Your brave circumnavacators have been taking a long, lengthy break in the lovely town of Durham, North Carolina, working on graduate school and being a good dog owner and creating mobile apps. But I came back to traveling this winter with a new partner this time: my mother! As it turns out, traveling is still a lot of fun and filled with new things, so I’ve written a few posts about the week-long cruise we took to the islands of St. Thomas, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Maarten.
We departed last Sunday evening from the lovely city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Most Caribbean cruises can leave from the Gulf Coast or Florida, but since we wanted to see some of the islands that lay furtherest south, we first both took plane trips to Puerto Rico and met up there. We sailed on the Carnival Valor, an incredibly large boat that proved to be a fairly good time. A few words about cruises: they are mostly for people who really want to be entertained all the time, enjoy a lot of food and alcohol, and get tanned. That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it. That’s not really my parents or me or Steve. However, as they are a large floating vehicle, restaurant and hotel in one, they are also a cost-effective and cost-efficient means of travel between destinations, especially islands. The last time we visited the US Virgin Islands, I was responsible for coordinating renting a car on one island and plane flights and hotel accommodations on three different islands. And I never want to do that again. Hence the cruise.
The attractions for us were all (okay mostly) on the islands we visited. On Monday, we arrived at our first island, barely a stone’s throw from Puerto Rico: St. Thomas. St. Thomas is the smallest and the most well-known of the US Virgin Islands. We pulled into Charlotte Amalie harbor in the early morning, one of the deepest ports in the Caribbean. St. Thomas is generally known for its excellent shopping, but my mom and I were intent on trying out scuba diving for the first time. We’re avid snorkelers and strong swimmers, and wanted to try out scuba diving for the first time, so we joined a shore excursion that the ship had arranged. At Coki Beach, a beach we visited a few years ago, we went through a short lesson on scuba diving and how to communicate underwater using hand signals — the universal sign for OK is a question as well as an answer, how to say we’re having a problem, how to say we want to go up or go down, and how to manipulate our vest.
Basically, water pressure means most of your body (70%) is fine but the rest, the air-containing portions, must be equalized as you go down. For your mask and ear and sinuses, you should pinch your nostrils and sneeze as you go down (about one foot a second) and for your lungs, you have to breathe continuously. The number one diving rule is in fact to breathe continuously. I remember thinking that it was hilarious that they kept emphasizing that, but when you’re sitting or kneeling in about 4 feet of water with a regulator in your mouth, it seems extraordinarily impossible to keep breathing. I kept forgetting, but once you do it for a while (at least 5-10 minutes), you begin get the hang of it. It is unintuitive and scary and absolutely intimidating to try scuba diving, but after about five or six minutes, you can actually begin to compartmentalize that fear and surreal feeling of breathing underwater. And then we got to swimming. My mom started feeling uncomfortable right away, and ended up just floating along the top of the sea, hanging onto a life-bouy that one of our instructors was holding. I was getting along not badly most of the time. We did see some really cool things, and I feel like I was getting much closer to the coral than I have before. We even saw some coral nurseries, where they’re trying to get the coral to grow back.
About halfway through, I started feeling this headache. Clearing my nostrils and stuff didn’t really help that much, and I slowly got more dizzy and headachey until we ended. Then to my horror, I almost threw up when we got out of the water. I ended up having to sit down for a while, and felt shaky for like half an hour. I definitely had that headache, and also felt like I wanted to throw up. My mother predicted it was lack of oxygen. Either way, I couldn’t stay in the car on the way back, so we just let the car go back without us, and we hung out at the beach for another hour or so. My mom went swimming for a while at the beach, and I lied down on the towels and took a nap. It was a huge relief to wake up about half an hour later feeling better. I was really a little scared I’d done something to myself. So needless to say, scuba diving is not really for us. I’m glad I tried anyway, and I feel like the lesson was a teensy bit more hurried than it could have been, but overall, it was good to have a small lesson and learn what it was like. We had about 3000 PSI of air and went down to a depth of 35-40 feet max with our instructors for about 25-30 minutes, which took me about 1000 or 12000 PSI of air. I’m glad I can say I’ve tried it before, but if I ever do it again which is unlikely seeing as how Steve is never going to try scuba diving, I would take it very very slow.
We took a taxi back down to the town, and halfway down, it really started raining buckets. The people sitting behind us on the open-air taxi (like something clapped onto the back of a pick-up truck, just like in Thailand) were talking to a guy who works on the island. He said his electric bill here is crazy –it costs about 69 cents per kilowatt/hour which translates to a monthly bill of $700+! Islands are just always insanely expensive. It took us a while to get back to the boat, and we immediately showered, dressed, and had a good meal at the buffet. When I woke up from a nap, my mom and I explored the ship and found the library. As I mentioned, cruises are generally for people who want to eat, drink, and be merry, so that library was rather small and un-frequented. We only succeeded in finding one puzzle that was worth doing – a beach scene of about 500 pieces, and spent the next four hours at it. My mom had been frustrated that I was sleeping so much (apparently sleep-deprivation due to grad school isn’t a real thing for her), but halfway through the puzzle, she started humming Christmas songs, which definitely meant she was feeling better! Travel is always the priority for us, but I know she ultimately loves spending time with me and my dad the best.
