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St. Vincent, In The Rarely Visited Caribbean

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Looking down on the St. Vincent cruise terminal at Kingstown

THIS is where the notorious Capt. Bligh left his lasting mark

The main reason Linda and I chose this 35-day Maasdam itinerary is because the ship stops at places most cruise lines don’t. The island of St. Vincent in the Grenadines was a major attraction because I hadn’t seen it for far too long. With scuba diving now on my back burner, a cruise is my best way back to St. Vincent.

Based on yesterday’s post about Carib Indian history, what does St. Vincent have to do with the topic? One of its major attractions is the oddity of the cannon placement at Fort Duvernette, located 195 feet and 250 steps above the Caribbean. The unfortunate soldiers involved in its construction in the 1800s had to haul the cannons to the top. Once at the summit, the cannons were not aimed seaward–all the cannons face inland.

The British were terrified of the fierce Carib Indians who waged a bloody 7-year war from their mountain hideouts. The Vincentians proudly claim their country is the only place in the hemisphere where a fort was designed to repel invaders from the land instead of the sea. Some of the local literature, however, doesn’t make it clear that the Caribs were their greatest threat, not other European soldiers.

The Caribs may not have their own Territory here as in Dominica but their heritage survives. They intermarried with the black slaves brought over to work the sugarcane, a mix that accounts for the heritage of most present day Vincentians.

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The Maasdam at dock in St. Vincent

St. Vincent is a late-comer when it comes to Caribbean cruising. Cruise ships didn’t start visiting St. Vincent until 1999 but passengers had such bad experiences with hustling locals (think Jamaica and the panhandlers on the beach) and the poor condition of the capital and cruise port of Kingstown that cruise ships became scarce. Tourism officials learned a lesson and in 2006 St. Vincent received one of “The Most Improved Destination” awards from Dream World Cruise Destinations magazine.

The cruise dock is located at the edge of Kingstown and the small terminal building is among the Caribbean’s most user friendly. It’s an easy walk into town from here but seeing the real St. Vincent and its St. Lucia rain forest-like lushness requires a cab or a tour. One popular stop is Fort Charlotte but of special interest is the village of Barraouallie beyond it, not only a fishing but a whaling community.

That’s right–whaling from nothing more than an unusually long motorized canoe. Whaling in St. Vincent has a long tradition, but in truth the Vincentians do the whale population little damage. The harpoon is thrown by hand, which almost requires the harpoonist to stand over a whale and drive the point in with the force of his own weight. Whales are taken only once in several years, so the whaling industry is hardly a thriving or threatening one.

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Entrance sign to New World’s oldest botanic gardens

My own interest is to revisit St. Vincent’s famous Botanical Gardens. Founded in 1765 , by General Robert Melville, Gov. of the Windward Islands. These 20-acres comprise the oldest botanic gardens in the Western Hemisphere. At that time, they were administered by the British War Office and charged to cultivate and improve native plants and to import others from similar climates that would improve the island’s resources. From St. Vincent, some of these plants went out to other islands, which not only dramatically changed the islands’ foliage but added new food sources for both settlers and slaves.

The gardens’ most famous plant is also one of the Caribbean’s most important: a “cutting” from the original breadfruit tree brought from Tahiti by Capt. William Bligh in 1793 from Tahiti, Polynesia. This is the same Capt. Bligh of the famous in 1789 Bounty mutiny. Not only was he a skilled navigator–it’s amazing he and his crew survived the mutiny–but obviously a skilled horticulturist since young plants on a long voyage had to be maintained since the seeds of breadfruit die quickly when stored. From St. Vincent, breadfruit was introduced to the rest of the Caribbean.

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Sign marking Capt. Bligh’s famous breadfruit tree

St. Vincent’s breadfruit “cutting” has grown into an enormous tree, probably at least 85 high, the tallest they grown. Many say breadfruit as tasting potato-like or freshly baked bread. Those are polite descriptions of what I consider to be dry and tasteless, perhaps my least favorite of Caribbean “vegetables.” Being Irish, I know a little bit of how potatoes are supposed to taste. To breadfruit, I say “yuck!”

