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DaCruzNut

A SEA OF MEMORIES - Part 5

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5 – PLACES TO VISIT, PEOPLE TO SEE

Copyright © 2004-Jeffrey R. Stern

All Rights Reserved.

After a rollicking day at sea (after all, this was a “fun shipâ€Â), we arrived at our first port, Cozumel, Mexico; a quiet little island, off the Yucatan, with one, small, town, San Miguel. It wasn’t quite the clichéd, “sleepy little Mexican village,†but, neither was it the bustling, teeming town it is today.

Only a small number of cruise ships called on this quiet little port each week, with well under 1,000 passengers, each. This little village was ready to explode with tourists, three to six ships, each day, with over 2,000 each, but that would still take a few years. The only “hot†spot in town was, everyone’s favorite, Carlos & Charlie’s. The rest of the town was, fairly, quiet, except for the hustlers and beggars. We did not, however, begin our tour in town.

I had wanted to visit a Mayan ruin for a number of years, so we took the tour of San Gervasio, the small ruin on the island. The Mexican Government had not yet spent the money, or time to conduct any major restoration, at the time, and it was, truly, in ruins. Not much to see, unless you were a scholar of archeology, or student of Mayan history. Even today, after many years of effort, and some expense, it’s not much to see. I don’t recommend it to a first-time visitor to the area. There’s a lot more to see on the island.

In its glory days, San Gervasio was a very minor, though important, Mayan Center. There were no massive pyramids, at the site, and only a few buildings. The significance of the site rested it the fact that it was built to honor Ix Chel, the Mayan Fertility Goddess, and every virgin maiden was required to pray at Her altar, before marrying. Today, very few, if any, of the women who visit could meet that requirement.

I then went shopping, in town. Then, like now, you could leave the ship with fifty-dollars, and have to make 2-3 trips back, to drop off all the junk you’ve accumulated;

Blankets at 3 for $10.00; giant sombreros at $5.00 each; and, of course, the ever-popular onyx chess sets! Has anyone ever visited Cozumel and not come home with a genuine, hand-carved, onyx chess set? In every port there are certain “must-buys!†In Cozumel its onyx crap and blankets.

When I was in town, I priced them around, and the lowest price I could get was fifteen dollars. I am an Insurance Adjuster, by trade, so my negotiation skills are a match for the local merchants.

Not wanting to carry the chess set all over town, since onyx is very heavy, I decided to wait until we were back to the shops at the port to purchase one. There was a dark grey and pink that matched our color scheme perfectly. It was just one of over a dozen ‘standard’ color combinations. The shops near the dock, in those days, were no more expensive than the ones in town… There were very few ships, and they carried less than 1,000 passengers, so the merchants didn’t pay exorbitant rents, which they would have had to pass on to the passengers.

I went into the shop, and found the chess set, marked, “$25.00 U.S. Dollars.†I recognized a fellow passenger from the Holiday, though not by name, looking at a turquoise and black set, and ready to walk over to the owner and pay $25.00. he turned to me and said, “Wow! This is real onyx! It’s all hand carved…. What a bargain at twenty-five bucks. Back home you’d pay sixty or seventy…â€Â

“Let’s see if we can make a better bargain,†I said to him, “Just trust me and don’t say anything.â€Â

I called the owner over and explained that I had seen the same sets, in San Miguel, for fifteen dollars. My friend and I each wanted one, so I figured he could let us have them for ten dollars, each. He gaped at me, with that painful, salesman, gaze and said, “But, Senor, if I do that I will lose money….†We went back-and-forth for about five minutes, and, at the end of our dialogue my “friend†and I were the proud owners of, you guessed it, genuine, hand-carved, onyx chess sets. Mine with Mayan-shaped playing pieces and his with ‘traditional’ playing pieces, two for twenty-five dollars!! Now, that’s a bargain

…and, to this day, it sits in the closet where I put it when I got home,

In those days, the streets were crowded with school-age children, selling chiclets, trinkets and nothing…. I think it’s called, “begging.†It was worse than the street hawkers in Ocho Rios! Soon after my first trip to Cozumel, and on several subsequent trips, I noticed that little signs began to pop up all over town, “Please, don’t give the children money. They belong in school. Gracias.†The merchants realized that the children accosting the tourists, on the street, could potentially keep the passengers on board.

Well, to be honest, it worked, and, today, you don’t too many children in the streets.

Other than a huge increase in the daily number of cruise ships who assault San Miguel every day, very few things on the island have changed and remain the same, today.

