Whales failed to show up

THE CARIBBEAN — When my wife, Bonnie, and I took a weeklong vacation to Belize formerly British Honduras, in northeastern Central America, we were both impressed.

The trip came as a retirement present after 28 years of teaching at Highlands.

Never having entered Central America before, we couldn’t believe how organized the itinerary was. We flew from Houston but needed to get across to Ambergris Cay, a tiny island whose natives and tourists get around in tiny go-carts whose maximum speed is about 10 mph.

A simple tug on the starter-rope got the thing going for us, and we used it for several days. The first thing we noticed was that the entire island is sandy, and people don’t wear shoes.

Recalling all of the details of that trip, back in 1999, would be fun, but I mention that vacation to contrast it with our dozen days in Puerto Rico, the place Rita Moreno sang about in West Side Story. My first insistence is that the just-completed trip to San Juan and a host of islands clustered around the Atlantic really was enjoyable. Although I complained about the heat in my previous column of island-hopping, I really would recommend it.

And eventually I’ll get to the several glitches in the trip, one of which came by leaving my camera in the trunk my son Ben’s car, when he dropped us off at the Albuquerque Sunport. That omission delayed my photo-ops for four days, until we found an island town with a camera shop.

With new camera in hand, we explored the various islands around Puerto Rico. We took a whale-watching excursions — through choppy waters, in a rickety boat — but the whales failed to show up. We later went to Butterfly Island, where we saw not one single butterfly flutter by. Bonnie later explained that butterfly refers to the shape of the island itself, and seen from the air, looks a bit like the monarch butterfly of this area.

Each small island had its particular attractions: one place contained a rain forest; another had a wealth of locally grown foods such as pomegranates, bananas and mangoes. Still another remote spot contained tiny monkeys that would cling to the owner who walked around offering them for sale. One guide explained that perhaps 100 years ago, a visitor left only two monkeys on that island, and in little time they became thousands, possibly all related.

We took our cruise through the Viking Star, a seven-story ship that carried close to 1,000 passengers. It contains six dining rooms with food that ranges from a burger and chips to some of the finest French cooking one can find. During the evenings, an extremely talented sextet comprising mostly college-age singers and dancers, performed selections from Cabaret, Abba and other groups.

For me, a highlight was stopping at an island town that obviously has taken funerals seriously. On a large hill are located hundreds of elaborate mausoleums, some of which, we are told, accommodate entire families of the deceased. True, there are some simple graves, but the bulk of them have doors, windows — things that usually furnish a home for the living. We spent considerable time asking questions of the many locals who filled the several-acre cemetery.

But here, some of us tourists began to doubt locals’ credibility. One man, who spoke only Spanish to me, said that several years ago, those who managed the cemetery had trouble coping with overcrowding. The man explained that when too many bodies filled certain areas, some of the older corpses were simply disinterred and moved to more commodious sites and replaced by bodies of entirely different families.

Of course, I questioned, for example, whether anyone would ever allow such co-mingling, especially when the families might not even have been distantly related. Almost all gravesites contain a black-and-white series of tiles, resembling a checkerboard. Another person I talked to said the white and black represent life and death.

We toured the cemetery early this month and likely arrived at the precise day that islanders were paying homage to the deceased. Much like our own Memorial Day, the custom in this particular Puerto Rican island drew large numbers of visitors.

Perhaps all towns that draw visitors have much in common.

Many of the people on our tour remarked on how virtually every tourist site contains similar items that people hawk — and we were amazed at how persistent some sellers can be. We found an endless procession of knick-knacks at almost every kiosk.

There are the requisite T-shirts, veneer-laden objects like paddles, ashtrays, whiskey glasses coffee mugs and of course, name tags, arranged alphabetically from Aaron to Zinnia.

And that brings up yet another question: Are many of these pieces of bric-a-brac actually made in far-away countries, like China?

Virtually every tourist stand provides complimentary rum punch — as long as customers continue to buy. I can’t leave this topic without explaining that despite some irritation over the persistence of vendors, some of whom came close to fisticuffs over who deserved to make the sale, most of us found the islanders to be friendly, courteous and honest.

A few other things that might have caused consternation were a tourist train that conked out after belching out giant puffs of smoke and stranding us in considerable heat, miles from our destination. But we got free rum punch, soft or hard, as we waited.

And the flight from Puerto Rico to Dallas was delayed long enough to leave hundreds of travelers without connections, usually in Dallas.

We were part of that delay and feared we’d arrive too late to hop on to the Dallas-to-Albuquerque leg. As we fretted about missed connections, Bonnie said, “About the only thing that’ll save us now would be for the Dallas flight also to be late.”

It was.

By several hours, meaning that our hoped-for 6 p.m. Tuesday arrival didn’t happen until around midnight.

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