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Caribbean Notes


Caribbean Notes

Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


San Juan après la deluge

We arrived in San Juan a year after Hurricane Maria with a mixture of trepidation and shameful curiosity. Gawker tourists, we looked for damages caused by the last great storm, worried that there would be a repeat while we were there. Strangely, we felt disappointed when the cab driver who took us from the airport to our hotel said “Nothing much was done by Maria to the areas of San Juan you will see.” The Condado and the Old Town seemed practically untouched. “Tourists are coming back, but still mostly on weekends.”

The next day, June 22nd, began with a torrential rain that drenched me as I went looking for morning pastry. The sunset, however, was a ball of fire mushrooming through the sky In between, the strong wind caused a few kites to hit us at the Morro Fort. where kids in a riot of colorful T-shirts were spending their field trip from the summer camps.

The campers went to the Priagua stand on the margin of the Fort for shaved ice. We headed to Barrachina Restaurant in the Old Town San Juan which claims its bartender Ramon “Monchito” Marrero, in 1963, made the first Pena Colada, Puerto Rico’s National Drink. Next to our table, a better informed fellow-tourist challenged that claim. “In fact, Pena Colada was invented in the Caribe Hotel here.” We opted out of the controversy and ordered Mojito , which seemed more refreshing and appropriate for the hot day, even though it owed its provenance to another Caribbean island, Cuba.

Walking down the cobble-stoned street of picturesque Old San Juan, I met a “legislators’ aid” at the square where their chamber, as well as the mayor’s office are located. “Nothing much,” the aide said when I asked what was on the agenda that day. Her husband’s schedule seemed more eventful: “I am retired and have come down for my weekly lunch in town with her,” he said smiling.

The “Presidential Suite” next to our room in the hotel seemed to have been just occupied. This we noted upon our return from the resort’s glorious “infinity pool,” on the cliff at the edge of the sea, where we left five women in various degrees of obesity eating drumsticks from a bag that said KFC!

“We all go to the beach this evening, “the man said. “We go in the water and walk backward. Then we throw a piece of our old clothing into the ocean.” He was describing the rituals of the “Night of San Juan.” That is “John, the Disciple,” he pointed out for clarification. “The celebration takes place here in San Juan, but also in all of Puerto Rico as it is our national tradition.” This was June 23.  My interlocutor was our Uber driver. “There are now 1500 Ubers in Puerto Rico, half of them in San Juan,” he said. We took them often as they were reasonably priced, clean and readily available. But the scooters had already arrived too, we observed.

Slouching toward 80

I never met him but his presence was announced at the beginning. A few doors before I reached my room on the cruise ship, I noticed the many stickers on his door. “Happy 80th Birthday,” one said. A picture of a balloon was monogrammed “80”. He protested in another sticker: “I am not 80, I am $79.99+tax,” and in another, “79-ish.” Resigned to reality, he rationalized in the next sticker, “80 years in the making.” Pleased with himself, he now boasted, “I am not 80 … I’m 21 with 59 years of experience.” Alas, he ran out of space on the door.

I sympathized, empathized, with the man, but to no avail. The excursion I was interested in had an upper age limit for passengers: 80.

I did not see anyone on the ship who looked 80 or older, although the woman sitting next to me once, near the pool, may have been one. She was still, looking toward the light grey of the overcast sky that was almost seamless with the ocean water it had made its own color. There was a wheelchair next to her and a cane.

There were a few other persons with disabilities on the ship but many more on the edge of infirmity by sheer overweight. You found them often in the cafeteria with plates piled up with foods. The aforesaid excursion also disqualified people weighing more than 250 pounds.

The crew

There are 1, 985,” Sue said. “That includes everyone in the crew, the 2000?” She corrected me, “No, 1985.” Chastened by the young server, I asked exactly how many of those worked in the restaurants. She stumbled and said, merely, “The food and beverage department is by far the largest.” We shared a pre-assigned big table with another couple every night, in the sit-down dining room. Four seats remained unoccupied the whole time. The rest of the cavernous restaurant and the two other restaurants in the balconies above it, however, were jam-packed.

