Life Aboard LULU

January 8, 2002 (Ambling Back Down-Island)
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 January 8, 2002

Dear Friends:

 I know, I know--I’m still a little behind…but I’ve just been re-enrolled in my efforts to keep you apprised of our maritime retirement. The impetus came from our cruising lifemates, Jackie & Mel. Once again demonstrating what thoughtful, caring, good and devoted friends they are, they presented me with the most unbelievable and overwhelming 60th birthday present. It took my breath away and certainly went a long way to making being 60-fucking-(sorry, there’s just no more fitting way to say it) years-old palatable!

 While we were back in New York celebrating Christmas and my watershed birthday (more about that some other time) it seems that the sneaky-but-ever-resourceful Jackie was combing her own archives of my Caribbean updates, plus working with our daughter/cum-website-manager, Wendy, and scouring every nook and cranny of LULU for my own back-up disks. She then assembled, collated, organized and annotated them and copied them onto one CD.

 Following that prodigious bit of work, she and Mel located (in this country where it often appears impossible to get anything really fine and sophisticated done--part of which is merely due to the language difference, part of which is because it's true that it's very hard to get anything sophisticated done...anyway, working their entire local Venezuelan network, they found someone to put all this all together, including some photos, and bind them into a coffee table book called “Life Aboard Lulu.” They even gave me 2 copies--one for LULU, one for New Rochelle.

 So I HAVE been published. 

Their attention to detail was minute and the books are deluxe from beginning to end: the covers are maroon leather, the titles gilt; the hand-bound pages inside are thick and creamy-colored, the titles and subtitles highlighted in gold. Probably nobody would be surprised that it's 247 single-spaced, 8 1/2 x 11 pages—and, as you know, I pretty much missed the last 6 months!  That gap—when I have actually been keeping a rough diary of our doings and have reams of partially written scraps—has resulted in a new commitment to bring you back up to date.

 I hope both readers -- and writer -- are up to their respective tasks.



In early May, We sped from Antigua for a short 3-day reprise of delectable St Barth and then north to Anguilla, where we toured the island by car.

 Anguilla, as opposed to the larger Antigua and St Lucia, or the more prosperous French islands, is in many ways typical of most of the gorgeous smaller Caribbean islands. With no significant industrial base, with little but tourism to provide jobs for the people, there is no significant, indigenous middle or upper middle class and in small islands like this there are rarely enough jobs in tourism to go around.

 In all these islands the polar opposites of rich and poor are constantly on display and Anguilla is theoretically no more than a variation on these themes of the Caribbean, themes that should by now be familiar to us. It’s not even that different than the island of Manhattan, or the rest of the world for that matter, where the stark contrasts of have and have not are becoming ever more acute. And yet something about the Anguillan ambiance made it resonate these extremes more strongly, at least for me. Dominica is almost desperately poor, a poverty set against a lush background of natural beauty. St Barth’s is all one uniform landscape of au courant tony-ness, delivered as studiedly downplayed beachy elegance. In Anguilla the homage paid to money seemed so much more obvious, and pretentious, I think because of  the pernicious, in-your-face juxtaposition of an inferior infrastructure for the locals and the sudden bursts of grandiose facilities for ex-pats and tourists.

 The island is touted for its gorgeous beaches and most streets do dribble off into meringuey strips of sand that melt into blindingly turquoise, reef-strewn water. Otherwise Anguilla is a monotonous, scruffy place. The roads are bordered in the nearly colorless crumbled coral that forms the island’s substructure. The residential areas are punctuated by small dusty markets and evangelical churches with names like “Church of God (Holiness).”  Except in the tourist areas and ex-pat residential communities, the homes are, by and large, concrete bungalows and bunkers. Small shopping strips of a boutique or two and an artisan art gallery are the only indication you may be approaching some form of prosperity.

