Monday, February 20, 2017

The Beach Town of Maceio

19 February 2017 

This is the fourth blog I'm posting today, so please go back four posts to see all of our updates.  We’re having major wifi problems – the wifi on the ship is super expensive, as well as slow and sometimes it just disappears.  Some ports have free wifi, but we haven’t reached one yet in Brazil.  So I’m just writing the blog, and will post everything at once.

Maceio is a moderately-sized city best known for its beaches – gorgeous pale golden sand beaches that line the shores of this coastal town.  There are several points which jut out into the ocean, so there’s even more beach. 

We’re still close to the equator, so the shallow water is that beautiful aqua blue found only in tropical seas and oceans.  Crystal clear, and just such a brilliant color. 

There was a school band playing as we left the ship, kids roughly 13 to 16 years old.  A large tent was set up, with sort of a little market – this region is known for the lace and crochet work, so there were items for sale, along with other things.  But we shop very little, so we glanced at the items and walked to the buses which took us over to the handicrafts market.  More of the same, though colorful and pretty en masse.

We were hoping to find free wifi, but nothing was available.  The one restaurant with wifi wasn’t opening until 11:30 AM, and it was only 9:30 AM.  Plus we had to leave by 12:30 noon in order to get back to the ship.  So we gave up on that, and headed back to the pier. 

The kids in the band were hanging around while someone else played guitar, so Richard went over to chat with the clarinetist, having played clarinet when he was in school.  Another student seemed to be translating for the clarinet kid, and at one point the teacher came over.  I didn’t catch the entire conversation, but it included Richard asking them if they knew Dixieland music.  Complete with Richard doing a little version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  What can I say, it was really funny to be on the outskirts of this conversation!

We had a relaxing afternoon on board as we head south, toward tomorrow’s port. 

I still have laryngitis from this cold, so rather than go to the dining room and barely be able to have a conversation, I’ve been having my meals delivered to our stateroom.  Not that it’s a large stateroom, but we have a two-seater couch, a chair, and a tiny table.  So I get my dinner delivered, and it’s quite lovely, actually!  Richard likes the casual dining upstairs, but there’s so much mango that I end up avoiding a large amount of the food options. 

The dining room has a whole process for those of us with food allergies, or other food requirements.  I find their whole system to be really interesting.

First, there was a request that I fill out a form regarding my food allergy, and email it to the main office of the cruise line.  Then, we printed a copy, and I gave it to the head dining room manager.  The first night I had dinner, I let the waiter know about my allergies, and he made sure nothing had the evil mango in it.

But then, to avoid any possible mistake or cross-contamination, at the end of the meal I was presented with the next day’s menu.  It was explained that I should select what I’d like for dinner, and my food would be prepared away from any of the other food, to avoid getting even a smidgeon of mango in my meal.  So I’ve been doing that every day, and the staff seem to all know that I (and a number of other people onboard) have a “special order.”

We also appreciate the joys of in-room breakfast.  Yeah, this is absolutely a luxurious way to travel.  Leaps and bounds different from our usual style, and we both feel we’re barely getting a glimpse of the cities we’re visiting.

But it’s kind of nice to be pampered, however briefly!

Recife Color

18 February 2017

Before I write about our day, I need to explain a problem our ship encountered.  The ship was a bit late leaving Belem, because one of the tours got stuck in traffic and the passengers were late getting back to the ship.  Since we waited maybe a half hour, the current in the river had shifted just a bit, and when the anchor was hauled up, it was facing the wrong way.  So the prongs (called “flukes” on an anchor) wouldn’t fit back into the anchor slot properly.  The pilot ship tried to assist, but it wasn’t working.  We motored toward the mouth of the river, where either the current was less or the river was deeper, the captain’s explanation was a bit confusing.  Anyway, we had to let the anchor down again, all the way out, and then haul it in again.  Luckily the anchor turned around in this process and was able to fit into its storage slot correctly, so we could continue on our way. 

However, with all of that, we got a bit off schedule, losing nearly two hours.  Everything is pretty tightly scheduled, so the captain ordered all engines at full speed (but not quite warp speed).  But we’ve been sailing (or motoring) against the current for several days, heading east-southeast along the northern coast of Brazil, and then around that little corner that sticks out into the ocean.

