15,16,17,18,19 x 39: Eastern Caribbean Trip!
Grenada, St. Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, British Virgin Islands. In one week. After a very interesting year on the road, quite literally, I was surprised to find that my only international travels have instead been on water. First it was a cruise in January to Belize, Honduras, Mexico. Then, sailing in Belize for a month. Finally, this Eastern Caribbean cruise, coincidentally on the very same ship I began 2016 on. After everything that has happened this year and this ship bookending it all in a curious and coincidental package, I shouldn’t be surprised that I feel like everything has truly come full circle. Again.
Academically, I feel like I’ve come full circle as well. I began the year on the final stretch of my master’s completion, which extended through the summer. On the cruise in January, I saw glimpses into my writing future, especially on Caye Caulker in Belize where dolphin and manatee research facilities are located. At that time, I had no idea I would be able to later sail through a dozen remote cayes in Belize’s brilliant reef, interviewing scientists for my curriculum production project which ultimately incorporated the effects of big boat tourism along the barrier reef and other areas of the Caribbean. Innocently, if not gluttonously, I simply recreated on the ship, oblivious to my future. Once, I saw a man accidentally drop a plastic cup on the deck. Unable to reach it as it skidded under the railing by the edge of the ship, he quietly walked away as though he tried with a quick look past his shoulder, hoping no one saw him. Using my sunglasses to grab the cup before it flew into the water for some animal to inadvertently ingest or beach to clutter, I still had no idea that I would learn about these very issues pressing our aquatic ecosystems. I was just along for the ride. I think of that man now, after everything I produced for my thesis, wondering how many cups and straws have accidentally flown off the ship and into our beautiful waters. Well, now we are here. My masters is complete, I’m able to work in a variety of educational settings to foster STEM education nationally and hopefully internationally, and my passion for travel and writing is obviously still intact. I’m also in transition, moving slowly from Texas to Maryland as the opportunities unfold in front of me, as I road trip in my pretty blue truck through a four-month solo cross country. So, when an old travel friend told me about this cruise and the timing of the universe seemed to agree, it seemed fitting to go along for the ride.
As before, I enjoy the slightly embarrassing luxury of cruises. Who doesn’t? Gluttony at its finest. It is a wonderful sensation unknowing of a border or boundary, with knockout views to boot. The plethora of food and beverage available, without a telling or stressing transaction, any time of day or night. No reminder of the day’s income or expenses, the burdens of others we escaped from or longings for others we miss, or the empty spaces that filled without realizing they were empty to begin with. Copious amounts of entertainment, gambling, recreation, exploration, admiration, and, you got it, gluttony.
The only way to cope with the gluttony is to meet it in the place that it’s in. Do all of the silly games, mixers, events, and excursions (I drew the line at those and opted out, due to my thesis research and all) – even if none of that is quite your thing. Be a good sport, or don’t do it at all. It helps if you’re “Mr. Congeniality’s wingman,” as some called me, but I’ll get into that in a moment. In the spirit of discourse and the sheer amount of time this trip took, Christopher would often challenge my views of the tourism we were experiencing, the world, relationships, entrepreneurialism, and how to make money. One of our common topics of conversation was the difference between gluttony and choice. Every time Christopher and I joined the extensive buffets or restaurants with unlimited options available each evening, he’d counter my “gluttony aghast” with a friendly “just look at all of these choices!” The same foreign concept goes for time, and how you want to spend it. Alone, socializing, partying, writing, reading, sleeping, resting, swimming, recreating… How do you choose how to spend your ample R&R time, when you spend your whole life not having enough of it? In my case, it is to wander. Meander. Explore the ship, every inch of her, aimlessly all night long. Experience every deck under the moonlight and watch the water’s night changing colors, moving swiftly at sea. Few things make me happier in life; it’s just such an unusual opportunity. One time, I walked so long into the night, people started waking up for their morning, and I knew I had to beat the sun to bed, albeit reluctantly. Otherwise, how would I be ready for a new mountainous island the next day, or the next day after that?
