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Cayamo Cruise - Part 2 - Off the Ship

Mar 1, 2008
Kimmy Sophia Brown

To get on a ship and go deep into temperate waters after living in the dead of Maine winter is other worldly. Our schedule was to be at sea for a day and a half, and then stop in three ports on three consecutive days, and then have one more day at sea before returning to Miami. Our first stop was the Mexican island of Cazumel.

I got this from about Cazumel:

The Ancient Maya worshipped a pantheon of gods but there was only one goddess, Ixchel, goddess of the moon, the sea and fertility and mother of the gods. It was here, on the island of Cozumel, the easternmost outpost of the Maya world, that her sanctuary was established around 800 AD. Eighteenth century Mayan scribes, in the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, describe Cozumel as the center from which the Earth children multiplied “like bees from a hive of honey.” Women crossed the 12 mile, 3000 ft. deep channel from the Yucatan to pay homage to Ixchel for whom at least thirty shrines were built. In 1511, when eighteen shipwrecked survivors drifted in a small boat to the eastern shore of Cozumel, islanders gave thanks for their bounty and Captain Valdivia and seven other Spaniards were promptly sacrificed at her altar and eaten.

As far as I know, that didn’t happen to anyone from our cruise ship. It is hard to imagine such a savage culture in contrast to the nice folks living there now. Cazumel is a flat island, covered with palm trees. Genevieve and I found a tour driver named Santiago waiting at the dock. We joined a group of people and paid $20 a pop for the tour, which included beaches, a few souvenir shops and a couple of tiki bars. The island looks pretty battered, which Santiago explained was from the seventy-two-hour beating they took from Hurricane Wilma in 2005. We didn’t opt to visit the Mayan ruins, but just took a basic tour. According to literature about the Caribbean, the real beauty of the area is underwater. The snorkeling and scuba diving is known the world over for the colors and vast population of undersea life.

We saw two types of beaches in Cozumel. One had water that was very calm like a bay. There was a bar, souvenir shop and lounge chairs on the beach. The day was very bright, and if you’re not a sunbather (as I am not), it was a bit intense. The opposite side of the island had a rocky shore which Genevieve told me was made of coral. The sea was much more rugged and wild there. Santiago drove us to a place with little huts full of souvenirs - carvings, necklaces, rugs, and a juice bar where you could get fresh coconut mixed with banana or some such. A young woman nursed her baby behind the counter. The girls were very pretty and they looked like they worked hard out in the wind and sun all day. Genevieve told me that February is the height of the tourist season for cruise ships. People wanting to get out of the winter come south, and the residents really scramble to earn their living during the peak season.

Santiago stopped at another tiki bar with open walls and a thatched roof so we could use the banos (bathrooms). We took a picture of it because it was the prettiest outhouse we ever saw. It was like a little hut with a thatched roof. And it was clean, too! We met a woman waiting in line whose friends moved to Cazumel from Minnesota. They love it there - the beauty of the ocean, the quiet lifestyle, the people. Surprisingly it is very affordable. It’s the kind of place where you could sit on your verandah with your laptop and write your novel.

On the tour bus we befriended two ladies from Hong Kong, Susan and Kim. We had such a good time with them, chatting and laughing. That’s the sad part of travel. Sometimes you meet the best people and it’s really hard to develop a lasting friendship. We didn’t exchange addresses but we took pictures and they will always have a fond spot in our hearts.       

When Santiago dropped us off back in the center of town I looked for gifts for my kids. I found silver medallions with Aztec designs for the boys and a silver bracelet for my daughter, after dickering and arriving at a fair price with a vendor. Santiago told us that about 150,000 people live on the island. It was hard to tell that it was so heavily populated from driving around the perimeter. It did not seem densely populated.

The next day we arrived in the Cayman Islands. Wikipedia says that the first western person to sight them was Christopher Columbus who called them “Las Tortugas” for the many sea turtles he saw there. Later, Sir Francis Drake named them the Cayman Islands, after the Neo-Taino Nation’s term for crocodile (caiman). They drive on the left side of the road there because it is an English colony.