So we arrived in Recife two hours late, and will leave about an hour or two late tonight.  Our next few days’ destinations are nearby, so we won’t have any days “at sea” until the end of next week.  I guess this way the captain is able to make up the lost time, and get back on schedule.

Today we’re in Recife, Brazil.  This is one of the oldest cities in Brazil, founded in 1534 by the Portuguese, and houses THE oldest synagogue in all of the Americas.  So that was our destination for our day here.  The city is crisscrossed by rivers and canals, and some people refer to it as the “Venice of Brazil.”  Both the pier and the old city are located on an island at the mouth of several rivers, which form a natural harbor.

This is a major port on the northeast corner of Brazil, and the pier is busy during the week.  Being Saturday, things are quiet, but the pier has a no pedestrians rule.  So there are buses that take us from the ship to the passenger terminal, weaving around silos and cranes and other equipment.

In the passenger terminal, there was an info center complete with maps and helpful staff – so we got vague directions for the synagogue.  Downstairs, there was a band and two Carnival dancers in costume, complete with mini umbrellas – or Carnaval, in the Brazilian Portuguese spelling.  Carnaval is next weekend, when we arrive in Rio, and it seems to be the same dates up here as well.  (Carnaval is what New Orleans calls Mardi Gras, the festive time before Lent.  In Catholic countries, Carnival or Carnaval tend to be on the same dates.  However, in the Caribbean, the islands celebrate Carnival for non-religious reasons, so the dates have nothing to do with a festival prior to Lent – Carnival is Carnival for its own sake there, and the dates relate to local events, not religious.) 

Anyway, we were walking along the main street that runs parallel to the shore, heading south I think.  Along the cross streets, we could see colorful streamers being put up overhead, with lights being added by road crews.  There was even a huge tent, maybe a viewing stand, being installed on that main boulevard.  Lovely colorful fluttering banners overhead, waving people in to the Carnaval festivities! 

We checked our directions with a few policemen – and no, we don’t speak Portuguese.  But I spoke in my Spanish, they answered in sort of an Argentinian Spanish, with some Portuguese thrown in, so we could communicate.  We got better directions, and I also got some information for two people who were following us, thinking we knew where we were going.  (Hah!)

So we turned up at the right block, and there was a blocked off but uncovered old (antique?) building.  Richard thought it looked like the remains of the drainage system, but I think it looks more like the corner of some old fortress, or maybe defensive walls around the old city.  There wasn’t anyone around to ask, so it will remain a mystery to us.  But it was pretty interesting, if oddly placed.

We walked on and found Rua do Bom Jesus, also known as Rua dos Judeus – Street of the Jews.  Not the most flattering name, but accurate.  We walked a block too far, going right past the synagogue – but a taxi driver and two men on the street sent us back half a block, and we found it.
Sinagoga Kahal Zur Israel, or the Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue, is nestled in what seems to be a residential neighborhood of beautiful and colorful colonial homes.  It looks like another one of the painted homes, with large windows and shuttered arched doors.  (We have no idea what the Hebrew name means.)  The sign says “It’s from the 17th century and the first formal synagogue in all of the Americas.  It’s the main landmark of the Judaic presence in Brazil.  In 2001 it was reformed, and holds the Judaic Cultural Center of Pernambuco.”

We had hoped to arrive in time for Shabbat services, today being Saturday.  But the place was closed.  A tour group came by, and while they were speaking Spanish, we were able to piece together some information – the synagogue was built during the Dutch occupation of the city, from 1637 to 1644.  They have three Torah scrolls that date back to the 1600s.  It was once the center of Jewish activity in the city, and many of the old buildings surrounding it still stand.  The building next door was once the Hebrew school, and part of the synagogue.  This synagogue itself is no longer a house of worship, but is now more of a Jewish cultural center.  So it’s closed on Saturdays.  The congregation meets elsewhere. 

We’d have liked to see the interior, and especially those 400 year old Torahs, but, well, that wasn’t going to happen.  So, we wandered on.