On my first visit, in 1989, the “street merchants†were selling, among other things, small, handmade wooden puppets. I thought my youngest son might like one, so I began the usual round of bartering. After a few minutes, we arrived at a fair price of five dollars. It seemed like a reasonable price, and Pedro was packed away for his trip to the United States. Last December, when I found myself back in Cozumel, for the umpteenth time, I was looking for some presents for my grandchildren. Lo, and behold, there were the

puppet-merchants, on the street, still. I picked out several puppets and, after the appropriate haggling, reached a price of………………. five dollars each.

The hand woven, cotton, blankets, however, have skyrocketed, in cost, over the past dozen years. They’ve gone from four for ten bucks, to three…

Next, was Grand Cayman. It’s the one port that was, then, and remains, now, my least favorite port. If you are not a diver, or snorkeler, there is little to see, or do. It’s a flat, coral, rock with no topography to speak of. It has no natural beauty, no mountains, no caves, no rainforests, little tropical vegetation and second-rate beaches.

I will say, however, that my first visit was interesting. I went to the Turtle Farm, and played with all the cute, little, turtles, which turned out to be not-so-cute, after all.

The tour was informative, and a worthwhile stop. One word of caution. No matter what they tell you in the Gift Shop, it is illegal to bring any products containing any part of the turtle back to the States! If found, they will be confiscated, and you could be subject to a fine.

Then I went to Hell. Yes, the town of Hell has a natural formation of coral, which has been exposed for a quadzillion years and turned black. Not very impressive, but you can buy t-shirts that say, “I’ve been to Hell,†and have your post cards postmarked from, “Hell, Cayman Islands, BWI.â€Â

Next stop, Seven-Mile Beach. The beach was obviously named by a man, since it’s only 5 ½ miles long… It’s a very nice beach, if you’re a “beach person.†It’s not a Class A beach, but it’s great for people who don’t live near a beach, at home.

Living in South Florida, less than a half an hour from South Beach and an hour from mm 100 in Key Largo, the number one dive/snorkel destination in the world, beaches and snorkeling do not excite me, on a cruise.

However, one thing that truly impressed me, on Cayman, and, in fact, was one of the most memorable things I’ve done on a cruise, was an expedition on the “Atlantis.†The company operates a fleet of subs, scattered around the Caribbean, but the one at Grand Cayman is preeminent. This true submarine dive a hundred feet down the Cayman wall, revealing fantastic sights all the way down. Although it’s a bit expensive, it is well worth the price. In fact, I’ve done it twice.

Shopping in Grand Cayman is a joke, since the prices are higher than back home in the States. The local economy is based on “offshore secret†banks and insurance companies. There is little, if any, poverty on the island, and the Cayman dollar is the only currency in the Caribbean hat in worth MORE than the U.S. dollar.

On subsequent trips to Cayman, all I do is take the tender into town; stop for a cup of coffee and a slice of Tortuga Rum Cake (it MUST be Tortuga Rum Cake, at the factory. The others do not come close!); and head back to the ship.

My final stop was Ocho Rios, Jamaica. This port instantly became, and has always remained, my favorite port. I know this is open to heated debate, but I have developed a certain fondness for the island.

On my first visit I complied with the local statutes, regarding the conduct of first-time visitors, and I did the obligatory Dunn’s River Falls climb. It turned out to be a lot of fun.

We I had two guides on the Jitney that took us to the falls, and about 24 passengers. We all arrived at the falls, and walked down the stairs to the beach. Stopping, several times, along the way to look at the water rushing down the rocks, through thick, beautiful, tropical foliage.

When we got to the bottom, one guide began to lead us up the falls, while the other took all of our cameras. A few of us thought we’d never see those babies again! However, the guide was an absolute marvel. He knew not only knew which camera(s) belonged to which climber, but how to operate each one. As a result, I have some nice photos, and videos, of my climb up Dunn’s River Falls. It’s an experience that every one who visits the area must try, once.

Remember; it’s a local law: Every tourist must climb Dunn’s River Falls, once, before they can leave the country. If you check all of the Shore Excursions, you will see that they all include a stop at the falls.

On subsequent visits to the island, I discovered the “river rafting,†on the Martha Brae, and Rio Grande, Rivers. A relaxing ride down the peaceful river, on a bamboo raft, with your Raft Captain. Maybe, he’ll sing a reggae song, or two, if you “induce†him to. This has become one of my favorite things to do, in Jamaica, and I repeat it every third, or fourth, visit.

If you’re a Bob Marley fan, you must take the tour to Nine Mile, Bob’s birthplace/final resting place. The tour is limited to 24 guests! The ride to the town of Nine Mile takes you into the foothills of the Blue Mountains, and is gorgeous. The bus stops along the way for complimentary liquid refreshments, soda and Rum Punch.

