The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Seriously easy/slow going in the Caribbean

When Hol and I were sat in the in Gran Canaria and were told by Dave and Kat we were going to Antigua instead of Trinidad I remember my heart sinking. Trinidad was a short 11km hop from Venezuela on the mainland and the best connected island to head west from. Antigua was well up the chain and, from what we had seen online, every ferry company that had set up inter island ferries in the Caribbean had gone bust. When we then found out that we were actually going even further North to St. Maarten perched at the very top of the Eastern Caribbean chain I must confess a slight frustration. Hol remained chipper, but I couldn't get the repeated lines from from a thousand internet travel chat rooms out of my head: 'there are NO ferries linking all the islands ', 'it is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to island hop further than the next door island', 'just fly'. However, we had no choice and we consoled ourselves by saying this is the kind of thing we signed up for by not flying.

Upon arriving in St. Maarten the business of finding our way south began immediately. Hol, ever the professional, managed to make a good start after only 12 rum punches in Rose's bar in Philipsburg. While I was receiving a shoulder rub from the proprietress, Hol was in the kitchen. Despite the fact I am fairly convinced she went in there in pursuit of twin beef patties and gherkins wedged between a sesame cob, she came back with the hazy recollection that she had been told there was a ferry to Dominica that goes once a week. So the trail began...

Next step was to ask at Bobby's Marina where the inter-island ferries are meant to leave from. We are told there are only ferries to the next island St Barts and not beyond. The ferry was then pointed out to us. It was slowly gathering dust 20 yards away with a flea bitten dog asleep underneath it. It wouldn't be leaving anytime soon. So next step was a bus to Marigot on the other side of the island. A walk to the tourist office and an embarassingly sweaty conversation ensued and it was more of the same. Only to St. Barts, not beyond. This was then echoed by ferry operators, restauranteurs, hoteliers and everyone else we met until we spoke to a guy who signs people out on the St. Barts ferry. 'Maybe you get a ferry from de commercial port along de way'. Cue another long sweaty walk to the commercial port forty minutes out of town. We get there, chat to the guy under the tree playing the harmonica who tells us to follow a very fat man on a forklift down to the quay. There we meet Mano, captain of the M.V. Emmanrick. HE TAKES PEOPLE TO DOMINICA ON SATURDAY! If he hadn't been a large black guy flanked by 6 more scarred looking sailors on a very rusty boat I would have kissed him and if I had a daughter she may well have now been betrothed. How much? $115. Well under the $200 quoted by harmonica man. Great, But we need to leave our passports with him. This is a problem as we need to sign off Lista Light back on the other side of the island. Balls. OK, back to Philipsburg immigration and another hot walk through container ports and past my favourite shop on the island; a wholesale liquor store made to look like a kid's playground. The big Momma in immigration says we need a letter from Mano saying we are sailing with him. Hmmm, not what Mano said but Ok. Back on the bus to Marigot the next morning, print a letter out in an internet cafe, walk all the way to the port again, get it stamped by Mano, walk all the way back into Marigot to get the bus back to Philipsburg, get Dave, walk 20 minutes to immigration. We only just get stamped out by a begrudging big Momma, and then back to get our stuff and head back to Marigot on the bus for another hour round trip walk to the port to give Mano our passports.

A quick sleep, wash and shave later and the next day at 3pm we arrive at the dock. By 6pm we are on the banana boat and underway. 24 hours on the M,V. Emmanrick was an extraordinary experience; unexpected in the main, but also friendly, beautiful and hard. Nestled amongst about 10 other passengers, 6 or so crew and lots of boxes of everything from nappies to bananas we were two 'crazy white folk' that had clearly got a little lost on their trip around the Caribbean. Nonetheless we were welcomed in warmly receiving a bed (admittedly the sweatiest nights sleep yet) to sleep in, tucking into chicken and rice (unfortunately a good 20 hours since we had eaten our last meal) and even getting a 20 or so strong dolphin fly by in the morning.

On arrival in Dominica we both felt nervous. Would immigration accept us? After all, we hadn't signed into the pattiserie we had got breakfast from, and also failed to get a stamp for that poo I took on the boat somewhere off Guadeloupe. We had to wait cooped up on the boat for all to be cleared, trying to get the creases out of our shorts, brushing hair into a side parting and preparing our finest 'no actually, we're English' responses. The time comes, we explain the trip, that we have no onward ticket (usually enough to not be allowed on the island), but plan to get a boat south in a week. She stamps it, but only on the condition we stay in the Errol apartments in town. This it turns out is run by the mayor, who happens to be stood on the dock painting the boat next to ours and also runs the M.V. Grace Maryann we had seen crewed entirely by drunks in Marigot commercial port. A small world.

That night all the cash machines in town are broken so we are given some food from an old lady in a shop that looks closed. The only question we got asked, 'Are you from England?'. Yes. That's fine then, take whatever you want. Carrying our nutritious dinner of maggi noodles, pringles and 2 beers we bump into Bomper hanging around the street corner below our overpriced and under cooled apartment. Bomper tells us in a voice more suited to a Barry White tribute act, that the cashier in the petrol station might be able to help with a boat South. The next morning we speak to her. Her brother in law Neville and friend Ned have a boat, here is his number. We wander to find somewhere to call from. After change is swallowed twice there is still no answer. We try the other number. No answer. We go back to find her, but she is 'back in ten minutes'. 2 hours of waiting later we plead with her again and receive another 3 fifty digit barcodes we can try and reach the elusive Ned and Neville on. On leaving the petrol station she also recalls that she thinks the boat is broken and stuck in Trinidad anyway. Crap, our only option off the island is gone and it is not a cheap place to stay with the budget sleeping places coming in at around £25 a night.

