Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Puerto Rico Returns

Well the day of our merciful final Liat flight had arrived, and against all odds there were no weird incidents at the airport.

I thought this old school luggage scale was amusing.

Not exaggerating, I think we took ten propeller plane flights in a week.

We had one last day in Puerto Rico before returning to the bitter cold of the Midwest. It felt funny because we had started our journey in Puerto Rico and it felt like an exotic place. After surviving the ups and downs of the Caribbean though, Puerto Rico felt much less foreign and much more like home.

We'd already covered Old San Juan so we branched out a little and visited the Bacardi Distillery. We didn't have a very good experience there. It's weird because throughout this trip there were lots of unpleasant events but the good must have outweighed them because I still would say this was overall a good trip.

Bacardi was nice enough but they have some operational issues. First we probably waited an hour to get in. And while there was lots of information online about the tour being free, that little detail had recently changed and now the tour was $12.

A nice employee was pouring cups of punch for everyone standing in line in the sun.

We learned about the bat symbol. There were bats in one of the company's early buildings. The end. That'll be twelve dollars please.

We visited a fake bar where a bartender taught us how to whip up some rum drinks.

Then came time for us to receive our "one" "free" drink, which surprise, we had to wait a really long time to receive. Like so long that it definitely was not worth the time we had to wait. If you are ever in Puerto Rico, give the Bacardi Tour a miss and thank me for doing your suffering for you.

Remember how I was explaining how the Epiphany is more important than Christmas around these parts? Well here are kids getting their picture taken with the Three Wise Men at a shopping mall. Santa was present for photos before Christmas to be fair.

So you know how pretty much every last hotel we've stayed in was weird in its own special way? Well this time ol' Lydia booked a room at the Howard Johnson Centro Cardiovascular San Juan. It was in a hospital. We had to walk through the emergency room entrance to get in at night, and the rooms were clearly converted hospital rooms, complete with extra wide doors for wheeling hospital beds through. Shudder.

Monday, December 29, 2014

St. Vincent and the Grenadines

The last country on our whirlwind tour of the Caribbean was St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Yes, that sounds about as official as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers but that's what the country is called. We had another rat-hole hotel booked somewhere but I was done with that noise and booked us a nice oceanfront place that was still pretty reasonably priced. I figured our adventures were complete for this trip and that we would have a nice day of lazing by the beach and that'd be that. Nope.

St. Vincent is the big guy and the Grenadines are the little guys.

Lydia came in and reported that the beach was overrun by locals, a group of which were playing soccer. She was also unimpressed with the hotel pool. And I was like: adventure time.

My understanding is that all of the fancy beaches and fancy hotels are located in the Grenadines. We were currently on St. Vincent. We'd had enough boat time this trip so St. Vincent was where we'd stay. I made a mental note of the hour-long walking route we needed to take and then we hit the road toward the capital city of Kingstown. By this time I was done with getting ripped off by taxis and I figured a nice walk would be fun.

We saw this beautiful two-story KFC in the distance but it wasn't a mirage. It was real.

SVG is the abbreviation often used for the country. I also heard the adjective "Vincy" used which I thought sounded cool.

Well this was a fun walk through random neighborhoods because it was clearly not a place tourists go. A couple little kids walked up to us laughing and said "Hello white people".

Kingstown was a pleasant surprise. There was a vibrant market in progress, with several streets of produce as well as clothing and some bootleg CDs and DVDs mixed in. I liked it because it was real without being scary. We saw maybe a handfull of other tourist-types the whole day which made it obvious how legit we are.

Our cool cab drivers in Dominica were talking about a bar that the police owned, so it was funny to see that there was really a place like that here too.

This looks awesome.

This hike around Kingstown ended up being a high point of the whole Caribbean trip for me. We walked into this sort of sketchy looking horseshoe of little bars where groups were playing dominoes on rickety tables. They were audibly slamming down their pieces each turn and being pretty rowdy. I liked the liveliness of the scene but was also a bit wary so we went a few stalls down and sat in front of an empty little stall. The owner might be my favorite local of the trip. We talked about all kinds of subjects. He seemed to watch a good amount of CNN and so seemed pretty knowledgeable about US/world current events.

The conversation was cool because I could sort of review all of the things I had learned at the other islands. We talked about bumping into the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda at the supermarket on Christmas Eve. I mentioned I thought it was interesting that the airport in Dominica had recently changed names due to political reasons. As we talked, people came over one by one and soon we had a whole table of characters conversing with us. A couple of them had crazy accents so it was fun to hear the difference when they talked to us so we'd understand and when they were talking full throttle amongst themselves.

The friendly owner said his daughter worked in customs at the airport so I was hoping to see her the next day when we left the country and have a funny conversation but she wasn't working that day.

