Turtle Whispering at the Cayman Island Turtle Farm

DSC_0958

 

I didn’t know turtles could be so much fun before we visited the Cayman Island Turtle Farm. They are large, enchanting creatures that live up to 150 years and can grow up to 600 pounds. They put all that weight on with a diet of sea grasses. At the Turtle Farm they eat three times a day; they crowd together and spout water through their noses when they do.  You’re allowed to handle yearlings at the Touch Tanks. That was the real treat.

 

Benny, our guide, showed us how to hold a young turtle by the shell with both hands and DSC_0987rub under its neck with your fingers at the same time. My once wriggling little ball of flapping fins was transformed into a docile, contented little tyke. I felt like a turtle whisperer.

 

It’s also fascinating to see them in the many “ponds,” where young turtles in different stages of development hang out together.

 

When sighting Little Cayman and Cayman Brac in 1503, Columbus was struck by the DSC_0980abundance of green sea turtles in the surrounding waters, and so the Cayman Islands were first called Las Tortugas (The Turtles). In 2004 the green sea turtle was listed as an endangered species, and the turtle farm is a major conservation effort and the only one of its kind in the Caribbean.

 

We also met Sparky, the grande dame of the farm; a 65-year old female who laid 25,684 eggs during her long reproductive years, and now hangs out in a tank with the little ones in her retirement. (I wonder what she’s telling them?!)

 

Over 31,000 turtle have been successfully released into the wild from here. The educational center explains the history and development of the farm’s hatchery and release programs. Another mascot is the famous Sir Thomas Turtleton, who was released (with a tracking devise) after 30 years at the farm and made it all the way down to Honduras.

DSC_0955

Over the years this unique park has added meandering garden trails and multiple exhibits about Cayman heritage, wildlife and island ecosystems. You can swim in Breaker’s Lagoon and hide under its cascading falls; snorkel in the salt-water Boatswain’s Lagoon, which meanders though the property and contains a rich sampling of coastal sea life. Get a thrill in front of the viewing panels that reveal Predator Reef where you’ll see barracudas, tarpons, and grey sharks that glide ominously on the prowl.

 

DSC_0050_2In the aviary there are birds from all over the Caribbean.  The Cayman Islands’ National Bird is the Green Parrot and they like to squawk. The small busy colorful Honey Creepers might fly over your head, and the striking Scarlet Ibis; the National Bird of Trinidad certainly made its presence known.

Cayman cultural and social life is also part of this “farm.” In fact, the wooden rafters of the high ceiling in the reception building are reminiscent of the ribs of an upside-down catboat, a traditional boat used by local fisherman. Cayman Street, a street with replicas of Caymanian wooden houses, complete with the “caboose,” an outdoor kitchen.

DSC_0024_2

 

Some people call this place a marine park, others a living museum, and still others a zoo. DSC_0054_2Caymaninas call it the Turtle Farm, and you can see why they love their turtles and are devoted to their conservation and their island ecosystem.

 

 

A Farwell to HBO’s Treme: The Series About Post-Katrina New Orleans Brought Us Music, Food, & Friends

DSC_0116

Last night was the final episode of Treme after 3 seasons. The 5 final episodes, a shortened season 4,  aired in December and wrapped up some of the story lines. In an interview in New Orleans just before the premier of season 2, creator and executive producer, David Simon told me he needed 5 seasons to develop the characters and tell the story of post-Katrina New Orleans. There are no doubt multiple reasons for shortening the series, but 2 weeks ago he joked that HBO has an odd idea that their programming needs viewers. I’ve joked for some time, when asked what I’m working on, that I’m writing about the best TV series no one is watching. Treme is destined to become a cult classic, and may live a long and fruitful life in syndication. I hope so. This series deserves to be watched.

I have no doubt that we will continue to talk about the unique space the city of New Orleans occupies in American culture in a post-Treme television universe. The final song of the final episode expressed the sentiment I already feel; to Miss New Orleans.  I will miss this raucous indulgence in food and music (and other things).

Featuring food and music as major characters on television wasn’t easy, though they DSC_0031made it look that way. The variety of bands and performers, clubs and buskers that appeared on the program was a musical phenomenon in itself. Some of the most stunning sequences on Treme were performances shot on location at many of the smaller music venues, most outside of the well-known tourist spots on Bourbon Street. Frenchmen Street is currently the place to go for some of the most vibrant music and the jazz at Snug Harbor and other clubs took the program to creative realms wholly different from the confines of ordinary television. This kind of on-location TV that collects vast amounts of talented local musicians (and extras) is expensive and complicated to film and choreograph. Treme was quality television of the first order.

