wipes would have been great if we had thought to bring any. But it didn’t matter anyway. The doubles were as advertised, authentic local street food and very tasty. Samantha and I enjoyed the doubles; they were a bit too hot for Annie.
At this point we had our bearings enough to venture off on the side streets, knowing we had limited time before we had to meet our guide. It just happened that we stumbled upon Port of Spain’s Chinatown entrance, and naturally the only shops in the city that were open at this hour were the shops in Chinatown. Don’t ask me why I was surprised to see a Chinatown in Port of Spain, but I was. I guess what was most surprising was that the look and feel was just the same as if it had been in Accra or San Francisco or Vancouver or London. Or New York for that matter. The shops, the open carts ladened down with fresh vegetables or slippers or fish. The masses of people clogging the streets so that no vehicles could possibly pass. It all seemed so right at home.
I was less surprised as we drove around later in the day with our guide to see that we were passing what seemed to be a steady stream of bare bones Chinese restaurants and take out shops along most of the well traveled roads we drove on. Given how involved the Chinese are in construction and development projects in the developing world today, seeing these restaurants was not surprising – we saw them everywhere in Ghana too – but seeing what looked like a Chinatown that had been there for easily a hundred years was a welcome surprise. We were able to do all the snack shopping we wanted to do in one supermarket in Chinatown, as well as eyeballing some fantastic vegetables (mainly okra that I craved but couldn’t bring back to the ship) as we walked along the street.
After a few blocks we reached Woodford Square, a large square with a distinct colonial influence to it and a massive red brick building along one side of the square. This was The Red House, which was a central administrative building for the British when Trinidad was just a colony. It is a beautiful building, well proportioned and well placed across from the square as it is. Unfortunately it has been under renovation and repair for some time, and there is no telling when it might open again, if ever. (BTW, guidebooks say that Woodford Square has been a center for dissent and protest and has its own Speakers’ Corner, like that at Hyde Park in London. Didn’t see any evidence of speakers this past Sunday morning, though.) We were the only people at the square, which evoked a time and place that was just a memory.
After returning to the ship and dropping off all that we had collected, we went off to a nearby hotel for lunch then headed off with our guide to see the surroundings. He first took us on a more expansive tour of the city than we had managed, including a visit to its arts center, a new Frank Ghery building that reminds you of his Sydney Opera House, and then a brief stop at its botanical garden. After that we climbed up the hills at the back of the city and drove around the countryside awhile as the skies got darker, on our way to the main beach. Naturally we got there just as the skies opened and the torrential tropical downpour engulfed us.
But . . . it was all good, because we were there to experience yet another local food, not street food, but beach food, that we didn’t want to miss. This was something called Bake and Shark, which originated at Maracas Beach, a short drive from Port of Spain, and is basically a big hunk of fried dough, kind of the size and shape of a small baseball glove, with fried hunks of shark in the pocket. When you drive up to the beach you pass a couple dozen shacks (and a few places that look more permanent) with one common feature: signs with the owner’s name and, in big letters, Bake and Shark. There may be other places in Trinidad where you can get this, but this is where it originated. Our guide promised us that he was taking us to THE place for Bake and Shark, and it was the most established with the most parking and by far the largest crowds.
Richard’s, as it was called, had a promotion going on with a local beer, and it was packed, rain or no rain. They are used to the downpours, so there were plastic sheets stretched above us to keep us kind of dry as we waited to pick up our Bake and Shark. Once we had it we confronted a counter with about 20 running feet of trays of condiments to choose from to garnish our sandwiches. I went with a local favorite, a spicy tamarind sauce that was excellent, while Samantha loaded hers with a combination of garnishes. So how was the Bake and Shark itself? Easily worth the drive and the rain. The steel drums and vibe of the place didn’t hurt either.
(Editor’s note: OK. I don’t ever eat shark and I know they are endangered, so I am not sure this is something I ever will eat again. I have no idea if the shark I had was an endangered species or not. It was a one-off experience. And it was delicious.)
At this point it was getting late, so we drove back to the ship, arriving later than we had planned but still ahead of most of the excursions. It had been a very good day.
As they had done throughout the voyage, both Ingrid and Colleen had steeped their classes before arriving in port with the music and culture of Trinidad. As seems to be the thing in so many parts of Latin America, the highlight of the year is the Carnival that dominates the period from the end of January right up to Lent. Here it is a constant but orchestrated, not spontaneous, flow of parades and parties, of music and costumes, of calypso and so many more recent genres. I don’t ever see myself heading down to Rio for its carnival, but the idea of coming back to Port of Spain to experience Carnival here is really appealing. Who knows?
So back to Panama and the Canal. There are three major commercial canal passages in the world, Panama, Suez and Kiel. Being from America, we think of the Panama Canal as THE canal, but in terms of traffic, even with the issues in the Middle East, the Suez handles about twice the traffic of the Panama and the Kiel, not surprisingly given its location between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, handles about three times that of the Panama. Each of the three is very different from the others, the result of geography and terrain. I may be wrong, but I think Ed Sobey said that the Suez is a canal without locks, meaning that it is fairly level from one end to the other. Not so with the other two, which have passages carved through hills and other barriers.
The Panama Canal has a series of three locks at either end of the canal, so when you enter you sail forward into a lock, which opens and then closes behind you, water is then pumped into the lock to raise the level to where it is even with the water in front of you. Once the level has been raised, the other end of the lock will open and you sail on. I believe that over the course of the three locks at each end your elevation increases and then decreases by over 60 feet. The entire length of the canal is only about 50 or so miles, and the parts that were engineered are just a part of that. The canal is every bit the engineering marvel it is cracked up to be, when you see the thought that went into its design and construction. The midpoint of the canal, more or less, is a man made lake that when built was the largest such lake in the world (now the second largest such lake). It provides most of the electrical power for Panama and the excess is sold to neighboring countries.
The traffic flow on the canal is interesting to watch. Like most things in life, you can pay to improve your position. We had an idea of when we would enter the canal, and when we would exit, but it was just a rough idea. We didn’t know, and couldn’t know, what other traffic might be coming and who might be willing to pay a premium to get through the passage faster. We actually entered earlier than we expected, about 6am, so our early estimate of reaching the Pacific about 5 was pushed up a bit. There are areas where the canal opens up and others where it is a bit tighter, closer to the locks. On the lake it is at its most interesting, both because of all the other ships and boats lined up waiting for orders to move and also because of all the islands in the middle of the lake where the land that was there when the area was dammed and it became a reservoir stayed above the flood line. The islands are lush and gorgeous and endless. This part of the passage is magical.
Sadly, while all this was going on, the skies weren’t cooperating fully. No, we didn’t have any torrential downpours, but we did have an overcast for most of the passage and we also did have some light rain on and off. Happily, this did nothing to dampen the mood on the ship. Every outdoor area was crowded with folks with cell phones and cameras in the air all day long, but especially when Ed Sobey would announce that we were approaching the next locks and then give us a play-by-play of the process with the pilot boats, and the mules (see below), and the rest of the process.
Ed was performing his own magic tricks all day long, providing a running commentary over the ship’s public address system about the history of the canal, the operation of the locks, the lake, the other ships waiting for approval to proceed, the processes whereby each ship is met by pilot boats who bring a Canal pilot on board to manage the passage. He pointed out the “mules”, tracked vehicles that move on a line from one end of a lock to the other that are tethered to each ship passing through the lock so that their direction is maintained precisely so there are no accidental scrapes along the sides of the canal passages. He also explained when we were told that we would have a delay of 90 minutes to two hours so that some ships that were willing to pay for the privilege could pass us en route. Fortunately with the early start it didn’t set us back very far from what we expected.
We entered the Pacific at about 5 and headed south.
(Sunday, December 1st) A bit of full disclosure. I’ve been under the weather pretty much since we got back from the Brazil ordeal. I tried to ignore it for about a week or so, and sometimes you can block these things out so you really don’t notice them. I managed to do that through Trinidad, fortunately. Since then, not so good. I hit the wall going through the canal, when I stupidly decided to do a turkey trot for half an hour to celebrate Thanksgiving (the day before our passage). Once I did that all hell broke loose. I had been coughing on and off for a week, with a bad throat. Now it was on but not off. I figured I had better keep my distance from everybody for awhile, and saw the ship’s doctor yesterday, who confirmed that I had bronchitis and put me on an antibiotic. He swears that I will be fine by the time we reach Ecuador, which is ……tomorrow.
Yesterday was about as unmemorable a birthday as I’ve ever had. (Please don’t cue up the violins – I’m fine with all this.) I spent the whole day in the cabin and I sent Annie to spend the night in Linda’s cabin – she has an extra bed. Too bad that Annie had set up a surprise birthday party with our ship family for last night. They all had a good time. I stayed in bed. I’ve missed classes now for two days, but no problem if I am feeling okay by Tuesday, which is when we leave for the Galapagos. And today I had to write this post, so (hopefully) when we get to Guayaquil tomorrow I will be able to find WiFi and send it out. Keeping fingers crossed….
So we’re on shore and found WiFi, but for some reason the photos won’t load, so sorry for all the text without the pics to break things up. I will try to add them later, but that’s all for now.
We had an inter port lecturer who was a professor at one of the major universities in Rio who was a friend of one of our professors. He was a progressive, which in today’s Brazil makes him a target. To his credit, he didn’t hold back when discussing the problems facing his country and in particular the immense problem posed by Brazil’s self-avowed Nazi and fascist president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has implemented a series of disastrous environmental programs that the country will have trouble surviving long-term as well as policies that target indigenous peoples in the Amazon and rights of Brazilians generally. It was the first time one of our inter port lecturers opened up with us, a far cry from the toady who I have written about in Croatia.
So that was interesting. Also of interest were the series of programs that filled the week before we landed at Salvador focusing on Brazilian music, religion, food and custom, the anthropological and political discussions about the racial issues affecting Brazil that are conveniently papered over by most Brazilians but are so apparent to anyone who visits the country with their eyes open, and the political, environmental and oceanographic issues that the country faces.
Blacks make up more than half of the country’s population yet they represent almost none of the leadership of the government, and almost none of the positions of power in the country’s business and industry. It is kind of like the United States in the 1950s. Everyone pretends that things are great, that no one in Brazil looks at race at all, that the country is a glorious mix of races and ethnic groups, but don’t believe it for a minute. The only differences between the United States in the 1950s and Brazil today are that blacks are the majority in Brazil and that they haven’t yet asserted their rights. There is no indication that they will, or that if they do they will not be dealt with brutally by the current government.
While we have been approaching Brazil and during the time we were in port the limited news coverage that we’ve been able to pick up online has featured, among other things, the crises in the governments of Chile and Bolivia, the usual economic problems facing Argentina and the general strikes that occurred a couple weeks ago in Ecuador. The message is that there are problems across the continent, bubbling over in some cases and simmering under the surface in most other places. And all this happening when our government is actively trying to make enemies in this hemisphere and distance itself from the developing problems. I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same, right?
Our preport the night before we landed at Salvador was most interesting. The ship doctor, who doubles at these programs as the messenger of doom, talked at length about how much more crime there was in Salvador than in any of the other cities we’ve visited, and how the other cities in Brazil where we had excursions going were possibly even more dangerous. In fact, the four largest cities in the country are high on the world-wide list of most dangerous cities. Talk about a damper. And then there was the prospect of malaria or any of the other half-dozen potentially fatal diseases carried by the mosquitoes on the Amazon.
Despite it all, we were really excited at the prospect of visiting the Amazon: the river itself, the flora and the fauna. Brazil was one of the main reasons we wanted to do this voyage. So how’d it go, you might ask?
We decided early on that the two SAS overnight excursions that we would spring for would be one of their trips that got to the Amazon and another that would get us to the Galapagos. We figured that these were places that you don’t try to negotiate on your own, at least the first time around. We weren’t so late in signing up for them. We did it as soon as we got on board. Unfortunately, though, many of the offered excursions that we found most interesting were already filled, so we took what was the best of what remained.
For the Amazon, this was a package that included a stop at Iguacu Falls and then a couple days/nights on a riverboat in the Amazon area, though most of the time was on the Rio Negro, the major feeder into the Amazon before it heads toward the Atlantic Ocean. This was a five day, four night package, and we were sold by the description of the activities and the places we would go. We were totally ignorant of Iguacu Falls – it was just another stop on the way to the Amazon.
What we didn’t know – we’ve never been to South America – is that Brazil is larger than the continental United States, and going from Salvador, where we docked, to Iguacu Falls is roughly equivalent to traveling from San Francisco to Miami, with a change of planes thrown in in Nashville with a layover of a couple hours there. We also didn’t realize that the next leg of the excursion, from Iguacu Falls to Manaus, the major city that is the gateway to the Amazon River, is about the same distance, with about the same change of planes and layover time thrown in. We also didn’t realize that the last leg of our ordeal involved yet another set of flights to totaling over five hours in the air, with the obligatory layover. Are we having fun yet?
But this is just the start. Fasten your seatbelts. When SAS presents an excursion description it says there is an itinerary that you can look up online – it isn’t on the page with the flowery words and pretty pictures. I happened to check the itinerary about a week before we were scheduled to depart and I was blown away. We left for the airport for the first set of flights at 1:30 am, arriving in Iguacu Falls some time around 11. We left on the second leg of the excursion at 7:30 am, arriving at our riverboat at the end of the day. We left for our final set of flights at 12:30 am, with the scheduled arrival back at the ship at about noon on our final day in Salvador.
I have to confess that the description did say this would not be a luxurious trip, and it did say that on the riverboat we would be sleeping on hammocks. By now I assume you all must be laughing hysterically and are glad it was us and not you who had to survive this sadistic adventure. If you want to laugh it up some more read on. If you can’t take much more of this, you might want to skim ahead a bit.
We only had a day in Salvador before we had to leave for this Amazon adventure, so we figured it might be a good idea to keep it low key. The guidebooks say nice things about Salvador, particularly the old city, so we decided to give ourselves a break and take the orientation tour that SAS offered. It would bus us into the city, where we would then walk around parts of the old city and the beach areas, returning us to the ship in time for us to try to get a nap before getting up at midnight to assemble to leave for the airport.
Now, Salvador was one of the largest destinations in the new world for slaves from west Africa, so there was a reason why it was part of our itinerary. We had just left the slave castles in Ghana and now we were crossing the Atlantic on the same route that about forty percent of all the slaves followed, with about the same percentage going into the Caribbean and the rest scattered to other destinations. One of the places we stopped in Salvador was the location of the slave market, where all traces of the market and the whipping posts that adorned it have been carefully removed.
We also visited some cathedrals and churches built by the Portuguese on the backs and with the blood of the slaves who made the city an ornate, baroque display piece for the Catholic Church. One of the most impressive of these churches is the Church of Sao Francisco, and even more impressive to me was the nearby Convent of Sao Francisco. The convent had its own fairly large church, with an interior that was virtually entirely covered in gold leaf or actual gold, and just outside that church was the cloister of the convent, a courtyard for the monks who lived there that was surrounded by a magnificent colonnaded ballistrade with columns on the interior and a series of 37 tiled panels that extended all the way around walls of the courtyard illustrating Sao Francisco’s story. As you might imagine, many of these panels illustrated lessons and warnings. Ironically, one of the ones our guide stopped to translate for us was an admonition not to be greedy or seek possessions.
A brief digression about the Catholic Church in Brazil. Of course the church saw the Portuguese conquest as an opportunity to convert both the natives and the slaves, so it turned a blind eye to the horrors perpetrated in its name and was satisfied to reap the riches that flowed in its direction from those who thought they could buy their way to salvation with the gold they had taken and that they had acquired with the sale and exploitation of the slaves. The Church converted most of the slaves and many of the natives, at least those who survived the diseases that the Europeans brought with them. However, the Church in Brazil, and most prominently in Salvador, because it is the most black of the major cities and the one most associated with former slaves and their descendants, has developed a strain called Candomble that is unique to Brazil.
Candomble is sort of a mix of traditional African religious practice and Catholicism. Depending on who you listen to, it developed as a reaction to the attempt by the Church to convert the slaves and represents a surreptitious attempt to practice their traditional religions within the guise of the Church, which would not have permitted traditional practice if they realized it was going on. A more benign interpretation would be that it is just a natural adaptation of Church doctrine to practices and beliefs that the slaves understood and were comfortable with. Whatever. It is very different from traditional Catholic practice, and much more African in its feel.
We spent a lot of time in the anthropology classes talking about this and I suspect the religion classes on the ship did the same. Much of the adaptation of the religious practices is in the form of a group of what in the west we might call spirits but in Candomble are called orixas, who people would turn to for comfort and would pray to just as people in western Catholic countries might pray to St Francis or some other saint. In Candomble that prayer is much more infused with African symbolism so that it barely resembles traditional Catholicism. A cynic might think that the Church is just a cover to perpetuate traditional religious practice, but you make your own judgment about that.
The brief impression we had of Salvador is that the newer part of the city is eminently forgettable, the beaches are quite outstanding and vast, the locals spend their Sundays at the beaches and nowhere else. The city shut down on Sundays even more than Catholic European cities do, certainly more than Lisbon. The heart of the old city is very hilly and colorful and probably would be interesting to explore and get lost in but for the likelihood that if you tried to do it you would lose your wallet and cell phone before you emerged to tell the tale, and so you probably could use what limited travel time you have in South America better elsewhere. In fact, when we returned to the ship at the end of the week we heard tales of at least a dozen cell phones stolen, together with one iPad and a few wallets. I doubt that we will be back, even if there is a teaching experience to visiting Salvador to better understand the scope of the slave trade.
After the orientation tour, a group of us decided to splurge for a late lunch/early dinner at what some say is the best restaurant in the city, a place on the water down from the beaches called Adobo. The group included Barbara, Ingrid, Linda, another LLL, Stephanie, us and the Hudgens, Ann and Robert. It was easily the best meal we’ve had in three months. It was a good way to start our time on Brazil. After our repast we headed back to the ship to try to get some rest before we had to leave on the big excursion.
I have never been able to lie down and close my eyes and sleep. I have been insanely jealous of others who can do it at the drop of a hat. This time, miraculously, I lay down at 7, closed by eyes and after a couple minutes FELL ASLEEP and stayed asleep until 12:25 am. I had set an alarm for 12:30 since we were all packed and ready to go and just had to go to our assembly point at 1am. I took this as a really good omen for what was to come, and I was totally refreshed and ready to go as we assembled.
We left for the airport about 1:30, arrived there about 2, then checked in and waited for a couple hours for the flight to board. At 6:30 or so we landed in San Paolo, where we then had about an hour and 45 minutes to sit around before the next flight, to Iguacu Falls. That flight also left on time and arrived at about 10:45. We were met by our local guide, Gabriel, who was about as good as anyone we’ve had all voyage, and off we went.
Our first stop was a bird park, supposedly the third largest in the world, and definitely worth a visit. It was conceived by a naturalist who found funding to set it up then organized a charitable foundation to raise the funds to sustain it. The birds were for the most part tropical and endangered, and most had been rescued, or so they told us. Many of them were spectacular, and most of them were easily visible from the walkways around the park. There were about 16 areas carved out of a sub-tropical rain forest with all the vegetation and watering holes intact, so all the birds were in large and totally natural settings. There was netting or thin mesh fencing surrounding each of these areas, some of which netting was at least 100 feet high and all of which was extensive enough that the birds would not feel constrained.
We spent about an hour and a half at the bird park then motored to lunch at a typical Brazilian steakhouse, or churrascaria. After about 19 hours since our last meal and all that travel, it was a perfect choice. This particular place was about half a mile away from our hotel, and from the road looked like a truck stop on an interstate. Run down, rambling. Once we got inside we found row after row of long tables occupied by people who were concentrating on eating. At churrascarias, you need to concentrate. The goal is to stuff yourself so you never have to eat another thing as long as you live.
