Talking Story


bubbles cardIt’s been nine days since I got a whole can’s worth at once.

Nothing says I’m back in the USA like the large Diet Coke I ordered at an airport kiosk that’s brimming with ice, half a gallon at least, and rocking a thick lemon slice. I never figured out if in the Caribbean ice was the luxury or the soda—did bartenders serve me two ice cubes in a glass so I would get my money’s worth of soda or were they trying to save the ice for all the rum-blended drinks?

On the cruise I popped for the bubbles sticker, a flat rate per day for all the soda and juice you could drink. You’re charged for every day of the trip, including the first and last day of the cruise, which I think should count as one day since I couldn’t get a Diet Coke to save my life the morning we disembarked. We immediately dubbed them bublé cards. (Even sober, when you’re on vacation, things tend to make less sense later on.)

I paid for four bublé stickers all at once and almost fainted at the total, more than the GNP of many of the small island nations we visited, but I figured if everyone in our family only drank two glasses a day, we’d break even. At less than a can a glass, I knew I’d be drinking more than two.

My daughter delighted in ordering root beer, which always confused the bartenders. Earnest Filipinos and Malaysians would hold up Dr. Pepper and other drinks while she shook her head and pointed at the dusty case of Barq’s in the back. I swear it was loaded on the ship back in 2010 by mistake. My son drank a ton of ginger ale. Bartenders know that one by heart.

The cruise ship had an adult beverage version of the bublé sticker that started at $50 a day, depending on your poison. Suddenly, my Diet Coke pass didn’t seem so expensive.

It’s all a matter of perspective. After a week in the Caribbean even airport prices looked good.

valorWe’re screwed. Taxis in the Caribbean are more than four times what I expected and everywhere I turn people have their hands out for a tip. I didn’t bring enough cash, which usually isn’t a problem, but our bank and credit cards won’t let us get cash from the ATMs.

Yes, I called all our financial institutions before we left and told them we’d be traveling and where. They all said no problem.

Problem. Out in the middle of the Atlantic, the AMEX and Mastercard satellites don’t want to talk to the cruise ship. While we can charge all the ship services we want, they won’t give us cash against our credit cards without first talking to the credit card companies. There’s no problem, the cruise ship assures us, we have lots of ship to shore adventures you can charge to your room or you can just stay on the ship.

Not going to happen.

My husband finally places a ship to shore call to our bank, America First Credit Union. The customer service rep tells us we can access our cash if we use our account’s Visa/debit card, the card neither of us carry, preferring the old-fashioned ATM cards we’ve had in our wallets for fifteen years.

We’re screwed.

Except my husband remembers our son must have one of the newer debit cards. It’s late and he knows our son is fast asleep five decks above him. He asks the customer service rep if our son’s account has that kind of card.

There’s an awkward pause when the rep says she can’t give out that information because my husband isn’t associated with that account.

What? my husband sputters.

She’s right. Our son’s account is in my name and his, not my husband’s.

My husband names a figure and says check your records, that’s a weekly deposit into my son’s account from mine. It’s his allowance.

There’s a muffled giggle, then rep says she still can’t tell my husband that a charge was made that morning in St.Thomas, which means our son has his Visa/debit card on him.

Cool, says my husband. Let’s up his allowance.

Small town credit unions rule.


Outside of the walled resort the town is poor, clothes from Goodwill poor, the kind of poor where there are not enough jobs for young men, so they congregate around shade trees waiting for the day’s catch to arrive in leaky dinghies. My kids have never seen this kind of poor outside of a National Geographic special. Remember, I think hard at them. Understand how much you have and be grateful. Remember also, I think, that to whom much is given, much is required.

Eventually, we walk to a bar where the only non-alcoholic drinks are water and Coke. The older men in the neighborhood gather around us and talk guns with my husband, sell bracelets to my daughter, and once they realize I know what breadfruit, papaya, and mango trees look like, joke with me about island life. Too busy on the mainland, they tell me, you must teach your children to slow down island-style.

Along with the Reggae comes the herb. My son looks like he’s about to blow a blood vessel when they politely offer him some. “No thanks,” I say, “The day is enough,” and they laugh some more.

“Chill,” I tell my son. “Rastafarians. It’s part of their religion. To them it’s a sacrament.”

He frowns. It’s not like this at home. He’s had a few problems with drunken frat boys on the ship and is clinging to his just say no mentality with both hands clenched tight.

