Saturday, March 25, 2017

Hemingway's Cats

25 March 2017

Our final stop of the cruise was Key West, which is a lovely, quaint, and just a little touristy spot in the Florida Keys.  Really pretty, with beautiful sandy beaches and bright aqua water.  Streets lined with huge old trees, and full of all sorts of beautiful old houses and cottages in wood, with gingerbread trim (I love gingerbread trim!) and interesting weather vanes.

Just a really pretty place to visit.

But Key West is also the location of Hemingway House (also called Hemingway Home), home of Ernest Hemingway.  He lived here for nine years, from 1931 to 1939.

During that period of time, Hemingway wrote 70% of his major works:  "A Farewell to Arms;"  "Death in the Afternoon;"  "Winner Take Nothing;"  "Green Hills of Africa;"  "To Have and Have Not;"  "For Whom the Bell Tolls;" and "The Fifth Column and the First Forty-nine Stories."  (You might recognize the names - many of these were made into major motion pictures, as they were called in their day.)

Even after no longer residing in Key West, Hemingway would visit, both to write and also (or mostly) to fish - for big game fish, such as the sailfish featured in "The Old Man and the Sea." 

So instead of shopping, or going to the beach, I decided to visit Hemingway House.  And the cats.

Hemingway's cats were average tabbies and calicoes.  But they were also polydactal.  Meaning having more than the usual number of toes.

Yup, Hemingway's cats seem to have six or even seven toes on a paw or two.  Usually the front paws.  But sometimes on the back paws.  Or even on three or all four paws.

The better to type with, maybe?

I walked down to Hemingway House, an easy mile on level ground, past those lovely homes and cottages and gardens.  I paid my entrance fee, and wandered on inside.  

And there, on the bed where Hemingway slept, with a lovely carved headboard and a white counterpane, there was a huge fuzzy tabby with six or so toes on each front paw.  Contentedly sleeping, and ignoring all the visitors petting him/her, or those of us taking his/her photo.

Because this seemed to me to be the essence of Hemingway House - Hemingway's personal effects, and the great-great-great-grandchildren of his cats, residing together as they have since 1939.

It was just classic.  Perfect and classic.  The essence of the man and his passions: writing and the cats.  Well, and fish photos and knickknacks around the place.

There was even a catwalk from the huge bedroom to the writing studio, although this has now been taken down for safety reasons.  Yes, Ernest Hemingway walked on a narrow elevated rooftop path each morning as he headed over to his studio to write his classics.  One wonders what went through his head as he walked; perhaps visions of his cats, or the lions he saw (and shot) in Africa, or practice for running with the bulls in Pamplona.  

Some facts and figures:  There are currently fifty-eight cats living here, both older cats and a group of kittens.  They eat about 80 to 90 pounds of cat food each week.  That's 35 to 40 kilos of cat food for my metric friends.  There are multiple cat feeding stations scattered around the property.  And yes, each cat has a name.  The big tom greeting visitors on the front porch is named Hemingway.

The pea-soup green color of the shutters on the doors and windows, lower and upper floors, is the original color.  I asked, because it truly is a horrendously horrible color, and there is a whole lot of it across every fa├žade and both levels.  Horrible color!  The paint was originally purchased from Sears Roebuck.  But this color is no longer available, and must be specially mixed each time the shutters are re-painted.

The property seems to be about a full square block, with a pool, a stream, a bridge, and plenty of room for roaming cats (who know they're the real owners of the place).  There's a brick wall surrounding the estate.  Story is that the streets were once brick; when the city decided to re-pave the streets, they tore up the brick and piled it on each street corner.  Hemingway was being bothered by visitors and tourists, so he collected all the brick and built the wall around his land.  The city charged him $18 for all of this brick.  At least, that's the story on the island.

I had a great time just walking around, imagining Mr. Hemingway walking in the same spot, looking for kitties, and patting their heads just as I was doing.  Pounding out his masterpieces on his portable typewriters with one of these cats on his lap, or sitting on the desk and batting at the paper as it rattled around.  Maybe sitting on one of the benches, again with a cat, smoking a pipe or cigarette.

It felt like a pilgrimage.

Of course, I eventually had to leave.  Met up with Richard and wandered around the more touristy shopping areas, and had really great key lime pie.  (Well, one place had mediocre pie, so we shared a piece at another place and that pie was fantastic!)  And then boarded the ship, and headed back out to sea.