Unlike before, however, was this constant tug of feeling how familiar everything is. This time, I knew the ship. I knew where I’d been before. I may not necessarily know where I was going, but this – this ship – I knew well. The same magical deck I wrote on, all of the sudden aware of how strange the events of this year tied together. Her beautiful walkways, decks, and ship-like things, all familiar. Heck, even flying to Puerto Rico to catch the cruise, then staying at a hostel I’d stayed at previously, was familiar. Isn’t everything about travel is supposed to feel new? That’s half of what travelers are addicted to, right? The sensation of new. Make a lifestyle out of it even. Maybe I’m wrong about that, or maybe I’ve changed how I feel about travel since I began my own travels. In all of my trips, I’ve observed things that travelers have in common. They always want to stay and they always want to go. They enjoy new things and don’t sit still well. They all have one thing they collect or thirst for, like seeing all of the colored beaches in the world just like Mark from Wisconsin or bracelets from every Greek Isle like Claudia from Guatemala. I’m no different, I want 40 countries in 40 years of this amazing life and this trip ALMOST puts me half way there. Anyway, I feel like I’m taking a step back from this “new” addiction to identify what about travel is most important to me, and this trip is helping me to learn how, for the first time (I get it, more ‘new,’ bear with me dear reader).
For as different as we are as people, here are some reasons why Christopher is one of my favorite travel friends. We’re never beach people, we never shop, we never require a lot of accommodation, and neither one of us complains, ever. (It might have something to do with the fact that we’re not a couple, ha!) Yet somehow, I manage to get my beloved pictures of the beach and water, we always find stickers for me, flags for my twin niece and nephew, and patches for him. He ALWAYS finds the best deals on travel and lodging, and either he or I are always sharing what we dislike as easily as what we like. What makes him stand out, other than being a rather tall man from New Orleans who is above-average in size and makes no excuse for his confident nature, is that he will talk to anyone about anything at any time and always be a good sport about it. It’s contagious and attracts of a lot of attention from a lot of different people. His “boyish charm” keeps him very busy with his self-proclaimed roles as “Mr. Congeniality,” as he calls himself. Showing folks who are turned around the way to their next event and how the unique sliding doors of a ship work, showing up for every event of his interest with the proper attire and schedule in hand, and completely unafraid to ask for two or three extra helpings of whatever his fancy is at that moment. Shrimp, steak, tiramisu. Since almost all of my travels have been solo and on a shoestring, all of this is foreign to me. It was the same in Iceland, when we first met as friends last year. We saw the Golden Circle at midnight during the summer solstice, followed by a night on the town following our noses through still-lit streets at 4am. I can still hear us bickering in our own stream-of-consciousness babble way… Christopher is Christopher no matter where he finds himself in the world, like it or not. So, what do I bring to the table? You’re reading it.
There was something calm and complete about Grenada. Easy to walk around, easy to see what people were up to, easy to enjoy. We walked to the top of a fort with cannons. We ate 100% cacao from the Chocolate House. Or, rather, I fought to swallow the small piece I took and am forever traumatized by its inedible worse-than-bakers’-chocolate bitterness… never again. I sat for hours looking at my pelicans by the water in a popular hut called BB’s, where one “can resist everything except temptation.” I couldn’t believe we were so close to Venezuela, whose Angel Falls are still on my bucket list. Students walked along the water’s wall in uniform, speaking creole or French or something, some greeting us with a formal “Good Afternoon,” you’d likely hear in Europe. One elderly woman and I both mistakenly bumped into each other into traffic and hugged when both of us wouldn’t stop interrupting to apologize to one another. Lots of people in boats fishing. Nice and easy Grenada.
St. Lucia we didn’t experience so much. Through no fault of our own, we didn’t schedule excursions so just walked around as usual, unable to see much after taking the water taxi to the main bay of port. At one point, we were walking up a hill, aimlessly headed toward what appeared to be botanical gardens, when a man pulled over (it’s hard to get used to the opposite traffic of course) and said it was unsafe and to turn around and walk back. The town was town, the courtyards courtyards, the trees trees and people people, all beautiful. Sorry we missed you St. Lucia, maybe next time.
My favorite thing about Dominica is everything about it. The mountainous scenery, the friendly people, the long streets with lots of different types of buildings as she’s changed so much over the last 30 years. We went into a library, something I’ve never done in another country before, and explored its veranda that overlooked a plantation-like beach. I watched double rainbows scroll over her mountains for hours. Thank you, Dominica, for all of your silent and absoulutely (a very cute typo I saw on the sign in the library) brilliant peace. I’ll be back, promise.