“I’ve never seen a belligerent pakalolo head,” I tell him. “Mellow and munchy is the worst to expect.”

I cross the street to where a small boat is unloading its catch, sorting fish into five gallon buckets that are whisked away, disappearing down shanty alleyways and behind bar counters. “How’s the fishing?” I ask.

Three men proudly display thirty or so small fish that look like miniature marlin and a couple of red snapper.

“Net?” I ask.

“Of course, mon,” they say, “unlike de tourists we don’t have all day.”

slippersShoes are a problem. Any pressure on the healing scar on my heel and I want to curl into a little ball and quiver. It’s not supposed to be this way, but what can you do? Knowing I was going on these trips, I had the surgery in early January, assured that I’d be walking pain-free by now.

It’s better, certainly, than it was before surgery when I could barely hobble down the stairs. But walking six to eight miles a day in slippahs causes tissues to swell alarmingly.

Ice and elevation, I think. 800 mg of Ibuprofen.

Swallowing the pills, I open my purse and take out the quart-sized plastic bag that I’d used to get my mini-hand sanitizer and sunscreen through airport security—TSA: keeping our skies safe at four ounces of fluid or less at a time.

The first time I try to use it, I have to beg a bartender to fill it full of ice. The second and third time I fill it myself near the buffet line. Apparently, I’m supposed to buy chemical cold packs at the gift shop.

I’m also supposed to wear high heels and formal wear at dinner tonight.

Not going to happen.

Besides, I’m on vacation, damn it.

catamaranI’m sitting on a bench waiting for someone to tell me which catamaran to get on, listening to a couple of guys bang on steel drums. I suddenly realize they’re playing Hotel California. The shave ice colored buildings—blue raspberry, lemon yellow, strawberry pink—converge with the music and I feel like I’m in a Dr. Seuss book. The Lorax, maybe, or Yertle the Turtle. Thing 1 and Thing 2 round a corner and enter a gift shop. The Cat in the Hat can’t be far behind.

Things are a little bit off. On our side of the fence, there’s Fendi, Rolex, and bottled water. Guys in smart polo shirts and white shorts say things like the wind and waves can tip the boat, but only you can tip the crew. Girls in crisp blouses offer cheap rum shots, foot massages, or to braid my daughter’s hair. Small monkeys wearing diapers climb on shoulders or sit on heads, a couple of dollars for the ultimate vacation selfie.

Vacation, I remind myself. Fun, remember?

As we get on the catamaran, my husband moos. It’s his way of protesting the official tour, the one that promises to take us to a pristine cove called Shitten Bay to snorkel. I shake my head at him. He’s right, but the taxis are killing us, charging four or more times what I expected to run us to a beach or into town. Booking today’s adventure through the cruise ship means all the gear and transportation’s provided.

Besides, it’s my turn to pick. What I really want to do is scuba dive. In fact, I’d love it if all we did was dive, eat, sleep, and dive some more. But our daughter is terrified of sharks, jellyfish, and the unseen thing that will swallow her whole. A morning snorkeling is an armed compromise right up there with the St. Martin/Sint Maarten Treaty of Concordia.

I’m a terrible mother and try to calculate how many more years until I can plan a dive trip for two and come up with three if we leave the princess at home. I bite my lip.

It isn’t until I’m perched on the prow of the catamaran, sea-splashed and wind-whipped, scanning the waves for the change in direction that reveals a dolphin or flying fish, that I finally relax. It’s day six of a nine day vacation and it isn’t until this moment that I feel free. I’m smiling and laughing as I lean against my husband, drenched by a rogue wave that has caused all the other tourists to flee to the covered bar area to point and snap photos of the crazy lady with a Hawaiian print sarong over her shoulders. I sip Ting, a local grapefruit soda that’s better than Squirt, and peer at the dark patches of reef we skim over. Out of habit I check the distance to shore. Even towing a couple of kids, I can totally swim that, no problem. We’re good.

The captain is droning on about the expensive villas lining the hillsides and which A-list celebrity owns them and how you can sometimes see the newest It Paparazzi Darling walking the beaches naked right over there. We’re not going to see them, I tell my son. It’s never the pretty people. They know better than to show it for free.

Later he sadly tells me I’m right. Another bubble popped.

Who says travel isn’t educational?

