The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Going Solo

The last two weeks have been a shock. For 5 months Hol hasn't been away from my side for longer than 3 hours and we have gone through absolutely everything together. But the passing away of her granddad meant she was booked on the first flight back from Grenada to a frozen England. So it was I found myself alone in having to find a route to Trinidad and beyond. It has been 2 weeks of ups and downs, but I have been lucky enough to feel the incredible kindness of strangers who help without question when they see someone adrift in a foreign country.

After being unceremoniously told to get lost by 3 captains at the industrial port, I was walking the pontoons the next day when I spotted the Eastpack cargo boat we had contacted in St. Lucia. The next day I was sharing my dinner with the 1st mate at sunset. He was explaining that it was going to be a little rough and the boat is 'a bit rolly', It was only when i got down below deck that i really began to understand what he meant, but the Captain took pity seeing me trying to sleep in a sweaty mess gripping onto the saloon table for dear life and soon I was laid out in his bunk. He didn't sleep for the night. So it was I made it through a rough night on board and arrived with the sun coming up over Port of Spain.

Here I was to be hosted by the mythical Ken Leafe; a friend of my mum's who had offered us the dream of free comfy beds, a fridge of beer and a pool to relax in. Contact was made and before i knew it, I was whisked from the bowels of the Eastpack to a giant reclining chair in front of an enormous TV watching DVDs. Amazing. Ken was a very generous host patiently driving me around the sights he had seen many times before and we talked long into the evenings of Trindiadian colonial history, politics and trying to put the world to rights. With the Caribbean being so expensive and also finding myself on my own the free board and company was hugely appreciated. And so it was with a heavy heart, clean clothes and a 5 word Spanish vocabulary that I prepared to finally leave the Caribbean islands.

It was then that things suddenly seemed to spin out of control. But instead of my nicely laid out plan of smoothly linking buses that would whisk me to Cartagena. I found myself with Luiz, Jesus and his pregnant wife Judith. Jesus and Judith spoke no English and so Luiz, a blend of a Brazilian Gordon Brown and a Gary Larson cartoon. became my saviour. The offer of a lift was there and I figured that I probably wouldn't be mugged by someone who's pregnant wife modeled a fine set of red dungarees and so hopped in. This turned into a 14 hour sightseeing trip through Venezuela stopping in small local beaches, local restaurants and tiny seafood stalls, all with the translated commentary from Luiz. I was alternately stunned by the beautiful scenery and sat in gobsmacked silence for several minutes when told it cost $2US to fill Jesus' pick up with petrol; water is 10 times more expensive! But we bimbled along with Luiz practicing his English with me in the back. His pronunciation was uncannily Borat-esque and all comments followed by a small chuckle. He would look me and say things like, 'you are veery friendly man... Ha ha ha', and other things like 'you are youngest in car... i am oldest... ha ha ha'. At 3 in the morning I finally said goodnight to my new friend Luiz in Jesus' mother's house where we stayed for 2 nights. I didn't quite know what twist of fate had got me there, but I was amazed at how unquestioningly I had been taken under their wing and welcomed. The next few days we vistied beaches, hot spas, local eateries and the like all with the Jesus tirelessly leading the way; it was great.

Humbled by their generosity, Luiz and I said goodbye on Friday afternoon to the family. I had been showered with gifts of Brazilian soap for me and Hol from Luiz and a small wooden turtle from Jesus and his family. On leaving his mother told us we were blessings from God and I stood there helpless with a sense of nothing to offer, being unable to explain proper thanks in Spanish and just standing like a goon with a terrible haircut and scruffy clothes. I felt the language barrier acutely and just tried to make them understand, but it was a powerful feeling of debt and gratitude.