DSC_0314Many NOLA musicians appeared on the program, and their lives and music were major inspirations for key fictional portrayals on Treme. The character of Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) is loosely based on New Orleans saxophone player Donald Harrison Jr., who like Delmond, divides his artistic life between the Big Easy and the Big Apple. Harrison is also the son of legendary Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., long-time leader of the Mardi Gras Indian Tribe, Guardians of the Flame. Harrison consulted on costume design for Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters)DSC_0076 and offered instruction on how to move in the magnificent suits that can weigh over 150 pounds.

There is so much more to say about the music, and the culture of Mardi Gras Indians, and I will linger there in future posts, but food also played a major role in evoking New Orleans DSC_0036as a place and a culture, and deserves a mention in this tribute.

Speaking at the 92 Street Y on December 13, 2013, David Simon and executive producer Nina Noble, explained how food is central to the unique identity of New Orleans. Just as music took the series to new creative heights, so did the presentation of food. In visually rendering New Orleans cuisine, its chefs and restaurants, the writers, directors and cinematographers advanced the art of presenting food on camera, and food took its rightful place in narrative drama.

There was much to learn about filming real food. The use of fake food would have been, well, fake. If scenes took too long, the dishes would have to be replaced. In the first few episodes shot in kitchens where dialogue and interactions were also occurring between characters, the camera focused on the people and the food sometimes didn’t make it on screen. But by the second-to-last episode when chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) shares an extended moment with D.J. Davis (Steve Zahn) in her kitchen, the scene is an intoxicating blend of food and visual storytelling. The sequence ends when Janette offers Davis a perfect omelet for his 40th birthday. We see every aspect of her preparation and when she handed him the plate, I could almost smell it. Food as an extension of character and expression of emotion reached it full impact at that moment.

That December night at the 92 Street Y, one of the most renowned BBQ chefs in NOLA, the author and story editor for Treme, Lolis Eric Elie, joined in the discussion and talked about the important role New Orleans’ cuisine played in the series. He spoke lovingly about food, his family’s recipes, and the sense of identity that comes from cooking, from simple rice and red beans, to gumbo. If you’ve ever eaten in the city, you understand, and you will certainly miss New Orleans until you can get back for another plate of gumbo.

Related:

Mediating the Past: Treme and the Stories of the Storm

By Robin Andersen

Fall in The Northeast: The Place to Be

IMG_2666

I wasn’t born in New York. I am a migrant, and like many transplants I suffer from the perpetual sense that I should be somewhere else – a place that feels more like home. It’s still surprising for me to land in New York whenever I travel. It feels like it should be another stop on my itinerary, not my final destination. But not in the fall – autumn is a different story.IMG_2678 New York is where I want to be.

There is no better place to be than The Northeast when the trees light up.  Sugar maples are the first to announce cooler air and less humidity. They stand against a sky of polished glass.  The hickories are also early. They insist on a single hue of bright yellow.  After these early harbingers of change, all the trees soon release a progression of color that makes each day another adventure in sight. The Japanese maples are last, with the deepest reds, corals and pinks. For weeks, gusty winds toss the lazy grounded leaves up and swirl them back down and around in circles.

I never saw The Northeast in the fall until well after my college days in Southern California. Home was where the beach was. But at this time of year, home is a multihued landscape where the leaves float down and the backyard fire keeps my IMG_2677hands warm, where the days are a little shorter but the season stretches out and you don’t want to miss a minute of its gaudy display.

Trinidad on My Mind

 

DSCN4905My left hand found a hole in the wet limestone wall and the rushing water came closer as I clamped my fingers into it and moved up a little.  My right leg was still searching for an outcropping, a small indentation, anything my foot could settle into to take some weight off the left quad that was now burning above the pool of white water below.  I nestled my toes into a dimple in the wall hoping to find a bit of horizontal rock so I could use my foot and shift some weight. No way, my toes hit the wall before the ball of my foot found any purchase. At least I was attached with 3 limbs but I couldn’t move. The holes within my reach on the face of this waterfall were too high. I couldn’t position my legs to do the work and push me up. My muscular thighs have always been the strongest part of my body, probably from riding my horse bareback all through my teens. My upper body strength is a different story. My arms would never pull me straight up. I reached my right leg long, almost straight out, and tried anyway, wobbled a little and was still stuck midway up the side of the waterfall.

I looked down over my shoulder to assess the situation. The water in the pool created by the falls wasn’t angry or threatening. In fact it was looking more and more inviting. I had been on this wall for what seemed like an hour, but was probably was less then 10 DSCN4913 minutes. I could easily push hard away from the limestone and hit the calmer part of the pool feet first. It was plenty deep. There would be no headline in the travel section reporting, Frommer’s guidebook writer fatally injured in a climbing accident in Trinidad. As it turned out I didn’t have to jump.