Three people attended to us. The man from India who took our orders and brought the food was too busy, but the other two made up for him in chatting us up. The drinks man was from Colombia and brought me the news of the World Cup, unsolicited. Orlando, as I came to call him accordingly, did not care that my limited knowledge of the details of the game equaled my lack of serious interest. When, one night, a band played Colombian music in the restaurant, Orlando came wiggling in the narrow isle next to us, inviting us to join him in “Waka Waka,” which he called the “national dance” of his home land. Far from me to refuse. There we were, the two of us, I following the movements of his arms and limbs. He complimented me, but more to the point, he flaunted his credentials: “I teach dance in Miami, where I live.”  The third man, a Jamaican who served as the floor manager for our area, nodded as though to verify.

The members of the crew sign up for an 8 month contract. “I love this job,” Orlando said. “We have parties every night; we have computers, movies, food, drinks, everything we need.” They even had their own dedicated Wi-Fi.

“There are only 5 from the U.S.,” Orlando said, counting himself as one since he lived in Miami. “The rest of the crew come from many countries. The biggest group is from India,” he nodded his head toward our food server. Then, he continued, “from the Philippines, and Indonesia, and recently, more from China.”

The Teen scene

On the other side of the Jacuzzi from me, I noticed a young blonde girl and a boy. He was listening to her in what seemed as seduction in an American teens’ game, his bright smile matching the allure of her soft skin. As she talked, his long arm smoothly moved behind her shoulder to touch the top of her arm. Presently, however, she waived to a lad just a few years older who was approaching from the right. He was wearing red-rimmed sun glasses and his short hair was tinged blonde. His smile was mischievous. He sat at the edge of the water. The three knew each other and the couple listened for a few minutes to what the newcomer said. Then they came out of the Jacuzzi. The girl went to the other side but still close enough for me to notice her taking a puff. “Juul,” the lady next to me nudged my side, knowingly.

Hitched and Unhitched

The couple we shared a meal with was here to celebrate their “First Anniversary,” by which they meant it was a year after they met. He was 74 and she around 60. They were both widowed some time ago and they met through on-line dating sites. They seemed fitted for each other. At the very outset she said she was “shopping,” and sure enough, soon she was wearing a diamond ring on her finger which he bought at the first island we stopped at.

We went to the beach, instead, on an open-sided jitney with all- you-can-drink booze — local beer and a rum punch. When appropriately buzzed, the boisterous guide asked if anyone was here to celebrate a birthday, wedding anniversary or, as an afterthought, a divorce. The hands of two young women sitting in front of us went up. One of them said “We are here to celebrate my friend’s divorce.”  Indeed, they looked but happy in their large sun glasses. We only cheered as no one volunteered an alternative salutation.

The young woman with a well-mannered young son sitting at the next table to us in the restaurant one evening was the picture of brave but poignant single-motherhood. Their limited conversion was supplemented with her reading about the next day’s excursion options.

In a bar we visited afterwards, we alternated looking at the masterful dancing of a young couple to the live jazz music, on the one hand, and the stoic look on the face of an older African American man sitting by himself, on the other hand. We had seen him in the same place with the same posture the night before. The young dancers were presently replaced by another couple who chose to dance with their toddler in their arms as he sucked on his milk bottle. A dignified, sad-looking, bearded Indian man stood stirring at the spectacle. I had noticed him before, forlorn and lonely, in other corners of the ship.

A handsome woman in a one-piece swim suit occupied a chaise in the same corner of the pool area, reading, every time I passed by. A couple in their forties chose to spend all of the days on the ship just by themselves, declining to step onto any of the Islands at which the ship stopped.

On the night before last of the cruise, once again, ladies dressed up and some men put on Tuxedos. The African American man was in the bar in a nice suit and tie, distinguished. He now shared a long sofa with a couple as he had done with us before. When the music began the couple went onto the floor. She was as good as a professional dancer and he was also good enough. When the tune ended, we all applauded. For the next number, the woman asked the African American man for a dance.  He was her match! We were all delighted with the performance, except perhaps the woman’s date. In his white Tuxedo, he looked pensive.