Despite not wanting to eat breadfruit, standing in front of Capt. Bligh’s massive and historic 200-year old tree is a surprisingly humbling feeling. Breadfruit and other plants first planted here truly changed the Caribbean landscape. But St. Vincent can’t be blamed for introducing sugarcane into the Caribbean, which needed a huge labor supply for harvest and the need for cheap slave workers. That was introduced into the Caribbean from Brazil via Barbados, the home of Caribbean rum.

The taxi ride from the cruise dock to the Botanical Gardens, a mile from Kingstown up a steep hill, was just $10. That fee included the driver waiting until after we toured and a return to the Maasdam.

Instead, to the surprise of the driver, Linda and I paid him the $10 and bid him good-by. I wanted to walk back to the ship and see what present-day Kingstown looked like. For a photographer, roaming by foot is the only way to travel. Especially when it is downhill.

This post barely touches on what there is to see and do in St. Vincent. On the other hand, the Maasdam excursions were limited, ignoring the island as a good dive destination. For more info, check out the St. Vincent and Grenadines website at http://www.discoversvg.com/

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Leaving Kingstown, St. Vincent

Carib Indian Tidbits

George Town Grand Cayman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Traditional round Carib meeting house

 

Chewing On Carib History

Because some upcoming Maasdam destinations have strong affiliations with the Carib(pronounced kar-RIB) Indians, this seems like a good time to mention their place in island history.

Fiercely independent. Unyielding. Vanished. That pretty much sums up the status of the Carib Indians throughout the Caribbean, the island group named after them.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Caribs still can be found on Dominica and St. Vincent and along the coasts of Honduras and Guyana, but elsewhere in the Caribbean they have disappeared, the victims of Europeans diseases and brutality.

One of the largest surviving groups of Caribs, who often refer to themselves as the Kalinago or Garifuna people live inside the 3,700-acre Carib Territory on Dominica. About 3,500 Caribs live inside the Reserve and another 2,000 live elsewhere on the island, the largest group of island Caribs left anywhere in the world.

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Carib woman selling her hand-made baskets

The Carib villages extending for 9 miles along the island’s east coast are almost indistinguishable from other parts of the island. Small wooden and concrete houses largely have replaced the traditional round great houses and A-frame buildings.

Except for two small signs marking the northern and southern ends of the Carib Territory (also sometimes referred to as the Carib Reserve. Visitors pass occasional roadside stand selling hand-woven baskets, there’s nothing to indicate you’re among the Caribs, a people who so terrified early explorers that they were relentlessly hunted almost to extinction.

They survived on Dominica only because of the mountainous landscape that made pursuit of them difficult and dangerous. The French and later the British found it made more sense to trade with the Caribs than to fight them.

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Carib Territory homes new and old-style; Carib woman with her son

The Caribs were not the original settlers of the Caribbean but part of the second wave of Amerindians from South America. The Tainos arrived first, about 500 B.C., and the Caribs appeared in their canoes about a thousand years later. Greater seamanship skills and a more war-like mentality allowed the Caribs to conquer and absorb the Tainos. They expanded as far north as Puerto Rico.

European explorers found the Caribs to be formidable opponents. They often fought to the death rather than endure slavery. On St. Vincent they were considered so dangerous that the cannons at one fort pointed inland; the Caribs were considered a far greater threat than any opponent who might arrive by sea.

The battle between guns and arrows also turned into a war of words, and the most effective propaganda story of the day was that the Caribs were “man eaters.” This resulted in the invention of a new term, “cannibal,” a corruption of what the Spanish called the Caribs, “Caribales.” Demonizing the Caribs as cannibals was a good excuse for European explorers to kill or enslave them and seize their land.

George Town Grand CaymanThe Caribs were skilled sailors despite their primitive dugout canoes

One of the wildest stories was from a French priest in the 1600s who reported that the Caribs had performed their own taste test on Europeans and concluded that the French were the tastiest, followed by the English, Dutch and very much in last place the Spanish (said to be too stringy to be worth eating).

Today’s Caribs steadfastly maintain their ancestors were not cannibals. The film was criticized the popular The National Garifuna Council criticized the popular Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest for portraying the Carib people as cannibals. Adding insult to injury was where parts of the film were shot: on Dominica.

