March 27-30, 2010 (At Sea & St. Helena)

MARCH 27 – 29, AT SEA

After leaving Cape Town we headed northwest toward the Island of St. Helena. A freckle on the atlas in the South Atlantic Ocean.

MARCH 30TH – JAMESTOWN, ST. HELENA (Maiden Call)

St. Helena is 10.5 miles long by 6.5 miles wide. It is 1,200 miles from the coast of southwest Africa and 1,800 miles from the coast of South America. The closest land is Ascension Island, 703 miles to the northwest. There is no airport. The only way to get here is by boat. The RMS St. Helena steams back and forth to Cape Town every 3 weeks. This is the only way for the locals to get off the island. A supply ship arrives every 2-3 weeks. We’re talkin’ remote.

This uninhabited island was first discovered by the Portuguese in 1502. It ended up in the hands of the British (is there anything they didn’t steal?). The Brits used it as a place of detention for many unsavory characters throughout history. The most famous being Napoleon Bonaparte. He was exiled to the island in 1815 and remained here until his death in 1821. He was permitted to roam freely. Where was he going to escape to?

4,255 people live here. 3,800 inhabit the Queen Mary 2. Our landing fits the definition of an Invasion. We anchored a half mile offshore near the capital of Jamestown (the only town). The swells from the Atlantic Ocean are routinely over 6 feet at the primitive dock and ships often cannot discharge passengers, at all. Imagine the mutiny, after being incarcerated for 4 days. It made us question why such an “iffy” port was chosen to begin with.

At 7 AM we waited like coiled vipers ready to strike. Two tenders were sent on a reconnaissance mission. The Captain’s pronouncement on sea conditions was eminent. Eureka! Permission was granted to go ashore! We raced for the loading area, knocking down the Ancient Ones with walkers who got in our way. We knew freedom could be revoked at any moment if the ocean decided to scratch it’s back. Not many on the ship move as stealthily as we do, so making the first boat was child’s play. Good thing we did. With only one tender operating due to limited docking space, the unloading process was interminable. The “step” from the tender to the dock was a doozy, for the vertically and spatially challenged. It took several hours to get everyone off. The Crew’s “leave” was cancelled due to the monstrous queue.

View from ship of Jamestown, St. Helena.

On shore, the first thing we noticed were clusters of gleeful kids. School was cancelled due to our visit. We were Superheroes. Every school bus and any other vehicle that was remotely road worthy was allocated to move around passengers.

Our first priority was to climb Jacob’s Ladder; a perpendicular staircase leading up the precipitous slope surrounding Jamestown. It has 699 steps with 12 inch risers. It is 900 feet long and 700 feet high. It was originally built in 1829 to link the town with the garrison on top of Ladder Hill. Soldiers used it to haul up ammunition and supplies. I doubt they scaled it for bragging rights, like we did. Now it is used by those who don’t own cars, or can’t bum a ride up the mountain. Residents say it will “break your heart going up, and break your neck coming down”.

We sprinted to the base before it got jammed up with people who thought carrying food laden trays for 3 months qualified as aerobic exercise. We didn’t want their unconscious bodies blocking our way. We were humming along just fine, until I made the grave mistake of pausing to soak in the view around me. I wasn’t expecting to see such a sheer drop behind me and dizziness took hold as my heart galloped. I was paralyzed. Steve knew I had “ladder issues”, and took control when he heard me sniveling behind him. Shifting to my backside, he coaxed me upwards by imploring me NOT to look around until we reached the summit. He reminded me again and again that I couldn’t “plummet to my death” because he was right behind me. He soothed my irrational fear of flying backwards with profound gentleness and patience. My knight in sweaty armor.

Jacob’s Ladder from the base.
Jacob’s ladder from the summit.

When we made it to the top, I was elated and cocky. I remarked to Steve that due to the significant discrepancy in our leg length, I actually climbed double what he did. He didn’t buy it.

There were 15 Islanders encamped at the peak offering kudos. Watching tourists attempt the climb is a popular spectator sport on the island. There was also a team of EMTs stationed nearby, ready to take action. It’s a good thing we went early. The Ladder was soon clogged with aggressive tailgaters bullying the throng. If I was forced to take my hands off the railing to step around someone, I might have become a permanent resident of St. Helena.

You could tell the locals were starved for conversation with “new blood”. As soon as we stopped panting, they descended with a litany of questions. We were delighted to share information about our ship, the voyage, and ourselves. We felt like royalty. After a time, a couple offered to give us a “lift up the hill” (which ended up being 5 miles) and drop us at the Plantation House. We readily accepted.