At the back of the cavernous place there were four long buffet tables. The first two had a range of hot dishes served in large metal chafing dishes. Some of these were pastas and rices and other starches, others were a variety of sauces, a bunch were vegetables but usually in heavy, cheesy sauces, and a lot of them had a wide range of fish, poultry and meat dishes. The next table had a range of salads and other cold dishes, including sausages and some cold cuts, with some breads and rolls. The fourth table had a cornucopia of desserts.
It was only after we had filled our plates and found tables to sit down and eat that we noticed the waiters circulating around the room with skewers of freshly roasted meats of all kinds, and we realized that this was the main attraction of the place. The waiters would pass by each table, showing you what they had to offer, and if you wanted something you just nodded or pointed and they would carve pieces on the spot and deposit them on your plate. We could get used to this, I think. (There are Brazilian steakhouses in the States; I have no clue how they compare to this.) Even those of us who were sated after our first pass at the tables found a second wind when we saw these waiters. It was a good way to regroup after all our travel. It was now a little after 2, and we were done for the day. After all that travel, and with all the travel built into the rest of the week, down time was welcome. Everyone was happy as we returned to the bus for our three minute ride to our hotel. Dinner was at the hotel, and, no surprise, it was another buffet. Fortunately it was of more manageable size.
The next morning we assembled for our big day at the Falls. After breakfast at the hotel, we piled into the bus and Gabriel told us about the Falls, which, as I wrote, I knew nothing about. (We did make a bunch of phone calls the first night back home to check in with people we hadn’t spoken with in weeks (the kids) or months (others), and one call was to my brother Bob, who, when I mentioned where we were, sent positive energy right through the phone with his enthusiastic review of Iguacu Falls. He said it was one of the most amazing places he had ever been to. So that gave us something to look forward to.)
For those of you who know as much about these Falls as I did two weeks ago, look at a map of South America, and where Brazil meets both Argentina and Paraguay, that is it. Most of the Falls is on the Argentine side, so viewing it from Brazil was just fine, though the most impressive of the dozens of falls that make up the site are the ones on the Brazilian side. What makes these falls unique, at least in our experience, is the enormity of the formation. Niagara Falls has a more impressive drop, with greater depth, but Iguacu just goes on FOREVER!
When we arrived our first scheduled activity was a boat ride out under the Falls. People had the option to get wet or stay dry. Once I realized that I could leave shoes behind it was an easy decision. (I was in a bathing suit, which was the only way to dress for this place.) The boats were motor launches that sat low in the water and held about 20, and the drivers (pilots?) took them out from the docks at high enough speed to make it worthwhile, then steered directly through a formation known as The Three Sisters, medium/smallish falls that were deep enough at their base that the boats could come almost up to shore so that the cascading waters poured over us, directly on top of us. It was bracing, and highly recommended. The people who stayed in the dry boat came down to the same falls but didn’t attempt to get close to them at all.
I think Gabriel said there were 75 different falls that comprised the Iguacu area. After we got back from the boats the bus took us a little farther into the park to the entrance where the main hiking trail sits. It is an outstanding trail, one that somebody my age can manage easily, with no vertigo issues at all because of the guardrails along the sides of the path. So we entered the park on the Brazilian side, and set out on a hike down a slope that paralleled the visible falls on the Argentine side. We must have hiked for at least an hour. If we hadn’t stopped repeatedly to take photos and videos maybe it could have been done in half the time, but the hike was at least a mile, and the falls on the Argentine side alone stretched for more than that distance. (We never could figure out where there were falls across the border with Paraguay; for that matter we had no idea which direction Paraguay was during all this.)
There were a bunch of small waterfalls interspersed with a couple larger ones at the end where we entered, then about halfway through the hike things changed dramatically. Now there were falls that extended for a quarter of a mile, in tiers like a wedding cake, with waters cascading down from the top to a sort of pool, from which another larger cascade of waters descended further down to a main basin. There was more than one of these massive formations, with a few smaller falls interspersed along the way.
After awhile, we reached an area where the Brazilian falls started to come into view, in a crescent with some of the largest Argentine falls. It was absolutely spectacular. The Brazilians had built out a bridge from the end of the path that we were on that extended midway out into the basin under the Brazilian falls, and it was packed with a swarm of humanity. We walked out as far as it made sense to go – to get all the way out to the center would have taken hours, given the snails pace at which the scrum was moving – then headed back. I was beginning to think I had worried about this excursion a lot more than I should have. (But we weren’t in the Amazon yet…)
So now it is time for lunch, which we had at the restaurant at the Falls, which would have been great if we could have been outside with a view of the Falls, but instead it was a barny lace with no views and , naturally, another churrascaria. Of sorts. It had all the buffet tables, and all the excess, but it didn’t have the open ovens and the grilled meats, which honestly no one needed at this point. After lunch, we had the obligatory stop at the souvenir shop, which in this case was as over the top as the meals had been. This place was about the size of a 1960’s WalMart, with geodes and t-shirts and lots of chocolate and all the rest of the usual tchotchkes, but all on steroids. I guess it is built into every tour that there has to be one of these stops, and I guess it was something most of the kids wanted to do, because most of them came back onto the bus with their arms full of souvenirs. Annie and I abstained, thank you.
Back at the hotel, we had a few more hours of down time (by the pool) before our last event of the day, which was dinner and a show. This one made everything else pale by comparison. In a way it was absolutely great. In some other ways it was excruciating in its excess. Of course it had to be the mother of all churrascarias. This one was in what seemed like an airplane hanger. There had to be about 1500 people in the room when we arrived. There was a long row of tour buses outside, so we knew that this place was a magnet for the groups coming to see the Falls on tours like ours. But that only accounted for about a third of the 1500 people in the room. A lot of locals also enjoy this kind of evening.
Gabriel got us there about 8:10; the show was to start at about 8:30. We entered the place and were immediately swept up in a maelstrom of humanity that resembled nothing more than a feeding frenzy of piranhas. You entered through the buffet room and proceeded from there into the airplane hanger-like space, where there were long tables seating about 20 apiece as far as the eye could see, with a large stage set up in the center where the performances would take place in a few minutes.
The room was packed, and a good percentage of the 1500 or so people were in the buffet room stocking up before getting to their places so they would be set when the show started. We let discretion be the better part of valor and decided to let the show start then get up and check out the food when you could at least see the tables.
The food at this place made the food at the other places look like nothing. It was so obscenely excessive that it was hard to face it but we sucked it up and plunged in. We did have to eat, and besides, in the morning we would be up early and headed, where else, to the airport.
This place had a different approach to the grilled meats. There was a large open brick oven about 30 feet long with rows of spits with all kinds of meats skewered on them. There had to be a hundred of them. In front of the oven, there were about six carver stations, and long lines of diners waiting their turns at these stations. When you got there, you pointed to the kinds of meats you wanted to sample and the carvers would pull out whatever spits you craved, carve off a hunk or two from each, and off you went. From there you might check out the chafing dishes with all the pastas, and rices, and sauces, and vegetable dishes all of which seemed to be in heavy, and usually cheesy, sauces. There also was the standard salad bar and the standard (high standard indeed here) dessert table. Having reconnoitered the tables and the stations, it was time to return to the dining table and settle in for some entertainment.
Now, we’ve never been to Las Vegas, but in our imagination we would envision a Brazilian version of a low budget Las Vegas review at one of the hotels off the Strip to be kind of like what we experienced at this restaurant/club. In other words, kind of cheesy but at the same time authentic in its own way and a lot of fun. (Taking an anthropology course on the ship has made me more aware of the value of these kinds of places.)
The theme of the show was a showcase of the music and dance of eight South and Central American countries: Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile, Columbia, Argentina, Mexico and of course Brazil. Had to be a cast of thousands and a big budget, right? Not if you do it the way they do it here. There were about seven musicians (three trumpets, three guitars and a drum), two featured singers, one male and one female, and 14 dancers, seven women and seven men. There also was an MC whose only job was to come out between the sets and announce which country was featured next.
As each country was announced, a group of musicians dressed in what we have to believe is the traditional dress in that country, from head to toe, would come out of the wings playing music from the country, followed by either six or eight dancers, in appropriate traditional dress, or at least what a tourist would expect that dress to look like. Sometimes they were accompanied by one or the other of the singers, and sometimes it was just a dance performance. The musicians, singers and dancers were actually damn good, and absolutely indefatigable. The show went on from about 8:30 without a break of any kind until about 10:45. The only breaks that the different sets of dancers could take were essentially costume changes, as they would perform about 15 minutes in one country costume, then head off stage as the other set of dancers appeared in the costume of the next announced country, only to reappear in another 15 minutes in the next set of costumes.
Most of the music and dance was new to us. We have no idea what traditional music and dance is in Paraguay, or Uruguay, or Chile, or Columbia or even Bolivia. We did have at least a clue what to expect from Mexico (yes, the hat dance with all the trumpets blaring away) as well as Argentina and of course Brazil. Lots of samba and even bossa nova. It was a fun evening, and a good way to end what was essentially our down time in Brazil. Now it was time to get back to the hotel and hopefully get a full night’s sleep before our 6am wake up to make breakfast before our departure for the airport.
After another good (buffet, what else?) breakfast, we were off. The Iguacu Falls airport was obviously built just to service the tourist trade, since the Falls is a good distance from any major cities. This made things easy for us in terms of checking in and getting to the gates, but also raised the question why we had to leave so early, since once again our flight was about two hours after we had checked in. By this time we’ve memorized the menus at each of the chains of food purveyors at Brazil’s airports. Not that we’ve eaten anything. It just helps to pass the time.
Once again our travels took us through Sao Paolo, which by this time was looking as familiar to us as the main terminal at Laguardia. We knew exactly where the toilets were in the terminal, the places to get a cup of coffee, the gates. It was like seeing an old friend again. After saying goodbye to Sao Paolo for the last time (at least on this voyage), we were off again on our way to Manaus, the gateway to the heart of the Amazon.
All our flights were on a carrier called Latam. I don’t know if they are Brazilian or based somewhere else on the continent, but I assume they were the airline of choice based on price alone, given all the long connections and the wonderful snacks they provided us on each and every one of the six flights, which in each case were two packages each consisting of the same two small cookies. They did, however, also offer us a choice of coffee, water or Coke. I didn’t know that Brazil was a dry country, but apparently at least on Latam it is. On the other hand, all these flights arrived on time, which is worth more than the cookies and drink options.
We were met at the airport by our new local guides who took us to our home for the next 32 hours, our riverboat. The guides gave us an orientation of the boat, which was probably about 50 feet long and 14 feet wide, with one rectangular space on each of two levels that was probably 35 feet by 14 feet. The lower level had three bathrooms and a shower, a storage closet and a galley kitchen where all our meals were prepared, and the ‘bridge’ if you want to call it that. On the lower level the tables and chairs were set up for our meals then set to the side the rest of the time. The upper level was more open, with a semi-circular area at the bow where people could sit and relax and the main area behind this for sleeping. The boat had a canopy extending over the top to protect against rain and had plastic flaps around the perimeter that could be dropped during heavy rains which usually had heavy winds. There was no mosquito netting, which was the one thing we expected.
There were three different SAS riverboat excursions scheduled. One was four days and three nights on the Amazon, another was the same as ours just swapping some time in Rio for our time in Iguacu Falls, and then there was ours. The three boats were virtually identical. One of the excursions had 20 participants, another 28, and the third, 40. The sleeping space on each of the three boats was the same. The difference was that there were twice as many hammocks crammed into the space on the boat with 40 than on the boat with 20. You can guess which boat we were on. Right.
So after our tour of the boat and a welcome with some pineapple and water, the guide introduced two members of a local indigenous tribe who performed a tribal dance for us, in the space next to the tables with the food. It was awkward, but it was what it was. Once it was over it made more sense when the guide said we were going to head over to the tribe’s village for a performance of tribal chanting and dance, so that is where the boat headed next.
Shortly after we came onshore at the tribe’s village, which featured a large central building that filled many purposes for the tribe, not the least of which was a performance space for groups of tourists like us who would come onshore and see a music and dance performance and then buy the handmade crafts produced by the tribe. The tribe was only about 50 people, of all ages, and most of them assembled to welcome us and perform for us. It was only about 5:30, but it was pitch black outside. One thing that we’ve noticed is that the closer you are to the equator the faster the sun drops and the moon rises at the end of the day. You can look out at a sun that is at 45 degrees one minute and then get distracted and 15 minutes later it is half obscured by the horizon, and literally a minute later it is gone. So we had sun when we started toward the village and darkness by the time we arrived there 20 minutes later.
People used their phones to light up the ground as we walked up from the beach to the village, with villagers pointing the way to the central building where we entered to find a large square room with two rows of seats on opposite sides for us, openings at the two ends of the other sides, and some torches lit to provide light for the performance to follow. There was no electricity in this building, and I have no idea if the tribe has any in the village at all. The dancer who had met us at the boat was the spokesperson for the village, and he told us a bit about the tribe through our guide, who translated the Portuguese that the dancer spoke into English. While this tribe had about 50 members, it was part of a larger tribe that was situated closer to the Colombian border. I have no idea how they got separated or how they settled where they did but I guess the river had something to do with that. I think most of the villagers just spoke their native language. At least none of the other members of the tribe spoke at all while we were there.
The performance was not too long and the dances were not the most inventive that we’ve seen in our travels, but they were a unique slice of Amazon life and we enjoyed the experience. Once it was over more torches were lit and we saw that there were stands with crafts set up in each of the corners of the room. Too bad that the guide hadn’t told us about this since almost nobody brought any cash with them from the boat.
You’re probably wondering how at night in the Amazon we’re on an open boat without mosquito netting and not getting eaten alive. The secret is that even though they called this an Amazon River adventure most of our time, including this night, was spent on the Rio Negro, which, if you look at a map of Brazil and I think Columbia, is a huge river in its own right and the major tributary flowing into the Amazon before it heads off to spill out into the Atlantic. The place where the two rivers meet, which we motored across the next morning, is unique in that the waters of the Rio Negro are very dark, reflecting the composition of the rock and soils below the waters, while the waters of the Amazon are almost a yellow/orange in hue, reflecting the clay structure of what is below its waters.
Back to the boat for dinner. The one cook with us had done wonders in her small galley while we were away. She put up a very respectable dinner that was a relief after the excess we had experienced at every meal back in Iguacu Falls. After dinner, which was downstairs, it was early, but there wasn’t a lot to do but head upstairs and get ready for bed. So up the stairs we went, and we were floored by what we saw when we reached the top. When we left the boat to head off to visit the tribe, the deck had been open and we could only use our imagination to figure out how 40 hammocks could be set up on the two decks of the boat (45 if you count the guides and the crew). When we returned we saw about five hammocks set up downstairs for the crew. That meant…..yes. Going up the stairs we saw that 40 hammocks had been packed into the upstairs space like sardines in a can, with literally no room at all between them, so that if somebody had to get up during the night to pee they had to elbow the hammocks around them to get to the floor then move hammocks through the rugby scrum until they reached the stairs, since the bathrooms were downstairs. Kids being kids, they made the best of it, most of them anyway, and climbed in for the night. A few sat out in the open area at the front of the boat where there were some chairs and a couple tables and played cards. I had planned ahead and loaded lots of music onto the iPad as well as a few books, so I just put on headphones, turned on the music, found a book to read, and sat in a chair on the deck and read.
So what does all this have to do with mosquitoes, you might ask. The mineral content of the waters of the Rio Negro are highly alkaline and acidic, so when mosquitoes eggs or larvae enter these waters they die. The alkalinity kills them instantly. It’s that simple, and that is why we never saw or heard a mosquito on our nights on the rivers and virtually none during the following day when we did pass through the meeting of the rivers and go on the Amazon itself for awhile. So no need at all for mosquito netting. Who knew?
I read some of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bio of Lyndon Johnson and listened to Schubert symphonies until the boat’s power went down and all the boat’s lights were turned off for the night. At that point I figured I had better find my hammock and try to get into it. I knew I was in trouble as soon as I saw the layout, so I grabbed the most outside hammock that I could find, the one closest to the stairs since I knew I would be making the trip down to the toilet at some point during the night. The hammocks themselves looked like they had been on the boat for a decade, accumulating sweat and bodily fluids, and the blankets that they gave us, which were about 6’x6’, looked and felt like they never had been washed. My first thought was lice or bed bugs, but what options did we have but to climb in?
I climbed into my hammock and tried to get comfortable. Tried to settle in. Tried on my back. Squirmed around a bit, trying to get centered. Tried to scrunch my way up toward the front of the hammock to get my back (which was already barking) straightened out as much as possible. Tried one side. Then the other. I found I had pains in places I never knew existed. Ok, just had to tough it out. I did this for a couple hours, figuring at worst it was only one night. Then I noticed one of the students took his blanket and whatever passed for a pillow and came onto the deck and just lay down on the wood planks. Then someone else (turned out to be Barbara, who was on the other side of the stairs) did the same thing. It took me another hour or so before I did the same thing. This was probably about 3 am. I had gotten into the hammock and squirmed around in pain since about 10. It was more comfortable on the wood planks than it was in the hammock, even if I wasn’t sleeping. At least I was resting, and I knew from experience that that was as much as I needed.
At about 4:30 people started to show up all around us on the deck as the first rays of sun started to break their way through some amazing cloud formations along the horizon. At this point I wasn’t going to sleep, so I was up enjoying this spectacle, which was spectacular. On the other side of the boat we were able to watch the moon escaping from view under the horizon. That too was special.
Breakfast was utilitarian but worked for us as we continued to marvel at what the cook was able to do in the limited space and with the limited tools that she had to work with. So now we were ready for our Amazon adventure, all the things that were so glowingly written about in the materials at the field office. Of course we hadn’t planned on doing all the Amazon stuff in 12 hours (we thought we had about 2-1/2 days), but that was our fault for not reading the fine print, right?
Here is the schedule for our Amazon day: 2-1/2 hours to hike through the rain forest, then a visit to a spot where we could swim with pink dolphins, then lunch back on the boat as we move toward the meeting of the waters where the Rio Negro meets the Amazon, then off to fish for piranhas and search for alligators and caymans, then a quick dinner and time for a nap before heading back to the airport for our next round of overnight flights. Never mind that the guidebooks all say you need a minimum of seven days to experience the Amazon. We’re Americans, and we have that can-do spirit, right? One day is more than enough.
We cover up like caterpillars in cocoons before we head off into the jungle for our trek. Funny thing about it. This jungle, other than that there were some plant species that were different from what we have at home, looked just like the swamps back home. With one difference. Back home we see wildlife when we go through the swamps. Frogs, snakes, maybe a squirrel or a chipmunk, a raccoon or a fox, maybe even a wild turkey or two. Here in the Amazon (okay, the Rio Negro) on a 2-1/2 hour hike, one one-inch tree frog. Nothing else. Which doesn’t bode well for the claims of rich diversity of wildlife in the Amazon, does it? It was a nice hike, though, and good to get out and stretch our legs for awhile, because with all the travel and sitting on the boat, with the tribe, at our meals, whatever, we really needed some leg stretching.
We had used some motor launches to get from our boat to the spot where we met the new guides who took us on our trek, so now it was back on the launches to the boat. Once we were back on board, off we headed to where we would meet the dolphins, which was on our way to the meeting of the waters. When we got there every one of the students as well as the Sobeys got into the water (sequentially) to get jostled by the dolphins, who were attracted by the guides dangling fishes for them to jump and tear out of the handler’s hands. This had to be a highlight of the week for the kids, although at least a couple had really looked forward to it but were grossed out by just how ugly pink dolphins really are up close and personal. (I was not grossed out, but I have to admit that they are really ugly creatures.)
While we were feeding the dolphins, there was a large tank on the other side of the dock that had some kind of monster prehistoric fish in it that everyone took turns feeding. I don’t know the name of the fish; it is kind of like a monster sturgeon, with scaly plates all over, and ugly as sin, and it is not something you would want to find swimming next to you. These things at full size got up to 300 kilos, or about 660 pounds. I have to admit that it was kind of cool watching one of these monsters grab hold of the fish you were dangling from a pole and feeling the strength at the other end of the line as it bent before the fish snapped off a mouthful and swam away.