There were the same black and white stone mosaic sidewalks that we saw in Belem, although with different designs.  Some are abstracts in sort of an Art Nouveau style, but others relate to the industry of the shops or neighborhood – or at least that’s my guest from the anchor designs in the sidewalk!

I also found someone who was decorating mini umbrellas – these seem to be part of the Carnaval costumes, or maybe are a popular souvenir.  They were wonderful little rainbow-colored umbrellas, and he was adding designs, images, and words in glitter paint, as well as adding streamers in the corners or around the top, and maybe some sequins or stickers glued on.  Just so cheerful and colorful, I had to take photos! 

About this point of the day, those dark grey threatening skies decided to sprinkle a bit of rain.  Tiny compared to what we thought might happen, but enough to send us hurrying back to the passenger terminal.  Walking around in the rain while having laryngitis just wasn’t on our program for the day. 

Richard went on to the market in the afternoon, on the free shuttle provided by the cruise line.  I stayed in, warm and dry, drinking tea and babying this cold.  (Nothing worse than not feeling up to par while travelling, especially when the weather turns rainy.) 

So that was it for Recife: Carnaval preparation, a closed synagogue, and a nice walk.  We’re okay with that.  We don’t want to race around and see everything for a brief moment, we like to absorb each town a bit more slowly.  We both feel a little bit rushed by the ship’s schedule, with barely a day in each port – but that’s part of life on a cruise, and we were prepared for a different way of travelling.

The map points out the places we’ve visited on the cruise thus far – no names, just numbers showing the sequence of ports and our general route.

Across The Blue Equator

16 February 2017

We crossed the equator last night, somewhere between 11 PM and 1 AM – and this morning we received certificates that we sailed across the equator.  There was an event at noon, where people swam in the pool so they could say they swam across the equator.  We skipped that, but it’s fun to have an official certificate.

We’re in Brazil!  Belem is located on the Guama River, and was founded in 1616.  This city is about 100 km (60 miles) inland from the Atlantic Ocean, and almost but not quite on the southern edge of the Amazon Delta.  The rubber industry fueled the rapid growth of this city, and the original Portuguese fort can be visited.  The city rapidly expanded, and some of the gorgeous old colonial buildings still stand.

Our focus was to visit the old synagogue which dates back to the early 1800s.  Many Jews settled in this part of the world, escaping not only the Spanish (and Portuguese) Inquisition, but general prejudice and laws prohibiting owning land.  So they arrived, and built synagogues.

This turned into a typical Phebe and Richard adventure.  First, we took the tender to the town of Icoaraci, which seems to be a rather poor and sad sort of fishing town.  People weren’t starving, but the town and buildings and businesses seemed minimal, worn, and depressed.  We were shown the buses that were provided for us, and we rode to Belem. 

The ride should have been about half an hour, but it took nearly an hour.  Turned out there was a protest march or demonstration in the middle of one of the main roads in Belem, so the road was closed and traffic was detoured onto the side streets.

The bus parked, we got down, and I asked the dispatcher/coordinator lady for directions to the synagogue.  (I had with me the partial city map and page from the cruise book, with the synagogue’s address and name written down.)  She told us to follow the main detour street, go straight several blocks, and ask at a hotel, they could explain it better. 

So we walked, maybe eight or ten blocks, and asked at a tourist office.  The lady didn’t speak English or Spanish, but she called a co-worker who took us outside to show us which way to go.  Straight on the same road, a road by another name behind the school, turn right, go 100 meters, there it is, the synagogue is blue.  Uh, okay.

We walked some more, maybe another five or six blocks, and the main road ended.  But we couldn’t find the street with the name we needed.  Uh oh!

Richard looked around, and there was a young man, or maybe a kid, age 17 or something, we don’t know.  He’s selling cold water.  And wearing a Yankee cap.  Richard yells “good hat!” to him, points at his own Yankee hat, points at the kid’s hat, they grin at each other and give each other a thumbs up.

I figure okay, we’ve made personal contact, let’s ask for directions.  He doesn’t speak English, but Mr Yankee Hat understands my slow and minimal Spanish.  Turns out he knows where the synagogue is – take this side street to the right, go one block, turn left, go up that street, there it is.  I say, “And it’s blue!” (in Spanish).  He grins, nods, we say thank you in Spanish and Portuguese, he says “Shalom!”  Wow!