It’s a pretty colonial structure built at the end of the 1800‘s. The governor lives here, but he’s not the star attraction. Jonathan, the giant tortoise, is. His age is estimated between 150 and 200 years (he kept getting older with every person we talked to). No one seems to know how he ended up on the island. We had a theory. We learned while visiting the Galapagos Islands (on a previous journey) that tortoises can live for up to one year without any food or water. In the old days, explorers would pluck them from their native lands, stack them upside down in the hull of a ship, and nosh on them over several months as an easy source of fresh meat. Jonathan must have escaped with his lightening speed.

Johnathan

After meeting the local celebrity, we started trekking back to town. We declined the plentiful offers for a ride. It felt great to stroll and stretch our legs. After a few miles, we heard a “Yoo Hoo!” and looked up to see four ladies waving daintily at us from the front steps of a sprawling home. A sign nailed to a tree at the bottom of the drive read…

Open House from 10:30 am to 2:15 pm
for visitors from Queen Mary 2 and others.
All are welcome. Please drop in for Tea Coffee Eats.
No Charge, but kindly give donation for the Haiti Appeal.
Thank you. Enjoy your Day.

How could we not stop? The owner, Patsy Flagg, was the “poster child” for island hospitality. She gave us a tour of her 120 year old home, then ushered us into the dining room where she stacked our plates with homemade treats. We were offered coffee or tea before adjourning to the porch. Steve drinks neither, but graciously suffered through a cup. I was reticent, simply because it was foreign water. We hoped that the high temperature would kill off any intestinal nasties.

Two of the ladies (in their 60‘s) had never been off the island, which blew our minds. We flirted with a variety of subjects before landing on natural remedies and Yoga. Before long, I was demonstrating “Downward Facing Dog” on the front porch. They were all intensely curious and tried out the position. Although I would have loved documentation… Steve felt it was exceptionally tacky to take a shot of our 5 butts swaying in the breeze. When we left an hour later, the ladies posed for me (upright) and made us promise to come back for vacation.

Patsy Flagg and friends.

We sauntered back to the top of Jacob’s Ladder after chatting with every Islander we met on the road. It was jammed when we got there. Those arriving at the top, bent over and wheezing, were scrutinized by the EMT squad. I casually mentioned to a few of the more fit specimens that if they had enough energy to walk another mile or so up hill … there was a group of engaging ladies who would love to meet them. Did you know up is a dirty word? Taking The Ladder downhill was not an option. I needed both hands on the rails; an impossibility with two way traffic. We took the serpentine road instead. Wise decision. Without the feeling of impeding doom suffocating me, I could freely glance around and marvel at the astonishing landscape.

Walking down the road back to port. Yes, it is two lanes. Seriously.
Spectacular views going downhill.

Back in town, we stopped by the tiny St. Helena Distillery for a tour. They make a spiced rum and coffee liqueur from local beans. Their speciality is “Tungi”, made from the flower of the island’s Prickly Pear Cactus. I sampled it, and couldn’t feel my Tongue(e) afterwards. We bought a bottle of each. We had to. The thick glass is shaped like Jacob’s Ladder with “St. Helena” embossed on the side.

St. Helena Distillery

Jonathan moved faster then the queue for the return tender. We were glad to have a fresh bottle of SPF 30 sunscreen, as we sizzled in the equatorial sun.

Sunset lights up the Island as we steam away.

A few more days at sea before arriving in Rio De Janeiro.

March 31 – April 3, 2010 (At Sea & Rio De Janeiro, Brazil)

MARCH 31 – APRIL 2, AT SEA

APRIL 3 (Good Friday) – RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL

After bidding farewell to the bucolic tranquility of St. Helena… we were subjected to fiery sermons on Rio, and the barbaric viciousness of the murderous thugs that skulk on every street corner. It was a record sales day for Cunard Shore Excursions, where even the most independent travelers (like ourselves) decided not to “play the odds”.

The most lucrative criminals don’t need a knife. They are the masterful “Pickers of Pockets”. Here’s a coveted scheme. Pass it on…

A congenial looking teenager steps in front of his Hawaiian Shirted target and picks up a dollar up from the sidewalk.

“Sir, you dropped this”, he says with a magnanimous smile.

“Why, thank you, young man”, the target exclaims, suitably surprised by this virtuous act.