Some historians says that what was mistaken for cannibalism actually was an important part of war rituals where the limbs of victims were taken back to their villages as trophies.

A victorious Carib apparently chewed and spit out a single mouthful of flesh of a very brave enemy so that bravery would be transferred to them. There is no evidence that the Caribs ever ate humans to satisfy hunger.

George Town Grand CaymanBecause of the canoe’s importance in Carib history, canoes
are used as altars in some Carib Territory churches.

Cruise Planning – Gadgets and Gear

These items make extended cruising much easier

Power Strips
(Those of you who normally cruise in a suite can skip this first part, assuming you have a plethora of electrical outlets in such cabins. Not in my budget for such extra amenities.)

The average cruise cabin, regardless of age of the ship, typically is way behind the times when it comes to the electrical needs of the modern traveler. Think of all the items you need to charge every day: iPod, cell phone, iPad and/or Kindle, digital camera, Nintendo DS, you name it.

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That switch on the right controls our cabin lights on the Maasdam

But many cabins have only a two electrical outlets, located just above the desk and under the mirror. One outlet is for 220 volts, the other outlet for 115 volts. If you have an adapter for European travel, many smart phones and digital battery charges will also work off 220v, but you still end up with a grand total of two outlets.

No problem if you carry a power strip with you, right? That certainly will help but maybe not as much as you think.

Take a look at the basic power strip below (not surge protected) and how the outlets are positioned side by side:

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Now, here it is, full . . . or as full as can be considering all the different style of plugs these days.

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This second type of power strip is surge protected and the outlets are positioned in a row, just as you find them in most homes:

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Yet even it isn’t perfect:

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Solution: Carry both types, plugging one into the other.  That way you can handle more than one odd plug size at a time and keep everyone fully charged at the end of each day.

gadget both strips

Staying in Touch on Ship
At home, many families with children are in the habit of texting each other to see what they’re doing during the day. You can’t do that on a cruise ship unless you’re willing to pay cell phone surcharges.  More likely, your cell phone won’t have a signal most of the time. 
On days-at-sea, only satellite phones work. Those are much too costly to give to all family members, especially children.

Better to go retro and use an old fashioned device to keep in touch: walkie-talkies  Get a pair with a range of several miles, making it more likely they will work the entire length of the ship. If you have an inside cabin you might have to go out on deck to establish contact.

In addition, walkie talkies are a good way to keep in touch with one another in a cruise port. You, for instance, can stay by the pool to relax and be updated by the serious shoppers as they report about the bargains they find.

gadget walki talkis


For Digital Photographers

A Powered USB Hub

Buying enough SDHC memory cards to allow you to photograph freely on your cruise  without downloading any video or images could be almost as expensive as taking another 7-day Caribbean cruise, especially if you are shooting HD video or raw and large jpeg still images.  Most photographers don’t want to wait until returning home after their trip to view their material. Besides, who wants to wait until then to find out if their camera(s) are working properly, when it’s too late to take corrective measures.

Downloading to a laptop as well as a portable external memory drive (for backup) is routine for many serious photographers.  Downloading pictures in several places is the kind of redundancy that NASA tried to employ. 

Personally, I prefer to download simultaneously to 2 external hard drives and not dump them onto my computer’s hard drive. Many high capacity external drives will not function properly by simply plugging them into a regular USB port. Instead, the external drives work only when each drive is plugged into the computer because of the power they need to operate properly. Not all computers have enough ports (mine doesn’t.)

My solution is to choose a USB hub which is self-powered because it has its own plug-in power adapter. Like all USB hubs, it requires a host computer to be attached to.


gadget ext drives, powered usb hub

Memory Card Case
SD cards are scarily small compared to the old compact flash cards, which you could dump in a camera bag or pocket and easily find them. My solution to avoid misplacing them  and to make them easy to  locate is a hard memory card case I originally purchased for the larger  compact flash cards but never used because they didn’t play hide-and-seek every day. The card case keeps my four 8-gig SDHC cards trapped together quite well. They are allowed to come out only when they need to go to work. This memory card case has me the most organized I’ve ever been since digital cameras entered the market. Because I’m deathly afraid I’ll lose one of them.

gadgets SD card holder

Memory Sticks and High Speed Digital Flash Card Reader
I normally bring several memory sticks on a cruise to bring along documents not on my laptop. They can come in handy in other ways. You can use them to carry photos to show on other laptops. And, when docked in cruise ports, to download emails and other items using the faster and cheaper onshore Internet services.

