Leaving family and friends behind in Toronto for sixty-four straight days of work aboard the MS Sundream cruise ship may have been the most difficult decision I've had to make the past twenty years. Roadwork was mandatory early in my musician career, but as the years passed I've been able to create work opportunities and remain grounded within southern Ontario.
A full week before departure - wife Kristine and I find ourselves clinging to each other like newlyweds celebrating the first months of marriage. I knew separation would be difficult but was willing to do the time for the financial benefits, photo opportunities and adventure come the bowels of winter. It sort of reminds me of the last couple months before departing the army. Every soldier kept a running scorecard striking each spent day consigning it to a short pile. The more back slashes the sooner reunification.
We arrive at Terminal 2 with what seems just enough time to share good-byes, check baggage, and claim passenger ticket. Unfortunately, the flight to Montego Bay, Jamaica was oversold, a questionable practice by Air Canada.
Vocalist Aura Rully and I were placed on a stand-by list. The deal was, if economy seats weren't available we'd be graciously compensated for our misfortune and booked on a later flight. Fortunately, our status as entertainers found our names ranked high on the list, making the mini drama only a minor inconvenience, except for Aura's husband Ron, who paced around like someone about to face a firing squad. His impatience almost sends Kristine into overdrive.
Air Canada eventually upgrades us to Executive Class offering prime front row seats. I must admit, this is the only way to travel - the most comfort I've ever been accorded in flight.
After exchanging long good-byes - wiping back tears - we board the airplane. Time passes quickly as I read and then watch the movie Zorro, and later dodge incoming debris in the overrated B-movie Asteroids.
Upon arrival in Montego Bay, I watch heat curl and rise from the airport tarmac through a yellow plastic curtain barely covering the windows just past immigration. I was here two summers ago so I know full well what to expect with immigration. Everything inside is all business - no condiments, or refreshments or relief from the oppressive heat.
Aura and I are then escorted to one side while a travel agent arranges transportation to the Sundream. Forty-five minutes passes before we're collected and driven to our port-of-entry. The ride was a quick ten-minute jaunt.
When I first spot the Sundream I was a bit surprised to find it not as awesome a spectacle as when I first witnessed the breathtaking dimensions of cruise ships: Song of America and Veedam in Hamilton Harbor and The Royal Naval Dockyards in Bermuda respectively.
The MS Sundream is one of the older British cruise ships still sailing the Caribbean and Mediterranean, built in 1971. It was designed to transport 1,038 passengers divided into 531 cabins. By now, the ship has been ordained a budget cruise. Although a fresh coat of paint masks its age the ship is small with few ornamental attractions other than the splendid wood floor on deck five.
There's something quite charming about the rustic wood floors sustained by massive steel girders enclosing the fifth deck I quickly pronounce my living room. Hell, the view is spectacular. At this height I can invite a persistent breeze to massage the abiding emotions.
The first day is the most difficult. As I climb the incline to register with the crew purser I suffer tremendous anxiety. I question myself over and over wondering if I had made a hasty decision and whether I should have given the offer greater consideration. All I could feel was Kristine's tears and the imminent loneliness the both of us would have to endure the next sixty-four days. I convince myself that once we set sail I would occupy myself with exploring the remarkable islands, find the significant cultural landmarks, the people and music, then photograph and write of my adventure.
The descent to the underbelly of the main floor B brings great consternation. This is where my quarters were to be found. As the attendant leads me through tight corridors down wrought iron stairs past rolls of aluminum foil, bottled water and air ripe with Diesel fuel, room H 96 soon comes in view. I first look upon the door as entrance to a storage bin possibly lined with canned goods and disinfectants. The attendant twists the key - the door slightly opens, my pulse hesitates and breathing nearly ceases. I look back at the young woman with pupils the dimension of mangos and ask, "Are you sure this is the right place? Don't you have a cabin with leg room or at least a window?"
I was now prepared to abandon ship. The mind begs me not to endure sixty-four long and tortuous days in a space better designed for a crate of grapes.