After this experience, it was time to settle in on the boat, have some lunch and cruise toward the meeting of the waters. Now, we were hours on route to get there, and, while we could see shorelines, we also could get a sense of the enormity of this river system, which as it gets closer to the Atlantic is so vast that you don’t see the shores. Up to this point we had only seen the dark water of the Rio Negro (hence its name) but as we came closer to the confluence of the two rivers we saw something extraordinary. It appeared as if we were approaching a sandbar or a beach, but of course that was impossible. The place where the waters of the Rio Negro meet the waters of the Amazon is clearly identifiable, with a line of black water on the one side and a line of yellow/brown water that could pass for sand on the other. It seems like they don’t mix at all where they meet, only as they merge rushing toward the Atlantic. From that point on the dominant color is brownish, but at the point where the two rivers meet there is a clear line of demarcation. Very cool indeed.
So now it was time to backtrack, since we would be disembarking back in Manaus in about eight hours and we had a ways to go to get back there, and a couple more stops to make on the way. We sailed down river until we passed a couple of restaurants that were literally on the shoreline, so that the only way to get to them was to dock, with a souvenir shop in between. The restaurants were dilapidated shacks, in that they were open sided with tin roofs and weathered wooden floors, with bars at the back, but they were large enough to handle a crowd. Our boat landed at the dock in the middle of all this and we disembarked.
Apparently one dock off the side was where we were supposed to fish for the piranhas. Since I have never been a fisherman and have nothing against piranhas, I took a pass on this one and instead took the opportunity to check out the souvenir place, since it occurred to me that we hadn’t picked up any small gifts for our shipboard families, something we try to do in each port. This place was perfect, and Barbara was there and had the same need, so we figured if we told them we were looking for 24 bead necklaces, we might be able to get a good price on them. After a short negotiation, we were back at the dock, mission accomplished. Meanwhile many of the kids had caught piranhas, which the guide helped them de-hook and toss back.
As all this was going on, the sky was darkening. I guess I forgot to tell you that, before we left the ship (not the boat), we checked the forecast for Brazil and it showed clear skies around the Falls but almost a 100% chance of rain in the Amazon. Here we were, 24 hours later, with only another hour or so to go before we were back on the boat and heading back to Manaus, and we had managed to dodge all the raindrops. But our time and our luck was running out. The skies opened and we experienced a real tropical rain forest downpour for about the next hour. Fortunately we were under cover and our guide insisted these rains, if torrential, usually only lasted an hour or so, so we should wait it out and then go on to look for the alligators and caymans.
His instincts were spot on, and about an hour later those intrepid souls who didn’t mind getting soaked (which at this point didn’t include any of the adults other than the trip leaders) got into shallow motorboats and took off at a rapid pace to the spot where the alligators and caymans usually hung out. The adults hung out in the restaurant; it was our first chance to get a beer since leaving Iguacu Falls and it tasted quite good, even if it was just the local excuse for a brew. When the group returned, they had pictures of caymans, though no alligators, so the excursion was a success, and we all piled back onto the riverboat for dinner, a nap for those who could manage it in the hammocks, and the trip back to the airport in Manaus.
It was when we reached our destination, hours later, that we saw the other two riverboats docked right next to us, so I know that what I have written about them is accurate. Their groups also were heading to the airport for overnight flights, though each one was taking a different route with a different layover from the one we had through Brasilia. We were really pissed when we found that one of the groups was scheduled for a departure more than an hour ahead of ours, yet we left for the airport the same time. Go figure. We were even more pissed when we found out that our flight, which was supposed to leave at 3:25am (the airports in Brazil seem to go nonstop – the terminals were packed in both Sao Paolo and Brasilia when we were sitting around waiting for our connections at 4am) was changed on the board to a 4:30 departure.
Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem in the grand scheme of things, given how wiped out we already were, but heck, we had a connection to make, and if we missed it who knew how we would make it back to the ship before it was leaving Salvador. According to the boarding pass we had for the connecting flight, we arrived on the 4:30 flight in Brasilia ten minutes before our connection was to take off. So not a lot of margin for error or delays. Now we were pissed, tired, and worried.
Surprisingly, the hours, and there were more than three of them, passed really quickly. I even dozed off for about 15 minutes sitting upright in a chair, which impressed a few people, those who weren’t glazed over themselves. Finally it was time for our flight. At 4:30am you don’t expect to be backed up with a lot of other flights trying to get out, and we weren’t, fortunately. We got in the air quickly, the flight was smooth, and the plane in Brasilia was held for us, since our 40 passengers were about a quarter of those on the flight we were catching. When we arrived we were ushered right through and onto the other flight so, net net, we were right on time! This was not the scenario we were worrying about as we were sitting in the airport in Manaus. What had happened was that all our waiting time in Brasilia we used waiting in Manaus. There was no delay in Brasilia, and there were no problems from there back to the ship. (And we were back at the ship half an hour before the excursion that left Manaus two hours before our departure – they connected through Rio, which meant a ton of extra time in the air.)
We talked about maybe going back to Adobo for a last meal in Salvador, but once we landed we realized that we were tired, we were dirty, we all smelled and no one at that restaurant would probably even let us in looking the way we did. And also, we were back at the ship in time for the lunch they had prepared , which was really welcome and really good. (For some reason the food while we are in port is much more varied and adventurous than when we are at sea.) So we had lunch, returned to our cabin and showered and I shaved, we relaxed awhile and we got to bed early to catch up on all the sleep we had missed the last couple of nights.
So Brazil had its pluses and minuses. I’m still not sure, a week later, if the net is a positive or a negative. It may take awhile to figure that out. Given the political situation in the country, as well as the deteriorating political situations in many of the rest of the countries of South America, it may take some kind of a sign for us to pull the trigger and head back down here. On the other hand, the Falls were spectacular and I suspect that if we do the Amazon the right way we will be glad we made another trip down. Time will tell. In the meantime, on for a short refueling stop in Trinidad in a few more days, then through the Canal and down to the Galapagos. This adventure continues.
(Saturday, November 2nd) Back at sea. One day out on our way to Salvador, Brazil. We’ve had a chance to canvass many of the faculty, LLLs and students that we know, including one of our extended families which we had dinner with tonight to get a sense of how others experienced their time in Ghana, and we’ve also had some time to synthesize our own thoughts about this visit. As was true of Morocco, much of our experiences repeat pieces of our previous visits, so I am going to borrow liberally from what I wrote back in 2014.
A lot of people who visit Ghana find it an uncomfortable experience. It is a developing, not a developed, country, and that takes some getting used to, particularly if you are used to travel in Western Europe and around the United States, which is where most of us usually travel. Sometimes, though, there is a reward that comes with venturing out of your comfort zone.
Before independence, Ghana was a British colony that was known as the Gold Coast, for obvious reasons (lots of gold) but it was so much more. Ghana is resource rich in many respects, and its soil is some of the richest in sub-Saharan west Africa, so it also was attractive for its agriculture as well as many other minerals. Before the British came and conquered, the Portuguese, then the Dutch had their periods of domination, with the Swedes having a role, at least in building slave castles at one point. Not sure how long that all lasted or how much of a role that was.
During the Second World War the British assembled regiments from many of their colonies, and Ghana was no exception. As the recruits traveled from one theatre of war to another what they found was that they were fighting for the survival of democracy and freedom, and when they returned home they wondered why they didn’t have the same rights that the British were espousing everywhere else. This opened the door for the nationalist movements everywhere from India to Africa, and one of the most effective was the movement in Ghana that was led by a group of six whose face was Kwame Nkrumah. By the late 1950s this movement resulted in Ghana’s independence from Britain, though it remains to this day a member of the British Commonwealth, which membership does have its benefits.
If you look at this corner of Africa, from west to east, you start at Sierra Leone (British colony, also the place where the Brits returned former slaves who were freed when the Brits outlawed slavery), pass through Liberia (created as a state by the United States as a sanctuary for some of its former slaves), then Côte d’Ivoire (French), then Ghana (British), then Togo (German), then Benin (French), then you reach Nigeria (again, British). Burkina Faso (French) sits laterally on top of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, and Guinea (Portuguese) sits just inside Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. All of these countries were carved up by the European powers back in the 19th century, creating artificial boundaries within traditional tribal areas. The result is a hodge-podge of official European languages from country to country with major tribal languages (Dagbani, Twi, Aja, others) being spoken across the borders. Of all these countries only Ghana has developed a strong democratic governmental system, though some of the others do have democratic elections and have been relatively stable through the 21st century, at least so far. Ghana also has its corruption, but from what I have heard and read it is nothing compared to what you find in its neighbors.
Like many of the former colonies, Ghana struggled with independence for decades, swinging between democratically elected governments and dictatorships. It had four constitutions alone between 1957 and 1990, with the occasional military coup thrown in. I have already written about Kofi Busia and his repeated exiles over the decades followed by or following periods of leadership roles in Ghana’s government. The good news is that it has been a stable democracy now for three solid decades, and shows no signs of fraying or failing. Unlike in the United States, but like so many other places around the globe where the vote is prized, voting is not just a right but an obligation in Ghana. You can be fined if you don’t vote in an election in this country.
Economically, Ghana is not a developed western economy, but neither is it anywhere as poor as any of its neighbors. If you ask a Ghanaian he or she will stress to you that while Ghana is still developing, it is a rapidly improving country in so many respects. Some of this is natural chauvinism but there also is a lot of truth to it. Per capita income in Ghana is about three times that of its immediate neighbors, which is pretty astounding if you think about it.
When you think about Ghana there are a few basic things that you need to keep in the back of your mind for the rest of it to make any sense. First, the south is wet, hot and humid, most of the time, it is lush, and it has access to the ocean. It is also heavily Christian, at this point very charismatic. By contrast the north is relatively dry and a lot less humid, though still hot, and it is predominantly Islamic. The population is more than 70% Christian overall, reflecting the heavier concentration of the population in the south. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and it is a real thing, but I suspect that outside of strict Christianity and strict Islam not a lot else is tolerated. Like most of the developing world, homosexuality is forbidden, and probably tolerated as long as it is kept secret, but dealt with harshly if it becomes public knowledge.
Ghana also has free public education starting at the age of three and continuing through college. Yes, you read that right. And it takes it seriously. That includes shoes for the kids, as well as school lunches that are probably the best meals the kids get in most cases. There is a concerted push to educate the population, as the government sees education as the country’s ticket to becoming a developed rather than a developing country. (Yes, it has a long way to go, but it is heading in the right direction.). Ghana also offers healthcare to its people. So maybe it isn’t as developed as we are, but in some ways, maybe it is positioning itself, at considerable expense, by the way, for a much brighter future.
This is our third visit to Ghana. When we were here in 2012 visiting Callie, we spent a lot of time in the north, because that is where Callie lived, but also spent some time in Accra, the sprawling capital city, as well as along the coast visiting the slave castles built by the British and before that the Portuguese and visiting another of the regional capitals a couple hours northeast of Accra, Koforidua. On that trip we visited the main wildlife park in Ghana, Mole National Park, which is well north even of Tamale, the northern regional capital where Callie lived. Mainly though, we spent time around Tamale, a rapidly growing city that has been a magnet for foreign NGOs like the one Callie worked for then.
When we returned in 2014 with SAS, we spent most of our time back in Tamale with Callie’s boyfriend at the time and visiting the family that she had lived with before she returned to the States. It was on that visit that we spent time at the political convention of the major opposition party, which was taking place in Tamale during the week that we were there, and it was there that I had my pocket picked, lost my wallet, and got to know the local constabulary really well. We met the ship in another port, Takoradi, which was one of the ports that we visited on this voyage. More about that later.
We thought we would flip the script this time around by doing SAS excursions in Ghana after doing things on our own just about everywhere else up to this point in our semester. I also had one scheduled class trip on the first day in port.
That first day was forecast to have some rain in it, and did it ever. The class trip involved a decent amount of driving, from the port into Accra, to the national university, then out of the city on the other side and up into the mountains to a restaurant for lunch then on to a workshop for a crafts project. We were really lucky. When the rains hit, we were inside at the university for the first part of our day so we really didn’t notice it much. By the time we were back on the bus, it had pretty much stopped and the only thing we noticed as we drove up into the mountains was that at one point there was an eight car pileup on the side of the road coming toward us, and a little further along a major mudslide that cordoned off that side so that all the traffic was on our side of the road for awhile around blind curves, which made it all the more interesting. We got the impression that during the rainy season this is the way it is, and the drivers just learn to deal with it all.
The class was Ingrid Byerly’s World Music, and the focus was on Ghanaian drumming and dance. One of the course sections participated, probably about 25 students, along with Linda, another of the LLLs, Ann Little, and me, Ingrid and Abena Busia. We also had the drama class from the ship along, maybe another dozen or so students and their professor. When we got to the university we were met by one of the music professors there, and he conducted a session of drumming that was outstanding. He addressed technique, rhythms and polyrhythms, and by the time he was finished he had everyone pounding away. He was followed by one of the university’s dance professors, who was even more energetic. He pulled out groups of the students, broke down their inhibitions and got them dancing to drumming that some of the other instructors provided. It was here that Ambassador Busia let her hair down and danced one-on-one with the professor, and where one of our students really caught the attention of that professor by matching him move by move for about 15 minutes. He recognized her once the session was winding down by inviting her back out on the floor for one last dance, while everyone else just formed a circle and clapped in rhythm along with the drums. Very cool.
After a good lunch, we had a short drive to the workshop, where the students each made their own drums. Or at least did the stitching to put the cover in place on a carved wooden drum base. Not to minimize the work involved, which was considerable. We had to provide band-aids to several students whose fingers were raw from the process of looping the cord through and around the cover material, drawing it taut and repeating the process endlessly. It seemed like it took most of the students a couple of hours to finish their work, which actually looked really good when the drums were done and the excess covering material was trimmed away.
The drive back to the ship was about an hour and a half, much of it through puddles, but we got back to the ship just about on schedule, which in Ghana is a big deal. Traffic around Accra is always brutal, and with rain it can be a killer. Which it was for Annie, I am sorry to say.
Annie signed up for an orientation tour of Accra, which of course she had spent a lot of time in before, but it was an easy, low stress way to get out with others (or so she thought), and besides she had excursions scheduled the next two days so this was her one time to actually get into Accra. Getting into Accra was about the same for her as it was for us. Not a problem. From there, though, things spiraled out of control fast. What was supposed to be an orientation tour of the city had as its main highlight a visit to the public library, where they had a presentation on the timely subject of (DRUMROLL!) the Dewey Decimal System. (You can’t make this stuff up. Well, I guess you could, but I’m not, honest.) This stop was followed by an hour of driving around searching for a functioning ATM machine. Really. The first couple of machines were out of order.
I know that they also visited the Nkrumah memorial, which is something you might want to skip but is an interesting insight into Ghanaian history of the mid-20th century, and they also had what Annie said was an excellent lunch. After their lunch, though, the heavens opened up in Accra and the main roads were completely flooded. Remember that my group was up the hill at this point, and the rains had about stopped where we were, so we didn’t have any clue as to what was happening in the city. For Annie’s group, though, it was chaos. They decided to reroute the bus onto another road, but that turned out to be even worse than the first. Our bus got back to the ship about 6, and I assumed Annie would be back there before me. When it was getting close to 8 and I still didn’t see her, I was frantic. I thought her program was just half a day – it really was a full day, but I didn’t know it – so I figured she had gone back into the city and was stuck there. Anyway, she finally turned up and told us the saga and we got ready for the next day’s surprises.
Annie had another excursion, this time a full day of crafts at a cooperative that taught struggling women the skills to make products that could put food on their tables using materials that otherwise would have ended up in dumps or on the sides of the roads. One of the things they made was glasses from discarded beer bottles (Annie brought me a glass that I can use that was part of an old Heineken bottle). Another was patches of designed fabrics made with the batik process that could be used to make tote bags and other things, starting with old discarded tablecloths. Annie made a design, but didn’t really have the time she needed to make it all that she had in mind. All in all, though, the day was a success, but again it was a long day.
I had opted to take the shuttle bus into the city and walk around, with the two main destinations being the main city market and a place for lunch with decent WiFi so I could post some material. Linda gamely decided to make the trek in with me. The last time we were in Accra one of the things we noted – it would have been hard to miss it – was the way businesses advertised their faith in the business names. Names like:
-This is the Way Building Materials
-Blessed Day Photo Studio
-AJ Furniture – We Do Everything Through Christ Who Strengthens Us
-King of Kings Fast Food
-Our Lady of Mercy Car Batteries
-Gift of God Upholstery Works
-Jesus is Coming Soon Furniture Co, and my personal favorite,
-Jesus Is Great Chop Bar
Not to mention the more secular:
-Peace and Love Electronics
-Thank You Aluminum Systems, and, last but not least,
-Kiss Me Harry Shopping Center
I am not making any of these up. And they are just a representative sample. Very cool.
So Linda and I were entertained during the hour or so that it took to get into the city looking along the way at the shop signs that we passed. Unfortunately I have to report that one of the casualties of a developing economy is that signs like these just don’t cut it the way they used to, and we hardly saw any along the way. There were a lot of Hallelujahs and a bunch of God is Great, but no Chop Bars.
One other dramatic difference in Ghana that we noticed was the increased presence of Chinese construction companies. It’s no secret that China has been making a concerted effort to create a 21st century version of a colonial empire throughout Africa and central Asia by underwriting infrastructure development projects seemingly everywhere, where they supply the funding, the materials, and, most importantly, a large part of the labor, then maintain ongoing interests in these projects that create revenue streams for the future. The rest of the world understands that it is happening, but doesn’t seem very interested in containing the influence that the Chinese are developing with all these projects. I think a lot of this was happening back in 2014 and maybe I was just not so aware of it, but I really don’t remember seeing so many of these projects driving along the highways back then. Today in Ghana, and presumably in so many other parts of the continent, it is hard to find a major construction project going on without signs in Chinese posted all around the work sites.
But once again I digress. Anyway, we’re in Osu, the commercial center in the city and the area that we are most familiar with, even though it’s been five years since we were there. It’s about 11, so we figure let’s go to the market first, then take a cab back from there to Osu to get lunch, then play it by ear. It’s not a short walk, but it is doable, all level ground even if you have to keep your eyes down to watch where the sidewalk ends and the canals for sewage and rain waters begin so you don’t break a leg falling in, and it seems like all the effects of yesterday’s rain are just a memory. So off we go.
We stay off the main road, which is multi lane and crowded, and instead walk through some side streets, continuing in the direction toward the market. One thing about Ghanaians is that they are laid back, and another is that they are really friendly. If you look like you are a lost tourist they may try to sell you something, but if you look like you’ve been there before they are welcoming and that was our experience over a couple miles of walking. We met men and women of all ages who were gracious and enjoyed a conversation. At one point Linda was wiped out and needed a break – the heat affected her a lot more than me – so we stopped at a bench under a tree where a boy of about 13 and a girl of about 11 were sitting, probably on a school break. They welcomed Linda to join them and we had a really pleasant break just talking with them for what had to be about 15 minutes. It was really a pleasure.
After recharging her batteries, Linda and I moved on toward the market. En route we passed an outdoor metal sculpture installation that was worth a detour and, after another short respite, made our way to the market. Makola Market is the central market in Accra. Unlike the souks in Morocco, the Ghanaian markets are in concentrated areas with passageways through them front to back and occasionally cutting across at spots. It would be hard to get lost in one of these, because you’d get to an exit in a little while, but at the same time it would be almost impossible if you passed a stall to retrace your steps to find it again. It is exactly what you would expect it to be, sprawling in all directions and totally chaotic, with no rhyme or reason to what you might look for or find as you wended your way down the dark, narrow aisles and around blind corners. Wonderful, massive bowls heaping with grains of all kinds. Other bowls crawling with writhing crabs and motionless but no less alive snails, and even more bowls heaping with tiny dried fish that are ground up to make a paste that is used in all kinds of dishes. Larger fish in slabs, being hacked and sold off in pieces. No ice in evidence here. Not sure I would want to eat any of that. And the vegetables. All manner of greens, and massive bowls of tomatoes and peppers. Bags of spices of all kinds. The array was endless, because there is no end to it.