Hawaiian Shirt questions why Rio has such a bad rap, as he slips the wayward bill into his left front pocket, reuniting it with numerous siblings.

15 minutes later, he reaches for the cash his wife needs to pay for the cheesy replica of “Christ The Redeemer”, she simply cannot live without, and discovers that the entire extended family of currency and credit cards has been liberated.

****************

6.5 million people live in the city and 5 million in the suburbs. 85% of the wealth is controlled by 5% of the residents. 70% of the people live below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is 37%. There are over 600 shanty towns that cling to the hillsides where thousands live in squalor. They are controlled by gangs. The muted report of gunshots echo through the sultry air.

The ship’s “Daily Programme” describes the Rio lifestyle as “a mixture of hedonism and irreverence. They appear to respect nothing and no one, and are constantly on the look out for something to provide them with a new diversion or pleasure. They see themselves as individuals of immense resourcefulness, of keen wit, of engaging conversation, of stunning beauty, and of worldly knowledge”.

Is this a twisted sales pitch or satire?

We took an excursion that covered two places we were keenly interested in visiting. First, was the float construction and costume making facility of a Samba School that participates in the annual Rio Carnival. This annual event is the most ostentatious spectacle your mind can envision. It makes the Thanksgiving Macy’s Day Parade look like a kindergarten production. Over 5,000 dancers train at each of the 12 schools every year. Once the theme is decided on by a committee, it takes almost the full year to orchestrate. Thousands are employed during the process, most of which live in the slums. It is promoted as the festival where the “rich mingle with the poor”. Call me a skeptic, but I doubt that. Wear an expensive camera around your neck, and come visit in February to see it firsthand. You will be most welcomed.

We saw the remnants of an elaborate float that focused on futuristic technology and scientific advancement. Larger then life (but now deceased) Michael Jackson, festooned in a swanky space suit, and surrounded by silver dolphins, was chosen to represent these achievements. Is it me, or could there have been a more suitable choice? It was great fun to nibble on a slice of Rio’s cultural heritage.

Rio Carnival Floats
Rio Carnival Float Figure

Next, we headed to Sugar Loaf Mountain. A 1,300 foot high solid granite pillar with a gondola terminus bolted on top. It was first constructed in the late 1800‘s. From the crest, the views were spine tingling. In the valleys below, every inch of usable space is covered in concrete. We came here, instead of the loftier Corcovado Mountain, because it’s summit is habitually swathed in clouds. And, the legendary statue of Christ The Redeemer is undergoing maintenance and totally concealed. I thought this was awfully disrespectful, considering it was Good Friday and “The Queen’s” visit was scheduled more then 3 years in advance.

View from Sugarloaf Mountain
View from Sugarloaf Mountain
View of Cococabana Beach from Sugarloaf Mountain.

An unexpected wildlife sighting of tiny Marmoset monkeys was the zenith of my day. They lounged on scaffolding used for the unceasing repairs to the steep retaining walls holding up the platform we stood on. See the photo below of a baby fastened to Mama’s belly. Pretty cool, huh?

See the baby?
Marmoset Monkey at Sugarloaf

Back on board, we scanned the dilapidated buildings nearby through binoculars. We were disheartened to see so many people living in disintegrating structures, not fit for human life.

On our way to Barbados next.

 

April 4-9, 2010 (At Sea & Barbados)

APRIL 4-8, AT SEA

After leaving Rio De Janeiro, we had a lengthy stretch at sea along the eastern seaboard of South America then west towards the Caribbean Sea.

APRIL 9 – The Island of BARBADOS

Barbados stands alone, 100 miles east of the other islands you may think of when fantasizing about a vacation in “The Caribbean”. It is 14 miles wide and 21 miles long. The constant trade winds blow from the east-northeast across the Atlantic Ocean making it easy to reach under sail power from Europe, but nearly impossible from the other Caribbean islands (always upwind). It’s isolation offered effective immunization against the conflict between Caribbean colonial powers. Once colonized by England in 1625, it remained in British hands until granted independence in 1966.

The Caribbean Islands were named after the indigenous Caribe Indians. Barbados came from the Portuguese word, “Los Barbudos” (meaning bearded) which refers to the roots hanging down from the numerous Bearded Fig Trees on the island.

The first settlers brought tobacco and cotton from neighboring islands, but they didn’t grow well here. So, you guessed it, sugarcane was introduced. It is still a major export, along with the locally distilled “Mount Gay Rum”, the island’s claim to fame.