The cramped seven by twelve foot compartment comes with no window, a vertical bathroom, four safe lockers, double bunk, desk and two chairs. During the walk through I exert caution with every move - there's always something about to take a nick out of top of my head.
I sprint to the crew purser and plead for another room - something with a view, maybe a bit more personality. Though polite, she reminds me the room was permanent residence of the house pianist. It was then I realize what rank I was awarded aboard ship. I finally resign myself and figure the best method of dealing with the unknown was patience, lots and lots of patience.
Aura and I come easy to our job in the Midnight Lounge. The first set was a cocktail party for officers and invited travel agents from seven-thirty to eight-thirty with dinner in between. Aura joined me for the second show, which moved by swiftly.
Aura Rully is a short, portly, middle-aged woman, who was a revered performer in her native Romania before the collapse of the Eastern bloc countries. She still sports an air of regality as if the crown is to be worn for life.
Back home in the metal cage I feel enormous grief, long mental lapses of despair; homesickness, melancholy, heartache, and just above every possible sorrowful impulse, not excluding possibly the most debilitating - anxiety, near panic. The metallic room is both physically and emotionally suffocating. I sleep little during the night mostly focused on the coming day's voyage towards Santo Domingo.
I rise at twenty 'till nine - quickly dress and abandon my cell. The plan was to climb to the fifth deck where I found my only comfort the night before. Fortunately, the move serves me well. Sunlight and wind help stave off depression slowly eroding my morale. I begin seriously reading Hemingway's, "A Farewell to Arms". It was exactly the kind of romantic novel I need to temper my angst. Most of the day I rarely move from my favorite deck chair except for a walk around sunbathers on the upper deck and face the powerful wind currents atop the ship and let the gale force currents batter and soothe the head and chest.
Aura and I were well received in the Midnight Lounge that evening. She sings tunes familiar to those patrons who choose the quaintness of the lounge over the casino gambling and "My Fair Lady" show at the opposite end of the ship. After the performance I quickly slide below - change and return to my reserved plastic deck chair, the good book and bask in the warm breeze.
Day three - I waken to the Santo Domingo harbor with sunshine and renewed hope. Only forty-five passengers choose to embark for a tour of Diego Columbus's (Christopher's son) palace, Independence Square and tourist shopping district. There was little need for a bus since the old fortress was directly across Aveneda Del Puerto, in close proximity of the Sundream. Still, seven hundred and fifty people chose to remain aboard, fearing the rumored bite of a malaria infected mosquito or some other unspecified parasite.
Hurricane George had recently struck the Dominican Republic with ferocity, killing about three thousand islanders. A rapacious landslide transported layers of mud, thick with uprooted trees, submerging everything in its path - including islanders. The evidence of its wrath was to be witnessed street by street.
I actually feel sorry for those who chose to view Santo Domingo from the bridge of the deck. It's a thoroughly engaging place whose history is of great significance. Shrines to Christopher Columbus and other Spanish conquerors or invaders are on display everywhere. There's something beautiful and haunting about standing in the first land of entry of the Europeans.
After a walk through Town Square we're then guided to a rum-bar-trinket shop. This is where I encounter a quintet of young teenage boys panhandling for money outside. Their pleas seem sincere and quite passionate.
I give one boy a U.S. dollar and then another promptly arrives, then another, then another and another. I eventually call a truce and rethink my method of charity to be further stalked by the most persistent of the gang who insists I relieve him of a wooden ashtray as a sign of his gratitude. With little firmness or conviction I part with a fourth dollar. By then another young man arrives with a well-tarnished shoebox lodged under his right armpit. "Let me polish your shoes, I'm a professional." A professional? My take on this is everyone's a professional in some manner or other.
I repeat my answer over and over. "Look at them they're tennis shoes. They don't need a shine." I thought he understood but without hesitation plunges to the pavement spits in his hands then begins lathering my right shoe with some kind of homemade miniature brush soaked in a white soapy compound. "You see you got a mark on top of your shoe. I cover." Before I could respond both left and right shoes were bathed in the innocuous liquid. I'd been trapped but not yet conned. "Give me twenty U.S. dollars. I'm a professional," the young boy insists. I scan him like a bank manager eyeballing an applicant with no prior credit history.
