What I Did On My Summer Vacation
Home Again Home Again, Ready or Not

a travel journal
by Roger MacBride Allen

The idea of this journal is report things as soon as possible after they happen, and I am writing it and uploading as I go, doing the HTML formatting by hand on my palmtop and notebook computers, and posting it on my web page when and where I have the chance during my travels. There's rarely time to proofread it or correct it much before uploading, so please do bear with the typos and glitches.

Note that I have now started marking out the sections by city. Note also that the city-heading refer to where the events reported took place, not where I got the chance to write them up. Thus, an entry about things in Brasilia that I wrote up in Washington and datelined Washington would go in the Brasilia section.

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I have started a new journal file, which commences with the next entry. Click on Summer Journal Part II to keep reading.

Saturday, July 26, 1997, 3:49 p.m. Cristalina, Goias State, Brazil

Cristalina is a small, ugly town about 60 miles outside of Brasilia. Its main claim to fame is that one can buy cheap -- and I mean cheap in all senses of the word -- jewelry and stones. There are maybe twenty stores, all selling essentially identical assortments of geodes, parrots and eagles made out of glue-together rocks, eight-inch high trees made out of gold wire with little lumps of dyed and polished quartz where the leaves should be, and other such items of vast beauty, value, and utility. We're here so Eleanore can buy bookends, coasters, and various other things that can be made out of polished stone. She's also getting some other really jewelry of one sort or another.

Other than a few places selling farm implements and a gas station or two, that's pretty much it for Cristalina. There is nothing else there, and it is surrounded on all sides by a lot more nothing.

And yet, here we are. Here, judging by the CD (Corps Diplomatique) plates, are at least three or four other diplomatic families, who must have driven here from Brasilia. When trying to come up with something to do with their weekends, driving a hundred-plus miles to buy cheesy stones is the best they could come up with. This should give one a good sense of exactly how much goes on in Brasilia. In eighteen days, Eleanore and I will be out of here, having lived in Brazil for two and a half years. We'll be busy with lots of fiddling details, and then off on an extremely complicated itinerary that will keep us more or less constantly on the move until early September.

I'm going to at least try and keep a journal of what goes on during this period of time, and post it at my web site. We don't really know how it's all going to go, but it will be muddled and complicated. It seemed to me that so much confusion and chaos should no go unrecorded.

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August 1, 1997, 9:25 a.m., U.S. Embassy, Brasilia, Brazil.

I'm sitting in the Tucano Club, which is the cafeteria, or lunch counter here at the embassy. As has often been the case over the past two-plus years, I drove in with Eleanore this morning so I could take care of various errands -- today, it was a trip to the mailroom to send off a few packages we needed to get out of the way before we got down to serious sorting and packing.

Eleanore and I have gotten a good start on doing the complicated triage needed for an official State Department move. There are three categories into which all one's possessions must fall: luggage, air freight, and sea freight. Luggage goes with you, air freight will show up a few days, or maybe a week, after you do, and sea freight -- well, sea freight gets there in its own sweet time, perhaps two or three months after you pack it off.

The airlines allow each person two bags of 32 kilos each, per person, and then start charging through the nose. (It's a sneaky little monopoly, the excess baggage charge -- by the time you get to the check-in counter, you are completely out of options as to what to do with your stuff.) State Department regs spell out the amount of air and sea freight a family is entitled do, based on the number of persons, the rank of the employee, the number of dependents coming with the employee, the number of co-dependents, their combined weight in inches, and the wind speed, as measured in hogsheads per cubic meter. We get 450 pounds of air freight and 7200 pounds of sea freight.

That, like most of the State Department's allowances and regulations, is of course extremely generous. We won't get anywhere near the limit on sea freight, even after we throw in the piano.

What makes in tricky for us is that we have several other things to factor in. We're going to be shopping for a house as soon as we get back, so we have to have our tax returns and loan applications handy. Before we get to D.C., we're spending a week in Jamaica (dumb sun hats, swim suits, trashy novels) going to a wedding in Los Angeles (suit, tie, dress shoes) San Francisco (god walking shoes and probably a sweater, just in case) Fresno (I can't think of anything that would help, but it will be 100 degrees, so as little clothing as possible would be a good way to go) then San Antonio and the World Science Fiction Convention (copies of my most recent books, a large bottle of aspirin). Then of course I'll need to carry my laptop computer, and all the fiddly little bits that go with it.