Of course we couldn’t buy any of these things, since we can’t bring any fresh food onto the ship, but it was great fun checking it all out and making a spectacle of ourselves. Of the thousands of people in the market, we were the only “abruni” (white person) around, so people were striking up conversations, taking pictures, whatever. At one point we were in the middle of a group of four women, probably about 45-50 in age, one selling cloth, another selling soap, toothpaste and other household items, the others clothing. One of them has her eye on me and strikes up a conversation, with a broad smile, saying she wants to marry me, am I married? Linda jumps right in, saying I am married, my wife is back on the ship and she is there to make sure I don’t get myself into any trouble. The women love this and break out into hysterical laughter, with the first continuing to insist that I should forget my wife and stay with her. It was hysterical. But not atypical of the conversations we had as we walked around. I did see more of the wonderful Angola brand toothpaste, with calcium and fluoride, that we had bought five years ago, but I resisted the urge to buy any more since I am not sure we ever used the first tube.
Looking back at what I wrote about Makola five years ago, when it was Annie who was there with me and not Linda, it is striking to me that, with the exception of the encounter with the four women, the market is exactly the same now as it was then. I can only hope that the next time we return I will be able to write the same thing. (We compared notes with many of our friends on the ship who also visited the market. For the most part, those who had not been there before found it hard to take. They thought the people in the stalls were aggressive, trying to sell them whatever they could. A few found the experience delightful, as we did. It is a totally safe place, and as long as you approach it with that in mind you will really love your visit. If you are on edge, there is enough about it that is foreign and exotic that it might trigger the opposite reaction. Let yourself go, and enjoy!)
So that was Tuesday, day two. Our final day in Accra was Wednesday. Annie and I were both planning to go on another excursion, this time to visit a cocoa farm and processing facility (or so I thought). After two long days on buses, though, Annie decided she would pass and have a restful day around Accra, once she found out that Ann Little wanted to do the cocoa excursion and couldn’t since it was fully booked. So one Ann took the place of the other, and off we went Wednesday morning. Early Wednesday morning, to be exact. Which should have been a tip-off that this was going to be a LONG day.
We left on our bus at about 6:30. I had never looked at the itinerary for the excursion, assuming that the thing was vetted and made sense. Never assume anything. This was the excursion from Hell.
I assumed a couple of hours travel up into the mountains to the cocoa farm, a couple hours there, a short drive to wherever lunch would be, then another short drive to the processing facility, a couple hours there, then another couple hours back to the ship. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong and, yes, wrong again. At about 9:45, after three hours driving, the driver pulls the bus off the road, gets out, goes to the back, and, after about fifteen minutes of suspense, the guide tells us that there is a problem with the suspension at the back of the bus, and since we are going up some steep grades, the driver doesn’t think it is a good idea to continue, so a new bus will be on its way to replace the one we are on. It should be there in about an hour. An hour and a half later, the new bus arrives. The guide tells us it is only about another hour to the farm.
We’re starting to do the math, and, given how reliable all the estimates have been to date, we’re a little skeptical about this one. So, best case, we will be at the farm at about 12:15. Since the ship is to leave the port at 6, and our on-ship time is 5, that means we have less time left to do the program and return to the ship than we have spent just getting to the farm. But we’ve gone this far, and the ship won’t leave without us, so……
We actually get to the cocoa farm in less than an hour, and we get an abbreviated tour and demonstration of how to cut down the pods, how to open them, how to dry the beans. We taste the raw beans, and some dry beans. All this takes about 40 minutes, and we’re back on the bus. Now the guide tells us that, not to worry, we’ll be at our destination for lunch (the guide called ahead to be sure it would be waiting for us) and the tour of what turns out to be the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRIG) in ….another hour or so. So now the math gets that much more complicated. If we get there, and the lunch is ready when we get there, and we eat lunch in about 20 minutes for the whole group, and we then go right to the research labs, and we spend an hour or so there, and we get back to the ship in less than three hours, maybe we can get there by about 6.
So we do in fact get to CRIG in less than an hour (!), and head to – are you ready for this – the dining room of the CRIG Golf Club (who knew?), where we find ……..no food, no set up, nothing. It is now almost 1:30, and we should be leaving for the ship in what, an hour or so? Well, the food arrives in about half an hour, but it is a buffet, with about a dozen dishes, which arrive sequentially. Then the plates and utensils arrive. While all this is being set up, someone from CRIG tells us in broad terms what they do there (agricultural research), buying time while the buffet is set up. It is now almost two when we dig in to a forgettable meal, which we eat as fast as we can, then head outside on foot toward the facility. The CRIG representative tells us that since there is so little time, they will show us the drying process for the cocoa beans, which would be great, but it was the one thing that we saw at the farm, right? Which actually is a good thing, since we don’t actually have even ten minutes for it anyway.
Of course, the reason why was because the one stop every student on the bus was there to make was, what else, the gift shop, where they could buy …. CHOCOLATE. So that is what we did. But first, remember we are outside walking from building to building, and of course, this being the excursion from Hell, the heavens open up. That torrential downpour that I missed back on Monday in Accra? Its mother caught up with me here on Wednesday. Totally drenched, everyone reaches the gift shop, which is a 10’x10’ room with one small doorway and about 4’x8’ of floor space for the customers. The rest of us are waiting where you would expect, outside. In the downpour. People file into the shop about six at a time, which means it takes about 40 minutes for 40 people to do their shopping, and we are finally back on the bus, which by now caught up with us, at 3:25. Not looking too good for an arrival back at the ship by 5:30. But not to worry. The guide says the driver says we’ll be back in two hours, and besides, the ship isn’t going anywhere without us, right? Right.
Three hours later, we arrive at the ship, which, honestly, was about an hour less driving time than anyone on the bus expected at that point. It had been a day to remember, one that was so excruciatingly bad that it was actually hilarious, the kind of day where you keep saying to yourself, or the person next to you, “Okay, what’s going to happen to us next?”, only to find out that it is even worse than anything you might have imagined. And remember, we didn’t have an accident, and we sure saw enough of those while we were in Ghana. It was good to be back on the ship. And off we went to our other Ghanaian port, a few miles to the west of Accra, Takoradi.
Day four in Ghana, which was day one in Takoradi, was one that Annie and I planned to be a simple day all along, and after day three’s adventure I was glad that all we had planned was a visit to, what else, the wonderful circular central market in Takoradi. Annie was on a mission here – there were some sewing supplies that she needed to find, and, while I was skeptical that she would find them, she was more hopeful. As was true of the market in Accra, the Takoradi market was alive, and chaotic, and wonderful, and yes, it had the ribbons and buttons and even Velcro that Annie had on her list. The stall where we found most of this was operated by a woman we guessed to be about 30. Her mother was right there, sitting on a stool in the passage outside, supervising. She probably operated the stall herself for decades, with her daughter learning the business by watching by her side. The daughter in turn had her daughter, probably about 8, by her side, helping with the ribbons and the buttons, and she also had a son there, standing outside the stall next to his Nana. While Annie was doing her shopping I was talking with the kids, who were a bit shy, but I suspect also excited at the chance to see and even talk to, and even sell some ribbon and buttons to, a couple of abrunis. We had fun; I think they did too.
After the market, we had some other shopping to do. I remembered that there was a supermarket (of sorts) outside the market circle where we had bought beer, snacks and even some Fanta black current soda when we were here in 2014, so a stop there was a necessity. We found the supermarket, but it didn’t have the soda, but someone there was nice enough to tell us that there was a much larger supermarket that had opened about four blocks away, so we walked over there. On the way, we passed a clothing shop that had a shirt that looked exactly like one of Annie’s favorites (in her favorite color, no less), and I suggested that she try it on. It was a perfect fit, and it set us back the princely sum of US$1.60. Kind of complements the Apple long sleeve T-shirt that I bought at the market in Tamale back in 2012 for US$2.00.
Shirt in tote bag, off we went to the supermarket. It didn’t have Fanta black current soda, but it did have the local brand, so we stocked up on that, bought a couple more beers and a couple bottles of wine, some crackers, some ziplocs (which we needed badly) and (not so surprising since the sun still never sets on the British empire) several more packages of all butter Scottish shortbread. Now I know I have enough for the rest of the voyage, and probably some to carry home as well. Now that was some successful shopping trip.
We met about half a dozen people from the ship at a local hotel that had okay WiFi which was important, since it allowed me to put pictures into the last post and get it into the blog, and had lunch there (which was quite good actually – two small plates, one with fried plantains and the other grilled squid in a very hot Ghanaian sauce), then headed back to the ship to get ready for our last day in Ghana.
So once again Annie and I were on field programs, and for the fourth day out of five we were off in opposite directions. Annie the intrepid one was off to do a series of canopy walks over gorges, while I, the one with the vertigo, was on a bus heading off to lunch with eight of Ghana’s Queen Mothers. I know that Annie had a great time, although I did hear from at least one other LLL who did the same excursion the day before that she was so queasy from the swaying of the rope canopies that she had to sit down and compose herself part of the way through before she could finish the route.
For me, it was a much easier experience, and actually, anthropologically, one of the more interesting ones that we’ve had on this voyage. I’ve written before about the important role that women have in the family compounds that we’ve visited and stayed in up in Tamale. When Callie was living and working in Tamale she and a colleague had a small cinder block apartment in a typical compound on the outskirts of the city. The compound was rectangular, with a courtyard in the middle that was the place where people met and all the social life of the extended family that occupied all the units around the perimeter took place. Four or five one story units opened out onto the courtyard, where the only water for the whole compound was drawn from a common well in one corner. It was there that Annie pounded foufou, the starchy paste made from cassava and yam that is the staple of the Ghanaian diet, with the women of the compound.
What we noticed in our visits to the compound was that, first, the men in the families were never around, if they existed at all. Second, all the children were mothered by all the women in the compound, so it was a true collective. The children viewed each of the women as their mother and listened to and obeyed them. The women were in complete charge and made all the decisions.
So that is what I took with me when I went with a small group from the ship to meet, have lunch with and have a conversation with these Queen Mothers. We had been briefed at the ship as to the proper deference to show to these women and what not to say or do during our time with them. This went to proper dress, bowing when introduced, only using the right hand when eating or doing anything at all, for that matter. (In Ghana and I suppose other parts of Africa the left hand is only supposed to be used in a bathroom.) We thought we would have lunch and then be brought to a place where we would have a formal introduction to the group of Queen Mothers, after which we would have an opportunity to ask them questions. When we got on the bus, though, seven of them were sitting in the front rows, so we went down this receiving line shaking hands, bowing, and trying not to do anything wrong.
We drove for about half an hour to a restaurant in the hills above Takoradi where apparently we were to have our lunch with these Queen Mothers. I doubt that the quality of the meal had much to do with us, but it was the best meal we had in Ghana. I think the restaurant wanted to make an impression on the Queen Mothers, and probably felt honored to have them present. There were 19 of us in the group, and seven Queen Mothers joining us, so we broke into seven groups at seven tables with one of the Queen Mothers at the head of each, and had a traditional Ghanaian meal, with all the usual grains, and fish, and meats, but no foufou! I was surprised, but there was baked yam, and that sufficed with the sauces.
So, you probably are asking yourself, what is a Queen Mother and why is this such a big deal? Let me tell you, as best I can.
All the tribes in Ghana, whether they have adopted a Christian religion or Islam, still follow the traditional model of rule that has survived for centuries. At the local level, there will be a chief and a Queen Mother. Regionally these chiefs and Queen Mothers will gather and establish policy which will govern how things are done at the local and regional levels. Depending on where you are in the country, the power may rest with the chief, or it may rest with the Queen Mother. The rule passes down through the royal line. In some places it passes through the male, in others it passes matrilineally. (If that is a word.) In southwestern Ghana the line passes through the Queen Mother’s line. If the Queen Mother dies, another is chosen, but if I got this right, and I am not sure I did but I think I did, the next in line is a daughter of one of the Queen Mother’s sisters, not one of the Queen Mother’s daughters, and it isn’t determined by who is first in line, but instead the new Queen Mother is chosen by the town’s elders based on who they think will handle the responsibility best. Once a Queen Mother is chosen, whatever the age, she will undergo an education in what she is expected to do and be, and once that is done she will assume the stool. Yes, the stool, not a throne.
And so what does a Queen Mother do exactly? As best I can tell, she is sort of a combination of the local arbiter of all civil disputes as well as the main dictator of the community’s norms. She is a figure of enormous respect and power. Each large town has its own Queen Mother, and all those in an area meet collectively in a sort of legislature to make policy for their area. I asked the Queen Mother we had lunch with about what power the chief had in all this, and she laughed and said that the chief and the Queen Mother worked together and reached agreement on any pressing issues facing the community. If a crime had been committed, that would be dealt with in the courts, but anything else would at least in the first instance be decided by the woman sitting on the ceremonial stool. Her decision could be appealed, but from what we heard, that didn’t happen often. People gave their Queen Mothers great deference. As far as national politics, she smiled and said that that was one thing all the Queen Mothers kept to themselves.
It was a fascinating way to end our visit to Ghana, particularly with the time and effort that I have been putting into Colleen Cohen’s Cultural Anthropology course. Our time with the Queen Mothers was richer because of the insights with which I was armed because of that course.
While I usually write about the experiences that Annie and I have in each of the ports that we visit, I need to pause here and take a different direction for a bit. When we returned to the ship and compared notes with everybody we found that there was one excursion that was so incredible that the people who went on it came back almost evangelical in their fervor for what they had seen and experienced. There are so many ways in which it intersects with SAS that I have to tell you about it here.
The program is called “Senase Homestay and School Engagement” and in a nutshell it transports participants to a remote village to spend about three days in the community and in particular at a local school.
One student who went on the program last semester wrote about it: “THIS PROGRAM WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE. There is nothing I can say that will give this experience justice. It was real, raw, important, eye-opening, meaningful, inspiring, motivating and so much more. Nothing has ever impacted me the way this program has.”
So here’s the back story. SAS has docked at Accra in Ghana forever. Since it is docked for several days, over time about a dozen pop-up stalls have set up shop just across from the gang plank selling mainly souvenirs but also an array of clothing. The hawkers who man these stalls will stay there while the ship is docked and leave the pier when the ship pulls up anchor and we take off. About ten years ago, a group of students coming off the ship asked one of the hawkers for restaurant recommendations in Accra, figuring who better to ask than a local, and these hawkers clearly were that.
This is where the story gets interesting. The hawker the students approached was a kid, just about their age. His name was Fred Benneh, and he lived in a village several hours from Accra and was trying to make a living selling souvenirs to tourists coming in on the few cruise ships that made Accra a stop. Fred offered to take the students to some restaurants that he knew, and off they went. Word got around about Fred and soon he became a go-to guide to the Accra scene for the students and others from the ship. This continued over the years, as Fred’s reputation grew and people coming off the ship would seek him out, keeping him busy whenever SAS was in town.
On one of these occasions he met a couple of LLLs who got to know him well enough that he opened up to them and told them his story. His village, Senase, was a small, rural place without a school or much else, for that matter. Fred’s dream was to invest in Senase and in particular to start a school for the village’s children and other children in surrounding villages.
The LLLs were so impressed with Fred’s vision and his abilities that they decided that they wanted to help him. This was someone who was enterprising and entrepreneurial even though he had only had a basic public school education, so the first step was to give Fred a chance at an education. He first attained a degree from a Ghanaian university, then came to America for further study, which at one point included a semester with SAS.
Now I’m not sure of the sequence of all this, and I sure as hell can’t figure out how Fred managed to do all that he did in the time that it took him to do it, especially considering that he was in the US for a part of the time yet continuing to get a lot done back in Ghana, but stick with me here. And remember that right now (today, not at this point in the story) Fred is only about 28.
While all this is going on, Fred is setting up then running a tourist operation in Accra for all of Ghana, packaging tours and providing guides. SAS still uses Fred’s operation for a lot of their Ghana day trips. (I hope his was not responsible for the cocoa fiasco. I’m not asking.) As if this isn’t enough, Fred also was involved in setting up Uber’s operations in West Africa.
But Fred still had the dream. He and the Allisons, the couple who had been so taken with him when they met him and got to know him, set up a foundation that raised the funds for, then opened, the Semanhyia American School (SAS) in Senase. The word “Semanhyia” means “what if we hadn’t met”, and the school name intentionally shares its acronym with Semester at Sea. One of the features of the school is that there is a large wooden play structure for the kids in the shape of a ship that flys the Semester at Sea flag. Pretty cool. Fred still heads the school, and the tour operations, but he’s no longer involved with the Uber operation. He is just one person, after all.
After the planning, fund raising and construction, all of which took about a year, the school opened about three or four years ago with three grades of elementary education, grades 1-3, each of which had about 40 students. Most of the students came from Senase, some from surrounding villages. Senase does have a public school with grades starting in pre-kindergarten and continuing through to high school, but in the villages the public schools aren’t the best, and Fred thought he could do better. After a few years operation, the school has expanded to serve pre-kindergarten starting at age 2 and continuing at this point up to fifth grade, with plans to add a grade each year until the school will serve kids right up to high school. As a private school, this SAS charges fees, while public education in Ghana is free, but the school offers scholarships to local kids who can’t afford the tuition and gets the funds to do so by charging for kids from outside Senase a higher fee for their tuition. We’ve seen that model (in state students paying less than out of state, for example) in America, and it works well enough.
The local chief thinks so highly of the school that he provided the land for the school to build additions to house all the additional grades that Fred has already planned for, and the buildings are constructed though the interior build-out hasn’t been completed and won’t be until the space is needed, so that will be done over the next couple of years. Fred has been planning for his own withdrawal from the administration of the school by bringing in a team of administrators and hiring teams of teachers. His goal is to fine-tune the model in Senase, then take it on the road and replicate it in other towns and villages around Ghana. I’ve never met the guy, but I am impressed, and would be even if he wasn’t 28 with several successful start-up business ventures under his belt.
Now you have the background, so a bit about the field program itself. The school was the focal point of the excursion, but it also was a chance to live in the village with a local family for a couple of days. After a long day’s drive, everyone met their host families and then everybody assembled for a traditional Ghanaian dinner. The only problem with the dinner was that there wasn’t enough foufou to go around. After dinner there was a meeting with the locals to learn more about the village and the area.
In the morning, some went off on school buses to pick kids up and bring them to school while the rest of the group walked around the village to pick up those close enough to the school to walk. One of the LLLs told me that she couldn’t believe how excited and happy these kids were to be going to school as they boarded the bus, even though for some it meant close to a couple hours in the bus with as many as six kids to a bench seat. No fussing, no complaining. Once at the school, everyone helped to serve breakfast to all the kids – in public school, the kids get lunch, but here they get both breakfast and lunch. After breakfast and a school assembly, in which the kids dance rather than march in, to loosen them up, everyone sat in on classes to get a sense of the level of instruction, then visited the local public school to get a comparison of the teaching and the curriculum. From all I heard, there really was none. The LLLs who went on the excursion noticed a big difference in English comprehension at the same grade level between the public school kids and those at Semanhyia. The rest of the day was spent on fun and games as well as more food.