After dinner, I made a beeline for a sports bar called the Bronx Bar, which is connected to the casino area here. I had discovered to my delight that they had ESPN broadcasting there, and on Monday evening at 8:15 pm EST (9:15 pm ship time), they would be showing Saints vs. Bears at Soldier Field!!! Monday Night Football!!!!! I was ecstatic, after thinking I’d be deprived of football and Internet for the rest of the week. (For the record, there is Internet on the boat, but at an exorbitant price, so commoners like us simply abstained.). My mother insisted on accompanying me at first because she was telling me she was very afraid someone would abduct me and toss me overboard, which was definitely a dramatic story she’d heard through an email chain, but aaaaanyway. I had a great time watching the first half. Both Saints and Bears were completely inept, it was so sad. There were two turnovers in the first THREE minutes, and Jay Cutler got sacked three times in the first half. I met a family of Chicagoans who live in the south suburbs near Tinley Park, and we exchanged commiserations on just how hard it is to root for the Bears.
Before we went to sleep, my mom and I sat on our balcony, enjoying the night breeze. It was always inky black outside. We had completely left behind the lights of the neighboring islands, and were sailing straight south in the dark, warm breeze. It was wonderful, and we had a whole second day to enjoy simply sailing at sea since we were headed for Barbados, a full day away.
The day at sea is really a translation for: enjoy everything that’s on this boat. At sea, you’re allowed to play in the casino (thanks, maritime laws!), and the duty-free shops are open, and all the bars are open starting in the morning. We got started fairly late, waking up around 9 am and then putting on our bathing suits and making our way to breakfast. We were just starting to get a hang of this buffet thing. By the end of our last day on the cruise, going through the line at breakfast time was absolutely routine. We bulked up on fruit, oatmeal, yogurt, and some protein (bacon, eggs, etc.) I have noted before to Steve’s mother’s amusement that grits is actually eaten in Chinese cuisine as well, and better known as xiaomizhou, and on the boat, I got the chance to tell my mom that people in the American South ate the same thing! She was very amused as well.
After breakfast, we took ourselves out to the deck and hung out in the shade. The sun was very brilliant, and people were enjoying themselves in the pools all around. I read most of White Collar Government, which is a book by my politics professor Nick. It was very enjoyable to actually be able to read statistical charts with coefficients and p-values and actually recognize what was going on. I’ve never cared so much about a political science book! Eventually, my mom got fed up with my inactivity and went downstairs to splash about in the pool, and we also slid down the large water slide on the boat. Thank goodness for the sunscreen my mom brought. She didn’t have a travel-sized bottle, and we weren’t checking any luggage, so she put it in a little bottle that used to have some Chinese medicine in capsules, so it’s got a bunch of Chinese writing. I made a joke that people would think we were applying some Asian cure-all to our skin when it’s just sunscreen, and it went down pretty well with my mom, who giggled for about five minutes.
The entire theme of the boat (Carnival Valor) is all about brave and valiant figures in American and world history. It sounds pretty kitschy, but I’d like to note that it’s at least better than the Carnival Conquest, another Carnival boat which glorifies stories of war and horrible genocide of native tribes in the Americas. Yeah, that one is just politically incorrect all over. So the 9th floor buffet style restaurant where we ate most of our meals is called Rosie’s, after Rosie the Riveter, and there’s also a huge mosaic of her. We marked the stairwells on the boat by the large paintings that hung in each one. The levels nearest our stateroom and the restaurant (walking from 7th to 9th floors) had large terribly drawn depictions of Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, and Amelia Earhart. (And if you walk to the 10th floor, you see one of Queen Elizabeth!)
In the afternoon, we headed to the library again and I took out four books in total – a biography of Stephen Colbert, a book about the Voyager I and II probes, a second sequel to Freakonomics, and a Sara Paretsky novel. Then we also then went ahead and took a stroll around the top of the ship, which ended up becoming a regular pursuit every day before or after dinner. There’s a running track in an oval shape for which one lap is 181 meters, so after about 9 laps, you get one mile. My mom was mildly pleased that I took the time to walk 9 laps around with her. I took several pictures of the sun and sea all around and also watched some kids play volleyball and basketball. I also did some watercolors that evening, but the most frustrating thing about it is that it’s a pursuit that’s hard to engage in every once in a while and not keep up with continual practice. I tried to make one of the sea, but I should’ve known that when you have a really simple thing to draw, it never turns out well. Even my mother who now thinks I have “artistic talent” couldn’t tell me that it was a lovely piece of art. Lovely art takes time!
Finally, we took ourselves down to the outdoor movie showing, Guardians of the Galaxy. It was a LOT of fun, happily. I went because I thought my mom might like it, but I turned out to have a lot of fun. Chris Pratt is also wonderful and will be fun to watch in anything! Then we enjoyed dinner, and I took the time to track down the Internet café on the ship, which was open. The plan, as I noted, was absolutely ridiculous: pay-as-you-go is $0.75 a minute, but you can get it down lower and lower if you buy more minutes in advance, with the lowest rate being $0.33 a minute if you buy the 480 minute package for $129! Needless to say, I was not checking my email.
More posts to come about Barbados and St. Lucia as well as St. Kitts and Nevis and St. Maarten!