Monday, April 6, 2009

Back from the Caribbean

I'm facing a mountain of emails and Things To Do after being gone 7 days on a boat. Yes, that's what the family told Veeka: That her mommy was gone on a big boat. When I got back late Saturday, she could not stop kissing my face. Now she is back to throwing tantrums when I turn off the TV.
Anyway, I flew to Puerto Rico and wandered about old town San Juan for awhile before boarding this large cruise ship. The large fort built by the Spaniards over a 200-year period had magnificent ocean views. We took off late March 28 for Sint Maarten, a Dutch/French island that was our first port of call. Now I had been in touch with a Christian charity that is funding an outreach out of Philipsburg, the largest city on this tiny island - and I was interested in seeing some of the illegal immigrants (from Haiti and other places) they were helping. Although a lot of Haitians get to US shores, even more land on other Caribbean islands. I missed my appointment with a Catholic priest cuz the ship came in later than I thought so I wandered off to a beach for a few hours, then returned and tried calling him on my cell phone. Amazingly, I found the man and after showing me his food pantry, he assigned a parishioner to take me around to the slums of Sint Maarten to meet poor and desperate people.
The next few hours were amazing. I am posting a photo of one little girl standing in front of a container - that is where her family lived in the midst of an auto junkyard. Her dad, in his 60s, cannot find a job. They were beyond poor. I happened to bring along some stuffed animals (purloined them from Veeka's stash of thousands) with me, so gave her two and she was so delighted to get anything resembling a new toy. Another woman I visited had taken on 17 orphans - all dumped on her front doorstep by druggies and prostitutes. Another woman, who had diabetes, was desperate for funds for her medication and to pay her daughter's school fees. She was an illegal immigrant from Guyana, where she said life is even worse. Her husband, also illegal, had been deported and was of no help. Another family had been cheated by a ruthless Chinese merchant and was being evicted from their home. They need a lawyer but cannot afford one. Most of the women I met had no husbands or male support whatsoever. The men tend to abandon the women so in one instance, three women had moved in together and pooled care of their kids.
I hope to do an article for the WTimes on Easter Sunday about this as the situation was truly pitiable on an island that's known as a tourist draw. The money that this US-based charity provides has to stretch to accommodate 250 families who are all in dire straits.
The following day, we were in Dominica, an eco-tourism spot I had long wanted to visit. First thing we did was visit an aerial tram that sped us through the tree-tops of pristine forest. A biologist with us was dishing out reams of info about herbal remedies, tropical woods and the rain forest. Of course we got rained on while in this gondola-like contraption. Am posting a photo of me on an 84-foot suspension bridge over a gorge in the rain forest. Then we visited Trafalgar Falls where some of us found lovely natural hot water pools - see the third photo of me submerged in cloudy aqua water. Then we coaxed our driver into taking us one-quarter of the way around the island to see a lovely place - the Emerald Pool - in another rain forest. It was a long day but our favorite island, as it turned out. It's not an easy island to fly to but I'd really recommend going there to anyone who likes to hike. The paths were beautifully kept up and there are NO MOSQUITOS on the island cuz of the sulphur from the volcanic lakes.
I didn't get to see much of Grenada, the next island, because I was exhausted from Dominica plus I needed a place to use the Internet and purchase gifts. I found a lovely beach and died for a few hours.
The last two islands: Bonaire and Aruba, are very different. They are mostly desert - lots of cactus. I snorkeled and water-skied near Bonaire and on Aruba, I tried wind-surfing. Maybe John Kerry makes it look easy but it was HARD. I fell off that board many times into the lagoon and the boom would hit me or the sail would slap me. A few times I did manage to glide along but then I could not *turn*. The weather was fabulous the whole time; my roommate was very friendly and the group I was with was very cordial. The beaches and the ice-blue water was wonderful. Aruba was far more developed and touristy than Bonaire. I was not impressed with the snorkeling in Bonaire - maybe it was a bad reef day but I've seen better elsewhere.
Fortunately our last day was spent solely on the ship before sailing in Saturday morning. I managed to find a lovely bike path near the San Juan airport that I explored part of Saturday - cool mangrove swamps and great orange-sand beaches - before catching my plane which turned out to be 3 hours late! I tried not to eat too much on the ship but gained 3 lbs unfortunately. Now it is back to real life.

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