The next morning everyone pitched in on various service projects at the school – painting playground equipment and doing some basic construction. The ship in the playground had handprints on it, left by SASers who had visited the school on previous excursions, and this cohort left its prints on other parts of the same ship. The ship itself, by the way, says Explorer on one side and World Odyssey on the other. Our ship is the World Odyssey; the ship we were on in 2014 (and the same ship that Fred sailed on) was called the Explorer. Again, kind of a neat touch. The balance of the day was spent doing some drumming and dancing, eating, and shopping at the local market. Our group bought lots of staples – rice, yams, cassava – in bulk (one of the locals haggled over the prices with the sellers, as is customary) and contributed it to the community to thank them for the welcome they had given. For the SAS group, it was a real slice of Ghanaian life, and they all enjoyed the experience.
One postscript: during one of the days when some of the SASers were talking with Fred and he was talking about the work projects going on at the school, he mentioned that they needed to install another toilet in the new building but didn’t have the money on hand to do the job. He said they would do it when they found the money – there was no sense of great urgency; it would get done when it could get done. Ann Hudgens, who was on the excursion and is our Dean of Students, took the bull by the horns, found three other people to contribute $250 apiece and told Fred that he had the money for the new bathroom. Once the word got around the ship about this additional donations started coming in. Not sure what the final total will be, but anyone who wants to make a contribution should contact me and I will pass It on To the right person. I think that this is an example of how much pride SAS takes in what Fred has done, and in its role in making it all happen.
So now, as I finish this post, we’re half way across the Atlantic on our way to Brazil, the students have had midterms and done presentations (many of which I found outstanding) and we’re punctuating our days and evenings with one-off activities such as Neptune Day, which is the day we cross the equator, a ship-wide talent show, some fund raising and tonight, an auction. The evening seminars have continued and have been outstanding, the presentations to the LLLs likewise have been worthwhile, and we reach Salvador in three days. All is good. More to come after we return to the ship after that port.
(Saturday October 31st) We’re just about at the halfway point of our voyage, day 52 of the total of 106. We will leave Ghana tomorrow to begin our crossing of the Atlantic to Brazil, and so our days at sea will increase and our days on land will decrease from this point on. It seems like a good time to reflect on the shipboard life and more importantly the academic routine and the things that make this so special for a student involved in a semester abroad program.
It’s been about 12 days since we left Morocco, and the shipboard focus during those 12 days, and in particular the first seven before we reached Ghana, is a window into how shipboard education works, and why it works. It’s also been illuminating for those of us just tagging along, watching the various threads of the courses coming together into an identifiable design.
On the night we left Morocco we had our Interport lecturer for Ghana come on board. Usually these are professors at a university in the country we visit next, or sometimes they are representatives like the politician who joined us en route to Croatia. Usually they leave us as soon as we dock. This was different. Our interport lecturer was someone familiar to both Ghana and to Semester at Sea, but someone in a role very different from the one she occupied the last time she was on the ship.
Abena Busia was born in Ghana in the 1950s, while it was still a British colony, and she was a child when the country was liberated and became independent in 1957. Her father was an academic who was part of the country’s leadership during the drive for independence and was in the opposition when Kwame Nkrumah took over the government in 1958 and took on the trappings of a dictator. The family fled in 1959 to the Netherlands when Nkrumah imposed laws that allowed opponents of his government to be jailed without trial. When Nkrumah was deposed in the late ‘60s her father was in the leadership of the new government and for a time was prime minister of Ghana. A military coup unseated him in 1972 when he was overseas getting medical treatment and he and the family found refuge first in the Netherlands then later in the United Kingdom, where Busia ended up getting advanced degrees at Oxford. After a time she found herself in the United States and ended up on the faculty of Rutgers University where she taught for more than 30 years. The is a poet, and a writer, a philanthropist and an activist, and in general a very impressive person.
In 2017 she participated as a member of the faculty on one of the SAS semesters. When she returned to the States after the voyage, she was asked by the Ghanaian government to take on the position of ambassador to Brazil and representative to the rest of the countries of South America, which she accepted and had held since that time. When she was asked by SAS to join this voyage she decided that it was the best way she could use her accrued vacation time, and she actually stayed with us until today, a total of 12 days. She was uniquely qualified to interact with the students and lecture to the shipboard community, and, as a link among Ghana, the United States and Brazil, she proved to be the perfect person to bring together all the threads I alluded to earlier.
Semester at Sea really tries to leave its students with a global perspective, which isn’t the easiest thing to do with students whose world view usually extends to the perimeters of their local campuses. If you look at the course offerings for this semester you will note, in addition to the core Global Studies course that synthesizes things across a broad spectrum, there are courses offered in world music, anthropology, international marketing, world drama, tropical ecology, intercultural communication, issues in Hispanic culture, ecology of infectious diseases, world interdependence – current global issues, global environmental systems, international relations, social and sustainable venturing (which I take and which focuses on things like microcredit in the third world), oceanography, US foreign relations since 1914, interdisciplinary approaches to globalization, comparative religions, economic development (which I also take and which also focuses on the third world), international education, communication and popular culture, sustainability and justice, conservation of marine megafauna, social inequality, social change, comparative government and politics and international mass communication. It’s a long list, but only a representative one, not an inclusive one, but you see the theme. Kids who take this voyage come home aware of how their country fits into a changing world, and what the challenges and opportunities are in it for them. Their horizons have been dramatically broadened.
So that’s the macro view. Now let’s drill down to the specific focuses of this particular semester. In addition to the other courses I described, there are courses about Africa and the African diaspora and another about slavery in the Americas. In America, we think of slavery as starting and ending in our south. In fact, only about six percent of the slaves brought to the new world ended up in North America. A larger percentage ended up in the Caribbean and a much larger percentage, a majority in fact, ended up in Brazil. The story of the slave trade, in Africa, in Europe, on the seas and in the new world is so much larger than what we are taught in our schools, which is itself a very sanitized story.
Over the course of the past two weeks, in many of the courses I noted as well as in evening presentations in the Union and other venues around the ship, in films in the shipboard theater, in films and television documentaries looped on the shipboard television feed, everyone on board was given an education in the history and legacy of the slave trade in many of its various aspects. Ambassador Busia was a presence in so many of these events that I can’t begin to count them all. We met with her with the LLLs a couple of times, we heard her give presentations both singly and with students in the Union, we saw her meeting with students in their classes and over breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for almost two weeks (she also shared meals and drinks with many of the faculty and LLLs over that time), we had her accompany us when our music class took a field trip to the University of Ghana a few days ago (where she wowed the students when she and the dance professor did some spirited dancing to the drums).
We capped off our time with her when she introduced us to the interport lecturer for Brazil, a university professor with whom she has worked for two decades in connection with a not-for-profit advocacy organization focusing on the African diaspora that the two of them were involved in founding, and the two of them, together with her sister, who is an actress who had featured roles in The Color Purple as well as other major films and plays in the United States as well as the United Kingdom, had a conversation about the slave trade and its connection with and impact on both Ghana and Brazil, a topic that we will be continuing to explore with our new interport lecturer over the next week and a half as we cross the Atlantic.
Looking back on where we have been the past two months, it is easy now to see the thread that connects the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Ghana, where we have been and explored or experienced the legacy of the slave trade or at least colonialism, as well as Brazil, Trinidad, Ecuador, Costa Rica and the United States, where we will be doing the same exploration but with more of a perspective than we had when we started back on September 9th. This approach may not always work, but it is nice to see that the SAS administration is making the effort, and in this case it seems to be working pretty well.
One of the LLLs on this voyage was on the ship in 1971 and she told me that back then the first day in each port was a mandatory excursion for the whole shipboard community to some point of interest. If I were to change anything about this voyage it is that I would return to that format and have the first day in each port be an educational experience for the whole community that tied into the Global Studies curriculum for that country. But that is for another time.
Some of you have asked for more pictures of the ship, which SAS calls the World Odyssey and the summer’s German cruise line calls the Deutschland. I think I might have told you that the ship was featured in the German version of the TV series The Love Boat, which apparently ran for several successful seasons in Germany. As such, you can rightly imagine that it is far from what you would expect a student ship to look like. We aim to please, and to whet your appetites and spark your curiosity, so here are some photos of different parts of the World Odyssey, which you will agree looks much more like the Deutschland/Love Boat than a floating university.
This is the Student Union, modeled, I imagine, after the grand ballroom of the Ritz.
This is one of the two dining rooms.
This is the other dining room, which has outside dining on the upper deck.
This is the outdoor pool area. You can see a snack bar at the far end. There is a small outside grill at the other end of the ship. There also is a small snack bar in the library, which is probably a lounge when the Germans use the ship. There is no alcohol most of the time other than in the faculty lounge or, for adults, what they provision themselves and keep in their staterooms. The students can buy a limited number of drink tickets which can be used to buy wine or beer when there are parties, which happens once every couple of weeks. I know it’s hard to believe, but this is probably one of the driest campuses anywhere in the western world.
Speaking of the faculty lounge, here it is. There is a lot of room for tables outside looking out over the stern of the ship, and it is a great place to sit over a beer or glass of wine, with a headset on listening to whatever I have downloaded from Spotify, typing these posts.
This is kind of cool. There is a small private indoor pool on deck three with spa and sauna facilities in the same space. It has to be privately booked and can be used by a group of up to eight people at a time for an hour or two, at a price. We only discovered it yesterday and somehow I doubt I will use it but Annie might with some of the other women before we leave the ship.
There also is a ship’s store, a fancy smaller dining room, several smaller conference rooms and lounges which serve as classroom spaces during our time on the ship, and a salon and massage parlor. The last two are carryovers from the Deutschland that would be too difficult to repurpose for our voyages, so they leave them open and they do get used. I need a haircut badly, and will get one in about another week which hopefully will last until we hit San Diego.
Our stateroom is the state of the art for this ship. It has a separate reading and sitting area as well as a bedroom and our windows do open.
Here is a more conventional stateroom on our deck with an outside view.
And one on the inside with no windows, but good space.
I am not showing the smaller rooms that the students typically would be doubled up in on the lower decks. Anyone reading this probably would not be looking for one of these rooms, although we do know some LLLs who have taken rooms on the lower decks to minimize the cost of the voyage.
So now you should have a better sense of shipboard life and the mission of SAS, and the only thing that I want to add right now, since you can’t imagine it from what I have been writing, is that internet on the ship is really, really bad, to the point where it is impossible to download pictures unless I am in a port at a place with good WiFi. That is the reason why these posts are not more regularly spaced. I can only get something done on days when we are in port and I am not otherwise occupied with some kind of program. It is frustrating, but if you all can put up with it, I can.
The next few days are full of activity on the ship. The day that we cross the equator traditionally is a day of celebration, and that happens on the 4th. I will have more to write about that as it all unfolds.
In the meantime, I am typing this as we sit docked in Takoradi on our last day in Ghana, but I have no time to get into the town to download the pictures for this post, so by the time you see this we will be in Salvador, Brazil, having crossed the Atlantic. Until then…….
(Saturday October 26th) Back on the ship after six days in Morocco and there are so many things going through my head. And it’s not because we were in Chefchaouen five days ago, where much of the pot in the country is grown, illegally but right out in the open.
We were in Morocco back in 2014. In looking back on what I wrote then I am surprised at how much of it I could have written today, even though this time around we spent all our time in totally different parts of the country. Since only a few of you read what I wrote then, I am going to interpolate a bit starting from the 2014 introduction, then bring things back to the present.
(2014:) Morocco is a strange country. It is clearly Islamic, with only traces of Christianity and Judaism to be found, and the latter more in antiquity than in current practice. It is hard to say if that is the result of persecution of other religions in the country or, in the case of the Jews at least, just their desire to emigrate to Israel when it was founded or to America. Whatever the reason, what was once a thriving Jewish community that was protected by the monarchy has all but disappeared.
What makes Morocco strange, though, is that despite the Islamic presence (Islam is the official state religion and 99% of the population practices it), it functions in so many ways like a European country more than an Arab one. Perhaps that is to some extent because at least the northern part of the country looks more like Spain than Africa, and because large parts of the cities have a distinctly European feel to them, with great broad boulevards and monumental stone buildings evoking Paris even though the architecture could not be more different from the French empire construction of that city. (This was written after visiting Casablanca, the largest city in the country but one removed from the Mediterranean. On this year’s visit, we headed north to the Barbary Coast and the city of Tangier, which is even more evocative of southern Europe than Casablanca. Lots more about that later.)
Another thing that sets Morocco apart from its neighbors is its politics and government. Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with roots that go back centuries, with a king who does seem to have real power but in many ways is a ceremonial presence. While it is Islamic, at least in the areas we visited (both in 2014 and this year) it shows no signs of fundamentalism.
I suspect that the main reason for this is that the largest ethnic group in the country, representing about 70% of the population, is the Berbers, who originally were nomadic (some still are, but most have settled and those in the cities today are proud of their Berber roots) and they are largely sectarian. We did see some older women who covered their heads and a few (but only a few) who covered their faces, but most women wore western dress, usually jeans or slacks. Most men also wore western dress, mainly jeans, while a significant minority do still wear traditional dress.
The fundamentalism that swept through the Arab world in the Arab Spring a decade ago made a brief appearance in Morocco but before it could take root and before there was any real unrest it was deftly coopted by the king, who proposed sweeping reforms that the people embraced and his regime was never threatened. The south of the country, or maybe the contiguous region that some see as a separate country of Mauritania, has been claimed by Morocco, maybe because of its rich natural resources. That has been a source of unrest, and it remains an unresolved powder-keg with possible fundamentalist undertones but it’s not really on the radar of anybody in the cities of the north, anyway.
I wrote back in 2014 that Morocco was a remarkably clean country, next to Japan the cleanest we visited on that voyage. Sadly we can’t say the same after this visit. We found plastic bags everywhere in the countryside, even driving through spectacular national parks in the Rif mountains east of Tangier. On the other hand, we wrote back in 2014 that the cost of living was rather dear. Everything being relative, and with some more perspective, I guess we were coming then from a series of southeast Asian and sub-Saharan African countries where the cost of basic necessities was almost nothing, while this year our last stop was in Croatia, which is, as noted, ridiculously expensive, without the quality to justify the prices. By comparison everything in Morocco seemed to be ridiculously cheap, no more than half the price of the same things in Croatia.
The last time we were here, we were new to the country and took advantage of a couple of trips that SAS offered to visit Marrakesh, Meknes and Fes, three cities that represented the essence of the country, with a couple days in and around Casablanca and a side trip to Roman ruins at Volubilis, close by Meknes.
Casablanca is huge, at least by comparison to anywhere else in Morocco, with a population of more than 3,000,000. Like each of the other cities, it had both older and newer medinas, the quarters that make Morocco the enchanting place that it is. The older ones are labyrinths of alleys, souks and shops, and unlike the markets in Ghana or India, it is impossible to find your way out without a great guide (not sure if I would trust GPS). What sets Casablanca apart from Marrakesh and Fes is that it has evolved into the 21st century with huge glitzy hotels and enormous gated estates owned by Saudi and Kuwaiti royalty, much of it located in areas sporting California names and references. I don’t know how popular America is right now in Morocco (certainly less so than when we last were here) but if you ask a Moroccan where he wants to go, most will say America, so why not aspire to live in California, Casablanca, while you are waiting?
Marrakesh also is a large city, though small by comparison to Casablanca, entirely horizontal rather than vertical in its composition. Casablanca is, as its name indicates, a white city, with a requirement that buildings be painted or whitewashed to maintain the same look. Marrakesh, on the other hand, is a city of terra cotta. Once again, by decree as much as design. In both instances, nothing looks forced; rather it is natural and timeless. For most tourists, the one place that is do-not-miss in Morocco is Marrakech, and that is understandable. It is accessible but still as exotic as could be, and its medinas are out of another world.
Fes is another story altogether. This is the true spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco, with the most ancient medinas and souks, some dating back to the 9th century. The medinas of Morocco transport you into another time as well as another place. While many of the stalls display clothes that are modern (more so in Casablanca than Marrakech, and more so in Marrakech than in Fes), most of what you pass, whether metal work hanging from rafters or side walls, leather goods piled high and hanging from above, or huge mounds of dried fruits and nuts or large jars filled with spices, could have been in the same stalls 600 years ago and no one would have known the difference.
The tanners and leather craftsmen have operated out of the same area for a millennium. (I am not exaggerating.) The vats of dyes and the stench of the urine and other liquids used in the tanning process has pervaded the same part of the medina since the establishment of the medina 1200 years ago. And yes, that stench is something you don’t want to get too close to, though a visit to the tanners in Fes is essential if you visit that city. The tanners were the first souk we visited in the medina. We also went through a ceramics souk, watching craftsmen making everything from clay tagines to mosaic panels to carved stucco ornamentation. What was most striking was how effortless the process was for the craftsmen and women we saw working, and how uniformly intricate and consistent their work was. We also visited weavers and metalworkers. The medinas are laid out so that most of the carpet sellers are in the same general area, same with the metal artisans, the leather crafts, the ceramics and so on.
For a tourist it is all bewildering, and you have to be nuts to try to figure out one of the medinas without a guide, at least the first time through. Only a native can sort out all the blind alleys and unmarked turns of these medinas. There are no signs to fall back on. The alleys twist and turn. There are only short stretches where you can see as far as 30 feet ahead at any point. There is only limited light because the passages are so narrow and in many areas there are either lattice canopies or the buildings are multistory so there is little or no light filtering down to the ground level. I don’t want to make this seem claustrophobic or uncomfortable. It isn’t. It is really just the opposite, exotic and out of another world, distant and timeless. But it is easy to get lost in and impossible to find your way out if you decided to just wander in and explore.
The other thing we had trouble figuring out was how anyone could make a living in one of these souks. There had to be hundreds if not thousands of people selling dried fruit, or children’s clothing, or brass or copper pots, or slippers, or traditional dresses, or tooled leather bags or belts, or rugs. I know a lot of tourists visit these cities and bring back a lot of crafts, but it’s hard to believe that some of these vendors stuck down at the end of blind alleys far from the main passageways can get enough traffic to keep food on their families’ tables. And yet I suspect that it has been this way for centuries and somehow it works out and will for some time to come.
And then their was the food. Back in 2014 we were on these excursions for several days and the meals that were part of the experience were over the top. Based on a small sample, it seems that lunch and not dinner is the main meal in Morocco. In every case the meals were served in restaurants that were at one time private homes or more likely palaces, in each case within the medinas. You entered through passageways from entrances off unmarked alleys, walking down dark, narrow corridors. Once you reached the dining rooms, which probably were the main living rooms of the palaces in a former life, it was another world. You emerge from this narrow passage to a huge atrium, several stories high, with mosaic decoration around all the doorways and carved and painted cedar panels and stucco climbing 40 feet to the sky. There was no ceiling, rather a white canopy spread across the expanse where the roof would otherwise be. In one of these settings we were welcomed by musicians and dancers, and entertained by belly dancers through the lunch.
The meals were worthy of the settings. Each one started with an assortment of salads and cold choices, served on small plates. All the food was served family style. Typically we would have seen marinated carrots, a puréed eggplant dish, a bowl or two of various kinds of olives, shredded or diced beets, a seasoned rice, some kind of puréed squash, diced sweet potato….the list could go on and on. All this was served with fresh wheat bread in round loaves typically about eight inches across and about two inches high, absolutely delicious. You had to resist the urge to fill up on all this, which was really just a starter. Next came the main courses. Imagine a round server about 18 inches across, with some kind of meat, usually chicken or beef or lamb, on the bottom, covered by a mound of couscous about a foot high, covered in turn by an array of what I assume were vegetables baked in a tajine, including cabbage strips, carrots, turnips and zucchini. All this for a table of six to eight people. It was so much food that all we could think of as we ate was what they would do with the leftovers so they wouldn’t go to waste. One of the meals followed the couscous dish (which was either beef or lamb) with another totally superfluous but excellent chicken tajine. The only sane touch was that each meal ended with a serving of local fruit, usually oranges, which might have come from trees we saw even in the center of the cities.