 And then, hidden, unexpected, around rubbly curves you dead-end into manned gatehouses, behind which sprawl monumental hotels enclaves of moneyed sophistication – discordant and shrill accentuating all the make-do poverty. These fortresses aspire to be the stuff of storybooks -- gargantuan chalk-white stucco complexes modeled after Moroccan seraglios and Indian palaces, where a one-bedroom suite can rent for over $2,000 a night. Guests are fed delicate pale lettuces and plump peppers grown in on-ground hydroponic greenhouses. These pampered few sun themselves, wrapped in pre-chilled towels on plush wrought-iron chaises around serene pools bordered in riotous purple bougainvillea. While sand particles and sea salt do float in the air, silent hotel minions quietly patrol the mirror-finish tabletops and sparkling Lucite glass racks, whisking away unwelcome motes almost before they have a chance to land .

 The service staff is everywhere available but trained to emit a velvety, unobtrusive helpfulness. Everyone we encountered seemed pleased to offer even nonpaying gawkers like us suggestions, directions, recommendations. Unfailingly they asked after our health, our origins, the passage of our day, as if it was their life’s sole inquiry. At hotel boutiques and galleries salaaming seemed not out of the question.

 After ogling our way through several of these palaces, barbarian at the core, we gladly stopped in less rarefied terrain -- at Uncle Ernie’s BBQ, a wooden shack with a porch fronting on an equally gorgeous talcum-powder beach. There we feasted on the best kind of French fries – crisp outside but still squashy inside -- and crusty spareribs, downing frosty Carib beers as we watched the beach wedding of a skinny, charcoal-black Anguillan to his fairy princess – a doughy redhead in a pink polyester gown.


In mid-May, we realized we still had much new and old territory to plumb before our hurricane-safe margin disappeared. We gave St Martin another go, foregoing the stodgy Dutch side for the more animated, delectable French side. From there we took a one-day ferry trip to the miniscule, improbable Saba -- just 5 square miles but rising quite suddenly out of the sea some 3,000 feet. This island, nicknamed by its citizenry “The Unspoiled Queen,’ out-Dutches even Amsterdam, from whence most of its citizens trace their ancestry and which is still the Mother Country.

 Starting from its improbable silhouette -- a witch’s hat carved out of rock with a few solid little burgher villages clinging to its steep, conical walls -- Saba both looks and sounds like a Disney animation of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Its capital is The Bottom. Its single winding road is The Road, and there are no names at all for any of the narrow, windy tributary streets in the tiny warren of Windwardside, the second largest of Saba’s four villages. The entire nine-mile length of The Road is swept every day – by hand. By decree all of the island’s red-roofed, white gingerbread cottages and public buildings are trimmed in dark green -- doors, shutters, window sashes. I kept looking for wooden clogs outside the front doors. This ironclad color scheme applies to the hospital, the schools, the old-age home. Only the eight old churches seem to be exempt. The elder generation Saban ladies apparently spend many of their evenings making lace and gather of an afternoon in a small shop to sell their handiwork. Did I imagine white aprons and winged lace caps or were these immaculate women actually wearing them? Serving the 1,200, mostly related, Saban residents are just six policemen – which, apparently, is about six too many.

Saba is actually the tip of a submerged, extinct volcano, with steep underwater cliffs that are famous for extraordinary, unspoiled scuba diving.  Aside from diving there’s not much – besides the peace and quiet -- to command the tourist dollar and not too much to talk about. Except for The Road. The Road and the David & Goliath story of its construction is the conversational diamond around which every taxi driver builds his tour.

 Building a road straight up the steep mountain face defied not only gravity, but most men’s imaginations. Professional consulting engineers and road builders all declared it an impossibility. To drive up the twisted ribbon that now swirls its way from 131 feet above sea level up and around to 1,968 feet--to see the high, perfectly flat retaining walls holding back the steep, rocky inclines--is to understand why. From the 1650s on into the middle of the 20th century, the Sabans made do with 900 steps rising from the sea that the hardy Dutch settlers had carved into the steep rock. These steps were the only way to get anything – from a hatpin to a grand piano -- up to the settlements.


Then, in the early 1940s a stubbornly optimistic Saban carpenter named Josephus Lambert Hassell took a correspondence course in engineering, then gathered a team of 20 locals to build “The Road That Couldn’t Be Built.” They used only wheelbarrows; it took them 25 years to complete. It’s the perfect national myth for this isolated, upstanding, tightly knit community of individualists.