This Trinidadian adventure has come back to me while I am sitting in an airy, whimsical restaurant waiting to interview the owner Alvin Clayton, who is from Trinidad. The walls are covered with Matisse inspired paintings. I’ve heard he did them all. It’s quite an oeuvre.  He named his restaurant Alvin & Friends because, after all, isn’t it nicer to share a meal with friends than eat alone? I’m not the first writer to come through these glass DSCN6138doors that open invitingly onto the small plaza in front. A New York City anchorwomen Sade Baderinwa, came all the way up to the suburbs to get a taste of Alvin’s Po Boy sandwich. I’m intrigued by what I’ve read and the local buzz that surrounds this place. I might be missing Trinidad a little too.

The manager looks embarrassed and tells me Alvin’s been delayed. He offers a rum punch and I’m happy. Almost every review includes the detail that Alvin got into the business when he partnered with Denzel Washington and others, to open a restaurant in Los Angeles called Georgia. On the south side of Melrose, It became a celebrity hangout and lasted for seven years. That was his first experience with the fusion cuisine that merges Trinidadian cooking with the favorite recipes of the American south.

When Alvin walks in I recognize him from pictures and his reputation as a former model. DSCN6126The man couldn’t take a bad picture. While we chat he adjusts the sound system with his cell phone, altering the volume and music, and changing the mood of the restaurant. He tells me, “If the music is wrong it’s just any ordinary place to eat.” The demi-walls of paneled glass that evoke the feeling of openness and seclusion at the same time are also his design.

In Trinidad, where steelpan drums originated, I began to loose track of how many different people and cultures passed through, stayed, or somehow left their mark on the island. Exploring the Caribbean gave Alex Stankie from Islands Magazine learns to play the Seal Drumsme a real taste for the mashup of people and history that is so much a part of the islands. The early history that created these fusions wasn’t so happy, especially after the arrival of Columbus, who encountered Trinidad in 1498. Beginning in the 1530s the Spanish were bent on conquering the Arawakan and Cariban speak peoples, and like most of the inhabitants of the Caribbean after colonial contact, they were very nearly wiped out. For the next 4 centuries, as Europeans vied for arable land, wealth and resources, different waves of peoples and cultures tossed up on Trinidad’s shores. By 1595 Sir Walter Raleigh (who introduced tobacco to England) showed up to attack the Spanish in his quest for El Dorado – the famed “City of Gold.” After the French revolution the arrival of plantation owners and their slaves from Martinique led to an agriculture-based economy of cocoa and sugar. But Trinidad remained a Spanish colony until 1797 when the British fleet sent 18 warships to take the island away from the Spanish.

The abolition of slavery on Trinidad in 1838 presented a problem for the powerful plantation owners, who then devised a system of “indenture” for Indian workers. From 1845 to 1917, they brought almost 150,000 East Indians to work on the sugarcane
DSCN4676plantations.

Today Indian food is a major ingredient of Trinidadian cuisine. The first thing I ate when I got off the plane was a Roti. I remember the smells and smoke from the vendor’s carts on an evening walk through Independence Square in the heart of Port of Spain where the classic “double” was in great demand. We waited in line to be served the hand-held treat made of coco bread and stuffed with curried chickpeas and a little hot sauce.

I am reminded of the smells and sounds of Trinidad having dinner at Alvin’s after my interview with him. What a great adventure it was all around. I finally did get off the waterfall, by the way. I grabbed the rope attached to the top of the rock wall, held onto it tight with both hands, and walked straight up the rest of the wet limestone, all the way to the top. The really fun part was coming down!

 

Life and Death on Mott Street in New York City’s Chinatown

IMG_0600

“Remember to wear the same clothes you wore the first time,” the email said. I had to return to the gaming arcade in Chinatown to redo an interview I’d done 3 weeks before. I found the jacket I wore in the back seat of the car. It never made it to the cleaners. I ran the iron IMG_0486over it, wondered if I’d gotten the hair cut before or after the last interview, looked at a picture I’d taken with the crew to see what earrings I was wearing that day and set out for 8 Mott Street in Manhattan. After a Metro North ride and a hike from the Canal St. exit of the 6 train, I arrived sweaty and late.