We start walking, and he decides to walk with us.  He escorts us all the way to the synagogue, and tells me in sort of a Spanish/Portuguese mix that he also is Jewish.  His name is Joshua, pronounced “YO-shoo-ah” in Portuguese.  And he adds that his name in Hebrew is “yo-HO-shoo-ah.”  We introduce ourselves, we all shake hands, and he’s good with taking a photo with Richard, with their Yankee hats.

Classic Phebe and Richard story!  Not exactly making best friends, but definitely meeting new people along the way as we travel around!

Of course, then the synagogue turns out to be closed, which our friend may have told us.  We don’t understand much Portuguese.  Richard talked to a man up the street, who said no one opens the building, no one goes there, they don’t have worship services.  It’s just there.  It’s beautiful, built in the mid-1800s, and is a bright and blinding cerulean blue, with white trim.  There’s a central dome, and small towers that look vaguely like minarets – plus the central rose window in the front façade has a star of David in the center.  Definitely a mix of architectural traditions.  And probably wonderful inside.  The outer view is somewhat impaired by the heavy electrical lines along the street.  But we were glad to have visited even the outside, and having met Mr Yankee Hat guy.

We turned around and walked back to the place to meet the shuttle bus.  Looked at some food items, but it was about 95 F and humid (31 C) – we just wanted to cool off, and didn’t know what we wanted for lunch.  It was easier to catch the shuttle, get a tender back to the ship, and grab a late lunch on board.

We couldn’t find wifi in either place.  We’re hoping we can get online in Recife, and maybe post this blog.  Otherwise, I’ll just keep a running blog file and post it when we can.

We have two days at sea as we travel from Belem to Recife.  Complete with lessons in capoeira and samba dancing!  I want to SAMBA!!!!

Good-Bye Caribbean, Hello Devils Island

15 February 2017

It has been a busy five days, though not a whole lot of island visiting.  We spent several hours in Bridgetown, Barbados – but it was Saturday, so the synagogue was closed after morning Sabbath services (and we weren’t quite that early).  Then a sea day, and the following day we arrived at Devils Island, French Guiana (or Guyana, depending on your preference). 

Devils Island was a French prison.  Really, only a prison.  About seven miles from the mainland, through shark-infested ocean with a strong current, this was one of the most notorious prisons in the penal system at the time (used up through the early part of the 20th century).  The one and only prisoner who ever escaped and survived was Papillon, the Frenchman wrongly accused of murder.  He escaped by jumping off a cliff and then clinging to a bag full of coconuts, which enabled him to float with the current and arrive in Venezuela (I think) several days later.

The other famous prisoner housed at Devils Island was Captain Dreyfus, a French Jewish military man wrongly accused of treason.  He spent several years at Devils Island before he was found not guilty of the trumped up charges, and was freed.  It was purely a political accusation based on anti-Semitism at the time.  (About 1904 or something, though we’re not certain and I’m writing this off line, so I can’t exactly check this.)

I'm not sure, was the Count of Montecristo here as well?
Some people took the tenders over to Devils Island, and visited the ruins of the prison, plus looked for monkeys in the jungle.  We opted to stay on ship.  I had planned to go and photograph the monkeys, while skipping the prison – but I came down with a cold, and it seemed sensible to avoid being in a crowded lifeboat if I could do so.  (Especially since many of the passengers seem to be in their 80s and even 90s.  I wouldn’t want to give someone my cold and have it turn serious.)

Throughout the day, the movie “Papillon” was shown, very appropriately.  This starred a rather young Dustin Hoffman as the forger Degas, and a hunky Steve McQueen as Papillon.  Sigh.  The movie was both more and less dramatic than Papillon’s true story, but it definitely was interesting, and perfect for when we were anchored just off the coast of Devils Island. 