At Shitten Bay I’m handed a mask, snorkel, fins, and the hated, dreaded, absolutely mandatory life vest. I try to tell the deckhand that I’m more likely to drown wearing one of those things, strangled in the straps or chaffed to death along my carotid artery. No, madam, (and I know what madam is code for), you must. Swimming is too tiresome. Put a little air into it like this. Much easier.

I’m tempted to tell him what else he can blow, but I know he’s only doing his job. Instead I thank him, then deflate every puff of air out of the vest.

Stupid thing.

I think about stripping all the gear off, jumping over the side, and floating on my back, hands behind my head, eyes closed, and taking a nap just to show him I won’t drown, but he would probably jump after me with a life-ring cursing madam, madam, madam.

Well, if I have to wear a vest, I’m not walking down the stairs and into the water like an old lady. I do have some standards. I slip over the handrail.

The water is cool and clear and I feel bubbles rising around me, tickling a little from my giant stride entry off the port side of the catamaran. Everyone else heads out into the deep water, but knowing better, I head to where it’s shallower, where there is more light and more to see. I tear the corner off the mini bag of cornflakes I smuggled off the cruise ship, shake them into the water, and the fish come.

As I quietly float along away from the crowds, the fish continue to do fishy things instead of hiding, and I realize this reef is dying. There’s very little living coral, few fish, and I don’t see any octopus, eels, or even starfish. Looking around, I understand why it’s a good place to bring tourists—outside of some patches of fire coral and wana-like urchins, the worst that can happen is a sunburn.

tingToo soon, the bell sounds, and we’re back on the catamaran. My son drains a plastic cup and says, we’re bringing a case of Ting back, and I laugh. Everything tastes better on a boat. Ting is good, but I’d trade all the Ting in the world for more time at Shitten Bay.

caneIf I close my eyes, I’m not middle-aged and riding in a taxi van through the foothills of Barbados, I’m nine standing on the kickball field at Kahului Elementary School on Maui, Hawaii, watching black snow fall from the sky.

The air smells like burnt marshmallows and little curls of fine black ash are drifting like snowflakes to the ground. Like spring snow, they mostly disappear when they touch the earth. In the distance black smoke rises like a fog over the burning sugarcane.

Oh, look, a brush fire, someone from the cruise ship says.

No, I say, that’s cane.

How horrible, how terrible, they really shouldn’t do that, murmurs bleat like sheep through the van.

I catch the driver’s eye in the rearview mirror and we shrug. We could explain all the whys and hows and what fors of sugarcane burning, but it’s really no use. Tourists always know best whether it’s how to manage a beach park or open a coconut. They come prepared with all the answers and are more than willing to share their expertise with anyone who doesn’t ask.

When your gas money, food, and rent comes from the tourist trade it’s best if you can lend a deaf ear at times. Even half-way around the world on an island in the middle of a different ocean some things never change.

shipIt’s no secret I hate perky. Chirpy, gleeful, happy—particularly in the morning—rubs me like sandpaper on a sunburn. But my personal seventh level of hell is reserved for cruise directors.

Hellllllooooooo! He cackles every time he gets on the mic. The blue-hair set twitter helloooo back to him like a Greek chorus. Flamboyant, hair pomade slick and eyebrows waxed, he’s the kid we used to pound behind the library after school, the one who wore angel flight pants, Members Only jackets, and carried a Pan Am flight bag.

He also gave me the best laugh of the trip.

One night he was nattering on the loud speaker about all the special, so cheap almost free deals going on right now at the Fun Shops. He said, “Can’t miss special, gold and silver by the inch.” But my finely-tuned Pidgin ear heard, “Goats, DeSilva, by da inch.”

I flashed back to my childhood neighbors, the DeSilva family, and their weekly Sunday goat slaughter eyed though the hole in our fence.

“Goats,” I sputtered, “by the inch.”

My son jumped on it. “I’d like three inches of goat, please.”

We snickered, then full-on belly-laughed. People walked around us, giving us the side-eye reserved for drunks and fools.

DeSilva’s goats by de inch.

Like the best jokes, you had to be there.

dessertsOn the cruise ship there is food everywhere you turn. But since I’m allergic to wheat, about 90% of it I can’t eat. Breads, meat drenched in gravies and suspicious sauces, food fried in the same oil as breaded chicken tenders and onion rings­­­—I sometimes on the ship feel like a castaway surrounded by water, but without a drop to drink.