We were having the local beers, Hairoun, and they were drinking white Sunset Rum and water. I feel like mixing something clear with water is boring to look at and hard to tell the dilution rate, but whatever. One of them offered a taste of what they were having and it tasted like grain alcohol. Like if you mixed clear with burning. But hey, I can hang. I asked what this little area was called: Chinatown was the reply. I laughed for a while about that one. This place had not one single Peking duck hanging in the window. Or windows. I guess it was built by the Chinese. I've noticed several little gifts/investments from the Chinese on the various islands. Very interesting. Next door was Little Tokyo. We'd had fun but it was time to leave Asia and get something to eat. When I asked for the bill the other guys were laughing because I was paying the foreigner price for beer. I think they were still like a dollar each so I was happy with the experience. I gave the guy a good tip and he shook my hand and gave me a little hug. If I'm ever in St. Vincent again I'm going right back to that spot.

The bottles were those nice heavy returnable types.

We walked uphill a few blocks until we reached the Grenadine House, our dinner destination. I feel like it was fancy without being predatorily expensive. Imagine that.

I was all like "nice restaurant, let me just class this place up a bit."

We finally got a little of the local food we'd been hunting for a week now. A roti is like a burrito with Indian curry type stuff inside. It was pretty delicious.

St. Vincent gets the John Milito thumbs up.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Dominica Reminds Us Why It's the Worst

We were in high spirits this morning. We were leaving the sketchy city and heading toward another of Dominica's beautiful natural wonders.

You can see the top of yet another cruise ship down the street there.

We thanked our stars when Extreme Dominica Canyoning & Adventure Tours said they would pick us up in Roseau. That meant I wouldn't have to extremely strangle the next joker taxi driver who tried to scam us. We were waiting at the pick up spot with a Canadian couple and sharing our Dominican horror stories. It was nice to commiserate a bit with them a bit. I was just about to tell them the story about the Dutch couple our cab driver was being a jerk to yesterday when the van pulled up and... the Dutch couple was inside. We all had a good laugh.

I think it's funny how many fruits and vegetables are in the local supermarket that I have no idea how they grow. I remember at one point it was earth shattering to me to realize that peanuts don't grow on trees. Pineapples don't either! They grow on these stubby little things in the ground. Remember how funky cashews look on the tree from Belize?

We went to this nice little building and got suited up. We strapped on wet suits, life jackets, helmets, and repelling harness things.

We did a surprisingly short little training session on this thing and then we were off. I was a bit nervous that I didn't really know what I was doing.

We took turns with the GoPro strapped to our helmet, and Lydia whipped up this awesome video.

Back at Cocoa Cottage the whole gang had some cocoa tea and learned about how cocoa is made into chocolate. It's a much more involved process than I would have guessed. For example there is fermenting involved.

Here's a bit of the explanation. It was really nice I thought. Cacao is really alien-like. It grows in these big orange/red pods and the beans themselves are white and sticky. Very strange.

The "tea" was just straight cocoa and water. It was interesting.

All the different stages of chocolatey goodness.

Exterior of the grounds.

Our canyoning guides were so kind as to offer to drive us to the airport. With that one last unpleasant task taken care of, we decided we'd earned some lazy American tourist time.

We had some piƱa coladas in the little cruise tourist safe zone and just wasted time until we got in our taxi. It was nice.

This is the security line to keep out normal people. I thought it was funny because we weren't even on a cruise but everyone just figured we were touristy enough so they didn't stop us at the checkpoint.

The two canyoning guys were fun. They were blasting American hip hop and we even stopped for a beer break.

For once I felt like we were just cruising around with a couple of friends instead of being harassed by a dread taxi driver.

Well in true sucky country form, Dominica has a departure tax. No, it's not included in the price of your plane ticket like every other place ever. No, they don't take credit cards. Yes, it costs more if you "ain't from around here". We spent most of the rest of our money on the taxi ride, so we lugged our bags to the atm. Well after multiple tries, we were unable to retrieve anything from the atm. "It's out of money", a local passerby informs us. The only atm at the only Dominican airport, where you have to pay cash for the privilege of leaving is. out. of. friggin. money. Well played Dominica. Well played.

We ask the security people if they'll just cut us a break because our plane is leaving soon, or if there is another atm anywhere. No, and no. One of the cab drivers offers to drive us to the nearest town's atm. Why not?

It works out and we get the heck out of that place.

The security lady asked us if we enjoyed our stay in Dominica and I gave her what must have been the fakest "yes" in history.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Dominica is the Worst

The first rule of Dominica is: don't go to Dominica.

Saturday in St. Lucia began how lots of days do lately, with a cab ride to the airport. The flight was uneventful but the spray-can delousing that we receive on every Liat flight has continued. Nothing says Caribbean fun like getting pesticide sprayed in your eyes.

This ad on the back of the inflight magazine is interesting. There are several Caribbean countries where you can buy citizenship by performing such tasks as investing in real estate or making a donation to the country's development fund. I can't think of a reason why I would ever do that but I do think that being a duel citizen someday might be neat.