The cruise in general was great.  We both had a good time visiting the various places in Brazil as well as the various Caribbean islands, and made new friends on the ship.  

It definitely was a different way of travelling - much easier in general, and maybe less adventurous.  Or at least it seemed as if we had fewer adventures.  But it was nice to unpack for seven weeks and not need to repack.  And to have our room and meals available and ready whenever we needed to access them.

We also saw some sea creatures that was don't get to see very often - one day at lunch, someone shouted "dolphins!" and I looked out and there they were, two dolphins playing in the wake of the ship.  And another day, at afternoon tea, the cry went out: "whale!"  We all raced to the windows and there he (or she) was, a young whale, possibly a humpback from the looks of it.  It would leap halfway out of the water at maybe a 45 degree angle, pause a moment mid-air, and then fall back into the water with a huge splash.  Might have been spyhopping, though from my view it seemed to be at more of an angle than the usual vertical spyhopping.  I saw the whale do this leap and fall maybe five times.  And then, the clincher:  it lay on its side with one fin raised up, and sort of waved at us!  Rolled over, disappeared a moment, then up was the waving fin again!  As if it wanted to say good-bye before swimming away as we sailed onwards!

Absolutely thrilling!

However, the downsides of cruising:  wifi is problematic (and pricey!) on cruise ships.  And the average age of the passengers on our ship was 77 years old.  Yeah, I've never met so many people who were 90+ before!  But good for them for still travelling around, right?!?  

So we'll keep cruising in mind for our future - maybe when we're 90 or so we'll continue our travels by cruising versus our usual land travel.
 Oh, and we travelled 4579.5 miles from Fort Lauderdale to Rio (with travel around the Caribbean to a few countries), and another 4579.5 miles from Rio to the Amazon, up the Amazon, back, and the return to Fort Lauderdale.  That's a total of 9159 miles in 48 days!  (I think that's 15,365 km!!!  Wow!!!)  Plus I looked up the distance from the Atlantic Ocean along the Amazon to Manaus - that's some 1500 km, or almost 1000 miles.

I'm including two maps, one of the entire cruise and then a more detailed map of the second half of the cruise, Rio to Fort Lauderdale.  

Next blog:  Cartagena, Colombia!!!  Yup, that's were we are as I write this!  The adventure continues!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Alter Do Chao, A Beach Underwater

16 March 2017 - posted 18 March, St Maarten/Martin

Before I blog, I have to say that we're skipping visiting St. Lucia and St. Martin/Sint Maarten.  We've visited both places previously, and we're just frustrated with the wifi issue we've been having.  So we've caught up on the blogs (me), cleaned out email, taken care of some travel issues, and booked flights for our next adventure after the cruise docks next week.  I mean, we didn't want to sit around the dock with nowhere to go, right?

But at this wifi place in Philipsburg, I ran into a man I had taught with on St. Thomas.  He retired 10 or so years ago.  I've been retired for 4.5 years.  And we're both cruising the Caribbean at the moment, and bumped into each other here.  Bizarre, huh?
So, to finish our Amazon adventures:  On Sunday, we stopped at the town of Parintins.  It was pouring rain that morning, that tropical downpouring rain that obscures views.  Plus this was an unusual port reached by tenders that docked on one side of a ferry boat; passengers then climbed off the tender onto the ferry, walked through the ferry, and then out the other side.
We opted to stay on the ship, dry and warm.

The itinerary included Parintins because they have a yearly festival that’s sort of an indigenous Carnaval.  The festival takes place in June, but they hold performances throughout the year when cruise ships stop by.  People who bought tickets said it was a really great event, but tickets were sold out so we couldn’t attend.

That night, we had a fierce thunderstorm, with blue lightning all evening and on into the night, and booming thunder.  The canopy over the smoking area upstairs collapsed under the weight of the water, though fortunately no one was injured.

On Monday, we visited Alter Do Chao, our last stop on the Amazon.  Alter Do Chao means “church altar” in Portuguese, because one of the hills outside town looked like an altar to the Portuguese explorers.  This town is on the Rio Tapajos, a river that runs clear and blue during the dry season.

I was excited that we’d be at a beach.  The hat was ready for a beach, even a river beach. 