When we arrived in port, two huge cruise ships were already on the dock. They looked like floating bricks, wholly devoid of charm. Okay, I admit it, I’m a ship snob now. When we got clearance to disembark, we hustled to the rental car shack where our adorable “Mini Moke” (a doorless dune buggy perfect for driving on remote beaches and across rough terrain), was waiting for us. We were eager to explore the eastern (less populated) side of the island. As we stood in the long line bopping along to caribbean music, the skies blackened.

Upon seeing our distressed faces pointing skyward, a dreadlocked native said, “No worries, Mon, it hasn’t rained in two months”, as he sashayed by. Good, because we just overheard that everything is sold out, so making a switch to a stodgy “rain proof” ride is not an option.

Just after signing the rental agreement, Armageddon inspired rain exploded from the clouds, and did not stop. After two hours huddled under a leaky overhang, while staring wistfully at our water logged Mini Moke, we wondered if Noah’s Ark took reservations. Saturated and despondent, we trudged back to the shack to find out if a more suitable vehicle had miraculously materialized, before asking for a refund. It hadn’t. “No worries, my friend, I can give your money back”, he said without hesitation. We must have looked suitably pathetic. Lesson learned. Go mainstream, when you only have 7 hours to sightsee.

We headed back to the ship and licked our wounds until the rain slowed midday. In dry clothes, we headed to Bridgetown (the capital) on foot. We were pestered by empty taxis (is walking against the law?) and street vendors. The sidewalks were mobbed with the 10,000+ passengers in port. We didn’t last long.

On the way back, we saw a battered merchant (drug?) ship slide to the dock, bow to bow, with the Queen Mary. Layers of rust held her together. Frayed lines dangled over the side. Duct tape secured the anchor. Music blared from the Bridge.

Here name was Queen Latoya, so of course I couldn’t help myself…

“Hey”, I said to the guy unloading cargo. “It’s nice that the two Queens are being reunited, after such a long time, don’t ya think?”

It wasn’t that funny, but he laughed heartily, and for a long time. The sun glinted off his gold front teeth, and I saw that one had a Yin Yang symbol etched into it.

Yo Mon.

 

April 10-11, 2010 (At Sea & Ft. Lauderdale)

APRIL 10-11, AT SEA

After leaving Barbados we headed northwest towards the east coast of the United States.

APRIL 13, FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA

My fondest memories of “Ft. Liquordale” are from college. We came here every year for Spring Break and a brief respite from the blanket of snow in upstate New York. Hot Sun. Cold Beer. Cheap Motels.

We had no agenda today, and took the shuttle to the Galleria Mall as a step towards becoming reacquainted with our home country. It was the first time I fearlessly drank tap water in over 3 months. Oh a whim, we walked to the Doubletree Hotel and boarded a water taxi for a two hour trip along the busy canal system. The Chamber of Commerce calls it “The Venice of America”. Obviously, they’ve never been there.

The taxi was full of Queen Mary passengers from around the world. Our guide, Larry, (retired here from Laconia, New Hampshire – but still working to pay real estate taxes) entertained us along the way. He pointed out the mega mansions and yachts owned by celebrities (past and present ) as we motored along…

“Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball used to own that house.”
“OJ Simpson tried to buy that one last year, but the neighbors stopped him, somehow.
“The Yankee Candle people own that boat, called Paraffin. It’s 140 feet long.
“Sonny and Cher lived there a long time ago”. It just sold for 17 million.
“The famous TV Show, Miami Vice, was filmed in that house”.
“Remember the 6 Million Dollar Man? Lee Majors? He lives there.”
That’s Jane Fonda’s house. I think I see her, near the pool”.
“The taxes on that house are $340,000 a year”.

As I sat there, watching the mesmerized faces, I thought of the warped perception of America these foreigners would leave with. I wanted to suggest a taxi ride inland, about 15 miles, to see how the other 99.8% live.

Two more days at sea, in the North Atlantic Ocean we know and love, before arriving back in New York on April 15th. I hope we get some decent waves as a parting gift.

January 16-19, 2017 (Ft. Lauderdale & At Sea)

Hi everyone!  Welcome to our 95 day voyage on the Queen Victoria. Thank you for joining us. We left Ft. Lauderdale at 10 PM on January 16th and will return on April 21st. It was an uplifting send off by the locals who live in the high rises lining our route to the sea. Hundreds of people “blinked” their porch lights in salute to The Queen. A few voyeurs scanned the decks with high powered beacons. What were they searching for? Lascivious behavior in the staterooms? Certainly not! This is a British ship! Proper! Civilized! Cultured! Think Titanic before her most unfortunate collision with that ill-mannered iceberg…..