The answers were easier to come up with this time. The producer of a Norwegian TV series on global cultures of death was keen on including the endless, mindless killing done in the virtual war worlds of videogames in him programs. My ruminations on the emotionally detached thrills of cyber death were apparently important enough to rent the Family Fair IMG_0478Fun Center a second time. The Danish cameraman was grateful and apologized effusively for shooting me out of focus the first time around. I was relieved when he turned off the lights and unhooked the tiny microphone from my now dirtier jacket. I walked out onto Mott Street and an intermittent drizzle and looked forward to exploring the people and shops of Chinatown.

Up the street Pings offered Dim Sum and Peking Duck and the first thing I did was eat. The IMG_0602dumplings were hot off the rolling steam tray and I managed to pack away three different varieties – pork, shrimp and chives, and crab – each with a different texture inside the soft sculpted shell. I drank more tea. I sat next to Spaniards who, not thinking anyone understood, said the woman walking out the door was fat – gordita.

A man with a shaved head dressed all in black walked up the steps into the dinning room carrying his crutches. Getting to the top, he limped over to a table on an artificial leg and sat down on a pillow. The Asian woman and little girl with him reminded me of all the documentaries IMG_0616I’ve seen about the Vietnam War. They were happy together and the child grabbed his shoulder affectionately as they ordered.

The Spaniards ordered Sprit and wanted salt, which I had to translate for the waiter who pointed to the soy sauce on their table. They weren’t satisfied.

Back out on the sidewalk I walked north up the narrow street and was pleased that the
threat of rain kept the crowds away. A manikin                  in bright red silk looked down from a shop
IMG_0635 window and curios of all sorts pushed out of their stalls. A trading company with a
reproduction of a saddled horse from the Tang Dynasty caught my eye and I opened the shop door entering into a riot of ceramics. “Why do you only have numbers on the stuff in the window,” I asked the Chinese man watching TV behind the counter. He surprised me as he said, “It’s an old trick to get you into the store,” sounding like any average New IMG_0630Yorker. “You were born here,” I observed a little later. “Yes,” he said, “I grew up right here next to the Italians and went to the church school across the street. He told me how Mott Street had changed over the years, from mostly little restaurants to all these curio shops. I told him what I was doing in the neighborhood and he said that before it was a gaming arcade, the Family Fair Fun Center was much different and used to have a huge dragon that popped out a
IMG_0626box and scared him as a kid. Our conversation was wide-ranging, from the art in his shop to his relief that he and his wife never moved to New Jersey, something they contemplated once to raise their girls. “But we would have been stuck in the suburbs wearing designer clothes and mowing a lawn.” Since I live in the suburbs of New York City, I felt somewhat defensive and explained that I moved to New York from Southern California, which was very suburban. I moved to the suburbs because it was what I was used to, and it was only a half hour out of the city on Metro North. I mentioned my garden, which most people embrace readily, but I IMG_0628trailed off and asked if the 88 year old
shop had a website. Surprisingly, it did not, and yet it remained a viable business still owned by his in-laws. I admired a green rooster that he told me symbolized prosperity.  I wished him that and left.

Back on Mott I wanted to find the Vegetarian Restaurant that I hadn’t been to in years, and to my surprise it was still there. I loved the chicken made of yams. The food stalls carried IMG_0656everything from sweets, to oysters to huge pinkish-red Dragon Fruits. I wondered what the hairy-looking brown fruit was until I saw one opened up. Litchi! My favorite! I bought a pound and she raised 4 fingers. I gave her four dollars.

The neighborhood park was full of people, ambling and lingering under trees and on benches. Some women sat around a table that held a large book.  Some sat outside the fence with their chairs tilted forward as they peered through the iron grates. I heard the music and went around to see the long handled string instruments with tiny bowls at the bottom. The high-pitched lament of what seemed a melancholy ode fascinated me.

Video: Music in the park

After a while I headed once again toward Canal Street, and once again was distracted by food when I IMG_0659passed Mulberry Street and saw the Italian ices in the long refrigerated case on the sidewalk. I bought a double scoop; hazelnut and peach. The cup was tiny and the afternoon was now hot and I couldn’t eat it fast enough to stop it from dripping down into the sleeve of my jacket. The lining stuck to the skin on the inside of my forearm until the air conditioning dried the air as the train sped back to suburbs. I would finally have to get this jacket to the cleaners.

 

The Art of Recycling: Glass Blowing at Maho Bay Eco-Village, St. John, USVI

The tent village at Maho Bay is one of the best examples of green travel in the Caribbean. The wood-framed canvas tents surrounded by forest are breezy and light, and have no DSCN5478running water. Most refreshing is the lack of bottled water. We filled our big container with drinking water from a communal spigot everyday, and walked to the bathrooms and showers around the grounds. Recycling is always a problem, especially on an island and it was a relief not worry about where the constant stream of plastic water bottles (so prevalent at tourist destinations) would end up. But I hadn’t expected that glass recycling would be so much a part of what makes Maho Bay a prime example of sustainable travel. It was a main attraction most evenings, and certainly part of the entertainment.