I love fresh fruit, cheese, and green salad, but really, how much of that stuff can you eat? (A lot, apparently.) It doesn’t help that none of the food service staff seems to know what’s in the food at the buffets. Vegetarian and low-sugar options are labeled, but only one item, a type of corn bread, is labeled gluten-free.

Before booking the cruise, I asked about gluten-free offerings and was told it would be no problem, but our first night’s dinner server had no idea what gluten or wheat or flour was let alone what I could order without it. I played it safe and ordered a burger, no bun, and a baked potato. Cheese and apple slices for desert. Whooohooo.

Day 2 Breakfast: yogurt, fruit, bacon from the buffet. Lunch: green salad, marinated olives, cheeses from the buffet.

Living the high-life now. Like a squirrel, I started breaking into the emergency nut and protein bars I keep in my purse for times like these as the kids and hubby snarfed pizza, pasta salads, and cake.

The second night was better when by chance we were seated by the lady who happened to be in charge of allergens for food service. She clucked her tongue at my experience. From that moment on, I ordered breakfast and dinner the day before. I even had gluten-free chocolate chip pancakes with guava jam one morning. Lunch was still a bit of a problem, but I wrapped melon slices with ham from the deli and took a couple of chances with rice and beans and a chicken curry–one chance I later regretted.

There were probably other things I could’ve eaten, but nobody could tell me what had wheat in it and what didn’t. Labels would’ve helped tremendously.

Did I mention labels?

But here’s a tip for gluten-less diners when everyone else is sampling five or six or eight desserts: go to the coffee bar, grab a hot chocolate, walk to the soft serve counter, and drop in a shot of vanilla ice cream. Perfect temperature for drinking and satisfies a sweet tooth. Also, order cheese plates with apple slices instead of breads and crackers. With a little creativity, you won’t starve.

And at least all my clothes still fit.

The Iliad Library. Photo taken from my writing vantage point with a wide (repeat, very wide) angle lens.

The Iliad Library. Photo taken from my writing vantage point with a wide (repeat, very wide) angle lens.

Whenever I travel, I always look for the quiet nook, the place away from the karaoke bar scene and the disco fever, where I can sit and write. Last night while exploring the ship I found a little room called the Iliad Library. There are four tables, a few chairs and a couple bookcases—locked bookcases—where left-behind airport gift shop favorites are kept rigorously unread behind blurry glass.

Perfect, I thought.

But tonight when I sneak in with my laptop, Diet Coke, and ice pack for my throbbing heel (surgery three months ago and still healing), I interrupt a West Indian couple and a Sales Dude working them hard. I sit at the table the farthest away and start tippy-typing away.

Seriously, for 10 minutes nobody on their side of the room says a word. They’re just waiting for me to figure out the all night buffet is three levels up or that the conga-line is grooving on the Lido deck. Finally, Sales Dude remembers time is money and starts yammering about a vacation photo-package. He starts at $999.99 and over the next five minutes sweetens the deal with a memory book, a CD, and an extra free 8×10.

He can’t see me, but the couple can. As he offers his best and final price, I keep shaking my head no. The lady nudges her husband. Slowly the price keeps dropping. Sales Dude throws in a genuine diamonette necklace, discount shopping coupons, and a souvenir tote bag. When his price hits $300 and he throws in free daiquiris at the bar, I hear desperation in his voice.

That’s when I catch Wife’s eye and shrug. It’s on par with a photo shoot and print package at some place like a Target or Sears Photo Studio back home. Considering Sales Dude is showing printed photos, many of his costs are already sunk and he’s behind the eight ball.

Husband sees me, but sets his jaw firm. $280, he offers. Sales Dude says there’s no way he can do that. Husband crosses his arms. $280. Wife looks crushed. She really wants those photos. I start to feel a little guilty, but then Sales Dude sighs and says okay, but you can’t tell anyone the deal I’m making special just for you.

At that point I start to wonder if we’re still too high since Sales Dude’s a little too happy, but it’s done. They can pick up their vacation photos in an hour.

As they leave, Wife waves at me through the glass and gives me a thumbs up. At least they’re happy. Sales Dude packs his stuff more slowly, never giving me more than a dismissive glance. Twinkie. Now I’m happy I saved the couple at least $500 bucks from when they were first going to say yes.