The bus I needed left from Caracas at 7pm. It was 2 hours from where we were in Maracay. I had no ticket as it was fully booked due to of Carnival and all I had was a slim chance that someone called Rafael might get me on if someone dropped out. But I had one crucial ally. Luiz. The bus from Maracay to Caracas sat stationary in traffic as I nervously checked my watch. We arrived in the maelstrom of the station with no sign of Rafael. Luiz at my side was asking left, right and centre and suddenly a Rafael pops up and says he has a ticket. My one chance of getting to Cartagena in time to see Hol was coming through. Incredible. But he explains there is no time to get to cash machine as the bus is leaving in 2 minutes. Luiz without hesitation offers to pay the $60 fare and trusts I will send the money. I almost got choked up and didn't know what to say. I instinctively pressed all my remaining Bolivars into his hand and boarded the bus. I had been thinking of almost nothing but meeting Hol in Cartagena and Luiz alone had made it happen with one act of trust. Waving Luiz off from outside the coach my stomach then curled in on itself as I suddenly realised i was heading to the border where I would need money for an exit stamp with no money at all.

Straight away the driver comes down the aisle and it's clear he is asking for more money and i try and explain with the vocabulary of si, no, cerveza, por favor and gracias that I had none. It didn't go well and he stomps off after 5 minutes of heated exchange. I tell myself I will get some where the bus stops on the way. The first stop at 1am and there is no cash machine. This also means I have no food and water. I get back on the bus praying the next stop will have a cash machine. I wake starving at around 7am to find us pulling up at the border. We hadn't stopped again. There is a long line full of people with money in hand. No stamp means no way into Colombia, the bus will go and I will be stranded vulnerable with all my belongings on my back, with no money and no way of getting some. Crap. I felt stupid and panicky as I tried to explain in terrible Spanish to people around me. I don't know if other people can mime, 'Can I borrow money until we get into Colombia where I will pay you back in pesos from a nearby cash dispensing machine', but there were blank faces all round and then suddenly I was at the front. Shaking heads and passport unstamped and handed back with more unintelligible instructions. Suddenly the first English speaking Venezuelan person I had seen comes up and asks if I am ok.

I explain the situation and he simply presses the money I need into my hand saying, 'no problem bro, have a good trip'. I could have hugged him and thanked him profusely before returning to the bus. I had nothing to offer him, would never see him again and he didn't gain anything from the selfless generosity. Here was a rich westerner who had stuffed up by bad planning and he didn't even hesitate to help me out with no questions asked. I was stunned. Then all it took was another 3 hours queuing hungry and thirsty at the Colombian border bracing myself as I was unsure of whether I needed more money for a tourist permit and would be turned back again. But my passport got stamped. I was in...

8 hours late, I pulled into a deserted Cartagena station at 11pm; desperate for food and drink despite the old lady next to me insisting I accepted half an apple and some plantain chips from her. I walked to the cash machine. Broken. Another one. Broken. I begged a room at a nearby hostel and and collapsed into bed. I was exhausted, but realised all was ok and I would be able to meet Hol at the airport.

It seems strange looking back as there is nothing in itself that couldn't be resolved with time and patience. However, it was the combination of not speaking the language at all, the exhaustion of no sleep, food or water, and also not being able to contact Hol before she would arrive at Cartagena airport. The thought of her arriving and me inexplicably not being there was grim. Being without any money made me realise the feeling of vulnerability it brings. Finding yourself alone and at the mercy of those around you in countries where everyone says not to be out after dark or carry your things around is not one I want to repeat anytime soon. I am glad to say that Hol is now snoozing next to me in a small hostel in Cartagena after a day of wandering this incredibly beautiful city. We have a boat booked for next week up to Panama, we are looking into learning Spanish for a week and a feast of local fare costs £1.50. The world is back to being a wonderful place but I never want to forget those people who helped me out. Luiz, Judit, Jesus, random tubby guy at the border and old lady with plantain chips I salute you as everything that is good in humans. May more people, including myself, be more like you.