We moved from the unspoiled to its diametric opposite the next morning. We sailed directly down to Montserrat, scene of recent large-scale volcanic destruction. The entire Caribbean area we’ve been plying is actually an active area of the earth’s crust, where the Caribbean and North American plates meet. Most of the islands, like Saba and Martinique and St Vincent, are formerly volcanic, with eruptions dating back from millions of years ago to early in this very century. An area between the Tobago Cays and Grenada, known as Kickem Jenny, threatens to erupt at any time. Some 14 other islands have mountains that are considered potentially active.

I expected to be awed, thunderstruck by the cruelty of Nature, with a capital N, in Montserrat. Rather, I simply couldn’t get my mind around it at all, without the help of George Lucas.. It’s too monumental a game of filling in the blanks. You have to imagine from mere tracery in the ash, first, the island’s former  heart -- Plymouth it’s capital, its population and commercial center. Plus, a missing 18-hole golf club, an airport, an entire river, not to mention all the missing vegetation and creature life. But the biggest blank that cannot be filled in – without having stood there -- are those moments in 1997 when the once-dormant mountain, having rumbled its warnings and hissed its plans in steam for two years, finally erupted, spewing, roaring, exploding and turning  a living landscape into a dead one. It killed 19 people, including an infant, rendered most of the population homeless and sent some 6,000 people, 2/3 of the islanders, elsewhere.

Approached by boat, the southwestern half of the 38-square mile island is dominated by the unearthly looking, scarred Soufriere peak: like a scene out of an Apollo mission, dark gray tracks of pebbly sand wind down its face. All tourists must have a guide to get anywhere near the devastation zones. Ours, Thomas “Fombo” Lee was the last taxi driver to flee the airport. He described watching the lava flow down the mountain, at 150 miles an hour and 600 degrees Centigrade:  “Imagine, standing there watching all these houses and in three minutes, they’re all gone. Hills leveled before your very eyes. Colors like fireworks – well they were fire – intense green, blue, reds. And the noise, I can’t even describe the boulders crashing down, the roar of the lava.”

Because the volcano is still active, no one is allowed in the Exclusion Zone, which cuts a wide swath through the southern half. We climbed the ridge of Garibaldi Hill. Everything looked entirely normal, peaceful and bucolic. Suddenly, we rounded a turn and looked across the valley at the two mountains we’d seen from afar: the left-hand, Chance Peak -- tropical green, dotted with balconied villas, sweeping gently down to a brilliant cobalt Caribbean Sea. This mountain is part of the Buffer Zone, where people are allowed to live at their own risk. Further boulder and lava explosions from the Soufriere Hills volcano next door could eradicate this area.

The truncated taller mountain on the right, with its snout in a dark cloud  – Soufriere – is completely empty: from its misty summit and down its flanks splay long gray tentacles that widen to cover all the area directly beneath -- a wasteland stretching some 7 miles, from one coast to the other. On the right side lay the ruins of Plymouth, where 90% of the people lived. All that’s visible now is ash piled up, sometimes to the roofs of some of the taller houses -- including the House of Parliament. The rest of everything else that was is now totally buried. The tip of a steeple is all that remains of the former Catholic Church.

 Turning from Plymouth and looking to the left is a long run of ash -- like a ski slope – that sweeps down to a valley and straight into the sea. The ash is hundreds of feet deep and under it is a series of small hill villages, the 18-hole Montserrat Golf Course and the 150-foot-deep Ta River. Hot mudflows killed the trees, filled the wetlands, sent the birds to other islands, took out the beaches and, flowing down into the sea, created an entire mile of new black ash coastline. It’s a scene totally devoid of life but for the odd goat or meandering cow foraging among the debris for the signs of a leaf.

 The mountain landscape itself was radically changed by the explosions. Soufriere was once the shorter mountain. It now rises 300 feet over its neighbor. Professional vulcanologists and the anxious amateurs – like our guide Tom – who live under its brooding presence, wonder if it will still be taller when the dome ultimately collapses inwards.