As you know or can imagine, glass blowing is an art that requires many talents – from DSCN5378creativity to courage. Working with dangerous amounts of heat, fire and molten sand takes a certain kind of temperament. Blowing into a long metal tube at the exact moment when the glowing, undefined blob at the other end is the most pliable requires equals measures of faith and experience.  As we sat in the reflected glow of the furnace watching the glass blowers, I learned that knowing how to dance is also part of the skill set.

The movements of the three glassblowers were confined to a small radius from the stove’s door with its sporadic roar of flames when opened, to the low table holding the shaping tools across the concrete floor. DSCN5390A slight amount of wiggle room was available on either side. A sink and cooling oven formed the boundary on the back wall, and we, the spectators sat in front and watched. A molten chunk hung to the end of an impossibly long rod each time it was pulled out of the furnace. Getting it to the other side involved a choreography of stepping back, balancing and reeling around so that the chunk ended up 180 degrees from where it started. The process demanded a smooth, fluid movement, one able to convince the unformed glass to stay attached to the other end of the pole. Of course the young, agile women could not open and close the oven door, and so she must also avoid hitting her teammate, the door opener, with the dangerous, unwieldy thing. For his part, the door opener would twist slightly and step back following her lead, the long wand serving as a conductor’s baton. They waltzed around the floor that way for the better part of an evening. 

The third member of the team was actually a visiting artist sharing his expertise as a temporary Maho Bay resident. Most of the time he sat in an iron arm chair and rolled the DSCN5385pole along the arms, coaxing a design out of the chunk and instructing the young woman when to give it more air. A blowtorch also helped coax the molten sand into a desirable shape. For its part the piece of recycled art rose and fell, was fashioned and refashioned, expanded and contracted and transformed many times before it achieved its final form as a flower surrounded in its own vase. Video: Click here for a quick peek at the action.

By the way, the furnace is heated using recycled cooking oil.

Visiting the Eco-tents at Maho Bay


DSCN5348
After hearing for so long about Maho Bay, I’m finally visiting the eco-tent camp during what seems to be its last couple of months. Opened in 1976 by Stanley Selengut, it has served since the first nails were hammered into the wooden boardwalks, tents and gathering areas, as an eco-lodge innovation that it is now a classic icon of sustainable travel. We didn’t venture far from camp our first day, instead we decided to get acquainted with the place. The northeastern storm had followed us down from New York, and Jason at activities, advised us that the swell it brought with it would affect conditions at Little Maho Bay more than Big Maho. Continue reading

Fighting for Wild Aruba

From the edge of the deck the sand travels away from the light in wavy peaks and shadows. Trunks of palms wrapped in spiral beads of light surround the deck. They sway and rustle in the wind. A few feet away the sand meets the darkness and radiates upward through a cloudless night sky. The leeward side of the Caribbean sea murmurs as melodies float from the bar at the other end of the deck. Large round posts support a thatched roof. They are wrapped with ties that secure decorative linen curtains. Huge garden pots sprout tropical greenery. No cell phones ring. Sounds of soft laughter on the wind are punctuated by clinking drinks returning to the glass tabletops.


A woman walks off the deck and down the wooden stairs into the sand making new patterns in the expanse of creamy grains. She moves closer to the water toward a DSC_0009secluded palapa where two people sit at a table dressed in tropical décor. The white linen curtains attached to these posts are pulled across the openings, creating a romantic enclosure. The secluded fantasy presents a dreamy scene where nature and civility, paradise and hospitality meet in harmonious accommodation. Continue reading

Learning to Fly at the End of the World: Travels Down the Yucatan Peninsula

 

A second huge palm frond hits my left shoulder, catching a little of my face this time. It smacks the woman behind me dead on. She squeals and leans down to her daughter, placing the girl’s little hand on the offended cheek. The salsa pounds and the colored flashing lights pulsate to the beat of the blaring music. The top of the bus sways as we follow the curve on this part of the Bahia Boulevard, a beachfront drive that snakes down the peninsula for another 20 kilometers. I stick my head out over the bus’s narrow railing to check for another frond. The shallow green water of the bay spreads into the darkness on the right, mangroves and sea grapes blocking any light from the cafes and bars that might find its way to the beach. A wind gust catches another great arm waving in the center divide and the frond reaches down. I duck.

cropped-DSC_00091.jpgI am on assignment writing about the port destinations on the Yucatan Peninsula. My guides Dennerik and Harley took the night off. We’ll start again early in the morning. They want me to see the museum, the zoo, the telescope and other attractions that might draw tourists. But this ride is not on my itinerary. No cruise passengers will ever linger this far from the port this late at night. I can’t help them with the bus; tell them when it runs or how much it costs. Their ship will be guided away from the pier well before the first bus ever leaves the plaza. They’ll never be slapped by the fronds.