However, when the Amazon is running high in rainy season, the brown of the Amazon mixes more quickly with the blue of the Tapajos.  The gorgeous white sand beaches for which Alter Do Chao is known are covered by the high river waters.
So there was only a skinny sliver of beach showing by the banks of the river, just one slim bit of sand.  But the hat was happy to sit on some sand and look across the Amazon, watching the tenders come and go from the ship to shore.  
As always, there was a small collection of market stalls by the tiny pier, including a shop with a jaguar.  I figured this was the closest I’d get to a jaguar in the Amazon Basin, so I took its photo.

We walked around town a bit – some shops were closed and boarded up for off season, and there were very few cars on the road.  It really felt like a beach town that was closed for the winter, or here, for the rainy season.

Since there wasn’t much going on, we found a restaurant with wifi and cold drinks, and spent some time there.

Exciting, right?

But the rain held off, and the hat enjoyed his little excursion.

Dolphins and Anacondas and Caiman, Oh My!

13 March 2017 - posted 18 March from Sint Maarten/Saint Martin

People we’ve become friends with on the ship had booked a tour out of Manaus, and told me there was room for a few more people.  So I made arrangements to go on this river cruise with them, and it turned out to be great! 

We climbed into the river cruiser, sort of a big metal canoe with an outboard engine and a canopy, and headed up the Rio Negro.  We passed under this huge bridge, which connects Manaus with the other side of the river – the bridge is 10 km (6 miles) long, and the river at this point is about 8 km wide (roughly 4.8 miles).  HUGE river, though smaller than the Amazon.  Our guide, Isaac, explained that the Rio Negro runs south from Colombia, and empties into the Amazon not far from Manaus.  The river is named Rio Negro, Black River, because the water is so dark from all the tannins – and the tannin comes from all the trees that fall into the river along its course.

He also explained that the river is high, so some islands are partially submerged, but that rainy season continues until June.  The Amazon can rise about 36 feet, or 12 meters, between dry season and rainy season – we’re about halfway right now.  And in 2012, the river was exceptionally high, flooding the first few roads by the banks in downtown Manaus!

We zoomed along the river, learning bits of trivia about the Amazon Basin, for maybe an hour.  (I’m not a good judge of time.)  And then we reached our first destination – the pink dolphins!

These are freshwater dolphins who live only in the Amazon Basin, so this was a treat.  The dolphins are born grey, and their pigment changes as they age, so that they turn pink.  In the pod of dolphins we saw, there was a small baby who was very grey; the others were lighter grey or mottled grey and pink, so I guess they weren’t very old, just mature and still changing colors.

This is one of those wild animal encounter places that at least is fairly humane about how things are handled.  The dolphins are NOT in an enclosure, but swim freely through the rivers and connecting lakes.  There are regulations that the businesses that have dolphin encounters can only be open a few days a week, so that the dolphins are not in contact with people every day.  There can only be a certain number of encounters per day, the number of people are regulated, and only a certain number of fish can be fed to the dolphins at each encounter.  Again, this minimizes the contact between people and dolphins, as well as ensures that the dolphins do not become dependent on humans for food, but are forced to continue hunting for fish on their own.

Of course, I have mixed feeling about this.  (I almost always have mixed feelings about things like this.)  And no, I didn’t get in the water to be there when the dolphins were fed.  On the one hand, the animals are treated well and the industry is regulated.  Plus it gives us a way to definitely see the dolphins.  On the other hand, it does exploit the animals, forces them to interact with humans, and keeps them from being truly wild animals.

But it was really exciting to see them.  People stand on an underwater platform, or float in the water, while one employee feeds the dolphins.  I know that it looks like he’s pushing the dolphin away at times, but he’s trying to control which way the dolphin moves, to be sure the people don’t get injured.  The dolphins were pretty rambunctious, like giant puppies who don’t realize how strong they are.  The people were pushed around a bit as the dolphin vied for fish, which is one of the reasons I didn’t hop in the water.

There were other dolphins who continued to swim around farther out in the river, and the “handler” would occasionally throw a fish out to them.  A few of these seemed to be pinker than others, so I’m guessing they were a bit older. 

As other groups came up to see the dolphins, the first groups were ushered out.  We motored up river a bit, and I noticed some thatched buildings that were painted with geometric designs.  This turned out to be our next stop, an indigenous village.  This was less touristy than our visit to Boca da Valeria, but still a little bit contrived.

These people were from two families, and the rest of their nation or tribe lived on a reservation about 400 miles away.  (“Reservation” is the word our guide used.  Not sure how similar it is to the US Native American reservations.)