Once we get to Washington, our air freight should have arrived, and it needs to contain everything we need to live until the sea freight arrives in November or so. What pots and pans do we need? What can we get away with borrowing? Should we pack a telephone, or will there be one at our temporary housing? Or do we risk it, and wind up having to go buy a new one at Radio Shack -- and then have six phones instead of five when our sea freight arrives? The same sort of calculations apply to everything from silverware, to spare underwear to Eleanore's work clothes. A thousand trivial decisions. Get enough of them right, and we'll be fine. Get too many of them wrong, and we'll be standing around without phones or underwear, buying dozens of things we already have -- or else buried in junk we don't really need.

Plus, of course, the cats. We have to get the last of the arrangements for getting our cats sorted out. What fun. How simple. I won't go into the details, but suffice to say the Brazilians love paperwork even more than we do.

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Saturday, August 9, 1997 10:42 a.m. SQN 115 Bloco I Apto 205 (Our apartment), Brasilia, Brazil

Well, just all of the above decisions have been made, for better or worse. On Wednesday and Thursday, our worldly goods, save things needed on the trip and a few odds and ends found in cupboard after the fact, were put in 99 sea freight boxes and three air freight boxes. Yesterday, they came and took all the boxes away. Yesterday we also handed over our nice, big, powerful two-year old Jeep Grand Cherokee to the man who bought it, and drove home in a rattle-trap bit of comic relief. I asked Eleanore is she wanted to pedal or steer.

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Tuesday, August 12, 1997, 2:15 p.m. Our apartment, Brasilia, Brazil

I'm typing this in what used to be my office, but is now really just an empty room with a laptop and a chair borrowed from another room. (My fancy rolling desk chair went in the sea freight.) If all goes according to plan, our airplane is wheels-up in just under 29 hours, at seven tomorrow evening.

However, we have gotten a strange and melancholy reminder that things don't go according to plan. The younger of our two cats, Jasperina, has simply disappeared. It happened after the air freight and sea freight boxes were gone, so we know that she wasn't packed into one of them, and that's at least some relief. But we can't make much sense of what did happen. Eleanore's choral group had a party on Saturday night, and we came back from it at about 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning. When we came in, both cats were lounging in the suddenly quite empty living room. We gave them both a pat on the head, and were glad to seem them at ease. It had been a hard day for both of them: their final pre-departure trip to the vet, and a bath each. We went to bed. The next morning, Sunday, at about nine, our older cat, The Woozle, came bounding into the bedroom -- alone. He was acting a bit odd and agitated, and it immediately struck me as odd that Jasperina wasn't with him. They always came into the bedroom together.

That was Sunday morning. This is Tuesday afternoon. We have seen no sign at all of Jasperina in that time. The apartment doors were all closed. The sliding-glass doors to the balcony were open -- but they have been for almost every day of the last two years. I did put a throw rug we had washed over the railing to dry. Maybe she scrambled up that and fell -- but there was no sign of it. We're on the second floor (but it amounts to being the third floor.) We have searched and searched and searched, at all hours of the day and night, inside and outside the building, and, of course, in the apartment. Nothing. Unless we get a miracle tonight, we have to leave without her.

We've made arrangements with a friend to keep checking with the building people to see if they have found her, but at this points we have to face the fact that the odds are getting near zero. By far the most likely explanation is that she, somehow, fell off the railing and dropped three stories. Either the fall killed her, and some person or animal removed the body at once, or she was badly injured, but managed to crawl some place out of the way before she died, or else she survived more or less unscathed and has wandered off to who knows where.

This strange and sad little mystery has put a distinct pall over our preparations for departure, but we have done all we could, and have to go on. But we're hoping for that miracle.

Wednesday, August 13, 1997, 10:20 p.m., International Airport, Sao Paulo, Brazil

Well, we never found Jasperina. On the other hand, the Woozle (our other cat) is having such a miserable time on this trip that I have a feeling he'd gladly trade places with her, wherever she is. We've done the Brasilia- Sao Paulo leg of the flight, and are now aboard the plane waiting to take off for the Sao Paulo-Miami leg.

The day was in large part made up of fiddly errands. I went into the embassy with Eleanore and spent a good part of the morning dropping off this piece of paper to get signed, turning in those ID cards, paying off this account, saying goodbye to all the folks at the embassy, dropping off the embassy loaner car we have been using since we handed over our real car to the fellow who bought it.