So these were our memories of Morocco from 2014, and so you can understand why we were so looking forward to setting foot in this special land again. This time, though, we wanted to experience a completely different sort of Morocco. Rather than heading into the center of the country where the cities were that we had visited before, or further out to the High or Middle Atlas Mountains, where the Berbers still follow the nomadic existence that they have maintained for a millennium , we wanted to see Tangier, that part of the country that has been the port of entry fought over for 3000 years by the Greeks then the Phoenicians then the Romans then the Vandals then the Moors then the Portuguese, who gave the land to the British, who then lost it to a Moroccan dynasty that kept control for several centuries only to then lose it to the Spanish and the French and, for the first half of the 20th century, a city controlled by literally everyone and no one, an international zone with sectors controlled by the French, Spanish, Americans, British, Swedes, Belgians, Dutch, Italians and Portuguese, all ostensibly under the control of the Sultan of Morocco. Given its strategic location, literally a couple miles across the straits from Gibraltar and at the intersection of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, everyone had to have an interest in it.
Because it was divided up into so many pieces, though, no one had any control over it and it became in real life what was portrayed as Casablanca in the movies, a place where anything goes. Through the 20s and into the 40s, Tangier was the place where foreign agents plied their trade, shady money found a home, artists and writers like Henri Matisse (okay, he was earlier, but he was here), William Burroughs and Tennessee Williams hung out, and it was okay to be openly gay. Eventually the growing lawlessness of the place led to a spiraling decline that lasted until almost the end of the century. Today, while the old city is preserved and retains its unique charms, a modern, cosmopolitan city has sprung up all around it, with palaces overlooking the Mediterranean owned by all the usual Gulf suspects and the wealth is palpable. Again, given the location, Tangier’s rebirth as a haven for the rich and famous was kind of inevitable.
Now, we weren’t the first Americans to discover this crazy place. The first country to recognize the new United States shortly after it declared independence was Morocco, I guess during one of those rare periods when it was locally ruled, and the palace that was the original American Legation, dating back to the early 1800s, was one of the places we visited while we were there. Samuel Clemens, in his first great work, The Innocents Abroad, written in 1867, wrote about Tangier
“Elsewhere we have found foreign looking things and foreign looking people, but always with things and people intermixed that we were familiar with before, and so the novelty of the situation lost a deal of its force. We wanted something thoroughly and uncompromisingly foreign – foreign from top to bottom – foreign from center to circumference – foreign inside and outside and all around – nothing anywhere about it to dilute its foreignness – nothing to remind us of any other people or any other land under the sun. And lo! In Tangier we have found it. Here is not the slightest thing that ever we have seen save in pictures – and we have always mistrusted the pictures before. We cannot anymore. The pictures used to seem exaggerations – they seemed too weird and fanciful for reality. But behold, they were not wild enough – they were not fanciful enough – they have not told half the story……Here is a packed and jammed city enclosed in a massive stone wall which is more than a thousand years old.”
And yet, in the next chapter of the book (which was written as a subscription serial, so it probably appeared a week or two later than the first chapter about Tangier), Clemens wrote
“Tangier is full of interest for one day, but after that it is a weary prison. The Consul General has been here for five years, and has got enough of it to do him for a century….It is the completest exile that I can conceive of. I would seriously recommend to the government of the United States that when a man commits a crime so heinous that the law provides no adequate punishment for it, they make him Consul General to Tangier.” Strong words, eh?
Of course a lot has changed in Tangier in the century and a half since Clemens wrote those words, and we were curious to see just what this city had to offer.
So enough background.
We had booked a hotel in Tangier months before we boarded the ship, and we were in touch with guides a few weeks before we landed in Casablanca. We knew from our experiences in other Moroccan cities that it would be bewildering to get off the train and try to figure it all out ourselves, and we also knew that, with limited time and a lot of things we wanted to do, we would get a lot more in and a lot more out of it if we had someone who knew their way around to show us the way. We checked out the best local guides on Trip Advisor and made contact with a couple of them, then settled on Aziz, who was available the whole time we would be in the city. We’ve never used a local guide anywhere before, just doing the walking tours and latching onto group tours when needed. Here, with some visits to other nearby towns on the agenda, we figured it made sense to plan with someone who would know what made sense and what didn’t. With Aziz in place, that part of the puzzle was set.
Morocco has a first class high speed train network that doesn’t cover all the country (yet) but has opened up between the major cities of the northwest including Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakesh and Tangier, so getting to Tangier
was a no brainer. The train was just as advertised. Too bad we can’t get trains like this in America.
And then Annie’s implant started acting up. We were about five days out of Casablanca when she noticed that it was getting loose and painful, and she went to the ship’s doctor to try to line up an oral surgeon to visit in Casablanca once we arrived there. Five days turned into four, then three and two, and still no word back from the insurance company handling all medical issues for the voyage, and at this point the doc said that we should try to find someone ourselves since the insurer didn’t see this as life-threatening so it wasn’t making it a priority.
One day out of Casablanca, we’re trying to figure if we’re staying in Casablanca to find a surgeon or taking our chances on finding one in Tangier. We wrote to the hotel and to Aziz, asking for help locating a competent surgeon. Miraculously, one of Aziz’s guys found someone who could see us hours after our train was to arrive in Tangier. We get to the hotel, drop off our things and the guide meets us to take us not to see the sights, but instead to take us to see the oral surgeon.
Now, healthcare, like trains, in Morocco is not like what we are used to in America. In Morocco, the trains run on time, they are clean, and they are fast. The dentistry is done at soup-to-nuts practices where everything from drilling cavities and cleanings to implants and crowns are done under one roof. The one we visited was a large, modern facility with a comfortable waiting room and a lot of dentists and technicians scurrying around, and Annie was taken right in to see the surgeon, a middle aged woman who seemed sharp and friendly. She did an exam, took x-rays to confirm her diagnosis, which was that the implant had failed and had to be removed, then extracted the implant and sent us on our way (with the original implant in a baggie) all within about an hour. Oh, and at an out-of-pocket cost, which was the full cost because we had no insurance and weren’t part of any government health program, of $40. (You read that right. I am resisting the urge to write more but I don’t think it is necessary, is it?)
So now the decks were cleared, and we could plan our almost-a-week in and around Tangier, and we met with Aziz shortly after seeing the surgeon to figure out a plan for the next five days.
Most of the guidebooks do say that a day or so in Tangier is all you need. We like to steep ourselves in exotic cities, so we figured a little more time would not be a bad thing. We met Aziz on one of the main boulevards in the center of the city, meaning the newer part of the city center. Annie was a bit puffed up around the gills, but otherwise fine, so we set out walking with Aziz to get our bearings and a sense of how the city laid out.
If you think about Gibraltar and the southern coast of Spain, and then realize that geologically this part of Morocco was part of a land mass that separated from Southern Europe eons ago, you can appreciate that on both sides of the Mediterranean by the straits much of what you see is steep vertical drops rather than gentle beaches. The old city of Tangier, meaning the medina and the Kasbah, was very much in this mold. There is the harbor, some of which has to be man-made, then winding alleys and narrow streets running vertically up a steep hill before you get to the level expanse of the newer part of the center of the city. There are parks and other viewpoints along the ridge once you get to where things level out, the main one being where the cannons protecting the harbor sit where they were originally placed centuries ago, and from there you can see the whole old city opening out below you, between that boulevard and the sea.
Another thing about Tangier. It is not very tourist friendly. That is not to imply that the people aren’t friendly. We didn’t meet anyone who wasn’t friendly, even if they couldn’t understand a word we were saying. It’s just that the city hasn’t figured out yet what good tourists might do to the local economy. There is a tourist information office (I think there is just one in the city) that is down the street from the Cafe de Paris (see below). It is never open. Like never. I asked someone at the train station where I could get tourist information, like maybe a map, and after a smile and a laugh, was told that I should go to the tourist information office, then cross the street and go into the two star hotel there and ask them for a tourist map. Which is what we did. Apparently this happens all the time. The people at the desk at the hotel knew why we were there even before we asked, and they couldn’t have been nicer about it. But I digress again. Sorry.
Aziz showed us some of the landmarks along the boulevard, including the Cafe de Paris, which was one center of the intellectual life of the city in the 20s and 30s when operating as an openly gay cafe was perfectly normal and your tables might have had Burroughs or Jean Genet or Paul Bowles sipping a cognac and smoking a cigarette while working on his latest project. Not surprisingly, given that Morocco is officially a conservative Islamic country with 99% of the country Muslim, it is against the law to be gay in Morocco today, but also not surprisingly, at places like the Cafe de Paris, which has continued to operate through all the changes of the past century, things haven’t really changed much and the cafe, as well as many of its neighbors, are the center of what everyone in Tangier knows is a flourishing gay community.
Right around the corner from the Cafe is Tangier’s grand hotel, El Minzah, built in the early ‘30s when the city was a world center of sex, drugs, spies, shady business dealings and other intrigue. If Tangier was the real world equivalent of Hollywood’s evocation of Casablanca, El Minzah, or at least the piano bar and lounge area surrounding it on the main floor, is Rick’s Cafe, only with a different pianist than Sam. When Aziz walked us through the lobby and the public rooms the walls were covered with photos of the celebrities who had spent time there over the years. It was a blur, and most of them were from the continent, not the States, but I do remember Aristotle Onassis and Timothy Dalton at the time he was Bond, James Bond. (Of course Aziz pointed out all the celebs he had escorted around the city. A guide is a guide is a guide, after all.) If and when we ever get back to Tangier, a night at El Minzah is high on the list.
The great thing about El Minzah is that it is located just outside the Grand Sacco, which is the square from which you enter the Kasbah. The Kasbah is inside the walls, and inside the walls, as in Marrakech and Fez, is to say inside the old city. But the time we got to El Minzah that first night it was dark, most of the stalls in the medina were shut down for the night, and we still needed to sit down with Aziz to plan the week, so we went to another cafe with light food and a view overlooking the medina and had a bite to eat and the national drink in Morocco, mint tea.
I for one don’t see the attraction to mint tea. First of all, the Moroccans drink it very strong – it is the mint flavor that is so strong – and it is not sweet enough to overcome the aftertaste of the mint. We had it a few times at various different places, including the hotel and some restaurants, so it wasn’t the way the tea was served. It’s just an acquired taste, and it’s one we haven’t acquired. When you’re in Morocco, by all means try some (you might like it, and in any event you ought to try it) but be forewarned.
We sorted things out with Aziz and returned to the hotel, where Aziz insisted his driver would pick us up in the morning. The hotel turned out to be an apartment hotel about 15 minutes east of the center of the city and along the coast, with lots of families staying there because there was a small amusement park a short drive away. We had enough room for three families in our apartment, and when we saw the size of most of the families at the buffet breakfast the next morning we understood why there were so many beds and couches. The hotel was called the Mnar Castle, named after a ruin overlooking the Mediterranean Sea just across the street and down a hill from the hotel. It could have been an active fort during the time of the Barbary pirates, but now it was an abandoned ruin.
Breakfast at the Mnar Castle was something to behold. The buffet had to extend about 60 feet, with (from the left) pastries and cakes taking up the first 25 feet, cold Moroccan baked savory items covering the next 20 or so feet, hot dishes, including eggs, taking over the next section, then that wonderful Moroccan bread in the round loaves. There also was a table with half a dozen different fruit juices and a refrigerated case with flans and other custards, as well as coffee and teas prepared to order. It was overwhelming just to encounter it each day. The breakfast room had large tables, which it needed for some of the families that we saw there. This had to be a destination vacation spot for Moroccans with small children as well as for tourists like us, as the room had lots of families with four or five children running around, gaggles of Chinese tour groups and the occasional independent tourist like us.
After breakfast we were fortified for whatever the day could bring us and out we went to meet Abdul, Aziz’s driver, who took us into the city where we met Aziz right around the Cafe de Paris, which seemed to be the place where everything intersected in Tangier. Actually it is so close to the entrance to the Kasbah, a close walk to the Grand Socco, the plaza where the old and new parts of the city intersect. We wanted to see how the Kasbah and the medina compared to what we remembered from Marrakesh and Fez, knowing that we had set the bar almost impossibly high.
Before we entered the Kasbah we stopped at an Anglican church near the Grand Socco built by the Sultan for the British in the late 19th century, St Andrews. It is a modest church, but it is still functioning after a fashion. After all there are almost no Christians left in Morocco. One of the most interesting things about the church was the graveyard outside, where there were the tombstones of about a dozen British soldiers who had died in Morocco during the Second World War. The stones are particularly poignant in that the graves below them are those of flight crews downed in the Mediterranean who are buried in rows with the stones touching one another, crew by crew.
So into the Kasbah we go, and right into the oldest part of the medina, the food markets. First you pass a lot of produce vendors, some with fruit, some vegetables, some just mounds and mounds of olives. We had no idea that olives grow wild all over the northern parts of Morocco, though it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. The climate is perfect, and the soil really isn’t much different from that around the rest of the Mediterranean. The surprise was in seeing so many groves of small olive trees growing wild as we drove around. Olives are pervasive in all the Mediterranean cuisines, and Moroccan cuisine is no different from Greek, or Turkish, or Italian or Spanish in that regard.
After the produce vendors come the meats. Here you get it all. Heads, feet, stomach, brains, the works. Sometimes the heads are skinned, sometimes the eyes just stare back at you. Lots of goats, lots of sheep, lots of parts of cow. Not much time or effort spent on presentation. Get the carcasses , get them carved up, get them out of the stalls, get the next ones in. Time is everything, since these carcasses and parts are all just hanging around, and it is not cold in here, and time is passing, and you can guess what that means as the day passes on. I wouldn’t want to buy a lamb by mid-afternoon. Enough said.
And now on to the fish. As you might expect, the fish market is huge, and it is hopping. At least here everything is on ice, at least through the main part of the day. This market really operates under the clock. It shuts down as the ice melts. Each time we went through these markets we walked out the same way we came in, since the far end of the fish market looks totally inaccessible to anybody who isn’t a fisherman or a fishmonger.
Once you come out of the market if you turn to your right everything slopes down, the alleys get narrower, the crafts get more defined. The jewelers seem to go on forever, on the Main Street as well as down a bunch of side alleys. Other than the jewelers, though, there aren’t the same well defined souks here as there are in Fes, where all the leather crafts are close together. There is a jumble of booths and stores selling basketball shoes, and sports caps, and luggage, and men’s suits, and tourists’ tchotchkes, and breads, and mint tea, and watches, lots and lots of watches. I can’t vouch for whether or not they are genuine Rolexes, but they are there for you to check out.
As you walk down the main alleys you notice that you can recognize some of the routes you’re taking, certainly much more than you can do in Fes or in Marrakech, and you know that once you get a bit further you will be at the main plaza of the older part of the medina, the Petit Socco. As you come out onto the Petit Socco there are cafes with outdoor seating – only outdoor seating it seems – in three directions. One of these has a plate in the ground at the entrance that says “1813” and yes, it has been there, serving mint tea, and before the British other teas, since at least that date. The others are juveniles by comparison, but still venerable by our standards. We sat down at the oldest of the cafes for coffee and tea one night and watched the passing parade through the plaza. By this time we had been in the city for a few days and the scene at the Petit Socco seemed perfectly normal. For the locals, nothing special going on. For us, on the other hand, it was very special.
Before we left the old medina, we checked out the Kasbah Museum. For such a history-rich city, Tangier has a real dearth of museums of any kind. Kind of goes along with the way the city ignores tourists. Anyway, this is one museum – not too big to take in in one bite, but enough to satisfy – that is worth a visit. The museum is situated in the former palace of the sultan, so even the site itself is worth checking out. The focus of the collections, though, is the history and prehistory of the region and the city, and some of the pieces are spectacular. In particular, there is a floor mosaic from the Roman ruins at Volubilis and a medieval wall map of the then-known world.
The rest of day two was spent driving around the newer part of the city and it was forgettable. Again, a tour guide is a tour guide, and Aziz had to show us the palaces and compounds built along the Mediterranean by kings and masters of the universe since the city became relevant again around the turn of the last century. And yes, he also had to tell us which of these A-list celebrities he had escorted around the city. As I wrote, very forgettable.
Day three was a break from Aziz and Morocco. 36 years ago when Annie and I were on our honeymoon in Spain, not far from the straits, we didn’t have time to get over to Gibraltar. This was an opportunity to rectify that omission, and to do it in a different way, by taking the ferry across the straits from Tangier to the Spanish town of Tarifa, where Annie coincidentally had had a field trip to go whale watching just a week earlier (there were no whales spotted). From Tarifa, we took a bus to Algeciras and then, because we had no Euros to pay for a bus the rest of the way, we had to take a taxi to Gibraltar. All this took about three hours from the time we left the hotel, maybe a little more than we had bargained for, but still, it is Gibraltar, right?
So we get to Gibraltar and of course Britain is still part of the EU but not really, so we had to go through passport control, which is still a thing, believe it or not. We still had no money, but we did have a credit card and a debit card, and the unquenchable faith that we would find a cash machine somewhere on the rock before we had to find the bus to get back to Algeciras.
We walked from the border station, disappointed that on the Gibraltar side they didn’t stamp our passports, down a long sidewalk bordering the one highway into Gibraltar, passing the one and only supermarket, and the football stadium, and yes, the airstrip that the Brits use to bring their planes directly onto the rock. Those planes have to make a sharp turn left as soon as they leave the ground so they don’t invade Spanish airspace. So much for the EU, right? We saw one plane on the ground when we walked toward the town and two there when we walked back out several hours later. Certainly didn’t notice any planes taking off or landing while we were there, and the one we saw on the ground was not a Piper Cherokee. It was either a commercial flight or a British military plane, but either way it had to be at least 40 seats. How it landed without us noticing it I don’t know.
A few more minutes and we were in the town. And what a town. Think of the Atlantic City boardwalk back in the ‘60s, or Branson Missouri or heck, Split today. Actually no. Those places have some sense of history to go with their souvenir shops. Gibraltar looks like it was thrown together in a week to capture the tourist trade. There is the rock. Can’t take that away from it. But the shops. Oh, the shops. They are all the same. Or at least almost all. The tipping point, though, is not the shops on Main Street (yes, it is called Main Street). The tipping point is the unbelievable and unbelievably ugly condominium construction all around the rock. I don’t think I have ever seen uglier construction anywhere in the world. These are garish glass and colored panel construction units that pile on top of one another in all directions, seemingly without any plan or any thought. It is truly unbelievable. If you want to see the rock, go. But be prepared to be disappointed with everything else around it. It is not worth the effort.
Having written all that, though, I have to confess that the fish and chips lunch we had on the main plaza off Main Street was as good as I’ve eaten in years, and the Guinness was draft and had the right consistency, which you can’t say about Guinness, even draft Guinness, anywhere else but in the British Isles. I also have to confess that as we walked around the town, I noticed a shop selling British biscuits, so I had to check it out. You see, I’ve been addicted to all-butter Scottish shortbread fingers since first visiting London back in 1973, and no visit to Britain is complete without stocking up and bringing back as many packages of it as I can fit in my bags. Well, this shop had some McVitie’s shortbread fingers, so this made the entire visit worthwhile and then some. But wait. There’s more. The best shortbread is actually a store brand, sold by Marks & Spencer, a venerable department store with a first class food court in most of its locations. And two blocks down from where I got the McVitie’s there was a …..Marks & Spencer! With a food court! With shortbread fingers! I was beside myself! This was getting better and better! So maybe if you’re in southern Spain within spitting distance of Gibraltar you might want to make a detour and pick some more up for me. I’ll pay you back. Promise I will.
Maybe even in Pounds. Or Euros. We did find an ATM once we got to the town, which dispensed only Pounds. This was a problem in itself, since we needed the Pounds for lunch and souvenirs and the shortbread, but we needed Euros to pay for the bus tickets back to Algeciras. The solution: Use the ATM to get enough Pounds to cover what we needed and enough extra to take to the local currency exchange to convert into Euros. Kind of a pain but still easier than it used to be before there were Euros, right?