After paying off the generous lady in the shop from the night before, we decide to head south to Roseau to have a relax knowing we can't do anything for now as neither Ned or Neville is expected anytime soon. We're in the Caribbean for god's sake. This should be amazing. We arrive in Roseau and snoop around and find ourselves speaking to Peter the travel agent. There is a boat! YES. He will speak to the guy on it and it should be here on Thursday. Perfect, we have a couple of days waiting for him to call to explore Dominica, which it should be mentioned is incredible. When you get into the hills there is not an inch of earth which isn't draped in the lushest, brightest and thickest flora we had ever seen. It is where Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed and we spent two days dunking in fresh waterfalls, spotting crabs scuttling around the rocks and hummingbirds and huge butterflies hovering around mango, banana, guava and passion fruit trees.

As the days tick by we keep ringing the bespectacled Peter at Whitchurch travel, but still no word comes. But by Thursday contact has been made with George Solomon, Captain of the M.V. Eastpack. We wait nervously knowing that the next conversation could mean a quick trip down straight to Trinidad and off into South America or back to square one and costly imprisonment on Dominica. It's bad news. The boat won't be leaving for a week and then he will be going via St. Lucia, then onto Barbados, then St, Vincent, then Granada, then Trinidad. Oh, and there isn't room on board anyway. F*ck. We wander disconsolately via a couple of tremendous raisin swirl cakes wondering once again if we will ever leave the island. Eating a BBQ plantain from a street stall we then meet someone who revives optimism. He used to live 10 minutes from my previous place of work, Diageo's glamorous headquarters in Hangar Lane. It turns out he used to be a 'seafarer' and he says St. Lucia is where we need to be as it has way more boats going south. He paints a utopian picture to Hol and I of a terminus akin to Heathrow at Christmas and we get excited. All we need to do is get the Express des Iles ferry as far south as it goes to St. Lucia and we will be spirited along by one of a thousand merry cargo boats (most likely with comfy state cabins and free booze all the way).

We merrily troop back to Whitchurch travel. What could be easier than buying an actual legitimate tourist ticket? Oh. We need a piece of paper stamped by inland revenue. Where is that? Other side of town. We walk to the dilapidated building and walk in. They say we need to go to the police station. We check with them again. Oh yeah, they realise they are the right place and they give us the pieces of paper we need. We go back to Whitchurch travel. Problem. Do we have an onward ticket? No. We explain the trip as before, say we are writing a book (?) and this even gets construed as some kind of charity thing by the 2 supervisors involved. But all too soon we are on the phone to immigration in St. Lucia. It doesn't go well and when the lady puts the phone down in the end we are told we need an onward ticket to England to enter. This is bad, not to say a totally new rule, and so looking to avoid getting more people involved we ask if we can simply buy a return ticket giving us 2 weeks in St. Lucia. Yes. Great. We were risking extra cost if we couldn't get it refunded but so it would have to be. But what's this? The prices have changed from those printed in the million leaflets and posters all around us? By much? Yes. When? 5 days ago? Great. Yes, you must buy 2 single tickets. Also, the second single must come back via Martinique with a one night stopover. Errr, ok? Can we just get the return to Martinique instead of all the way back to St. Lucia? No that's not possible, you would have to buy it in St. Lucia. But that doesn't make sense. Surely we could go onto the internet anywhere in the world and and buy one like that? Yes that is true, but if you want to get the ferry tomorrow morning you must buy it now. Confused? Yes. Energy to fight it out? No.

We get the more expensive return ticket. Ok, take these receipts to the other side of the building to the lady labeled cashier. We head over to find a stern lady under a sign saying 'open 10am to 5pm'. The clock above says 5.05. I break into a cold sweat as the irrational rage at the prospect of spending another 3 days waiting for the next ferry on Sunday threatens to explode all over the brown patterned walls and faded pictures of cruise ships on the wall. But she smiles, takes the money, stamps and signs 20 or so individual bits of paper and sends us back to get the actual tickets. Finally, we have a way off the island... for now. But we are still only half way down the chain. As a fitting kick in the nuts, the final guy we spoke to on leaving the travel agents said there are no boats from St. Lucia south and he has no idea what we will do when we get there. Who do we believe? We shall see (1), we have no choice really and at least we are making some progress. I am sure at some stage we will look back and smile at the time spent in the Caribbean, but for now as we hemorrhage money in a tourist paradise not built for this kind of travel, it will be a relief to be on the mainland where buses rather than boats ply the long distances between countries.

(1) Having now spent 3 days in St Lucia chatting to good 50+ people from posh yachties to shack residing Rastafarians about boats going South, we are slightly worried that the latter was the one to believe

PHOTO UPDATES: some transatlantic pictures and even some bizarre videos are also up on flickr if you click here - Transat album

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