PHOTOS - All the Caribbean photos are on here as a reward for those who made it this far

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Paradise found

On the 1st Feb I woke Nick up (if I didn't do this every morning we would probably still be in France) and he turned to me and said, “You know what Hol, I think the beginning of Feb is going to be a turning point”. And it was. Not in life changing ways, before parents have a near heart attack... but things just started to work out a bit better. That day we headed out into the yacht marina for another begging for a lift South session and hit jackpot. Three English folk were heading down to Bequia in the Grenadines the next day and were happy for us to join them. All we had to do was bring along a bottle of gin and some chicken. Suddenly the whole getting around the Caribbean without flying seemed remarkably simple.

So the next couple of days were spent with Larry, Fiona and Peter, who strangely enough went to school with Nick's Dad, cruising down the coast of St Lucia into The Grenadines. It turns out that the 31 days on the Atlantic hasn't put us off sailing. That said, this was a very different experience to Lista. Weighing about half what Lista does and built for speed and comfort rather than transporting fish around the North Sea, Tiger Frightener quickly reached 9 knots before any of us had moved from our polished seats. From Bequia we caught a ferry down to Union Island, where we merrily explored beaches, eat chicken and befriended locals for three very relaxed days. From there we then made it to Carriacou on a boat more suited to a child's toy box than the open seas, and then a high speed catamaran dropped us in Grenada. Now we are simply waiting to speak to Captain Russell about a lift to Trinidad. The whole trapped in paradise crisis seems to be drawing to a close. Looking back however, the further south we got the more content we became getting fat and brown.

It’s not just been transport that's turned our Caribbean fortunes around. Hopping down The Grenadines has been a picture postcard experience and so we're feeling pretty privileged to have just accidentally ended up here. Genuine and small islands with lots of empty palm fringed beaches, underwater wonderlands, street BBQs, a handful of friendly locals and little shacks selling everything and anything whilst also housing five goats. Unfortunately the one thing they don't have here is a party on Friday nights, despite my best efforts to find one by asking every single local in town 'where's the party at?' after drinking a little too much rum. I think about half an hour later Nick was carrying me to bed.

Relaxing here has given us some time to look back on the last couple of weeks in the Caribbean and we've concluded its all about the people. Yes the Caribbean has beaches, sun, rum, rainforest and all that, but what makes it really unique is the bizarre mix of people that hang out here. In our constant quest for the best deals around and transport South we must have had conversations with well over 100 people. Everyone we've met has been up for a chat from church going locals, wannabe gangsters, Rastafarians, street vendors, local mayors and officials, fishermen, rich Americans on cruise ships, chavy Americans on cruise ships, excitable holidayers, ecologists, charter boat goers, rugged sailors, posh sailors, wrinkled old hippies, toothless grannies, other lost looking backpackers and road workers. The list could go on.

Conversations vary hugely. Locals often want to chat about England and are excited to learn that Nick used to work near Wembley, where lots of West Indians have family or have once lived. Others just want to know what we're up to and why there are 'white folk' walking around their neighborhood. Some share political views or life stories but more often just want a chilled chat and to make a new friend. The most passionate discussions will usually involve a big mama swinging around her power by dissing the men folk of the world or trying to sell you some fruit or chicken. And then there is the kaleidoscope of foreigners thrown into the mix. Less chilled out this lot often want to complain about something: the ecologist despises the cruise ships, the politicians and the wasteful locals, the seasonal sailor looks on with disdain at the charter yachts, rich Americans are frustrated with the service, backpackers (not excluding ourselves!) are in disbelief about how expensive everything is and most white folk seem to be struggling in the heat. That said not all tourists are complaining all of the time. I have never seen such an excited Scottsman as we did in the rainforest soaked hills of Dominica as he threw natural spring water all over himself, a huge smile across his face, expressing how incredible this land was. And he's right, it is an incredible land full of life be it hummingbirds, dolphins, rum punch, steel drums or people, there's never a dull moment.

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