We discovered that Antiqua’s charm may very well be that she has no charm. At least in her port bay. Her unusual streets filled with non-island fashion clothing stores are not unfriendly, but they are also not inviting. Unable to walk far in the heat nor find anything particularly noteworthy within walking distance in our fourth country, we decided on a cab with Henry, “the man with the tie.” A mason by trade, he showed us every wall he’s ever built on the island and every hotel under construction on the north shore. Everything we saw seemed… disorganized. No villages, just roads with either fenced in private apartments, no actual fort (that we saw) at the old fort, and no open access to the apparently 100% public beaches. Seasoned travelers, Christopher and I are used to seeing any landscape and her people, that’s why we keep doing it. But neither of us had seen anything like this, and we didn’t know why we were doing this. Did Henry just take us the non-scenic route because he’s a native, a working man, and prefers it? Is this a real snapshot of Antiqua, where the whole island is dotted with mixed-use housing and limited access, or is there some other scenic area he and all of the other locals are hiding from us? We felt like someone was playing a joke on us. Don’t even get me started on the airport he drove us to, stopped for us to admire its new tinted windows and passenger pick-up lot, and paraded through its passageways more slowly than the speed bumps required. However, it was interesting riding in a car with the driver’s seat on the right and driving on the left side of the road, that is if the roads were even wide enough for multiple lanes, and all travel experiences are experiences nonetheless. If you ever fly into Antiqua and need an industrial man as your cabbie, you know who to call.
As we walked around Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, only slightly confused by the cars driving on the left with driver’s seats also on the left, Christopher challenged my whole ‘full circle’ philosophy.
“Do you really want to end up where you’ve already been? I mean,” he added with his signature deep Louisiana chuckle, “come on, I’m not sure that’s the point, and besides you might not like what you find when you actually come around.”
I hadn’t ever considered it in this way. I have always associated that feeling of satisfying completeness, or the term ‘full circle,’ as positive, as growth and self-improvement. I feel that sensation often, and it’s a wonderful mix of feeling new and familiar at the same time. As my journeys, safaris, trips and quests continue in life, I love that reflection I have on how far I’ve come and how fortunate I am to continue with new adventures, especially in travel! I thought THAT was coming ‘full circle.’ So much so that my entire message to the universe, or at least the name of my blog and theme for many of my stories, is named after it. The name of my company is Full Circle J. Productions, LLC for cryin’ out loud. I never thought that the very thing that we rely on to make us feel complete could end up being an endless loop of experience, disaster or triumph or sadness or elation, intertwined infinitely together. Inescapable despite our own growth. Like a vicious cycle, or an unknowing trap.
Our last evening, we would be entertained by shows (Christopher had dinner with the choreographer), contests (Christopher knew the performers by name), and dances (Christopher was queued to dance often) while at sea one final time. In a very embarrassing “Quest” game, seven teams would race to do silly stunts like a Japanese game show. Our team #69 was preceded by teams #1-6. Why the jump? I didn’t understand until later as the MC concluded the evening with a sincere thank you from the 69 nations represented by the staff of the Norwegian Gem, wearing the flags of their nation on their name tags. Of course Christopher would strike up conversation with ANY of them, especially if they were from any of the many countries he’s been to, offering up his travel story immediately and without abandon. All of those flags ranked the ship’s masts, but they had not been hung there the entire trip, just the last night. I thought that was really cool.
Christopher’s comment about how we may not always need to come full circle (and my rebuttal that we may not even know when, or if, we even have) stuck with me the rest of the day and night while I wandered the ship I now wanted to call home. Under the waning gibbous moon’s light, exploring every inch of her beautiful decks for the thousandth and last time, I finally felt I got what I came for, retired early to get ready for the journey home the next day (wherever “home” may be). Coincidentally, our arrival to land was on the anniversary of my grandmother’s passing just two years ago. I remember how inspired I was in her beautiful wake, how thankful I was for her final peace and my highly-supported beginning after the five brutal yet rewarding years I spent as her caregiver. What an incredible two years of travel, and improvement, it has been since that very humbling time.
A year ago when I was on the deck of this very ship, I had a home to return to. A masters degree to complete, travel to prepare for, and tons of work to do. It’s a much different sensation returning from a luxury cruise to land without a home to speak of, no terra firma. Nothing concrete lined up. What would I do to start brand new when I got to “home,” other than get a home, to begin with? How will I continue to use my experience and education in the future, but perhaps on something new? What new opportunities are waiting for me there, wherever “there” is? Or, should I remain at sea, adrift, maybe start bussing tables with the rest of the crew and simply stay on the ship? Sail away forever? What choices lie beyond this ‘full circle?’ So many choices! Just before we disembarked, I stood on my favorite deck enjoying the last breeze of the sea, feeling connected to the universe in a way that only time at sea can do. I realized the time had finally come for me to find out.
Special thanks to Christopher, “Mr. Congeniality.”
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