The plan, which worked quite well in the event, was for me to make my own way home from the embassy, and for Eleanore to get a ride in an official embassy car (with driver) who would then run us to the airport. Plan A was for me to grab a cab from the embassy, but I decided I had enough time in hand to walk up to the Residential Axis highway and catch a ride from there. The walk took me past the Cathedral, and I decided to pay a last visit to that strange and frustrating building.

The Cathedral is an avant-guard, impressionist building, roughly conical in shape. Vertical ribs of white concrete support the double layer of glass that forms the skin of the building -- clear glass on the outside, and stained glass on the inside. It sits on a terraced hill, so that what is the basement level on the main entrance side is ground level on the side facing a service road. The exposed cathedral wall facing this road is white tile -- and covered in graffiti, most of it in letters a foot or two high, and some of it dating back to the 1994 elections.

I found it astonishing that, during the two-plus years we were there, no one got that graffiti off -- never mind that a bunch of yobs saw fit to paint slogans on the side of the city Cathedral. (The Papal Nuncio, basically the headquarters or embassy of the Pope's personal representative in Brazil, is directly across the service road from the Cathedral, making it even more of a ghastly embarrassment to leave the Cathedral so disfigured.)

I walked up the slope of the low hill to the top and the front of the Cathedral. The Cathedral was dusty. The glass of the Cathedral's skin was dirty. The plaza around the Cathedral was made up of concrete slabs with spaces between them. Low, scruffy, half-dead, unmowed grass grew up between the slabs. A low concrete pillar stands on the plaza, commemorating the visit of the Pope in 1980. The letters of the inscription were not carved or cast, but instead were raised letters that had been attached to the concrete. Several of them had fallen off. It has been painted over several times with a cheap-looking institutional gun-metal grey paint. I went inside to get one last look at the interior. It is a lovely space, with the stained glass lit from the outside, a vast overhead interior space filled with air and light. But much of the stained glass was cracked and broken, especially on the north side of the building, which got the most light. I didn't notice it on this last visit, but other times I have heard the whole building clicking and clacking as the glass and its metal framing expanded and contracted in the hot tropical sun. Obviously they had not used materials that could handle the stresses, and some of that glass and metal had expanded and contracted one time too many. The whole place needed basic repairs, and it wasn't getting them. There was a big steel box, that came up to my waist, labeled for maintenance. I dropped a few coins in, and each one hit the bottom of the donation box with a loud clank that echoed across the whole Cathedral. Clearly there was very little else in that box. Three giant metal angels hang from the apex of the Cathedral, held by industrial-size steel cables. My eyes followed the cables up to their attachment points at the very top of the building. This one patch of solid ceiling had gotten a quick dab or two of white primer that didn't cover all of the ceiling, and did not match the color of the rest of the ceiling.

The Cathedral has other problems besides bad maintenance, bad construction, and bad material choice. It is, quite literally, a Cathedral designed by a Communist, Oscar Niemeyer. I don't know, but I assume, that as a good Communist, Niemeyer is also an atheist. He certainly wasn't well informed about Catholic ritual when he designed the Cathedral. It has no permanent confessionals. It is impossible to walk the Stations of the Cross, as they are not positioned around the edge of the Cathedral, but instead represented as a series of primativist paintings set into the marble on the wall of the gift shop.

Nothing thought out. Nothing done properly. Nothing taken care of, or cared for. It was a depressing little summing up of Brasilia. I left and headed for the bus stop.

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Friday, August 15, 1997, 8:37 AM, aboard American Airlines Flight 723, en route from Washington to Miami, Florida.

Just for the record, I have cheated just a bit. I finished the previous entry just now, as my palmtop computer's batteries died in Sao Paulo and I didn't have a chance to put in fresh ones for a while.

There's one odd psychological moment from Wednesday, the day we left Brasilia, that I wanted to mention before moving on. It came as I was walking toward the back gate of the embassy compound, something I had done many times before. But this was my Last Time. I was heading out the gates of the embassy, and not coming back. Suddenly, I felt as if I were in one of those jail-break or spy movies when the hero has to Get Out before he is discovered and the alarms start sounding and they release the dogs. I was reminded especially of the end of John Le Carre's Smiley's People, when Karla walks across the bridge from East Berlin to West. The gate just kept getting closer and closer -- and then I was at it, and the guard who couldn't care less about me chomping on a sandwich as he let me out. A silly little moment, and all in my head, but there it was.