Union and reunion

“We planned it for months and as soon as the schools were out we came,” the cheerful mom told me about her big group from Massachusetts. “We are just neighbors from this small town 10 miles north of Boston; some of us have kids in the same schools.” She pointed to several teenagers on the jet-skis in the waters of Sint Maarten before us. The Chinese-American man with a backpack who walked along with me in Barbados was from Dallas, but “my cousins and others in our group are all from California,” he said, “there are 14 of us.” The Chicago man  I met in the Jacuzzi, had come with friends and relatives from “all over the country, some 22 of us.” The African-American woman who joined our conversation told us about the mud bath she had taken on the island of Antigua that day. “You should have seen my sister who is 72, climbing those rough roads. She loved it.” Her group, from southern California, was 12 strong. “We made this cruise a reunion of family members.”  There were several Spanish-speaking Latino groups, some included multi-generational family members.

Cruising and its discontent

The Jacuzzi served as our prime conversation nook, as it was in the open air area on the top deck. We soaked since the cruise allowed us a lot of time to do nothing. There were some evening “activities” but they were all past our bedtime. We peeked into one show. It was boring.

The overcast sky hid the famous vivid Caribbean colors for most of the trip. Even the sunset eluded us. The islands seemed all alike:  almost totally dependent on the tourist industry. The parts we ventured onto were often tunnels of shops and stands catering to the gullible cruise passengers. We walked ourselves free in Antigua and visited the most prominent structure of the town of St. John’s, the 19th century Anglican Church on the hill, where its bishops have the exclusive right to be interred. Down by the wharf we saw the big sitting statue of “the father of the nation,” the man who rose as a labor leader to obtain independence from Britain in 1980’s.

In Sint Maarten, the Dutch part of the small island shared with the French Saint-Martin, we were pitched its “unique” folk liqueur of Guavaberry rum, as well as Desperado, which is a mixing of beer and rum, but ended up buying a bucket of 3 common Caribbean beers and a couple of diet cokes. This was part of a package a shrewd woman negotiated with us as we asked only to rent two beach chairs for an hour.

Small’s Island

“He took a liking to me when he heard that I read a lot,” said the man who asked to be called Small. “I was only 12 then, but I remember that day well.” He continued “and then, later, whenever he came back from England to visit, he would give me more of his books.” The author he was talking about was Sir Derek Walcott, the winner of the 1992 Noble Prize for Literature. We were standing in a park named after him in Castries, St. Lucia.

I had asked Small to tell me his own stories of Walcott. “He was very nice. He was born in this town and when he left to live in England he gave a big party in his house. I was too young, but my cousin went and he said ‘what a party!’” Walcott went to St. Mary’s College here and even though he continued at the West Indies University, Small said, “he is buried up there in the grounds of St. Mary’s College,” pointing to the green hill on our left.

The lush green St. Lucia island nation with “some 131 beaches” has “130,000 people,” according to Small. The surprise is not that it has produced a Noble Prize winner, but that it has two Noble Laureates to claim as native sons!

Small took me to see the bust of both in that park as he said excitedly, “both were born on the same day and month!” For him, obviously, this was just as important a surprise. Indeed, the signs on the busts indicated that William Arthur Lewis was born on January 23, as was Walcott a few years later. Lewis also won his Noble prize, in Economics, a few years earlier, in 1979. Notwithstanding, the pride of the town was the “500 year old” Mimosa tree which stood in the center of the park, Small said.

As we left, we had a man take our picture. The local dialect is distinct. I asked Small how to say “thank you” to the man. “Mercie,” Small said. This is an Island which has changed hands between the British and the French numerous times. It revels in its mixed culture. Even Lewis’s “notable saying” under his bust had nothing do with economics; it said that a nation without culture is a “desert .” Now that would be an insult to the people whose island grows jungles of bananas and mangos .

Across the street in this English dominated town, stood its main temple: a Catholic Cathedral of colonial French architecture, with the capacity for some 2,000 parishioners.

Hurricane was not on Small’s mind, even though the wind had now picked up and we felt a few drops. “My favorite Walcott book is his ‘A City’s Death By Fire’,” he said. St. Lucia, with its wood buildings has survived too many of them.