The bus turns and we fly slowly around the palm trees and I head back the other way. Now the restaurants are on the right and red light pours out from under El Diablito’s thatched roof promising grilled steaks and karaoke. People dash in front of the hulking vehicle on their way to the beachfront, and as the driver brakes we jerk forward.

Back at the plaza where our ride began, some of the kids are still driving their miniature SUVs over the smooth stonework — at least they are electric. The older muchachos, often with the help of a parent, fly their fantastical papalotes. The sky-born kites catch some of the light from below; their faces and shapes slide in and out of view. Green eyes peer down from a wing-shaped kite giving flight to a jaguar, the dark face surveying the plaza below. It is almost midnight and head back to my hotel room.

In the morning we’ll head straight for the Museum of Mayan Culture. I’ve seen the
DSC_0487archeological sites of Chacchoben and Kohunlich, and they are stunning in their beauty and grandeur, though they are proportioned to a human scale, so unlike Ramses I and II.  Their curved corners, passageways and windowed walls direct the light into shafts,
revealing sky in unexpected flashes. Only released from the jungle in 1999, I want to know more. I had no guide the morning I made the visit to Kohunlich. Javier, one of my companions for the first leg of the trip, had to meet other European guests arriving back at the lodge, so I’d seen it on my own. Javier whisked me into the Jeep early so we could be at the gates when they opened at 8am. An hour later, he told me, I would be picked up by 2 men driving a red Ford Fiesta with a tourism logo on the side. As we ambled toward the entrance to Kohunlich the sounds of the jungle jumped out with a roar, then another roar. Javier lowered his hand, spreading his fingers out flat, cocking his head as he’d done on our hike the day before and said, “Listen. A jaguar.” My eyes widened; we heard it again, this time followed by a series of classic puckered-mouth monkey sounds. It was a howler. We looked at each other and laughed, and I walked alone through the gate. I was the only one there.

In the excitement of seeing one structure after another, one more beautiful than the next I snapped shots furiously. Some trees still claimed the stones, growing out of stairs and DSC_0474inside walls. I tromped up steps, saw better angles, ways to frame light and compose palm trees against bright, blue skies and stone walls. Pausing on the top of one temple, the quite stoicism of the place halted me. The digital SLR moved away from my face, my knees bent, lowering me to a stone buttress. The buildings moved closer and became more silent, and the grassy areas that separated them, more lush. Color, dimension and silence now engulfed the place. I marveled and saw my lanky cousin Jay, forever joking and bending his quirky head down to reach my face, pausing before delivering a punch line. My sister’s email told me that the man who married my aunt’s daughter Donna, cousin Jay, became suddenly ill and had died unexpectedly. There would be no service in California. I left from New York on this trip only days after I opened the email, and in the rush had no time to remember Jay. I now imagined him soaring overhead, looking down with approval on the chiseled structures that endured.

Sitting in front of the visitor’s center, I saw the red Ford Fiesta swing around the parking lot kicking up dust, and stop a few feet away. I started toward them as they unpacked themselves from the little red car. Dennerik was young and serious, and Harley was Mayan with a face more cheerful than the ones carved in stone that looked just like him. We piled back into the car quickly as I waved and said gracious to the boy I had been grilling about hours of operation, the cost of the ticket and if they had a website.

DSC_0613

For the last 2 days Harley’s been driving and Dennerik’s been sitting in the middle of the back seat, leaning forward pointing things out and taking breaks to text updates of our progress to the jefe – the big boss in the office. From Dennerik’s description I think of the jefe as a dark brooding force, forever worried if they’re showing me the perfect places and the most alluring attractions that will make this remote place irresistible to tourists. When we pulled into this little city on the bay I was deposited at the Holiday Inn, the nicest accommodation they assured me. Dennerik apologetically reminded me not to be late for my scheduled dinner with the tourism official.