But these two families have chosen to live here and have this tiny village to show visitors how they live – and they earn money from the tour companies who pay for the group visits. 

We were ushered into one of the big buildings, which seemed to be specifically for meetings and performances.  The men entered wearing headdresses of macaw feathers, necklaces of caiman teeth, and loincloths (with briefs underneath, so not totally traditional).  They had different geometric designs painted on their faces, as did the women who entered a few minutes later.  The women wore grass skirts; they all had strands of colored feathers woven in their hair, which provided some coverage for their upper bodies.

One man made speech in Portuguese, which was translated by our guide Isaac.  We were welcomed to the village, and the people performed their welcome dance.  This is the dance they perform before they traditionally drink an herbal concoction that is hallucinogenic, and then they dance for about twenty-four hours.  At least, that’s what we were told. 

But since this was just a performance for us, we were then shown the farewell dance, which included us each being brought out to join in.  I had a cute young guy come take me into the dance – it was just a few steps forward, a few steps back, repeat – but while stepping back and forth, we were also moving in a spiral so we were getting closer and closer to the people opposite us. 

The music was provided by a young boy, maybe about ten years old, on a drum.  And there were a few toddlers wandering around, just watching everyone. 

We then had the opportunity to eat fried ants (I passed), and manioc flour (which I tried).  There were also items for purchase, and I thought about the feather ornaments – but, while pretty, they weren’t really my style. 

We climbed back into our boat, and cruised along, though I really am not sure which direction we were heading.  Up river, down river, it all kind of looks the same.  Past floating houses that accommodate the changing water levels, past trees underwater, passing the occasional boat and kicking up plenty of splash.  And trees with darkened trunks all showing last year's high water mark.

The whole Amazon Basin is a network of connecting rivers, lakes, streams, and waterways of varying sizes.  Some are navigable, others not.  At times we’d veer off into wooded areas, so that it felt like we were motoring through the jungle.  It was much like the billabongs and rivers of Australia, where the rivers would spread out into lakes and then continue out the opposite side, in a never-ending web of water.

We saw several squirrel monkeys, tiny monkeys sort of a light brownish grey with huge dark eyes.  One scampered up a tree, then paused to look right at me as if see what it was running from – and then continued on his way.  We also saw a family of capuchin monkeys jumping around the treetops.  Monkeys are in constant motion, so I never got a photo of them – but just cute.  Turns out there are 65 species of monkeys in the Amazon region, and we saw two of them.

Two red macaws flew by overhead, and the occasional small caiman would jump into the water too quickly to tell if they were really seen or not. 

Then more water lilies, those huge green leaf platters floating on the surface of the water, ringed by thorns.  I was finally able to get a decent photo of the flower in the center, tightly furled closed for the day, a lovely soft pink in the center of all that green. 

We continued on, and stopped at a floating building where a family offered knickknacks for sale, as well as an opportunity to pet (and pose with) an anaconda, a sloth, a caiman.  I told Isaac I was holding out for a jaguar, which he thought was funny.  I did pet the young sloth, who was very soft.  After people held him, he was put on the floor where he held onto the table leg, then spread out for a nap.  Really funny looking animals, with such a goofy grin on their faces.

Our lunch was at a floating restaurant, a buffet of umpteen salads, several kinds of side dishes, three kinds of fish, some beef, chicken, and fruit.  As we ate, the wind kicked up and the daily rain began, torrential rain obscuring our view of the other side of the river.  We had to wait a while for the rain to subside, because we’d all left our rain jackets in the boat, and the wind made rough waves in the river.  But we needed to head back so that we could make it to the cruise ship before it left, so we climbed aboard, wet and chilled.

The clear plastic side shades kept out much of the continuous rain, but you know how a motor boat kicks up wake and sometimes it splashes back into the boat?  I seemed to be sitting right at the row of maximum splash back.  Or back splash.  At any rate, I became soaked to the skin despite wearing a rain jacket.  Good thing I keep my camera in a zip-lock plastic bag!

We headed to the Meeting of the Waters to see where the Rio Negro meets with the Amazon, the black and brown waters not mixing for some 30 miles or so.  The waves and the rain made it not as easy to see as on a sunny day, but we could still see the two colors of water running side by side.

And then a quick trip back to the ship, where we got back for hot showers and dry clothes.

It really was a fun and event-filled day, totally interesting.  Quite the Amazon experience!

Now all I need is to meet my friendly jaguar or puma, and my Amazon time will be complete!