"Why should I give you twenty dollars for something I never asked for. Here's a dollar."
"No, give me fifteen!"
"A dollar, that's all you'll get."
"Give me ten, I'm a professional!"
"Ten? You get nothing."
The youth then turns and pretends to ignore me before a counter offer: "Give me five!" As I begin to walk away I watch the boy drop to the feet of an elderly woman of West Indies descent and begin lathering the tops of her black shoes with the nasty white paste. She tries every angle to get rid of him but eventually offers a dollar settlement, which he gladly accepts, then turns his attention back to me.
"Give me my money," he insists.
"Here's your dollar, take it or leave it," He does just that.
We were then carted into a bus and driven to another shopping area crammed with both Haitian art, spices sunken in whiskey bottles, rum, jewelry amongst five and ten cent items. I make my only purchase, a large Haitian painting bursting with color and native scenery.
Next stop, the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.
Four separate rainstorms intercept us at various intervals from early morning until docking around one thirty in the afternoon. The waters were particularly ragged the night before leaving me feeling a bit uneasy.
Tortola's remarkable mountains are the first item you see from the distance. The island is nestled within a chain of islands mostly undeveloped. Hurricane George blew the docks around the port away forcing us to ferry in small craft. Four hundred passengers pay around thirty U.S. dollars for an excursion and tour of the island. I would have to wait until all had been safely delivered to shore before exiting.
Two hours pass and I nearly abandon hope when I notice a large vessel jettison along side the ship. I quickly make my way to the loading area and ease onto the craft. In a matter of minutes I was land safe.
As soon as I arrive a young gentleman offers to drive me around the island for ten U.S. dollars an hour. Within minutes sixteen willing participants are rounded up and escorted into the open air taxi.
We ascend Sage Mountain to its peak five hundred fifty feet above sea level, past a national park that still retains the remnants of a once pristine rain forest. We then stop for a few photographs and glide our way past rows of hanging vines.
Hidden in an archipelago of 40 islands and islets (only ten of which are inhabited), Tortola is the largest and is home to the nation's capital, Road Town. The name is taken from the 17th century usage of the word "road", meaning "open anchorage". The British Virgin Islands remain a crown colony of Britain, nominally administered by a Governor appointed in London.
The brief afternoon assured me the rest of the journey held much promise.
We sail into Deep Water Harbor docking in St. John's. I definitely prefer walking the gangway straight to land over lining up from the top stairway down through the cramped hallway that leads to the tender. My status demands I wait until all passengers have been accommodated before exiting.
Antigua is the keystone of the arc of islands known as the Lesser Antilles. Barbuda is 32 miles due north and covers 68 square miles, and Redonda, a mere half-mile square of rock, is about 20 miles southwest. Antiqua covers an area of 108 square miles. I chose not to join a charter around the island, but instead walked the streets, eventually settling in St. John's Cathedral . The present-day Cathedral on the same site as the original, built in 1681, and the second in 1789, which was made of brick, washed a light yellow, and cruciform in shape, was virtually reduced to rubble by a severe earthquake in 1843, was completed in 1847 and consecrated as a Cathedral and Parish Church of St. John in 1848. The Silver Candlesticks were presented by a former Chief Justice - Colonel Peter Lee. In 1704 the High Altar made of mahogany was presented in 1926 in memory of Robert McDonald, a former Chancellor of the Diocese.
I took a seat in one of the pews closest to the three-manual Walker organ and watch the church organist demonstrate the various functions to what seemed to me an apprentice.
St. Lucia tourism officials had spoke highly of Dominica's beauty five years ago when Kristine and I had visited the St. Lucia Jazz Festival in 1993.
Dominica is resplendent in lush green plant life, tropical rain forest and dense vegetation. When I first examined the schedule - Dominica this island played in my head as one I must explore.