Genevieve used her inner radar and found a woman gathering people for a boat ride to “Stingray City”, where Genevieve had been on a previous cruise with her children, when they were little. There’s a sandbar where the stingrays feed, and you can stand among them while they pass by. We joined a group and were driven by bus to the dock and then loaded onto a boat piloted by a nice man named Vernon. He looked in our eyes and smiled warmly, and explained to us what we were going to do.

We drove out to the area where the stingrays swim and got off the boat in chest-deep water. I didn’t have anything close to a bathing suit with me (Mrs. Potatohead doesn’t wear a bikini!), so I got in the water in my clothes. Soon they were picking up a stingray named Mary and taking pictures of her with each person. Vernon could recognize her by the little scars on her body.

First they held her under her “wings”, then they put her on each person’s shoulder, and then they held her so you could kiss her. Many people really fussed about kissing her. I felt sorry for her.Then they lifted her out of the water revealing her mouth parts which spit, and they took another picture. During this, I was wondering if she was feeling stressed from being handled too much. When I held her I tried to give her all the love I could muster. Meanwhile, my friend was getting upset because she was feeling a combination of seasickness and disgust at the over-handling of the stingray. There seems to be a lot of controversy about the possible exploitation of swimming with the dolphins or the stingrays in these places. (By the way, Vernon said that this stingray was a different type from the one that Steve Irwin, God rest his soul, encountered.)

After visiting the stingrays we went to a place with deeper water and were given snorkels. We went off the boat again in ten feet of water, and saw schools of pretty fish and plant-life growing. It was beautiful. We had bits of chum we held in our hands which the fish nibbled.

Vernon dove for a conch and prepared it onboard with onions and seasonings. He passed a dish around and people tried it on saltine crackers. It was surprisingly tasty. By the time we got back to the dock my clothes were mostly dried. We returned to the ship and rested up for that night’s music. During dinner, a cold I had been fighting all week hit me over the head like a lead pipe and I went to bed early.

The next day we arrived in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Genevieve said that the other side of the island was more beautiful and more mountainous, but our side was still extremely pretty. The color of the water was stunning, and the vegetation was glorious too. Banyan trees and other beautiful trees grew high on both sides of the road, on the walk into town from the dock. We were accosted by dozens of taxi drivers, little boys begging, and ladies offering to braid our hair.

In town there were some flea markets filled with cheap jewelry, carvings, T-shirts and other souvenirs. It was overwhelming with all the hawkers trying to get us into their little displays. My heart really went out to them, all of them trying to make a living, competing with each other with the same wares. I finally conceded and followed one enterprising young man back to his booth and bought some really cool wooden carvings from him for my family.

Genevieve was my traveling companion in Europe back in 1974. It was fun to be with her in this new situation, facing the elements and all the things you face while traveling. The thing about Genevieve is that she is 53 and has a better figure now than she did in high school. I probably weigh twice as much as she does. She is a yoga instructor, as flexible as she was when she was a gymnast in high school, doing forward and backward walkovers on the balance beam. I was limping during the whole cruise, saying prayers over the possibly torn meniscus in my right knee. We prayed over it every day while I swallowed either Advil or Aleve. In fact, Genevieve and I prayed together every day. We prayed for everyone on the ship - the captain, the crew, the waitstaff, the performers, the passengers and the villagers on the islands. We prayed that everyone would be well and happy. We prayed for her landlord. For her boyfriend. For her children. We prayed for my family. We prayed for Kristina, the adorable waitstaff girl from Estonia who served us in the Pacific Dining Room. I hope that girl goes far. She was a treasure.

The cruise gave us time to catch up on all the lost decades. We talked about our teenage years, our parents, our mates, our children, our spiritual paths and a plethora of other topics. I was sorry for the years we didn’t keep in touch much, and grateful that our friendship has endured all these decades. In two years we will have been friends for forty years. That will definitely call for another celebration!

Kimmy Sophia Brown has loved humor and music and freedom for as long as she can remember.She is especially passionate about the environment and caring for animals.

She writes the column "From the Back Porch" as well as reviews of music in her column "MusicViews". Her goal in her music reviews is to introduce music she loves to people who may not have heard that particular artist or CD. For information about how to submit a CD for review, click here.

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