If you download photos from your camera directly to your computer by using a cable, you risk losing all your material. If the camera battery is weak and the camera shuts off during the  transfer process, you could lose all the images in the camera as well as the material you were downloading when the battery died.

No need to take that kind of risk if you use a digital flash card reader. You simply fit the card into one end and the USB end into your computer and that’s all there is to it. You can use whatever program you want to make the transfer, too, not rely on what your camera furnishes. However, most lap tops don’t require a card reader since they have a built-in card reader slot, which sends your images directly into your computer and much easier and faster to send to external hard drives.

  gadgets memory stick, digital flash card reader

Have some special gear or gadgets of your own that others might be interested in? How about sharing them with the rest of us.

Laundry Schedule for a 35-Day Cruise

Keeping Our Scents Fresh

Actually, the what-to-wear factor on a 35-day Caribbean cruise isn’t difficult. The real issue is how to have enough clean clothes without packing a dozen suitcases. Holland America doesn’t care about how many suitcases we bring aboard. And since we’re driving to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, we truly can bring as many bags as we want, even as many as a dozen. It’s a matter of the size of your stateroom. Except for a suite, not many staterooms can accommodate luggage that can fill our rental vehicle.

If you’ve traveled to the Caribbean before, ever noticed a self-service laundry? Although there are quite a few of them in the islands, I never recall seeing one, or if I did, remember its location. Because even if I had, I don’t think I’d want to roll down the gangplank a suitcase of dirty clothes to a laundry dry near the end of the cruise pier. Efficient, but not convenient or classy. And certainly a waste of time while in port.  Out of curiosity, on the first 11 days of our cruise where we have been in a port almost every day. I looked byt never saw a Laundromat anywhere.

A Great Convenience—For How Long?
Of course, most cruise lines like Holland America offer laundry service and dry cleaning. But some HAL ships like the Maasdam offer self-service laundry facilities, a necessity for long-term voyages in order to avoid paying a per-garment cleaning charge. The washers and dryers on several decks stay open 24 hours a day.

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Three stacked washers and dryers in a
laundry room on the “Maasdam” 

In our situation, laundry day is going to be every 2 weeks, beginning as the Maasdam returns to Fort Lauderdale to discharge and pick up new passengers. Competition for the laundry facilities is minimal, even towards the end of the cruise. Linda is able to get one washer immediately, a second 10 minutes later and the third—and final washer available-in just another 10 minutes.

A special low-suds detergent is provided free, and it is precisely measured by a dispenser. If you use more than the quarter of a cup dispensed, the washer will bubble over with suds, which will make the floor slick and create other possible disasters.
The washers take 30 minutes for each load, the dryers about 45 minutes. She says the three loads done on the ship would be two loads at home, that these washers take a smaller load.

The Maasdam will soon undergo a renovation. Let’s hope it will keep the laundry facilities for guests on what HAL calls extended “Collector Voyages.” It’s only fair.

Caribbean Christmas Decorations

Best tree ornaments I’ve ever seen are at Barbados cruise port

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All these Christmas decorations are made from sea shells

Christmas ornaments are good souvenir from anywhere since they remind you over the years where you’ve traveled. But good Christmas tree ornaments are hard to find in the Caribbean.

Except in Barbados. If you ever visit Barbados between October and April, take the time to seek out Daphne’s Sea Shell Studio located in the cruise terminal shopping area. Don’t look for a store but probably a lone vendor seated under a sizable Christmas tree placed on a table.

The table is covered with small baskets of the most amazing Christmas ornament, perhaps as many as 20 distinctive items, made almost entirely from sea shells. You will find all the popular Christmas themes, including toy soldiers, snowmen, angels and lots of Santa Claus himself. The care in making them and then hand-painting faces on most of the items individually is amazing.