As Sales Dude leaves, a couple of teenagers bounce in giggling, looking for a place to smooch. They sit in the small conversation pit behind me, but it’s clear my tippy-tapping is worse than any chaperone and after a minute of muffled groping, decide to split.

I feel like I’m doing all kinds of good tonight. Time for another Diet Coke.


The rodeo princess on vacation in St. Lucia

Of all the things I thought I would do on my Caribbean vacation, riding a horse would’ve been last on the list. We have horses at home; mine is a Tennessee Walker named Marley. She’s sturdy, well-trained, and bomb-proof, but I rarely ride her. I’m with Sherlock Holmes on this one: horses are crafty at both ends and dangerous in the middle.

But my husband and daughter have a dream of riding horses along the beach. I’m up for anything that gets me near the ocean, and our son comes along for the ride. We’re off-book, way off-book; instead of arranging this adventure with an official tour guide, we wandered near the port asking taxi drivers if they knew where we could ride. Twenty minutes later we’re standing outside the walled gates at the edge of the Sandals St. Lucia Resort under ironwood trees waiting for someone named Bano to catch the horses and bring them to us. “Don’t worry,” says the taxi driver as he zooms off, “I’ll be back in three hours.”

After a lovely conversation with a toothless man who tells me he sells the hematite necklaces he makes to the Sandals honeymooners—see how pretty she shines in the sunlight, you like, I make special price for you—Bano shows up. The horses are lean, bony even, and look like they could use a bushel of grain or two. When Bano asks if we’ve ever ridden, my husband says our daughter is a barrel racing champ and rodeo princess. Bano doesn’t believe until my husband pulls out his phone and shows him pictures. “Okay,” Bano says, “she can ride Formula One. He used to be a race horse.”

Formula One is a fine-boned white Arabian stallion. Alarm bells go off in my head.

“And you, Mami,” says Bano, “you ride, too?”

“I need one with training wheels,” I say. “You got one named Butterball or Marshmallow?”

He puts me on Apache, the biggest, but only about fourteen hands tall and 500 lbs lighter than Marley. Damn, I hear the horse think. Why do I always get the chunky ones?

Good, I think. Weighted down my horse is less likely to buck or run. It’s just too much effort.

I look over and see my daughter and husband weaving their horses through figure eight patterns around coconut husks in the sand.

Show-offs, I think.

“No, Sweetie,” Bano calls to my daughter, “with these horses slack reins means go fast. You have to keep them in tight check.”

“What?” she calls, clearly confused. We’ve spent a lot of time and money keeping our horses’ mouths soft and they don’t like short reins.

“Choke up,” I snap. “And if you even think of galloping, I’ll throttle you. Nice and slow, you hear me?”

“Yes, Mom,” she says with an eye roll.

This is why I don’t ride at home. I’m too slow, too careful, too boring. Riding with me means the kiddie pool when they want to surf Waimea.

We start the ride along the beach, then through red dirt fields, then down village streets. Kids coming running out of school to watch us ride past.

“Wave like you’re in a parade,” I tell my daughter. “I know you’ve had lots of practice.”

More eye rolling, but she does smile and wave at the kids.

After a short break, the horses are unsaddled, we mount again, and ride into the sea. I’m chicken and only go out as far as where the water rises over my horse’s back. Frankly, I’m afraid I’ll float off and won’t be able to get back on. Fearless on a horse in ways she’s never in the ocean alone, my daughter rides out until her horse swims. My husband chases her, and they play—each trying to knock the other off.

Soon, too soon, we wipe down the horses and saddle up. On the ride back to the ironwood trees where the taxi dropped us off, the wind blows my hat off my head. I call to my husband—in all things horses it’s his job to take care of me. As he lopes back to retrieve it, a girl about my daughter’s age calls that she will get it for me, but my husband beats her to it. I thank her and smile. Wide-eyed she asks how much it costs to ride a horse.

A thousand things flit through my mind, things that will make her laugh and shake her head. I settle on the simple truth. “$65,” I tell her.

“USD?!” she gasps, like it’s a trip to the moon. “$65 USD,” she calls to her mother.

I think about $65, not enough to fill my gas tank or buy a week’s groceries or even pay for an evening at the movies with popcorn for four.

“Yes,” I nod, jamming my hat back on my head. “To ride a horse in St. Lucia’s ocean. Once in a lifetime.”

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