It’s amazing how much there is to do on the ship when staying aboard, or on sea days.  I’ve attended lectures on various ports we’ll be visiting in a few days.  Seen two cooking demonstrations.  Did some sewing repairs on clothes.  Chatted with other guests from all over the world – lots of passengers from Canada as well as all over the US; England, Australia, New Zealand, and other parts of the British Empire; parts of Europe such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands; India; Israel.  Plus we chat with our crew, who seem to be mainly from the Philippines and Indonesia (especially Bali), though the casino staff are from places like South Africa, Chile, and Italy, so then I get to practice my Spanish and Italian.

The ship also has board games, jigsaw puzzles, etc. to keep passengers amused.   Or at least not two bored.  I’ve helped with a difficult jigsaw puzzle, and that’s a great way to meet people, since passengers as well as crew wander by and stop to put in a piece or two. 

And of course afternoon tea, where I meet up with friends we’ve made, and sip tea, eat finger sandwiches, and enjoy a scone or two with jam.  Not every day, but it’s a good substitute for a light lunch if we’ve slept late.  Or, as today, stayed out touring and then missed lunch.

The ship has the option of having breakfast delivered to your stateroom.  Do you know how wonderful that is?  Fill out a form, hang it from your door the night before, and then wake up to yogurt, fruit, and a basket of a few mini pastries (which of course I share with Richard, who has a bigger brekkie than yogurt and fruit).  Get dressed, or stay in the ship’s bathrobe.  Sip tea while watching the morning news.  Decide what to do for the day based on the schedule.  Wow, truly feels luxurious!

Some of our fellow passengers cruise frequently, and think this is the only way to travel.  I keep telling people that this is way more posh than the way we normally travel, with options like breakfast in the room.  Chocolates on the pillow.  Daily delivery of summarized newspapers, as well as a schedule of the ship’s events that day, or the schedule of our port visit.  The entire ship is a well-run community, complete with its own print shop for all the information we receive daily!

We’re currently awaiting our call to the tenders (using the ship’s lifeboats) to head to shore.  We’re anchored off Icoaraci, a port city on an inlet south of the mouth of the Amazon.  We’ll motor over to Icoaraci, then take a shuttle to the historic city of Belem, on of the oldest cities in Brazil, going back to 1616. 

Okay, it’s close to time to catch our tender, so I’ll close.  We have a plan to visit Belem, and will try to catch some wifi time in the afternoon.  (We ran out of time, and couldn’t find reliable or safe wifi.)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Trinidad, Tobago, and Right Now Barbados

9 February 2017 - but posted on 11 Feb, in Barbados

The ship docked at Port of Spain, Trinidad.  We got off the ship and there was a school steel pan band playing music, right on the dock.  The students looked to be roughly ages 12 to 15, just like my students.  Some were playing seriously, others playing around as much as they were playing music.  I watched them play on as passengers came off, posed in front of the band, took selfies, and headed out.  I was so excited to see the school band, I completely forgot to take any photos of them!  But when the song ended, I chatted with the kids and their teacher, to find out what grade (or form, here in Trinidad), and explained we’d lived in the USVI and that my school had a steel pan band as well.  Times like this make me really miss teaching!

There were also sweet little house-like structures along the dock, in bright colors with lovely gingerbread trim, reminiscent of the old-time cottages in many of the Caribbean islands.  These all featured sites and sights of Trinidad and Tobago, a twin island nation.

But rather than taking a tour around the island, we opted to wander the city.  Not wandering aimlessly.  No, we were on a quest to find the best roti shop in Port of Spain.

We received the name of the best roti in the city from a man selling stamps in the market.  We set off, walking down the street but unsure if this was really the street we should be on.  We’d walk a few blocks, ask directions, chat with the people we’d asked directions from, and walk some more.  There are city guides wearing red shirts and helping lost or confused tourists, but somehow we never could find one of them when we needed help.

Several blocks into our quest, a lovely young woman overheard us asking for directions.  She knew the exact shop we were looking for, so she said she’d show us where it was.

Turned out she’s a professional tour guide, and had spent the morning leading a group from our ship.  She’s also studying Spanish at the Venezualan embassy, as well as working on her track and field skills.  Her goal is to good enough to get on the national track and field team – so in a few years, look for Aiesha on the Trinidadian Olympic team!