There is real ingenuity and artistry from the original designs in the how the shells are glued together. And which colors of shells are chosen for a particular subject. Some large white shell decorations, such as the split nautilus with a gold ribbon, really don’t carry an obvious Christmas theme but they are perfectly appropriate for the holidays.

I wish Daphne was present at the display so I can talk to her. All I can learn about Daphne  from the saleswoman is that Daphne is about 65 years old, has been making these ornaments for years, and now several of her daughters are helping her. They make the decorations over a period of five months, from May to the beginning of October. Late fall through early spring is the prime selling season at the Barbados’ port.

The following photos describe more about the originality of these decorations than I can possibly say. Sorry, no sales are made on the Internet. You need to be in Barbados to purchase these decorations, which makes them all the more special.

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Barbados Photo Safari

In clouds and drizzle, of course               

The Maasdam’s Barbados Photo Adventure shore excursion with a local photo pro to take us off the beaten path really appeals to both Linda and me, but on docking in Barbados we discover we’re not there on one of the island’s famed 360 days of sunshine. Instead, the ssame gloomy weather of Martinique is in the famously blue skies overhead. I’m astonished. In my many previous trips, I’ve never seen such depressing skies.
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The Scotland district of Barbados on a cloudy day.

How can a decent photo safari take place in this weather? The 18 of us on a small mini-bus are about to find out. Even our tour leader, Barbadian photographer and producer/director Ronnie Carrington, cheerfully admits it will be a challenge but is optimistic.

As we drive into the countryside toward the east side and the always windy Atlantic coast, Ronnie explains that the Barbados landscape is built on a series of terraces, created as the land rose out of the ocean, in different stages, over millions of years. It’s why even the poorest landowners always have a “terrace view.”

Why Students Should Always Ask Questions

We stop at the entrance of a great estate with a long driveway lined by tall stately palms. Ronnie asks us to take a photo of the driveway which, in this sunlight, is not going to look like a black and white shot. Most wander off to their own thing, ignoring Ronnie, trying to take as many different subjects as possible. Yet he has a reason for making this our first photo stop.

Linda and I and a few others hang back to confer with Ronnie. I hand him my camera. “I’d like to see what you’re seeing. Do you mind?” I ask him. He quickly agrees and takes a photo from his point of view. Looking at various points of view is the object of this lesson. His emphasis is on the tall trunks and palm fronds as seen from below, not the driveway. It’s mostly a silhouette with a hint of blue sky behind. Nice. The lesson is to take whatever stands out in the conditions you’re presented.

Barbados Traditional Chattel House
As the bus proceeds, Ronnie tells us how slaves were given land to build on but sometimes their plantation owner would give them short notice to move. So islanders began constructing small wooden “chattel” houses that easily could be taken apart, relocated and rebuilt. Once Barbadians were able to purchase their own land, they could expand their homes by adding one room at a time in the back, one clearly defined segment at a time. clip_image003
Old chattel house with three additions  and a new car.

These traditional wooden homes gradually are being replaced, but a few fine examples remain. Ronnie takes us to a tiny village with a chattel house that has a unique style, a blend of old and new. The two front sections are of wood, the next two of concrete. Unfortunately, under the overcast skies, none of the newly painted color stands out. Ronnie explains why many homes are not painted as well: paint costs $58 a gallon.

Blue Snails In A Dumpster


Returning to the bus, someone notices some unusually large snails clinging to the inside of a 55-gallon blue metal drum. Ronnie informs us they are African snails, which cause considerable agricultural damage.
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Can you tell the weather make us desperate for subjects!?

With colorful subjects so scare without sunlight, a group of us gather around the blue drum to photograph the snails. Well, they do have a colorful background and they are related to Barbados, in a round-about-way. Can you tell we are desperate for something to shoot?

We start roaming again, passing several fields with the distinctive brown and black Barbados sheep out to pasture in amazingly green fields. The cloudy skies actually make the scene more photogenic than it would appear under the glare of the usual mid-morning sun.