Another aside. Forgive me. The impact on Gibraltar of Brexit is kind of interesting. The population of Gibraltar is rather small. The number of condos is huge, most owned by British expats who spend time at the rock from time to time but aren’t a permanent presence. Most of the people at the rock are the tourists, truth be told. The retail activity, with all the tourists, is huge for the size of the population. The number of restaurants, cafes and bars is really high, and each of these needs a lot of unskilled labor. The cost of living is that of the UK, not that of southern Spain, so you’re not going to get locals to fill all those spots. So how to square this circle?
The answer is found on the other side of the border. The town of La Ligna is essentially the servicing area for Gibraltar, walking or at least easy driving distance continuing on the same road that empties out at the border. La Ligna wouldn’t exist but for a few small homes without Gibraltar, and there is a real question what happens to the people who have moved there to be close to their jobs if the border really closes as a result of Brexit. The residents of the rock are citizens of the UK, so they have a vote in what is going on back at home. Apparently 97% of those who voted came out against Brexit. Big surprise, right?
Anyway, La Ligna is where the fast food places are – there are a McDonalds and a Burger King right across the street on the Spanish side as you come out of customs – and it also has its share of even more basic touristy stuff for sale. It also has a real bus station, and that is where we headed, now that we had our Euros. After two bus rides and another jaunt on the ferry, we were back in Tangier, ladened down with shortbread for me and other assorted souvenirs for our extended family.
When we met with Aziz we decided that we should do Gibraltar early in the week if the weather was good and then plan the rest day by day. It was now Thursday evening. We were halfway through our stay in Tangier, and our plan was to go to a small town in the mountains, Chefchaouen, on Friday, then a city near Tangier called Tétouan on Saturday before taking the train back to Casablanca Sunday midday.
Chefchaouen is a really interesting place. It is kind of like the Sedona of Morocco. It is up in the mountains, with a settled population of mainly Berbers who have been there for generations. It also is the center for hemp production in Morocco. Now, of course pot is illegal in Morocco, but if there is anything we’ve learned about Morocco, during this visit and the last, and even through the film Casablanca, it is that as long as you don’t broadcast that you are doing something that is verboten everyone will look the other way and just go about their business. (Rick: Louie, you can’t shut me down. On what charges? Louie: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here. Croupier to Louie: What would you like me to do with your winnings, Chief Inspector? [OK, maybe I got a few of the words wrong, but this is from memory….])
The attraction of Chefchaouen, aside from the spectacularly beautiful drive there through the Rif mountain range, is that so much of the town has been washed a medium blue color that it is known as The Blue City (a stretch because it is REALLY small). We planned a day trip there, which was our first mistake. If we had read the guide books, this is a place, like Sedona, where just relaxing and soaking it all in is what makes it so special. There is a medina, and there is a Kasbah, but there is no chance you could get lost in either one of them. You could, however, spend a wonderful evening sitting in the plaza of the Kasbah enjoying the music, the food and the atmosphere.
None of which we did, unfortunately. It took us about 2-1/2 hours to drive to The Blue City, almost all of it up the main road through the Rif, where we passed sheep, and goats, and cattle, and the occasional camel or donkey, and lots of dogs. These were on the sides of the road, but they also frequently were crossing the road just in front of us. The road is not that heavily traveled, going through a time zone of mountains and valleys and at least one national park, but it seemed that most of the vehicles that were on the road were construction vehicles of one kind or another. Dump truck after dump truck. All fully loaded of course. And this on a winding road with one narrow lane going in each direction, no shoulders at all in most places, and an immediate drop-off in most places of at least a foot where a shoulder should have been. These roads were nerve wracking. Our driver, Abdul, drove as all Moroccans do. The median line at the center of the road, as far as he was concerned, did not exist. Even going around blind curves. Annie was a wreck by the time we got there and I’m not sure if he used his lack of English as an excuse to ignore her pleas to stay on his side of the road. We also passed dozens of police checkpoints around the country not just on this journey but each time we drove. Whether they were looking for drugs or for something more sinister I don’t know.
But eventually we did get to Chefchaouen . Abdul deposits us with the local guide that Aziz arranged for us, which was not really necessary once we surveyed the size of the town. Worse, the guide, one of two officially licensed guides in the country who were women, as she proudly told us, was sick as a dog, coughing and sneezing constantly, then reassuring us that all was fine by grabbing our arms or hands and shaking them vigorously.
Amina walked us through what passed for a medina – this took about an hour, of which much of the time we spent talking about how hard things were for her because she was unmarried and only wanted to be a guide, and her mother was very demanding, and her siblings were all professionals. We commiserated as best we could, then took Amina to lunch at one of the local places that had been recommended in the guidebook, which wasn’t hard to find given the size of the town. It was a nice lunch, in a nice setting, and after we finished Amina announced that she was done and was taking us back to the driver. We thought we had an afternoon ahead of us, but no. At this point we hadn’t even set foot in the Kasbah, such as it was, nor in the newer part of the town, which looked interesting from a distance – we had driven through it coming up to the older part of town where we met Amina. I insisted that we wanted to walk through the central plaza of the Kasbah, which at least we did, then gave up the ghost and followed Amina back to Abdul, who was waiting with his own plans for how to stretch out the torture.
Abdul decided that we had to see the more scenic route back through the mountains to get back to Tangier. So that was what we did. What was 2-1/2 hours on the way out turned into 3-1/2 hours on the way back. Was it a beautiful drive? Damn right. Was I in any mood to enjoy it? Heck no. The best part about that drive was the herds of goats and the camels and donkeys. By this time I had seen enough of sheep and cattle.
(When we got back to the ship we found a bunch of people, kids and LLLs and faculty alike, who had done a three day trip to Fes and Chefchaouan that included an overnight at Chefchaouan that they all said was magical. They said the plaza at the Kasbah came to life after dark, a far cry from what we had seen midday. It didn’t help that we were there on the sabbath when no one was around in this religious town and their visit was overnight on a normal day. It also didn’t help that we had the wrong guide, while theirs was apparently just great.)
Thus ended our experiment with hiring a private guide, something we have never done before, and probably never will do again. We would have been much better served if we had had the hotel recommend a group tour up to Chefchaouen where we would have had some people to interact with rather than just the goats and Abdul. On the way back I called Aziz, or at least I thought the number was his – it turned out to be the phone number for his associate who had scheduled the oral surgeon – and I told him that we needed to see Aziz to talk about the rest of the week. After 12 hours of driving around between Gibraltar and Chefchaouen we weren’t about to head back out on the road to visit Tétouan on our last day in the country.
Abdul took us to meet Aziz, who asked us about the guide and the day, which was the wrong way to begin, and we told him that we could navigate our way around Tangier ourselves on our last day, so we settled up with him and walked down to the Petit Socco, found a place at one of the cafes and let the scene and the tea take the stress out.
Saturday was our last day in Tangier, and it was great. We took the hotel’s shuttle to the entrance to the medina by the promenade by the sea and we walked. We walked up the hill to the Grand Socco and just walked and walked. By now we had an idea where we were, and what we wanted to see before our time ran out. High on the list was a bookstore called Librarie des Colonnes which was the haunt of the likes of Paul Bowles, Jean Genet, Samuel Becket and William Burroughs. The sign on the door listing hours showed that the store was open, but the handwritten sign on the door just below it said “FERME”. Not a good start.
We started to wind our way through the alleys of the Medina and stumbled upon Theatre Cervantes, a 1913 Art Deco gem that is essentially an abandoned wreck that the Moroccan and Spanish governments have been fighting over for decades as to who should pay for its restoration, while meanwhile nothing gets done. I had seen something about it and while I didn’t expect to get to it on this visit it was in the back of my mind. The website where I read about it said that it was closed, but on occasion, with a week’s advance notice and the right requests to the right people, you might be able to get inside to imagine what it once looked like.
This time we were in luck. There is a chain link fence around the building, with a padlocked gate, and inside we could see a side door that was slightly open and a guy, probably a caretaker, standing there smoking a cigarette. We got his attention, he came over, we explained that we really, really wanted to enter the theater and see the interior, and damned if he didn’t unlock the padlock on the gate, pull out a weak flashlight and bring us inside.
This place was awesome. God only knows how long ago it was closed and abandoned, and it showed the effects of time, vermin and the elements. Annie and I both turned on the flashlights on our phones but it was like spitting into the ocean. The light was so weak and the incredible and terribly damaged ceiling was so far above us that the light died long before it could reflect off of anything. But even this couldn’t diminish the impression you had looking at this palace from another time. After a time, we thought we should let the caretaker get back to his life, and we thanked him profusely and tipped him generously for this gift, and we were on our way again.
This time we had a real destination – the Tangier American Legation Museum. You would think this would be of limited interest to visitors, but, as I wrote, there are not a lot of good museums in Tangier, and this one happens to be really good. You will find such oddities as a letter from George Washington to the Sultan thanking him for Morocco’s support, maps showing Morocco over the centuries, rooms filled with World War Two memorabilia – remember that Roosevelt and Churchill spent time in the country planning the invasion of Europe – and some excellent artwork. There also is a fascinating diorama donated by the Forbes family showing a major battle between the Moroccans and one of the myriad invaders that they had to deal with over the centuries. There also were some original pieces from the time of Lincoln’s assassination that seemed right out of a time capsule. It was a fascinating view of America as seen from halfway around the world at a long distant time. So now we were two for three and continued our walk around the medina.
At this point we are walking through the souks, and in particular going through the jewelers’ area, and I realized that we are at Rue des Synagogues, which you might guess is where the Jewish quarter was in Tangier while there still was a Jewish quarter in the city. So more than half a century ago at least. Looking around, we saw another of the museums that the guidebook said not to miss, Musee de la Fondation Lorin, which is housed in one of the old synagogues that used to be all around this part of the city. Most are gone, and this one probably would have been if not rescued and turned into this museum. It houses Jewish ephemera from Tangier’s past, and also what the guidebook says is an outstanding collection of black and white photos of 19th and 20th century Tangier, so another time capsule. Unfortunately this time the guidebook was correct. It said that the museum was closed on Saturdays, the Jewish sabbath, and it was. This was disappointing.
So now we are two for four with no other landmarks or museums to search for, but we still had hours to wander around the medina, the souks and the cafes, and we knew where we were, where the shuttle bus would pick us up, and, most importantly, where the best concentration of gelaterias was along the boulevard fronting out on the sea.
First it was time for a late lunch, which we had at a small restaurant in a corner of the medina. This one also was recommended in the guidebook, and it was just right, not too fancy or stuffy, and the food was good, even if the waiter misunderstood what kind of tajine I wanted and brought me something else entirely. It was a lamb kofta tajine, meaning minced lamb in small balls in a typical garlic based sauce with olives and onions. I usually don’t order ground or minced meats, but this had a great texture and flavor. Annie had had enough of Moroccan tajines, and had a lasagna instead. Funny, but even in traditional restaurants in Morocco the menus typically have at least some Italian pasta options and often a bunch of pizzas too.
After lunch we walked along the boulevard to one of the gelato places that we had seen but not sampled before. We were spoiled by this time. We had had great gelato in Poland, in Portugal, in Spain and in Croatia, and we didn’t have high expectations for Morocco and, let’s face it, no expectations for decent gelato once we get to Ghana, so we figured we should take this last opportunity before we headed out of town. We also had the consolation of knowing that we had burned off the calories just walking down to the gelateria and back to the medina, so we ate our gelato without any guilt. Not that that would have mattered anyway. It was good.
A little more time in the medina, a couple more passes through the Petit Socco, and a wave to the cafes surrounding it, and we were ready to call it a day.
There was a restaurant across the street from the hotel that had some great views of the Mediterranean and good reviews for its food, and that seemed like the ticket since we still needed to pack and get out early for the train back to Casablanca. The dinner was just fine, and we had a good connection for a marathon phone call with Callie, who we had not spoken with in a couple weeks. Just as we were finishing up, the heavens burst and the restaurant went into overdrive. They had had all their doors open out to the terrace overlooking the sea, and all of a sudden the whole staff, from the owners to the busboys and waiters and chef were frantically closing and locking down the doors and wiping down the floors in all directions. We naturally had not thought to bring umbrellas or hats or even jackets, so we were in bad shape.
We decided at first to wait it out, and I argued that we were just a few hundred yards from our apartment so how wet could we get, but Annie wasn’t having any of it. She had the bright idea (really) that we could call the hotel and ask them to send the shuttle across to the parking lot of the restaurant to pick us up, so we called them and they said it was fine, they would be right there. After a couple minutes we got a call that they were outside and we went out expecting the worst. Not a drop. It was one quick shower and it had ended. Did we feel foolish.
The next morning we settled up with the hotel, finding that they had overcharged us when we came in, for which they were incredibly apologetic, and about which we had not a clue. Apparently they had charged us their posted rate, while we had booked at a special online rate. The difference covered all our extra charges, with a credit back on our card for the balance. That was a nice way to depart Tangier.
The train ride back to Casablanca was uneventful with one exception. There were two guys sitting a row behind us and across the aisle, one of whom was clearly American and the other, probably a business associate, probably Moroccan. The American was pontificating about the state of the world in a voice so loud you couldn’t help but hear every word he had to say, which I was happy to ignore until he suddenly veered off on a rant about how the problem with America was that the Jews controlled everything and the Mexicans were flooding across the border and – I kid you not – were spoiling the genetic lines in the country. He went on about pure bloodlines – this was something out of 1934 Germany – at which point I had had enough. I turned around, got his attention, and said in a loud but not threatening voice “You. Don’t. Have. A. Clue.” Simultaneously Annie caught the eye of the other guy and made a motion with her hands like the first guy was nuts, and the other guy made eye contact with Annie, nodded and made a circular motion around his ear to indicate that he agreed with her. The first guy continued his diatribe, albeit at a lower decibel level, and fortunately the two of them got off the train at Rabat, so we didn’t have to deal with them the second hour of the ride. It was unfortunate that this was our last memory of what had up to this point been yet another wonderful visit to a magical country that we really love. And to think it was not a Moroccan who left the stench. It was the Ugly American.
(Written over the course of the last week. It is now October 14. Sorry about the references to days and weeks; assume that the early ones refer to days more than a week ago and that the later ones were just a couple days ago.)
Okay. I swear to God I didn’t write the last post (other than some edits) before we landed in Dubrovnik and immediately took a catamaran up the coast to Split. I did write it last week while I was still trying to figure out why I was having problems with the blog site and the internet. Fortunately good WiFi at our hotel here has allowed me to catch up on the posts for the past couple of weeks.
Now, Split isn’t the tourist capital of the world, and it is another smaller city that has a lot to offer. But it sure seems like it has become the tourist capital of Europe. It’s a Tuesday, it’s the middle of October (not peak season here), it happens to be one of Croatia’s three independence days (I’ll try to explain once I figure it out myself) though not the one most people celebrate so that might not account for some of the crowds on the streets and especially in Diocletian’s Palace, which is the main draw here other than just the climate and the setting generally. It is a major Chinese holiday week, and Sam correctly predicted that the city would be flooded with Chinese tour groups.
There also are tons of Brits and Canadians and of course a lot of other Americans as well as many people speaking other languages not easily identified.
Bottom line, it’s kind of a bummer when you arrive at a city that you’re not really that familiar with only to find that you must be the last ones to discover it, since everyone else in the world is already there waiting for you .
Why? I mentioned a couple of the things that have attracted people here in recent years. What I didn’t mention is that Split is kind of the heart of the Adriatic Riviera, and Europeans come here in droves because it offers much of what they could get on the French, Spanish and Italian coastlines, but at what still is a meaningful discount. And, significantly, much of Game of Thrones was filmed in both Split and Dubrovnik, and that has made a bad tourist situation so much worse. More about Split, the catamaran and Dubrovnik, where we will return to for a couple of days tomorrow, once I am back on board.
For now, let’s return to the teaser from the last post.
Croatia has only been an independent republic since the end of its war of independence in 1995, after four years of some of the ugliest ethnic cleansing on both sides since the Second World War. It is a part of what was a Balkan federation of different ethnic states held together by Marshal Tito by sheer force of personality from the end of the Second World War until his death in 1980. After his death, the Soviet Union kept the pieces in place for another decade even though Tito had managed to walk a fine line between the Eastern bloc and the non-aligned middle. With the vacuum created by his death, though, the Soviets reasserted themselves until their empire collapsed when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.
In 1991 the Croats saw an opportunity and declared their independence from the then-weakened Yugoslavia, immediately followed by Slovenia, and that started the civil war among the Balkan states that continued for about three years and was the scene of ethnic cleansing among the Croats, the Bosnians and the Serbs, with other players also getting involved to lesser degrees.
What we in the West forget is that this was just the latest chapter in ethnic warfare in the Balkans that has continued intermittently for millennia. Witness what happened during World War Two when the Nazis established a puppet government in Croatia, the Ustashi. While most of the collaborationist puppet governments set up then by the Nazis around Europe did what they were told, their unstated goal was to preserve life as formerly lived in their countries as best they could until the Nazis passed on. The Ustashi, on the other hand, with a barbarity that apparently even had senior German military leadership taken aback, took advantage of this opportunity to rapidly wipe out the Jews, gypsies and to a large degree the Serbs who lived in Croatia up to the war. The Jews and the gypsies aren’t around to bear witness, but the Serbs, now in Serbia, Croatia’s neighbor, watched the flood of Serbs coming into Serbia, heard the stories of the atrocities, and have never forgotten.
We’ve heard that about 500,000 Serbs were systematically murdered during this war. Keeping in mind that the Serbs were a minority in Croatia and that the population of Croatia today is only about 4,000,000, the loss of 500,000 must have been the great majority of the pre-war Serbian population. (I am just restating what I have been told or read recently, and I have not corroborated it, so take it for what that is worth.)
That’s the necessary background. Fast forward to today. None of the Balkan states has much of an economy other than the tourism that Croatia gets because of its location on most of the best coastline and Slovenia to the north, because it is a little more European and a little less Balkan. Croatia recognizes that its salvation is its tourism, and it promotes the heck out of it. In fairness, Split and Dubrovnik are major tourist attractions and would be wherever they were located.
I’ve mentioned that a representative of Croatia, a political functionary in the office of the mayor of Zagreb, the country’s capital city, was with us on the ship from the time we left Spain until we arrived in Dubrovnik. Dan (can’t spell or pronounce his last name) sat in on a number of classes, which were tailored to take advantage of his presence, he met with the LLLs, he gave one of the night presentations and he also participated in the pre-port orientation the night before we landed. He had a lot to say. He was asked a lot of difficult questions, particularly about the ethnic cleansing in the civil war. His presentations and his answers were revealing and illuminating, but not always in a positive way.
To begin with, whenever asked about the ethnic cleansing during the civil war, there was never any sense of an acknowledgement that at the national level a lot of indefensible things had taken place. There was never any apology for wrongdoing. We heard several times a mantra that the Croats and the Serbs were brothers and that they all were in the same boat, so they would get along because they had to. Maybe some truth to some of that, but the reflexive action over the past 100 years still has been to try to find a way to eliminate the other, rather than to figure out a way to live with him.
We heard that there had been some bad things done by both sides during the war, and that tribunals had identified those responsible and punished them. When giving his version of the civil war, Dan made the first president of Croatia, Franjo Tudman, out to be a selfless hero whose actions during the war were examined with no charges brought against him, thereby giving him a stamp of innocence. A more nuanced reading of the history leads to the conclusion that maybe for political reasons, or maybe because there wasn’t enough direct evidence against him, he was not found guilty when some others were. What is troubling is that he is being made out to be some kind of saint in Croatia when he was anything but that.