 As we drove around the perimeter of the Exclusion Zone, our van raised roof-high clouds of gray ash. We passed a series of large, lovely and utterly silent villas, which escaped the lava but had to be evacuated. We moved around to the east side of the island and viewed another long sweep of ash, this one filled with boulders and rubble. Here sat the former airport – main terminal, control tower, and runway.

 Along the way, Tom pointed out "the luckiest guy in the world" -- the last man over the airport bridge – who raced over it at some 60 miles an hour and just three seconds before the overtaking lava reached the bridge and took it out.

 People had plenty of warning. (No such luck for the poor souls in the World Trade Center.) Repeated ash falls, steam explosions, pre-earthquake tremors that made pots jump off stoves started in July, 1995 and continued right up to the first major eruption, at 6PM on June 25, 1997. All day, police warned people to evacuate their homes. Most listened. Those who didn’t paid with their lives.

 The population dropped almost instantly from 11,000 to 3,000; the large majority fled to England and, for the most part, remained there. A small percentage of those who stayed moved in with the few relatives or friends who still had homes. Others lived in cars and shipping containers and whatever shelters they could find. Another big eruption followed in December.  The volcano was quiet in 1998, though there was no school at all. Plenty of kids got into trouble – petty crimes and teenage pregnancies became common. Soufriere resumed rumbling and spewing ash in 1999 and 2000.

 Today the population is back to 5,000. Almost everyone has been relocated located to the dry, barren – but safe – west coast of the island, which is barricaded from the volcano by the Center Hills. Foreign aid helped build the almost-completed new village of two-bedroom, two-family homes, constructed of cinderblock formed out of the sooty ash that is now the island’s chief natural resource. With that construction almost finished, there is little work. Factories and businesses won’t relocate there, since insurance is unobtainable. The unemployment rate is at 50% or more.

 The volcano was quiet the day we visited. What looked like innocent gray cloud surrounding the top was actually the constant stream of steam emitted from deep inside through the molten dome, which Tom likened to a sports dome over a flat crater. Soufriere is like a simmering pot -- when lava breaks through, like so much popping, spattering spaghetti sauce, it does so at the dome’s weakest point.

 Days afterward, the mountain spit out a series of rocks. No one knows how much more molten lava is awaiting a more impressive exit strategy, but few doubt that it’s coming, and probably soon. In July part of the dome did collapse, closing all surrounding airports and sending ash as far as the Virgin Islands.

 Onward and downward--to Mayreau and beyond

We left that incendiary Monserrat monster for the friendlier, baguette-producing ovens of Martinique, after which we stopped briefly at favorite harbors in St Lucia and Bequia. We also made fairly short shrift of islands we hadn’t yet visited -- like Nevis, Palm, Petit St Vincent, Petite Martinique. We found Mayreau, which we’d never even heard of, especially beguiling. I say this having first discarded the word magical, which is, of late, overused; nonetheless, after all we've seen, I honestly never thought we could be awed again.

 We dropped the hook in front of an isthmus, featuring a calm horseshoe beach with a familiar Tobago Cays-type reef & crashing water beyond.  Shortly after anchoring, I took a major fall, in 23-knot winds, trying to hold onto but following behind the unlashed bimini that I was trying to lower gently. I went crashing semi-sideways over the staysail winch, landing more or less impaled on both sides of the cockpit coaming. I skinned and bruised my elbow and did God knows what damage to God knows how many ribs along my upper, port-side back. It was the first time I've really experienced a takes-your-breath-away fall.

 To add insult to injuries, my inelegant tumble was witnessed by a couple we’d met in January, when they were berthed next to us in Barbados. As soon as they saw I was stabilized – that is laying in the cockpit surrounded by hillocks of ice, they came galloping over in their dinghy to see if I was okay and to invite us over for sunset drinks, if I lived.

I rallied. Otherwise I would have starved. We had drinks aboard their boat and then, foregoing the aromatic, enticingly sizzling leg of lamb in their oven (only because we weren't invited), we dinghied into the beach and walked along a path illuminated by small torches to a group of glowing lit stone tables and stone banquettes. These form the entirely-outdoors "dining room” of the Saltwhistle Hotel, a 10-room all-stone complex that rambles amid healthy palms, sea grape & mangroves.