We arrived at the Dominica (pronounced DomiNEEca) airport without much hoopla and walked past the gang of pushy taxi guys to the car rental desk. When we told the lady at the Avis rental counter that we had a reservation she laughed. I showed her the reservation printout and I might as well have been showing her my baptism certificate because she didn't care: there were no cars available. For those of you keeping track at home this is the third car reservation that has ended with me not driving away in a car that I reserved.

To make matters worse when I finally gave up and said we would just take a cab she offered to call "a guy she knows" to come give us a ride. Uh, no, I'm not going to give you a kick back for screwing me. When I refused her sleaze-bag offer she insisted, which made it even more satisfying to walk out of her office, leaving her to the important work one does at a rental car desk when there are no rental cars.

So we walked back to the pushy taxi drivers. It didn't take long before one was invading our personal space. $80   the guy quoted us. Yet again we were shocked. Yesterday we paid a guy $100 to drive us "wherever we want" for hours. Today this jerk was demanding most of that just to get us to our hotel. The rental car we had reserved for two days would have cost $142.

Incredulous, I went to the travel information window for help and I was so lucky that her highness took off her head phones to speak to me.

"How much should I expect to pay for a taxi to Roseau?"
"You'll have to ask the taxi drivers".
"Are there any buses?"
"None that come to the airport."
"Thank you, and I hope you contract a preventable jungle disease."

That last part was just in my head.

We tried haggling and talking to another cab driver but to no avail. The second driver simply asked the first what price we had been quoted. Ok, $80 dollars it is, taxi cartel. Dominica, so far, you suck.

Part of the reason for the higher price is that the airport is on the opposite side of the island from the capital city (still it was only like an hour drive).

The cab driver was polite enough but he would not shut his mouth. His veteran son died. His brother died. He'd been waiting for a fare all day. Taxi vans are expensive. He offered us a banana. Most of this crap was clearly designed to increase what he told us should be "a nice tip for Christmas". Oh man did I hate that guy. Christmas is over, bro.

We finally made it to our little hostel and handed the driver his EXACTLY $80 frickin dollars and walked in.

Ma Bass Guest House is run by a little old lady named Ma Bass. It was cheap and nice enough. The AC worked and there weren't bugs everywhere. I think my standards are dropping fast.

The capital city, Roseau, was the scariest place of the entire trip. For example this was the only place in the Caribbean someone asked me for money, and it happened numerous times. It wasn't just a one time ask, these people would follow you for blocks. When a cruise ship docked the government would block off the streets around the dock and post security guards to keep the locals out. An especially creepy man insisted on shaking both of our hands and then asked if he could join us for dinner. Let me just check my datebook.

You can see the top of that day's cruise ship down the street.

It's hard to tell but this statue is a guy with broken shackles blowing into a conch shell. That's the first thing I would do too.

The "State House" of Dominica.

I had a one armed guy follow us for quite a while on our way to have some delicious (safe) American fast food. Lydia was worried about him but I was thinking he didn't strike me as dangerous and even then only had the one arm for evil doing. Afterwards I informed her that if things had gone badly I'd like my gravestone to read "Killed by a one-armed bandit in front of a Caribbean KFC".

Well after seeing a bit of the city, nice old Ma Bass' son helped us get a cab. Previously the hotel people have gotten us good deals on cabs. Not in Dominica. I think people here are taking their pirate past a little two seriously. This time a 15 minute drive there and back was going to cost us $50. We asked him what he'd charge us to get to the airport the next day? $100. Jerk.

Well I must admit that the natural wonders of Dominica are pretty darn cool. We cabbed it to Champagne Reef, so called because geothermal action under the water causes bubbles to rise up, creating a really cool champagne like experience. We both liked that a lot.

We thought it was cool that the dive shop was made out of shipping containers.

The snorkeling other than the cool bubbles wasn't as good as Belize but we saw some pretty cool fish. My favorite find was a blowfish. All of that Japanese "eat poison blowfish" business gave it a special significance to me.

Snorkeling was my first successful use my new GoPro. I like that you can just turn it on and sort of forget about it. It's less obtrusive that way and you're less likely to miss unexpected moments. I realized the downside when I got back to the hostel: I now have 2 hours of fish footage that needs to be edited to 2 minutes. Blah. Having fun is hard work.

Underwater. Boom.

When we walked back to get our taxi, the driver was talking to a Dutch couple who wanted a ride. I was thinking "oh cool, let's split our cab with some interesting people". Our cab driver was thinking otherwise. He quoted them $20 to get back (less than we paid one way of course).  We asked if that meant we would pay less and he just shooed them away. Splitting a cab is not a thing in the Caribbean. Taxi meters are not a thing. There is only how many foreigners can you scam at the same time.

Dominica would be great if it wasn't for the people.