The Queen Victoria is one of three ships in the Cunard line. She is 964 feet long and carries 2057 passengers and 981 crew members when full. She is an Ocean Liner (not a cruise ship), built to handle the roughest seas with ease. We’ll see about that. But, just in case, I cleared the shelves in CVS of all the Dramamine and Bonine they had in stock.

We will be “at sea” for 67 days and “in port” for 28 days. The voyage is broken up into several segments, and only 342 passengers are on board for the full world voyage, like us. The Brits have the largest representation at 155. Followed by 96 Americans, 17 Germans, 13 Canadians, 11 French, 9 Dutch, 4 Japanese, 4 Swedes, and a smattering of folks from 23 other countries. The average age is OLD. Did you know that sending your elderly loved ones “around the world” on the Queen Victoria can be cheaper then an Assisted Living Facility for the same amount of time? There is a doctor on board, wheelchair access everywhere, lots of activities, great entertainment, and awesome food. And, of course, daily Bingo. It’s a win win. In 2010, on the Queen Mary 2, we were by far the youngest passengers. Seven years later, even with abundant gray hair (Steve, not me), and wrinkles (me, not Steve), we still are.

Our greatest hope is that we can still fit into our clothes when we disembark in 95 days. We strategically skipped packing stretchy pants where a burgeoning waistline can easily be ignored. We had Lobster Thermador for dinner last night, and Chateaubriand tonight. Wish us luck, we’ll need it.

We have sailed over 1,200 miles since our departure on Monday; passing by The Bahamas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Puerto Rico. We arrive in our first port, Barbados, the centuries old home of Mount Gay Rum, on the 20th. Yo Mon.

April 13-15 (At Sea & New York City)

APRIL 13-14, AT SEA

The mighty North Atlantic took pity on Steve. Two potential days to produce just one, decent, Dramamine worthy undulation, and nothing. I’ve been robbed of a dramatic finale!

APRIL 15TH – NEW YORK CITY

We passed under the Verrazano Bridge heading towards our berth in Brooklyn at 4 AM this morning. It was pitch black and surprising mild as I stood on our balcony sipping tea (look out coffee beans, I’m comin’ home). I recalled the exact moment we passed under this structure on January 4th – 106 days ago. The temperature was hovering around zero with bone clattering winds. I was feverish with anticipation and numbed by the cold as I listened to the drone of cars whizzing by above my head.

The sky was brightening as the Captain swung the ship around and backed down the waterway. When the Statue of Liberty came into view, my face screwed up with a tangle of emotions and I started blubbering. This epic journey has come to an end! I felt oddly untethered and melancholy, while elated and relieved.

I tried to hold it together when bidding farewell to “the guys” in the dining room, but failed. I even put on mascara before our final breakfast, hoping the threat of “raccoon eyes” would stop the flow. It didn’t. We would miss our new friends. We saw pictures of wives and children. We told stories and celebrated milestones. We played tricks and shared jokes. We basked in communal laughter.

Only 400 passengers disembarked in New York, making for a delightfully “queue free” exit. We left the ship for the last time at 9 AM and headed into Manhattan. The mass exodus of 2,100 passengers happens in Southampton, England, seven wavy days from now. Most will attempt to fly home in planes dodging Icelandic ash after the the massive eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano .

We spent the afternoon weaving through Central Park as our bodies compensated for phantom waves. Onlookers steered clear of the loonies blathering about The Queen.

We stayed an extra day in Manhattan before picking up the rental car and heading home on April 17th. With keys in hand, Steve made a beeline to the passenger side before altering his course with a sheepish grin. He swears he did it on purpose… so he could delight in the panicked expression that bloomed across my face. Hooey.

 

April 22, 2010 (Epilogue)

We have been home for 5 days, and are adjusting to life on solid ground.  I haven’t careened into a wall for several hours. Most of our stuff is out of the bags and piled in loose mounds around the house, waiting for final disposition.

The stack of mail has become less intimidating. We are happy to be home and sleeping in our own comfy bed. Although I think Steve is secretly pining away for the Pillow Menu.

And, planning for and cooking meals is definitely too much reality, too soon.

**********

Oceans cover 71% of the earth’s surface. Our frothy wake is long gone, but the magic it conjured up will stay with us forever.