Bathsheba
I realize Ronnie is saving the best for last, the high-point of any visit to the Atlantic coast or Barbados: the Bathsheba area with its iconic shoreline of random boulders, perhaps more impressive than the Baths on Virgin Gorda because each huge piece of limestone can be seen as an individual object, not part of a huge, overwhelming clump.

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The sun, surprisingly, decides to appear. Bathsheba’s long sandy beach with its famous hit-and-miss rockline begins to show its true colors. Since this Atlantic shore is one of Barbados’ most recognized symbols, we camera buffs couldn’t be happier.

The Rum Punch Recipe
Just before arriving at the beach, Ronnie suddenly reveals a secret. “Want to know the recipe for the best rum punch?

Repeat after me: 1 of sour
1 of sweet
3 of strong
4 of weak”

Using these measures as ounces, sour is lime juice, sweet is syrup, 3 is dark rum (from Barbados of course!) and 4 is your favorite fruit juice, though Ronnie suggests keeping the recipe simple with orange juice.

“The longer it mixes, the better it tastes. If I make a gallon, I put it the refrigerator and let it sit for a month,” Ronnie says.

Now, that’s a long time to wait for a good rum bunch. And Ronnie knows he has us hooked to taste a good one. Stopping at a rum shop in Bathsheba is another part the tour but the spot of rum is optional. Ronnie promises we will like it. I believe him.

After three decades in the Caribbean, I consider myself a connoisseur of rum punches. Not a difficult role since most rum punches are dreadful swill. It’s why I rarely drink them. But as Ronnie promised, this rum punch comes as close to divine as a rum punch possibly can.

The last half-hour of the tour has the sunlight we craved for the entire morning. Even if the sun hadn’t shown up, the photo safari would be a success.  I’m touching on only a few of the tour’s highpoints, but it illustrates how Ronnie smartly merged Barbados’ history and culture into our photo stops.

Martinique, Well It IS a Rain Forest

But it also can rain anywhere, all day

It’s me, Linda, here to tell you about our trip to  Botanical Gardens of Balta on Martinique. 

It is a dark and stormy morning as we disembark the Maasdam to find our guides for our first ship-sponsored shore excursion.  I come armed with two umbrellas and a rain jacket to hex away any threat of liquid sunshine.

After standing around waiting for what seemed to be much longer than it is we’re escorted to an awaiting tour bus.  The bus seats are comfortable though they won’t recline and the AC works excellently. Everyone locates a seat and the journey began.  And so did the rain. 

Our guide quickly renames the tour to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” trying to dissuade any bad attitudes in our group–her “sweeties,” she calls us.  All of us sweeties turn out to be real troopers. 

The Balta gardens are located at the edge of the rain forest but it’s not raining when we arrive and make our way down the steep parking lot to the garden entrance. An old Creole stone house serves as an entryway. A comfortable entryway it is, too, with rattan furniture in the sitting area that opens to a veranda and the terraced gardens in the back.  

Down the steps we go where a concrete path discretely wound through a tropical canopy of flowering plants and trees.  The foliage is amazing. Elephant ear plants are almost as large as that of a small elephant.  Unfortunately, it starts to rain almost immediately. Tim heads back to the porch, since he only has an umbrella but asks that I stick with the tour. 

This happens to be my first day using our new video camera and I am determined to get some good footage even in these conditions.  The term “come hell or high water “ comes to mind but after waiting about 15 minutes for those ahead of me to maneuver their way carefully down the steep, slippery slope,  I change my mind.

The gentleman in front of me turns around and I can tell by the look in his eye he too is planning to escape from our guide, something of a control freak.  I stare at him as water drips off the hood of my rain jacket, the camera bag tightly clutched beneath it.

I announce, “I’m bolting.” He simply nods and follows me back the porch where I locate Tim photographing almost a dozen hummingbirds eating from a feeder at the edge of the verandah, well out of the rain. I am able to get some amazing footage of those beautiful tiny birds.

Suddenly the rain seems like it has been a blessing in disguise.  For as soon as the others began returning, the birds promptly leave. We never would have noticed them or the birdfeeders without the cloudburst.

  by Linda O’Keefe