At dinner that night with my amiable host, I first saw the bus they call el carro. Chatting with the head of tourism for the state about all the things to see and do in Quintana Roo, our conversation halted every twenty minutes as the bus tumbled past the outdoor patio, lighting up the street in a musical explosion and peals of laughter. I paused to stare at the sight of this fun box on wheels as it made its way up the boulevard. Following its progress up the road, I noticed a park on the north side of the street where children were skating up and down the sidewalk under the lamplight. They made a circle around a large statue of a mother and child. “What does the monument commemorate,” I asked.  “Victims of a terrible hurricane of 1935. This is why there are still no residential houses along the beach. So many were killed, they rebuilt back, away from the shore,” he waved into the darkness.

Up the road beyond the statue and another open plaza, a large box store loomed. I wanted to ask my host why a Wal-Mart would appear on beach-front property, but I didn’t want to spoil the conversation or a journey that was beginning to seem very far away from the cement of life as we know it.

Dennerik and Harley are early as promised and we pile into the Fiesta taking are usual seats and head off for the Museum. Strolling around the interior spaces of the museum grounds, they are still apologizing. When we arrived the exhibit of the Maya was DSC_0775surprisingly closed. But there are other things to see. Papier mâché sculptures, the work of local grade schoolers, populate the walkways of the interior courtyard of the museum. The fanciful creatures sit atop clean white columns, making their bright colors more dramatic by contrast. Dennerik reads aloud from a card under a stocky green turtle sprouting big blue wings. “I hope I can fly,” he translates from Spanish. I ponder a minute and ask, “Could it be, ‘I wish I could fly?” “Yes,” he says, “that’s it.” Harley comes out of an open doorway wearing a bemused face saying excitedly, “You have to see this.” We pass through the door and see a room filled with Barbie Dolls.

The dolls stand still and silent under their protective Plexiglas cases. All kinds of Barbies clustered inside, Barbie straddling a Pink horse, balancing forward, face eager; ballerina DSC_0784Barbie, already on tip toes in a pink tutu; Barbie holding a tennis racket aloft, one foot lifted in frozen expectation. Barbie and Ken on the beach wearing sunglasses and bathing suits, surrounded by supine mermaid Barbies, unable to stand on their pink, purple and turquoise tails.

In another case astronaut Barbie waves out of her space helmet, and senorita Barbie wears a pink faux sombrero with a ruffled pastel skirt. Horses in western saddles, their impossibly thick, braided manes reached to Barbie’s feet. They are tied with pink bows.

In a momentary reverie, I imagine a “travel” Barbie and snicker at the thought of her standing next to a steamer trunk adorned with Victorian stickers, in a safari outfit. But, I wonder, could Barbie ever escape her sealed geography, her own world where the rules of pink capture and restructure everything in its gaze? I look at the next case and see Barbie as a rock band, several of her assembled in front of panels that form a stage painted with reflective shinning stars that headline Rocker’s. Lead-singer Barbie holds a DSC_0798microphone; another Barbie tries to hold a pink guitar but her tight plastic arms are incapable of clutching the instrument. Barbie band could play on a cruise ship I muse, imagining a big titanic-like replica with the Rocker’s on deck entertaining the dining passengers.


Then there are Barbies never removed from their collector’s boxes. In the James Bond series, Barbie is wearing a tight gold and red gown as one knee juts out from under the front slit in her skirt. She stands forever still next to 007 Ken.

The children’s mythical creatures welcome us back as we step out into the sunlight and DSC_0777open spaces of the courtyard. Under the kinetic skins of these denizens of imagination the bright blue, red, purple, yellow and orange bodies seem to squirm playfully in the hot air.

 

“We’ve got to get you down to the port at Mahahual,” Dennerik says early the next morning. “Cesar will meet us at noon. He will have the port manager there, and some other personnel you can talk to. We’ll have to leave right after the zoo.”  The zoo is nicely designed. We follow winding paths through tropical foliage and find brightly colored, tropical birds in the aviary. We linger sadly as the zoo-keeper tells us that the petite toucan DSC_0705he is offering fruit is already virtually extinct, with less than 2000 birds left in the wild. I’m surprised to know that the zoo partners with international conservation programs and is affiliated with the older, better-known Belize Zoo. Wobbling across a rope bridge, a child’s attraction, I almost fall into the water. Harley gasps. We head south.

I’m looking forward to seeing Cesar again. He had driven me down the peninsula when I got back to the mainland from Cozumel. Waiting for me outside the extravagant eco-resort on the Riviera Maya, I saw his rigid stance close to the SUV when I came out, “You don’t look happy,” I observed. He lifted the dark glasses and his green eyes flashed, “Let’s get out of here,” he said opening the door. “I told them, and you told them I was coming, and they still did not tell the guard to let me in. I don’t know who these people are, but there not from this state.”