What made the on-ship discussions and presentations most striking was the presence of Marco, an incredibly articulate Serbian student on the ship, and he provided counterpoint to all that Dan was trying to sugarcoat in his presentations. I don’t know the extent to which the Serbs were at fault during the war – I guess they were the ones to blockade and bomb Dubrovnik, something that was at the center of all the presentations made by Dan, including extensive video footage of the bombing, and I also am not clear as to who was responsible for what happened to the Bosnians during this whole period – but what is clear is that the Croats crossed the line repeatedly during the war, and they have never really apologized for what they did. (Again, these are just my observations, many of which are colored by a high degree of ignorance, so if I am getting any of the history or the politics wrong I apologize.) One of the professors on the ship actually turned his class over to Dan and Marco so they could really get into it, and from what I heard it was a great discussion. Too bad that no one else on the ship – myself included – was aware it was taking place until it was over.
With that background, let’s return to Split. The catamaran from Dubrovnik was right on time and easy to access from where the ship was docked. I had no idea what the seas would be like, so I packed seasickness pills for the three of us – Annie, Sam and me. Turned out the catamaran was like riding on air, which I guess is the point of it, right? So smooth that it seemed like we were moving along on a new high-speed European train. The ride up the coast was about what we expected, and it would have been even better if it had been a couple hours earlier since we lost daylight midway up the coast. Anyway much of the scenery is stunning – sheer drops that would look a lot like the Palisades if they moved in a straight line but instead they undulate which only makes them more interesting. The catamaran also stops at several islands including Hvar, which is the real hot spot on the coast for the rich and famous.
Our hotel in Split was one of the oldest in the city, within the city walls that originally were the perimeter of Diocletian’s palace. The hotel was built in 1900, when Split was probably controlled by the Austrians, so we had some expectation of faded elegance. The hotel was called the Slavija, and it was back of one of many plazas popping up within the palace walls. It was not what we expected, especially when it was highly rated by Trip Advisor, which we checked out before doing the booking. It was a 3-4 star place, so not super-luxury, but supposedly good value.
When we arrived, after 9, the desk clerk said that we had been upgraded to a room with a balcony. So far so good, we thought. We dropped our things in the room and then had dinner at the restaurant in the hotel basement, which turned out to be quite good, actually, and reasonable for what we were finding to be the most expensive country we had hit so far on this voyage.
After dinner we went back up to the room and for the first time took a good look at it. Far from an upgrade, the room they had dumped us into was little more than an attic closet. The bed took up about 60% of the floor area, and about 40% of the floor area was under a steep pitch which dropped down, following the roofline, to about waist height. The so called balcony was there, but opened onto a back alley, and not a charming one. Annie took the side of the bed where she was wedged in and had to be mindful not to sit up straight or she might have gotten a concussion. I just lay in bed and seethed. It would have been better if the hotel had just said this was the only room available, rather than painting a rosy picture when they had to know that the room they were putting us in was not suitable for anybody.
First thing next morning we were back at the desk, and the new desk clerk apologized and immediately moved us to another, more conventional room. I guess the hotel figures if they can get someone to tough it out in that closet, they have another room in inventory that they can give to someone else. Worst case, they have to move you in the morning. I do plan to send a review to Trip Advisor and Expedia warning people to avoid Room 402 if they have any plans to book this hotel.
Sorry to be harping about the hotel, but it is a puzzle. Again, it was highly rated. And it predated all the construction during the Soviet years. So how to explain that, other than the wooden platforms that held the mattresses, every stick of furniture in each of the two rooms was a piece of utilitarian plastic. Not something fashionable, but something you might have bought at a dollar store. Every piece. Plastic chairs. Plastic desk. Plastic armoire (never seen one before). Plastic cube storage units doubling as end tables. It was something out of a Day’s Inn gone bad. I’m actually sorry that we were moved, since if we hadn’t been we would have found another place to stay and then we could have compared notes. Maybe all the hotels in Split have plastic furniture, maybe not. I suspect not.
Other than the rooms, the hotel was just fine. (And how did you like the play, Mrs Lincoln?) They served a first rate breakfast, the desk clerks were really helpful, the location was perfect, the price was reasonable (though not what one would have paid at a 1-1/2 star hotel, which is about what this was) and they packed up a great takeaway breakfast for us our last morning there since we had to leave to catch our catamaran back to Dubrovnik before the hotel’s breakfast was being served. Having the restaurant in the building also was helpful.
Full disclosure required. I’ve been under the weather on and off for more than the past two weeks. The ship’s doc gave me a steroid that he thought would control what he thought might be bronchitis, and I was good for several days after that, but then all the unmistakable signs of the common cold started to settle in. First the sore throat, then the cough, then ……you don’t need to read any more about this. I mention it only because it really has affected what we’ve done in Croatia and probably will affect what we will do for the next couple of days in Dubrovnik. I’ve got all fingers crossed that Annie will somehow miss out on this, and so far she shows no telltale signs. We shall see.
So we arrived in Split Sunday evening and other than having dinner in the hotel restaurant – now you know the main reason we chose it – it was an early night. Monday we walked around the city, or the old city, actually, which is more than just the palace.
Let’s go back to the history for a minute. If you look at a map of the Dalmatian coast, up as far as Venice, and then think about how prominent a regional power Venice was through the Middle Ages and right up to the nineteenth century, it’s easy to understand that Split has at least as much of the flavor of Venice and Italy generally as it has of Croatia. That translates to the menus at restaurants, the corner pizza shops that are literally everywhere, the gelato shops that are just as ubiquitous and the many plazas which are surrounded by the kind of colonnaded palaces you would expect to come across in Venice. Annie and I had dinner our last night in Split at an outdoor bistro at just such a plaza, with all the colonnaded walls lit up all around. Other than the prices and the other tourists, the experience is timeless.
Tuesday morning Annie and Sam took off on a tour that they booked through a local tourist agency to visit one of the nearby parks known for spectacular waterfalls, Krka National Park. It took a little more than an hour to get there, a little more than another hour to trek through and see some of the falls, then a short drive to a nearby vineyard for some wine tasting and purchases by many of the tourists doing the tour, then back to the city. It was a fairly full day for them, but one that they said was excellent.
As I wrote already, I spent the day just walking around the city, absorbing the overlay of cultures and architectural styles throughout the old city and particularly within the palace walls and dodging the swarms of other tourists packing the old city like the sardine cans filled with the principal fish found in these waters (at least until overfishing killed off most of the population). It didn’t much matter to me, as my main goal was to spend as much time as possible in fresh air and sun to try to get the cold out of my system, and the day cooperated beautifully.
Wednesday morning we were up bright and early since our catamaran back to Dubrovnik was scheduled to leave the dock at 7:40, and the hotel advised that we should be at the dock at least half an hour ahead. We didn’t take that too seriously, but we still tried to make it there by about 7:25, and by then the line to board was a block long. Fortunately the catamaran was big, and the seating was determined by which stop you were getting off, so we had enough room to spread out.
A few words about the catamarans up and down the coast. First, I can’t imagine a better way to travel these routes. The scenery is spectacular, the ride is like floating on air, and the catamaran itself, while not luxurious, was at least as comfortable as we hoped it would be. Second, boy are these things efficient and is the crew authoritarian. There are stops at several islands as well as one other town before our destinations in either direction. As you pull into any one of the stops, large numbers of people on board gather their things and head over to the gangway. This is a country where there is a premium on outdoor activity, and we had large groups of cyclists getting on and off at almost every stop. Imagine the logistics of getting off 15-20 bikes and related gear for the cyclists as well as the rest of the departing passengers and their stuff, then loading another 15-20 bikes and the same number of passengers and same amount of stuff for all these people, and getting the whole process done in a matter of a couple minutes. All through a single gangway, one person or bike at a time. They obviously do it a lot, because they do it well.
Which is not to say they do it graciously. They do not. They don’t crack any smiles. In nine hours on board we didn’t see one from any crew. A lot of orders, and a lot of directions, but no smiles. But then again, if you are looking for smiles, maybe you shouldn’t consider a trip to Croatia in the first place. But I am getting ahead of myself again.
We were back in Dubrovnik by about 12:30 on Wednesday, which was yet another warm, sunny day. After a quick detour to drop everything at the ship, which was just a short walk down the pier, we found a municipal bus to take us into the city. When I bought the tickets I asked which bus we should take to the old city, and the lady behind the window brusquely told me any bus. No smile. No explanation or direction as to where to pick up the bus. So we went outside the terminal and promptly got on the next bus we saw which, of course, was headed in the direction away from the city. We found this out when it reached the end of the line and we had to wait for it to turn around and start the route back.
A word about the bus driver. The tickets we bought had a picture and an arrow on one side, so naturally we figured the ticket was inserted with the arrow going forward into the slot. What we didn’t figure was that it was inserted with the picture facing down, not up. The driver set us straight, though. Without a smile or assistance, but with what was clearly a string of curses as we passed down the center aisle away from the front of the bus.
We finally got to Dubrovnik, which hadn’t changed at all since we had visited a couple years ago on a Viking cruise up the Adriatic with old friends. I didn’t think to take any pictures this time, but to give a flavor of the city I am including a couple that we took on the last visit.
We walked into the city and felt immediately at home. The center of Dubrovnik is unmistakable and once you’ve walked around it the impression is indelible. If there ever was a city that has the feel of being a movie set, this is it. Just take the signs off the shops and restaurants. No other changes are necessary.
Dubrovnik is blessed with a magnificent city wall that is accessed by climbing about six (maybe 12?). flights of steps. It circles the old city, with an indentation where the harbor of the old city is situated, and it is crawling with tourists night and day, who walk the loop taking in the range of views in all directions, mainly down into the city center. Originally the roofs of all the buildings were a yellow clay, but over the centuries that clay has been harder to replace and now almost all the roofs are the bright orange clay you can find all around the Mediterranean. It is a stunning look. There are the centuries old churches and palaces you would expect in all directions in the city center too.
The difference between Split and Dubrovnik is that in Split the buildings, or at least a lot of the facades of the buildings, have been torn down, replaced, torn down again and replaced again, with each change representing a change of control of the city with architectural detail reflecting the latest rulers. It is at once stunning and bewildering. Dubrovnik, on the other hand, looks like it was built at one time and never changed, even though if you look closely you will see the change in architecture from renaissance to more modern styles. Because everything was done in the same limestone and there is such consistency in the facades and the orange clay roofs, it really looks like it could have been built at one time.
We had a quick lunch at a snack bar across from the bus stop before heading into the city. David and Heidi were just finishing lunch when we got off the bus and they called out to us when they saw us getting off the bus or we would have missed the place. What we ordered, a funghi pizza, worked for us, and soon we were inside walking down memory lane. It was about 3 when we got to the pizza place, given the catamaran being late, the detour to the ship and the extra travel on the bus, so after a couple hours of walking around we felt all the wind coming out of our sails and realized that it had been a long day. Annie got some ice cream, we walked back to the bus stop, this time getting a bus in the right direction, and headed back to the ship. But not before the bus driver cursed us out under his breath again. (Different driver, same result.)
On our last day in Dubrovnik I headed into the city – by bus – no discernible commentary from this driver – so I could do the walking tour that Annie and Sam had done four days earlier. The guide, Marco, was much like the other guides we’ve seen in almost all the cities we’ve visited. He was funny, honest and a walking encyclopedia when it came to the history and politics of Dubrovnik and Croatia. I was glad I came back for the tour. I don’t remember one as detailed when we were here a couple years ago.
Some of what he had to say that I don’t remember from the prior visit: Dubrovnik was a center for trade between East and West for thousands of years and because of location managed to leverage a position of neutrality to maintain its independence for more than 500 years, acting as an intermediary for trade between the Ottomans and the Europeans who, for political reasons, couldn’t trade directly with one-another and really needed such an intermediary since the goods they exchanged were needed on both sides. All this continued right up to its conquest first by the Venetians and then shortly thereafter by Napoleon. One reason why it is in such pristine shape is that whenever it was threatened (up to the time of the civil war) it surrendered before a shot could be fired and any damage could be done to the city.
Honestly, the only thing that has changed since we were here last is that Game of Thrones filmed here, so the crowds of curious tourists is even worse than it was then and that might account for what a bad mood all the locals seem to be in whenever and wherever you see them. I’ve written about the bus drivers and the people on the catamaran. Other than Marco and that one clerk at the hotel in Split, who was the guy who I think felt bad that we had realized that they were screwing us by putting us into the attic room, no one in or between the two cities ever cracked a smile or had a nice word. Maybe they are burned out by the epidemic of tourists, but heck, if they didn’t have the tourists they would have essentially no economy at all, and their unemployment rates would be in the 30s rather than the 20s, where they are today.
Marco also noted one other effect of the tourism boom. He said that people in the old city all of a sudden have homes that they can rent out to tourists at prices so high that they can realize annual incomes from being on air-b&b that are higher than what the values of their homes were just a few years ago. The result of all this is that very few people actually live in the old city, and those who did a few years ago have now moved to nicer quarters at lower prices in parts of the city outside the old city so they can realize the benefits of the boom in short-term rentals of old city lodgings. Who knew?
I have to give a balanced view of Croatia (since I think by now you have an idea of my personal impressions). Another of the LLLs came back to the ship after five days traveling around the country and said that she had found the place she wanted to move to, adding that first she wanted to come and rent a house in a small town for a month. She is serious. Others who traveled around the country came back with the same opinions. The students LOVED Croatia. After all, it had great beaches and a lively nightlife that they found inviting and safe. My opinion is in a distinct minority, apparently.
Nonetheless, I suspect that Croatia was the perfect place to film Game of Thrones, one where the settings were breathtaking, the history was appropriately bloody and diabolical, and the supply of extras to scowl and push everybody around is boundless. I doubt that I will make a trip back, and there haven’t been many places in all our travels that I would say that about.
A few more things before I sign off. About half of the LLLs will be leaving the ship at Morocco. Apparently SAS is now welcoming voyagers for what they call Spotlight Voyages, resulting in a bunch of people leaving who have been with us for about five weeks (two others left us in Dubrovnik after about four weeks). A few more will join us in Casablanca, while a lot more will join us when we get to Brazil. If anyone has been intrigued by this blog and wants to check SAS out, but doesn’t want to commit to three and a half months, or doesn’t want to have to deal with possible tropical diseases and mosquitoes, you might want to check with SAS directly about these partial voyages or let me know and I will be happy to answer any questions you might have or pass them on to others who can better answer them.
Finally, this week has been off the charts as far as the evening presentations. Frank Luntz, a well known Republican pollster and operative, at least pre-Trump, has been on the ship ostensibly to work with the students on their marketing skills but also has spent countless hours in sessions talking politics. It has been fascinating listening to him. Two scientists from the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in California also have been on board working with the oceanography classes and have done programs in the Union as well as for the LLLs. (Luntz also did a program with the LLLs.) It has been so busy that I haven’t had time to update this blog until the last day, not that the timing mattered because I can’t post anything until we land in Casablanca anyway, or to get back in the swing of exercise (yes, I am just about over the cold, just in time to get back onshore).
We have our pre-port lecture about Morocco in a few hours, probably the most important one we will have for the students given the cultural and religious differences they will experience and hopefully respect. Before that, though, we have a party to send off the LLLs who will be leaving us. Gotta go change for that. We also will be passing Gibraltar in a matter of hours, and that is exciting.
By this time I imagine you are starting to get the message that at this stage of life Annie and I both are much happier wandering around in a small city or a historic town or village in Europe than fighting the crowds in the large cities. (The same thoughts are not so fixed about much of the rest of the world.) How did we get to this point? It’s a question.
There was a time when traveling to far off places meant visiting London, Paris, Rome, Venice, Florence. Each is wonderful, but I am convinced now that you have to be in your twenties or thirties to do them the justice they deserve. I loved my visits to these places, and others like them, but a lot has changed with them since I first visited them more than 40 years ago.
I do recognize that the same complaints that I will be expressing about the major cities now were being expressed by those who had first visited them decades earlier when we first visited them in the 70s and thought they were incredible. Mainly just too many tourists, too much congestion in the center, too long lines at each of the major attractions, and the disappearance of the iconic institutions – bakeries, restaurants, bars, cafes – that had always represented these cities in our minds because we had a connection with them from our first visits.
And, yes, the same complaints can be and are made about New York, which is almost unrecognizable to those of us codgers who remember what it was like back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And, yes, I am not losing sight of just how lucky and privileged we are to even be able to have this perspective and these memories.
I know I’ve already kvetched about this in this blog, but what was once a really nice pedestrian shopping street in Amsterdam, back in the ‘70s, is now unrecognizable. One reason is that the same international high-end merchants who have storefronts on that street – surprise – have identical (or at least it seems that way) shops on Madison Avenue (or maybe the West Village) in New York, and on similar pedestrian-only streets in Sevilla, and Krakow, and even Gdansk and Haarlem. So if that is what you find after traveling 5,000 miles, why travel at all?
The answer for us is almost obvious. For every Rome and Venice and Florence, there is a Bologna, and a Mantova, and a Padua, and a Lucca, smaller, more idiomatic and authentic and cheaper and – most important, though you could quarrel about my including Lucca among the examples – almost without tourists. All of these cities and towns were important in their time, then passed over as interest gravitated to the major cities. Which has been a blessing in so many ways for those who find them.
Bologna, for example, is really Florence-lite. It has wonderful museums and public spaces, one of the most important and historic universities in the western world, a cuisine to die for, reasonable accommodations and, really, no tourists. This must really drive the city fathers crazy. I’m not sure what if anything they can do to attract attention, and I’m glad they haven’t to this point, since we will be back.
Mantova, or Mantua as Shakespeare refers to it, was a major ducal town with a rich history. It has a palace that doubles as a private museum that lets rooms that royalty slept in for rates less than you would pay in Milan for something nondescript in a modern hostelry.
It doesn’t have Michelin star restaurants, but it does boast enough authentic local cuisine to satisfy. You might not want to spend a week there, but two days would be well worth the detour, and of course it is where it could be woven into a grand tour of smaller cities that could always end in Venice or Milan to catch a flight home.
Lucca is one of the prettiest walled cities in all of Italy, much like an Italian Cadiz, but with a much more Renaissance feel to the walk around the ramparts of the wall. And then there’s Verona, where you can catch Aida in a Roman coliseum that has been used more or less continuously for two thousand years. I’ll take any of these towns and cities over Rome and Florence any day.
Maybe it’s just that we‘ve reached a place where we want to slow down a bit. In these towns and cities we get to savor all that is around us as we explore those places we’ve never been before and enjoy retracing our steps in those where we’ve been fortunate to have already set foot.
If we had to choose a place to spend time in France, it wouldn’t be Paris, though we wouldn’t pass up the chance to visit it again. Instead we would head to the Dordogne and settle into one of the many medieval walled villages like Monpazier, where we spent an idyllic ten days a few years ago.
Being able to stumble out the door of the house we stayed in and walk a couple blocks into the village to one of the three (!) excellent boulangeries in this village of 500 was such a privilege. And treat.
And that doesn’t even take into account that the caves at Lascaux are an easy drive away, and that one of the most wonderful twice-a-week markets in all of France wends its way through the nearby town of Sarlat.
Not that we have anything against cities pedestrianizing their city centers. We’re all for that. What we don’t need is to have to spend three hours in a line to get into the major churches in Milan, or the major museums in Florence. Bologna’s museums might not have Michelangelo’s David, but what they do have are well worth the time to visit, and leave you feeling just great.
And yes, there still are some major cities that are tourist-unfriendly enough, at least on initial impression, that a visit can be a great adventure. Annie and I count our three days in Naples back in 2016, which was accidental in the grand scheme of things, as a gift. It is one city that still has an authentic, gritty feel, and that might not suit some who want a more homogenous experience, but for us it was energizing and wonderful.
As I write this I am sitting outside the faculty lounge watching the boot of Italy pass by on my right. Only hours until we will land in Croatia which, like Poland, raises all kinds of mixed feelings. To their credit, SAS hasn’t sugar coated the history of ethnic violence through the Balkans, and the sessions they have had in the Union as part of the Global Studies course as well as the evening lectures and the tie-ins in anthropology, history and politics courses have been outstanding. Lots of food for thought as we get ready to hit Dubrovnik. More to come as we digest all that food.