We're finishing two days at sea here before docking tomorrow morning at the port of St Thomas, U. S. Virgin Islands
As I read the history of Holland America today, I couldn't help wondering if it was a wistful moment when, in 1971, the company made its last Atlantic crossing as a steamship line and became an all-cruising affair. The latter seems trivial and whimsical, and the first a necessary mode of transportation, albeit one which harks back to a pre-aviation era (the book said that by 1965 over 95% of transatlantic passengers had switched to airplanes when only a few years before ships had been the only option. What a tectonic shift). Maybe the shift only means we stopped thinking of things in a primarily utilitarian manner and began to place primacy on comfort and leisure. In any case, there is a sense that the ship can only entertain one for so long before one must be able to keep oneself company or be at peace with solitude and relative inactivity. I happen to like the isolation; there's something profound in being an infinitesimal speck on a huge ship which is itself shown to be utterly insignificant on the open water. We look forward to our days ashore, though many people stay aboard the ship for the duration.
Yesterday's and today's stops: St. Thomas and Dominica. We were told that St. Thomas is the most commercial of all the places this cruise would visit, the best place to shop. Billed as "the busiest cruise ship port in the world," we counted six large ships in port or at anchor, and our ship docked a couple miles out of town on the other side of the pier from (if memory serves) the first Holland America ship we sailed on, the MS Maasdam. I'm not sure if this is just luck of the draw, or if Holland America has an exclusive lease to that particular pier. The big pier on the other side of the main downtown of Charlotte Amalie (pronounced ah-MAL-yuh), eventually had three huge Carnival ships lined up at it, and there was another mammoth Norwegian Cruise Lines ship at anchor in the middle of the small-ish bay. We were told that the main shopping district of Charlotte Amalie was either 2 miles or 3.5 miles from our ship, and we decided to get in our daily walk getting to town. This gave us a feel for at least that part of the town, and for how people drive and what kind of public transportation there was. At our cruise dock there were a bunch of cab-on-frame trucks (mostly Fords, 1 ton or heavier) with open seating on the back, and while we initially thought these were cruise ship specials, we came to think they were actually the city's public transport system. We saw a zillion of them pass us in both directions on our walk, and while they were all filled with doughy white people coming from the ship, they had all manner of people on them elsewhere.
The driving is odd, in that they drive on the left side of the road, but they use left-hand-drive vehicles. In Dominica, they also drive on the left, but they have British-style right-drive vehicles. Left-drive vehicles have "left hand drive" stenciled on their hind quarters in that case. But roads in neither place were anything to write home about, Dominica especially--there was nothing like a highway there, no traffic control, no gutters, no painted markings. And in the rare stretches of good pavement on Dominica there were big speed humps to keep one from getting ideas. Everybody driving around either island seems to know everyone else, and especially on Dominica (where, again, there is no official traffic control of any kind) traffic moves by some unwritten mutual accord. People toot in friendly fashion, and though nobody gives anybody else much space--there isn't much space to give, at least side-to-side--people all just accommodate the needs of other drivers. Nothing moves very fast, and people jut in and out as necessary. Neither island has very many scooters or motorcycles, probably because there aren't enough roads to make fuel economy much of an issue. We saw only a scooter or two on Dominica, and some scooters and a few bona fide motorcycles on St. Thomas.
I had forgotten (or hadn't even known) that St. Thomas is United States territory, having been purchased along with the other U.S. Virgin Islands around WWI. Our cell phones worked normally there, without extra fees or special dialing, and the islands use American money. I talked to a watch vendor about their citizenship status, and he said USVI-ers are US citizens, and pay federal taxes, but they cannot vote, at least in presidential elections. They do have representatives in Congress (how officially I do not know), but their voting rights appear to be a territory-versus-state thing. St. Thomas has a fair number of American cars, plus all manner of Japanese ones. We did not see anything but Japanese cars on Dominica, especially Toyotas (though no familiar models) but also Mitsubishis, Nissans and Suzukis. Dominica is an independent country (of 69,000 people!), and not allied to any other nation.
On St. Thomas we walked to town and beyond to the other cruise ship dock, which is adjacent to a fairly new and VERY swanky development which appears not to be thriving. We looked at the shops--all very high end--and then walked back to the markets in Charlotte Amalie. They have a fair-sized outdoor market selling mostly t-shirts and knockoff bags and Caribbean paraphernalia (every island claims Bob Marley, it seems, and now Barack Obama--what a monumental thing his election seems to represent even beyond our borders). A block back from the water there is a main shopping street which is jammed with jewelry and loose stone- and watch- and antique-dealers. We spent a couple hours there, pausing to have a good but expensive lunch in a little alley cafe, with an outdoor bar under a peaked canvas roof suspended between buildings on either side, complete with four hanging ceiling fans over the patrons (alas, no photos).
On Dominica, we left the ship after breakfast about 9:am, and had to walk through a gauntlet of fairly aggressive Holland-America-approved vendors and transportation providers. We got through them unscathed and found a local taxi service that offered us a two-hour tour for $80. Our driver took us all around the local area, including up into the national park to see a couple high waterfalls and sulfur pools. A guide met us at the top of the drive and walked us back through a pretty rugged trail to get a close view of a couple spectacular falls. With a bit more time, it would have been fabulous to swim in the pools below the waterfalls (and we met a couple guys who had done just that). The collected water is a mixture of cool rain water and hot sulfur spring water, which makes a hot-tub-like experience. It's quite spectacularly beautiful, and the plants and animals are all foreign to us. Banana and plantain trees, coffee trees, cinnamon, many different fruits, lizards and snakes and land crabs--it was all deliciously foreign and tropical, and we saw much more of the island this way than we did on St. Thomas. Our driver was very friendly and spoke good English, and he waited patiently while the waterfall guide (they all know each other, it seems) took us in and back. We had him drop us off at a local swimming area known for effervescent water, "like swimming in warm champagne!" But the beach was actually just rocks, very difficult to walk on, and the place had quite an undertow. So though the water was fabulously warm and salty, it seemed a pretty perilous place to swim for very long. And I never did find the bubbles! We found a cab to take us back to the ship, as there is no sidewalk and people looked at us on the way out and back like we were space aliens. The cabbie on the ride back asked $10 per person, and we had only $19 cash on us, which he said was fine. For a tip I gave him my NY Yankees baseball cap, which seemed a far greater coup for him than the tip could ever have been. Indeed, we appeared to have made his whole day. He tooted and yelled at all his friends and showed it off. (I wonder if he would have given us the whole ride for that!) He told us he was a player on the national soccer team, so perhaps he was particularly into sports.
Dominica especially seems like quite a poor place. While we saw a lot of banks in St. Thomas (though none of them as nice as the nicer banks in Appleton), they were about the only expensive construction we saw there until we got to the cruise ship dock development. On Dominica there is not even that. Buildings are old and tired, and weren't much to begin with. There are a few very nice houses on the island, but most people live in what appears to be almost improvised housing, everything with a corrugated metal roof. There is a regular two or three month hurricane season here every year, and roofs--which need have no thermal properties--are easy come / easy go affairs. There are lots of people here who appear to be a small step above homelessness, people wearing the same clothes for months at a time and who never seem to bathe or shave. But maybe the fine gradations are lost to the Western eye; what appear to be just a series of lean-tos furnish a queue of very smartly-dressed, fresh-scrubbed women waiting for the bus to town. Our driver was reasonably presented, but did not have a car of his own. The sense is of a poor but unoppressed populace.
We'll see how these impressions differ from the upcoming islands. Next in the queue: Grenada.