Picking up where I left off, I walked to the main Axis highway and caught a bus home, where I did the last of the last of the packing and sorting and throwing away -- the kitty litter being pretty much the last thing to go. Our remaining cat, The Woozle, knew something was up when I kept putting him in the kitty litter, urging him to use it -- but he was not in the least interested. Eleanore came home, and changed from work clothes to traveling clothes, caught the Wooz and shoved him in his carrying box, and, with remarkably little ceremony, we left our home of the last two and a quarter years, and were in the embassy fan, headed for the airport.

There was nothing particularly remarkable about our trip back to the U.S. We switched planes in Sao Paulo, and then in Miami, making two fairly tight connections quite smoothly. The only unusual thing, and the toughest thing for both Eleanore and myself, was seeing how profoundly miserable and terrified The Woozle was. We offered him water at every stop, but he refused it and sat huddled in the back of his carrier. After all our stops and connections and customs stops and so on, we arrived at the newly rebuilt Washington National Airport, where my parents, Tom and Scottie Allen, were waiting to meet us. There was a brief moment of low comedy when The Woozle arrived at the official Oversized Luggage Delivery Chute. First a loud buzzer sounded, and a big yellow light flashed, and then, with a bump and a clump, two cat carriers (Woozle and some other cat's) appeared, sliding out the big rubber flap, like prizes dropping out of a game machine when somebody wins.

After the usual sorts of fussing and muddle about cars and parking and luggage and airports, we all piled into our car -- in point of fact, the car Eleanore had purchased from her brother Carl, that had been left waiting for us in Washington. We drove back to Bethesda, and spent the afternoon visiting with my parents. Carl had asked us to bring him a few things in Jamaica, so we went to the grocery store. Before heading to the grocery store, we swung by the Post Office and discharged a vital task. Standard operating procedure for anyone leaving the embassy in Brasilia is for that person to carry mail back, and deposit it in the first mail box possible. People send bill payments, tax payments, college applications, letters to old friends, and all sorts of other things, and we wanted to get the responsibility of all that important mail off our backs.

The mail deposited, it was off to the supermarket. I felt as if I were some poor sap of a Russian peasant being shown the glories of consumerism. We went to a perfectly ordinary supermarket in the middle of Bethesda, a store that I have shopped in a thousand times. But I'd been away a long time since I'd last been in a regular American supermarket. The number of choices, the madly extravagant number of products you could get was just absurd. Only the fact that we were heading out the door to Jamaica in the morning kept us from shoveling everything we saw into the cart. Next stop was Radio Shack, to collect a gizmo for Carl's television, and then back home to a terrific dinner of fresh corn, noodles and pesto made with fresh-picked basil, and strawberries shortcake for dessert.

We sat up and talked a bit more over dinner and afterwards. One happy surprise was that Woozle seemed to get over all his fear and anxiety within about four hours. He was happily lumbering around the house exploring all the nooks ad crannies, and took to my parents immediately. We had expected him to be hiding under the beds for days.

It had been a long day and both Eleanore and I were nearly dead on our feet, and the next day would start early, so we turned in about 10:30, and slept like logs -- until the alarm went off at 5:00 am the next day.

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Saturday, August 16, 1997, 2:55, Kingston, Jamaica

Getting here was a trifle exciting, though not excessively so. When that alarm went off at 5:00 yesterday, we levered ourselves out of bed (Eleanore moving faster than I did) and starting on the panicky job of unpacking all the bits we wanted to leave in Washington, while repacking all the bits we would need for the remainder of the trip. Fortunately, while packing out of Brasilia, we had designated one suitcase as our not-wanted-on-travels bags, so mostly this was odds and ends that had gotten into the wrong suitcase. Then, running just a trifle late, it was into the car and back to National Airport, from whence we had come a mere 20 or so hours before.

There is a very sensible rule in my family, one that reduces panic and worry a great deal: whoever it is that is actually going to take the bus or the train or the plane is the one that does the driving to the station or the airport. That way, the car leaves when the traveler is ready. That way, any mistakes in navigation or driving are the traveler's fault. It keeps the number of fights and apologies over missed flights caused by dumb driving down to a workable minimum. It was this reason for the rule that very nearly came into play yesterday morning.