I rose quarter past eight - downed a few slices of watermelon and peach halves, pack my Nikon - polarizing filter and one extra roll of Fuji Reala 100, then leave the ship. I first meet a cab driver named Errol offering his vehicle to travelers who choose to forgo the usual overpriced excursion promoted by the ship. Errol charged us $15 U.S. for the two-hour drive.
As we leave the capitol city of Roseau we soon pass the remains of a large school bus crushed beneath the weight of a massive baobab tree the handsome work of hurricane David back in 1979. Errol drives to a nearby ridge above Roseau where we can photograph the city and harbor. From vantage points below and above the scenery is delicious. After a five minute stop we begin our ascent towards Morne Trois National Park some 17,000 thousand acres in the south central part of the island. This park contains the Boeri and Fresh Water Crater Lakes plus the world's largest Boiling Lake and the Middleham Falls.
Our tour would take us into the National Park's primordial rain forest to the falls.
I find myself situated next to a fellow suffering with asthma. He has a most difficult time breathing in the 33 degree, hundred plus humidity. Errol eventually turns the air conditioning on which seems to settle the man.
It begins raining near the base of the mountain leading to Middleham Falls. Along the way we pass fields of banana trees, coca plants, the beautiful Red Ginger plant, cleanse our hands with a patch of lemon grass Errol swipes from the side of the road and learn about the Cannonball Tree or Carrion Tree. The flowers of the tree produce a sweet smelling odor that attracts bats and other pollinating agents to the nectar.
Along the roadside young girls with their mothers sell jewelry, soft drinks, domestic beer, dolls, bananas and bundles of mixed flowers.
We're soon joined by a group of young men bartering to be our guides. Our guide came fully equipped with umbrellas for everyone making their pleas unwarranted.
While climbing the stairway of the mountain path the shifting mud makes the surface slippery. Although this could have proved to be hazardous - rain clears the encroaching residue.
Due to the brief viewing we are accorded the falls prove to be uneventful. I ask to walk farther down the path to the base of the falls but Errol has no time for such requests. I settle for the spectacular drive down the narrow winding lanes of the mountain for excitement and photo opportunities.
I instruct Errol to drop me in Roseau so I can savior the local ambiance. I'm glad I did. It's the pastel colored wood and stone houses that attract me. When I come upon a storefront or home that catches the eye I stop, take a photo, then turn a corner and search for another. If you look closely - it's the little things that add so much charm- maybe a poster imbedded in a stonewall that bleeds weathered colors or a woman cradling her youngest child in the shade of a palm. I sense this was not a place to wander to far from view. Later in the afternoon one of our passengers is mugged.
I'd experienced the magnificent splendor of St. Lucia five years before when Kristine and I attended the St. Lucia Jazz Festival.
The second largest of the Windward Islands boasts the best mountain scenery in all the West Indies. St. Lucia has changed hands no less than 14 times, remaining a part of the British West Indies from the end of the 18th century till self-government in 1967. Though English is the official language, the locals speak a strong patois given that two hundred years have elapsed since France ruled. While Castries is in the north, the focal point for sightseeing soars out of the sea in the South - in the form of twin volcanic peaks, the Pitons. In the south the town of Soufriere is a colorful collection of old stone facades and brightly painted wooden houses, all set surprisingly close to the jungle-coated hills. The bay walls drop steep and sheer into the sea, mirrored skyward by forested slopes on the magnificent Pitons. "Soufri" is the word for the volcanic vent that lets out clouds of steam and sulfur. "Piton" means spike.
I spend most my free time dodging a persistent rain in a very unfriendly market place. St. Lucians aren't known for their warmth or hospitality. During the jazz festival we were escorted by tourism officials to a weekend celebration called "Jump Up", which is reserved for locals as a way of relaxing and socializing after a week of hard labor much of which is spent constructing the affluent all-inclusive resorts and catering to tourists.