We had a great time talking with her as she walked us to the shop and helped me order my shrimp roti.  Now, for people who don’t know what roti is – this is a traditional Trinidadian food that has its roots in East Indian cooking, but has changed and spread throughout the Caribbean.  Roti is the name for bread or bread products, but has come to mean a very thin pancake or tortilla like bread, usually made in two ultra thin layers with chick pea flour or dry dal (lentil flour) in between the two layers.  The roti is laid flat, filled with curried potatoes and garbanzos, and vegs if you want, as well as the meat/fish of your choice.  Then it’s folded and wrapped up, and you eat it either like a burrito, or open it out and eat the inside by picking it up with pieces of the roti, sort of the way Ethiopian food is eaten.  Either way, it’s delicious and rather messy.

So I had a fabulous shrimp roti, my absolute fave.  With just a little hot sauce added in.

Richard isn’t a fan of curry, and all the meat was curried, not stewed, so he skipped the roti.

We finally headed back, and passed a bank with the national seal of Trinidad and Tobago, which Aiesha explained to me – and this is why we like to meet and hang out with local people.  The two birds represent the two islands, the red ibis for Trinidad, and the white and blue bird (the name was something like cockerel, but I’m not positive if that’s what it was) for Tobago.  The central shield has the ships representing Columbus’s ships, because Columbus really did arrive on these shores.  Above the ships are two hummingbirds – the indigenous people called the islands “land of the hummingbirds” because there are seventeen distinct species here in these islands.  So that’s the national shield.

Eventually, we found the walkway along the water, and Aiesha was ready to head on.  We hugged goodbye, and told her we’d be forever grateful for her assistance.  Plus we’ll watch for her in the Olympics in four years.  Really, she was about 6 ft tall and gorgeous – and just the nicest person!

We had dinner with two professors from California, and are looking forward to a day on the beach tomorrow in Tobago!

10 February 2017

We were supposed to go to Scarborough, Tobago, today.  However, once again Richard and I managed to have our own exciting adventure without even trying.

Something happened to our toilet early this morning, where it started flushing and wouldn’t stop.  Except that while the water kept flowing in, the trap didn’t open so the water came pouring out.  POURING out.  Gushing!  Clean water, but splashing all over the bathroom floor.  And then out of the bathroom and into our stateroom.

Richard tried dealing with this without waking me, but of course I woke up.  We called the only number we knew, room service, and they gave us the number to call the front desk.  The front desk lady came and tried flushing the toilet to see if it would catch and stop.  Of course, Richard had tried that, to no avail.  Didn’t work when the lady tried.  She called her supervisor, who tried something with a knife.  Nada.  They finally called the plumbers, who tried some repair from the bathroom.  Nope, still water pouring out.  So they opened the utility room next door and shut off the water to our room (and possible the entire section of room).

By now we had puddles across our entire room, and people started coming out of the neighboring rooms to report that they were getting water in their rooms!  Uh oh!

So cleaning this up is a huge process, starting with wet vacs, then fans and dehumidifiers, following up with a rug shampoo and more wet vac and more fans.  Twenty-four or more hours to clean this up.

We got moved to a new room.  And actually received an upgrade, since we now have what is called a lanai room – we have a sliding glass door that opens out onto the deck, complete with two lounge chairs reserved for the lanai rooms.

Of course, our suitcases got a bit wet under the bed – so we spread those out to dry, and carried our items in other kinds of bags, plus hanging clothes on a rolling rack.  It wasn’t too major, but it took half the day.  So we never got off the ship, and basically just packed up, moved, unpacked, and put everything away. 

The guest services people kept apologizing, along with the room stewards.  We kept saying it was okay, things happen, we could handle it.  I finally told one of them that I know some people get very upset about things like this, but that we aren’t like that.  This was a situation that wasn’t anyone’s fault, something just broke, and we’d move to a new room and it was fine.  They later told us that they’ve arranged for a free spa day for the two of us to enjoy, as their way of saying how sorry they were for the inconvenience.

So, my only photos of Tobago are as we left, after my lovely afternoon tea.  We relaxed in the sunset (on our reserved lounge chairs) as we pulled out of the port and headed northward toward Barbados.