“It’s a Spanish construction firm using Canadian money,” I tell him. “They blasted a canal in the limestone so they could take guests on a boat ride around the perimeter. They call it a bird habitat.”

DSC_0225Cesar is assembled with bits of humanity from around the globe. Born in the Yucatan, his blood mixes Basque, Italian, Arab, and more, into an intensity that could barely be contained in the truck’s cab. As the tires whined, Cesar’s energy shot through the interior and bugs piled up on the windshield outside. The ride down the peninsula was a short course on the complicated lives of cruise ships. He was an excellent teacher detailing the port masters, the investors and insurance companies, and of course the cruise lines and passengers themselves. He explained the complications of moving that many people on and off a large boat with international restrictions. “How do you find the cruise passengers,” I asked him. “Are they nice?” I marveled at how trivial that sounded. “Sure, most of them are just trying to have a good time. They mostly get upset when there are kids. The Disney ships can be tough. If the children aren’t happy, nobody’s happy.” His cell-phone interrupted our conversation and he carefully, with exaggerated, slow enunciation, spells out to the listener, “No I did not threaten to sue them. I simply gave them a bill for the cost of the damage done when their ship hit the pier.” Laying the phone down on the seat he told me, “The pilot of a U.S. research vessel banged into my pier in two places, but nobody wants to pay for the damages.”

Cesar is the first one we see as we pull into Mahahual. This port on the Costa Maya is a festive new facility, shimmering multi-colors in the Yucatan sunlight at the end of the Peninsula. With no ships or passengers this morning it resembles an empty movie set of a mythical Mexican village. I chat briefly with a manager, snap some shots, ask a cab driver for his prices, and quickly exhaust my need for further information. Sadly, Dennerik and Harley must head back and we promise to meet again sometime. Cesar has some business to do, and I am pleased when he introduces me to Tony and says, “Why don’t you just go where you want and look around the area.” Tony and I head straight down the road chopped out of the jungle toward Belize, and arrive at Xacalak for a late lunch. The DSC_0896descendants of the Maya and a host of marginal internationalists populate this tiny coastal village. We cruise along the hard-sand shoreline route, stopping to ask several times if anyone has a boat to take us out. Tony makes the arrangements with a group of guys sitting in the shade in language far too fast and abbreviated for my ears. “They need to go pick up some gas and will meet us back at this spot in an hour,” he explains.  We find one café open, and the accommodating middle-aged woman follows us from her chair in the sun into the cool, little restaurant with formica tables. “I’ll have the local fish,” I say, and Tony says, “We both will.” After bringing us our drinks, she goes into the kitchen to cook.

Beds of seaweed crowd lazily up onto the sand, and extend back, well into the shallow bay waters. Looking out over the ample half-circle, I see the tiny thin thread of white in the distance where the swells meet the coral reef. I changed into a bathing suit after lunch in the restaurant, and I now pull my second leg over the edge and into the boat with a predictable thud. Our captain wraps the waterproof paper bracelets around our wrists that certify our visit to a protected reef. He gives the outboard some gas, stands up and we head for the reef. Tony tells me his mom still lives in LA, but he got deported after getting in trouble a few years ago with his teenage friends. “I’m happy to live here and have a good job,” he says, “and today is a very good day.” I agree as the water zips by. We take a rest from shouting over the motor to watch the changing coastline and the reef moving closer. The boat slows and we search for a place to anchor. The white water topping the swells hitting the reef frames our location on the glassy surface of the shallow water. Tony DSC_0866searches through his bag and finds no trunks. We each position our masks and fall backwards into the water, Tony in his underwear.  A few strokes away from the boat the underwater scene comes to life as shafts of light reaching to the sandy floor dance in a cadence to the movement of the water above. Rock-like coral formations covered in texture, shapes, and purple ferns dot the smooth white bottom, each surrounded by a stunning variety of tropical fish. They dart and sparkle in the moving light of the sun, one after the next, each outcropping inviting more fish with different colors, each claiming my attention and I fly over the quiet underwater landscape and away from the boat and its motor.

Epilogue: Did I forget to tell you? You can board the musical bus that travels the Bahia Boulevard in the town of Chetumal, the capital city of the state of Quintana Roo along the Caribbean coastline of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. If you’ve made it this far this late, your ship has already left the port. But don’t worry; it’s very safe. Nobody locks their car doors along the Bahia drive and the locals are very friendly. There is one bay- front hotel across from the Sam’s Club, with outdoor dining. From there you can go further down the coast to Belize. And by the way, I have it from a reliable source that the Maya did not predict the end of the world. The end of the calendar only gave flight to a new beginning.