 Each 7-foot circular table sits under its own dark "umbrella," an inviting thicket of thatched roof. We were the only guests. At our own romantic private island of a table, we enjoyed each other and a remarkable (for these islands) dinner, including an especially good callaloo soup. Callaloo is a Caribbean root vegetable and the soup made of it is as common as our chicken soup, on nearly every menu. Every cook has her own recipe, which allegedly has secret healing properties, and it’s almost always worth ordering. After dinner, Gary and I strolled back down the beach enjoying the scampering waves. It was a moonless canopy of sky but we had a million or so of stars as company.
In the morning we pulled up anchor to avoid further rolling in Saltwhistle Bay – it’s only disadvantage – bound a mile around the bend to Mayreau’s next anchorage, the main village. Lots of boats filled the anchorage and we were immediately embroiled in a beach bocce game. I’m no good at bocce – or most any sport involving a ball that’s supposed to be aimed or caught – so I was happy to bow out due to recently sustained injuries and just join in the pot-luck cocktail party. An enterprising and charming Mayreauian named Denny, formerly a chef on big charter boats, runs a colorful terrace restaurant, where he frequently creates a lot of laughter and song well into the night, playing the guitar for the eclectic groups that trudge up the hill for dinner. Instead of joining in that night, Gary and I had a fight. We almost never fight but the rule of thumb seems to be, do it on a night when something really good is on.

We did make it to Grenada back in talking mode, however. There we met up with Jackie and Mel again. They’d been back in the States for a wedding, something they did three times this summer. We’re usually the ones who leave them – three or four times a year for three weeks -- to go back and visit the kids. We thus had an entirely different experience of cruising last summer. Traveling as a twosome, we met a lot more people than we do as a foursome. I think having the best of both worlds works for all of us.


Differences in race and heritage on these islands have clearly been exacerbated by the historical happenstance of being conquered and re-conquered in the round-robin wars between France, Spain, England and Holland. The mostly black islanders have borne the brunt of colonialism, paternalism, the cruelties and hierarchies, both social and financial, of plantation life and, in more recent years, rendered faceless by the onslaught of wealthy, essentially indifferent tourists.

 The result is often a palpable “attitude.” We are the targets of stances ranging from stagy indifference to simple heel-dragging. From actual refusal to help the hapless tourist floundering over some road direction or some French word, all the way up to a “fuck you, rich-American, you owe it to me to buy any piece of junk I’m selling.” This last posture, especially if delivered without the “fuck you,” is particularly effective because it plays directly into the guilt that comes of seeing the ragged lucklessness brought on by nothing more than the randomness of birth.

 Gary and I have more or less developed the consciousness that part of our being here involves an obligation to support the local population by unnecessary tipping when service charges are already included, by paying full price when we’re supposed to bargain, by purchasing jewelry and beadwork we’ll never give or wear, by being willing to be overcharged -- if we’re not egregiously overcharged -- by taxi drivers. Many of the cruisers rail about being extorted out of, take Venezuela, an extra 500 Bolivares -- less than 75 cents -- for a $3.00 taxi ride. Nobody wants to be conned, of course, but taking another point of view -- calling it something else makes you into a heroine instead of a harridan.

 It’s the outright hostility we have trouble dealing with. In Canouan, which we visited just before Mayreau, the two of us walked uncomfortably through the small village abutting the gargantuan Carenage Hotel, another of those Rushmore-like shrines to financial success -- this one occupying 800 acres, more than half the island. All the people gossiping or lounging along the streets fell immediately into resentful silences, staring fixedly as we sauntered by. No one smiled; most refused even to answer our nervous, hesitant little smiles.

 The Carenage, super-luxurious and verdant (in spite of the severe drought conditions) employs 450 out of 1,250 locals. I think the vacant stares and hostile faces we encountered in the "town" had very much to do with the fact that these people were not working for the hotel, but rather scrabbling for a living manning the row of little vegetable stands – or, from the looks of it, not working at all.