I was dogged by a police officer whose watchful eye kept me a safe distant from a few hostile locals - one who persistently hassled me for money. Kristine got in the flow of things and danced freely with a group of men to a thundering reggae beat. I attempted to raise the camera to catch a young man stoking a grill before his father intercedes - places a cropped chicken on the burning coals then again warns in no uncertain terms that photos were off limits. The man was serious and so was the constable who removed me from the area with few words.
The southernmost of the Windward Island chain, Grenada basks about 90 miles from the South American coast. Just 21 miles long by 12 wide, it boasts a tropical rain forest, waterfall cascades, some of the finest white beaches in the world, and perhaps the prettiest harbor-town in the Caribbean. Known as the Spice Island of the West, its most famous export is nutmeg. Other exotic crops such as cloves, cinnamon, ginger, allspice and vanilla, and coca also features in the local produce. In the untamed interior of the island you will find armadillos, opossums, birds, and Mona monkeys. Most of the 95,000 residents are Catholic. A British Colony since 1877, Grenada took its independence within the Commonwealth in 1974.
Aura and I planned to spend the day with her dear friend Leon Taylor who owns the exclusive resort, LaSource, a half hour from St. George, the capitol. The drive was nothing less than spectacular. Every plant looked vital and sun fed. Leon's splendid resort is carved along the ocean extending from his sprawling estate high on a ridge to the valley below.
LaSource is reminiscent of a West Indies colonial village where bedrooms have Persian rugs on Italian marble floors, high ceilings, Jamaican mahogany furniture and woodworks. Besides the usual sports there's yoga, fencing and serious spa treatments aromatheraphy, wraps, rubs, massages and facials. Oh, to be wealthy!
Leon invites us for a swim and encourages me to try snorkeling - a first for me. With a few pointers on clearing the mask of moisture and breathing technique, I begin to swim. On first attempt water seeps inside the mask causing me to inhale a pool of burning liquid up the nostrils - nearly frying the membranes. I then siphon a quart of seawater through the foot long breathing pipe. Tenacity is one of the positives in my chemistry - I decide to have a third go at it.
Quite a variety of fish slip by then dash among jagged boulders protruding beneath my feet. Leon convinces me to swim farther out where the "big fishes" mingle. That I do. I quickly catch a thirty second scan then suck another quart of putrid salt water down the esophagus, then pump my cautious ass back to shore.
Eventually, we opt for the safety of dining which is absolutely superb. The vegetables, fruits, Jerk Chicken are all presented in a most artful manner. Soon, my attention was consumed by a desert that resembles an apple crumble but was actually cooked-bananas layered beneath a thick topping of granola and pudding. Seconds and thirds were in order.
Aura and I give an impromptu performance in the lounge to a few invited wealthy guests. A most vigorous and appealing day.
After eight days laundry was beginning to pile up. Richard, the guitarist with the
show band became my sound-board - helping me adjust to ship life. He guided me on a tour of the laundry down to Level D area through a series of metal doors to some steamy back corridor where the Chinaman rules. "You can probably get them to do your show clothes, but my advice - wash your own underwear, T-shirts and socks - you may never get all the parts back."
From that day on I took to washing my underclothes, shorts and T-shirts in the small bathroom sink - dousing with shampoo then hanging all the items around the shower and sink until most water had drained. I then positioned the damp clothing at various intervals around the upper regions of the cabin allowing them to connect with the constant air conditioning breeze.
People get pretty antsy at sea. If not baking under the sun's penetrating rays, lined up at the pool deck buffet, or reading on a shade side deck chair, a hearty few will either slip a Walkman about the ears and walk a couple brisk miles around the ship, as if training for a marathon. This doesn't bode well for bookworms in shaded retreat. With each lap, toes must curve and legs uncrossed as not to stab passing joggers in the groin area. After a while the mind drifts back to the dream land good literature. Ah, Hemingway - this is the life - Havana's a week or so away.
Nothing to report today other than the horizon and deep blue, blue and more blue. Getting ready for another one of those bizarre pool parties. I wonder what the theme is tonight - Texas hoedown at sea?