Be forewarned; when you arrive at the homestead in Nine Mile, several local Rastas will greet you, and attempt to sell you a “spliff†for ten dollars. Three warnings! First, it is, technically, illegal in Jamaica, just as it is in the U.S. While the law is seldom, if ever, enforced in this area of the mountains, it is a law. Second, this ganja is very potent. It is not your run-of-the-mill stuff. Finally, and take this warning seriously, do not buy a spliff for ten dollars. With a little friendly discussion, you can get it for five…..

Of course, I always leave time for shopping in the local craft market… It’s an experience! I’ve learned to laugh with the locals, and check out some local lingo; “Hey, honey, tell me sumptin’ I wanna hear…†instead of, “How much is this?†It works wonders, and is a lot of laughs. Yes, the locals can be very aggressive and forceful, but the right attitude will overcome that.

The Jamaicans are a very proud people; proud of their history, their freedom and, most of all, Bob Marley. They have been handed a double-edged sword which is difficult to handle.

On one hand, their economy, as most of the islands, is not in very good shape and they desperately need U.S. tourist dollars. On the other hand, many of us fit the image of the “Ugly American,†when we visit these islands. The natives see these rich Americans getting off the big, fancy, expensive ships, invade their towns by the thousands and treat to residents like crap.

It is only natural, especially for a proud people like the Jamaicans, for the defense mechanisms to go up and “give back what you get, Mon.†The ‘secret’ is to treat the locals as if it we were visiting their home….which we are. That goes for ALL of the ports.

One of my fellow-passengers told me a story, that I have every reason to believe, is 100% true! I’ll repeat it in the “first person,†just the way he told it to me….

“I was walking down the main street in Ocho Rios, when I was approached, for the umpteenth time, by a very young boy, eleven or twelve, at most, with the usual, ‘Hey, mon, want some smoke? Ganja? Marijuana?’

Curiosity got the best of me, and I said, to myself, ‘What the Hell; why not.’ To my new, little, buddy I said, ‘ OK.â€Â

He led me into a restaurant and had me sit down. The restaurant was empty, except for a fellow, behind the counter, who “disappeared†into the kitchen.

The boy was back in 3 minutes, and led me to the men’s room. He pushed a little baggie at me, and started saying, ‘hey, put in your pocket, mon…’ I asked the price, and he said it was thirty bucks. I laughed, and offered him six! Told him that all I had was a wet six dollars, and pulled a soggy one and five out of my pocket. He grabbed the six dollars and shoved the baggie into my hand.

I hightailed it out the door, and took a few steps, when another young man, same age, in a yellow shirt, stopped me and said, ‘Hey, mon, I was the lookout. You owe me a tip.’

Without a pause, I looked at him and said, ‘Get it from your partner; I just gave him thirty-bucks!’

I jumped onto the jitney, back to the ship, and dumped the little baggie, on the way; laughing, all the way back to the ship, about these two little kids arguing for the rst of the day as to whether I paid six dollars, or thirty.â€Â

Personally, I have a better way of handling these situations. Whenever a little stranger comes up to me, with the, proverbial, “hey, mon, marijuana?†I look around, suspiciously, and then reply, “Sure, how much do you need?â€Â

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DaCruzNut,

Your itinerary reminds me of my cruise on the Carnival Conquest. We traveled the exact same islands except in the reverse order.

We enjoyed Montego Bay but heard a nightmare story from a couple about being driven into the mountains by a driver they found in the city. They were told that they had to give up all of their cash in order to get back to the ship. Today one has to proceed with reasonable caution in Montego Bay. We were fortunate to find a great van taxi driver at the pier. He originally was going to take us downtown, but for just $4 more per person he offerred a tour of Montego Bay. There were about 8 passengers on the van and I think every one of them jumped at the opportunity to tour Montego Bay for $4 each. The total fare turned out to be about $10 per person.

We did do the submarine dive in Grand Cayman, but bargained ashore for a better price than was offered on the cruise ship's excursion desk. That was the only bargain we found on Grand Cayman. Everything else was very expensive.

At Cozumel we took the ferry to the mainland and did the Ruins of Tulum. We did schedule that excursion from the ship. Video cameras are taxed if you want to use them at the site. We returned to Cozumel on another trip and tour San Miguel. We enjoyed that very much. The Mexican Government seems to be making a major effort to improve the shoreline with reconstructed streets and public beaches. It looks like it's going to be beautiful.

Cozumel is no longer the "sleepy fishing village" it once was. San Miguel, its only city, is crowded with shops and touristy bars and restaurants. We don't know if it's a good thing but we enjoyed walking around and window shopping. We picked up a few souvenirs and some bottled water to take back to the ship.

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