 Back in Anguilla, at the Rainbow Car Rental Agency, a colorless, unventilated shack along the beach in Deep Bay, there was a young clerk who sits all day chewing on a well mashed straw, immobile as a tree stump, bored nearly stupid. As arriving customers, we got no hint of a welcoming smile; the straw stayed clenched between her teeth, making her grudgingly-given rental information virtually indecipherable.

 Still, with all the attempts at understanding -- and all my liberal, do-gooder mentality notwithstanding -- I wonder what difference in life experience or culture -- or maybe just oceanic individual differences in pre-ordained, in-the-genes, nature-not-nature, bedrock personality – that produces this young woman, compared to, say, Denny the ebullient restaurateur in Mayreau Or Lincoln, a taxi driver we met in Barbuda.

 A short, very dark brown man, Lincoln wore a crisply ironed shirt tucked neatly into his shorts. His smile bared a set of very white, very rambunctious teeth that looked like they all dove in simultaneously, took root in various attitudes of askew, and were coexisting quite happily.

 Lincoln clearly relished picking up tourists, introducing them to his tiny island homeland, though here’s little variety for him or in the Barbudan terrain: a 4-mile drive from the anchorage along a dusty, rutted dirt road that ends 20 minutes later at the dock for the frigate bird tour. A whole-island tour couldn’t take more than an hour longer.

 Lincoln shrugs the bumpy road off, traversing its potholes carefully as if it were El Camino Real, the Royal Road of the Incas. Describing his country and its history, singing its modest praises, gives him no end of joy. “Home,” he said the word reverentially, spreading his arms wide, as if all the beautiful women in the world, rather than the homely, flat-chested washwoman that is Barbuda, lay at his feet "They couldn't give me a million, no, they couldn't give me ten million dollars to leave Barbuda." 

 This despite the fact that he lived 30 years in the States. He came to New York with goals: he’d stay not only until his bank account reached the number he’d picked out of air, but also until his life station equaled his American peers. He worked his way up to shop foreman in Mac Boring, a well-known diesel-engine building company, and came home, just like he said he would.

 Lincoln still sets goals: he wants a music teacher for the island’s children. What we would consider small dreams can take monumental efforts in these islands. Despite their small populations, corrupt governments and wheezing economies, the former British colonies like Barbuda tend to take education seriously; their literacy rates are often well up in the 90th percentile.

 Lincoln was like many other islanders we’ve come across, who left home for the so-called “better shores’ of the US and the UK, and were content, indeed anxious, to return home to what some of us would look upon as boring, culturally deprived lives in their backwater homelands.

 Lincoln reminded us of our former housekeeper Ruth, of Harry and Ruth, whom we met last year in Grenada, of Ruffin, a guide we met last year in Grenada. Ruffin, too had traveled extensively, studied intensively in London and Paris, attaining an impressive grasp of botany, medicinal herbs, rain-forest ecology, He had traveled Europe extensively, studied intensively in London and Paris, gained an impressive knowledge of botany, medicinal herbs and rain-forest ecology, only to come home to Grenada, where he now lives next door to his mother and his boyhood home. He led us through a mile-long trek through his woods, sharing his arcane knowledge along the way. At his old swimming hole, Marquis Falls, he cackled as he shot down three slippery levels of rapids.

 And there are some few people who, in fact, never left but nonetheless appreciate what they have: our level-headed friend Martin in Dominica: no “opportunity” would make him leave his spectacularly beautiful, but mainly poverty-stricken country, a country, which, like Lincoln, he takes such pleasure in sharing with others. Living here we’ve seen see the pleasure many people take in less complex pursuits: they’ve got plenty of time to stop, examine the odd plant, grab a mango from the nearest tree, have a joke with the neighbors.

 Their preference seems inexplicable to “sophisticates” like us – but stop and realize that back home they’re the majority – back home they endure no knee-jerk white prejudice or hostility. (If anything its us white folk now chafing at the reverse prejudice we encounter.) But it’s more--for them, our way of life eventually seems to come up wanting. They don’t seem to care about the best shows, the great restaurants. I think they have a comparison we don’t and believe the trappings aren’t worth the hassles, the anxiety, the money chase, the status game, the lousy weather, the rage -- road and otherwise -- that’s oozed into daily life.

 I wonder, since September 11 and the anthrax scares, if the preference for simplicity suddenly seems more explicable to shocked, chastened Americans who may – if even only temporarily--be focusing more on the intangible…

 The Caribbean has certainly changed my point of view; if not radically, then assuredly. My head is cluttered with a lot less bric-a-brac. Yes, I was delighted to have tickets for “The Producers” on one recent trip back; but one evening of theater was more than enough, since we return really to see family and friends. I’d be pleased, but my heart wouldn’t start pounding, at the thought of another meal at Babbo; I was willing to forego the restaurant Oeust -- pronounced and meaning “West” -- and found it vaguely annoying that a New York restaurant needs to be so pretentiously named and impossible to spell.) I’ve even accepted what Gary’s maintained all along: “There is no such thing as Caribbean cuisine.” If I still don’t relish, I’ll willingly eat -- without making a face at – simple, less-than-perfect island dinners. In other realms, I have garnered enough perspective to see that other, less polished cultural events satisfy with their own charm.

 This past summer, in Porlamar, Venezuela on the offshore island of Margarita, at the brand new Casa de La Cultura theater, we attended a young-people’s orchestra concert. Part of a state-sponsored program, the orchestra was divided by age into 4 groups of kids. Their musical education is taken very seriously. Our driver, Bernardo, told us his daughter had played with them four years but finally gave it up, because she had no time for a social life, or even for her school work. Kids are expected to practice 3 and 4 hours a day together. Nonetheless we were surprised at their polished performance.

 Seventy-five of the 16 to 20-year-olds performed that night, the boys in tuxedos and bowties, the girls in long black dresses and platform sandals, their faces grave, their focus intense. They delivered complex pieces from Brahms, Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakoff and Bizet with a significant modicum of skill. Every two weeks they learn three or four new pieces for their next performance. Playing with them were eight beginner level students -- 7 and 8 and 9 years old – invited, their maestro told us, to see where all the dedication could lead. Sadly, the orchestra gets little publicity and they performed that night to an audience consisting mainly of parents, siblings and our small group of 12 cruisers.

 While in Porlamar we also went to an actual movie theater, another first. Sophisticated films or blockbuster movies don’t generally come our way. For the most part Gary and I huddle in front of our 13” TV screen – smaller even than my computer screen – watching pirated videos, mostly dated or second-run, which is just about all most island video stores offer. Sporadic messages chase across the bottom inform us what we’re watching is not for sale or rental and more or less implying if we’re watching, we’re breaking the law. All that’s missing is “Please contact your nearest FBI office or call this toll free number to collect your reward.”

 At the Jumbo Mall tenplex, we saw Pearl Harbor” on a monster screen with blaring acoustics and air-conditioning that would have done an igloo proud. In this case running across the screen instead of the usual caveat were the Spanish-language subtitles. I’ve been taking Spanish lessons and enjoyed matching the spoken English with the written Spanish. It all worked quite well, until we got to the Japanese war room scenes, where the admirals were strategizing in ferocious Japanese – and the subtitles were, of course, still in Spanish. Luckily the characters were boilerplate stereotypes and, with plenty of other Evil-Empire World War II movies under our belts, we got the gist.

 Back in Antigua we had an unexpected bonanza, when available right on the dock, was an extensive library of legitimate videos. For a week we rented maniacally, feeling like 10-year-olds again on those long-ago Saturday movie marathons at the Rialto or the Kenmore in downtown Brooklyn, where we inhaled double features, serials, cartoons and trailers, washing them down with Raisinettes, Mason Mints, Sugar Daddies and Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews.

 Gary and I gorged ourselves nightly with movies we’d missed, and then we discovered a shelf devoted to TV videos. We’d landed in HBO heaven -- finally we could watch what everyone’s been raving about for two years. We rented the entire first year of The Sopranos, never having seen a one. We lay in bed, staying up way past midnight, to watch Tony Soprano lust after Dr. Melfi -- after which Gary hugged me tight and positively gloated, "I just can't believe you and I are together on this amazing boat, in the Caribbean, in bed, watching ‘The Sopranos!’ It’s a beautiful thing!”



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