There are three or four basic routes between my parents' house and National Airport. One of them involves getting to MacArthur Boulevard and taking it down to where it meets Canal Road, and from there to Key Bridge. Having started a bit late, I was driving fairly briskly down MacArthur to Canal. When we got to the intersection, we discovered Canal Road was closed. We backtracked and tried another route onto Canal. It too was closed. We tried for a still more northerly route to the road, and finally, that let us onto Canal -- but we had to head north, away from the airport, and take Chain Bridge, and then drive further north to get onto the George Washington Parkway, before doubling back and heading south for National Airport. We got to the airport, tumbled out of the car, said good-bye to my parents, and rushed for the check-in counter. Mom rushed after us a minute or so later -- I still had the car keys.

In the event, we made it to the flight, and made our connection in Miami with no real problems -- there was even time enough for me to buy a cinnamon bun. Our flight to Jamaica was smooth and uneventful. When we landed at Kingston, however, my first question to Eleanore as we looked out the airplane window was "Where's the airport?" As Jamaica is a fairly popular tourist destination, I had figured on Kingston having a reasonably up-to-date airport. It was, instead, a collection of low concrete and tin-roof buildings that got the job done, but were a little the worse for wear.

Eleanore's brother Carl used his embassy ID to meet us in the Customs hall, rather than outside it. He ushered us through the formalities, and got us clear pretty fast. Outside the arrivals hall was where Kingston really began. Our fellow-travelers had been both black and white, but all of them had appeared reasonably well-to-do -- well off enough that I had been surprised, given Jamaica's reputation for poverty. Well, that was my mistake. Of course it would be the well-off who could afford a trip to the U.S. Their poorer countrymen were all waiting -- for what, I am not sure, right outside the customs hall. It was not a large sea of faces, but it was a sea for all of that -- and every face black. The guide books say that the island is about 85 percent of pure African descent, but on the drive from the airport to Carl's apartment in Kingston it sure looked like it was closer to 99.9 percent. Again, I should have known better. On this island, white people equals rich people (though there are rich blacks as well) and rich people stay off the street, and behind the walls of their fancy houses.

The numbers say that Brazil has the most unequal distribution of income in the world, and we certainly saw plenty of poverty there. But we lived in Brasilia which was more or less expressly designed to keep poor people out. They haven't worked that trick in Kingston. The poverty is there, in your face, on every side. Rickety shacks, worn-out buses and trucks, people in shabby clothes. And yet there was tremendous liveliness all about -- people coming and going, buying and selling, visiting with friends.

As we went further up into the hills around Kingston, it was almost possible to chart wealth against altitude. The higher up we went, the posher the houses and the better-kept the streets. Tar-paper hovels gave way to gated communities. We arrived at Carl's apartment, to be greeted by his girlfriend Joan, who had been there two and a half weeks and was due to leave the next day.

We were greeted by someone -- or rather a pair of some things, that were likewise familiar. The State Department furnishes apartments for officers all over the world, and it buys in bulk. Carl had a loveseat and a couch that were, except for the fabric color and pattern, exactly like the loveseat and couch we had left behind in Brasilia, which were exactly like the ones in the apartments of all our American friends (and our Brit friends as well, for that matter -- they bought U.S. furniture for Latin American posts), which were exactly like the ones we saw in officers' houses and apartments in Rio, Sao Paulo, London, and so on. As a great man once said, it was deja vu all over again.

We all said our hellos and had lunch, but Carl had to head back to work, and so Joan and Eleanore and I had a good long visit. I took a quick shower and a mid-length nap. Carl came home, and we all piled back into his four-wheel-drive and headed up to Ivor's Guest House on Jack's Hill, on the outskirts of Kingston. The altitude-equals-money formula held for every patch of ground that claimed a view of Kingston and the bay, but the moment the rough, pot-holed, narrow road went around a curve and cut off any sight of the water, poverty kicked back in -- rickety shacks, cars and trucks that had been abandoned long ago and stripped not long after, barefoot kids playing soccer on a rare patch of near-level ground.

But then we turned the corner again, and went up the genteel, well-kept private drive that led to Ivor's. We had a very nice high tea there, with all of Kingston -- the rich and the poor, the good and the bad, the sea, the sky, and the land, laid out before us. We walked the grounds after tea, and then drove back down the hustle and bustle of the town below. Eleanore turned in early, but Joan, Carl and I made a run to the local grocery store, which was an American grocery store seen through a strange sort of prism. Probably ninety percent of the items on the shelves were American imports. It was disconcerting to see products and brands I hadn't seen much of in the last two and a half years in such an unfamiliar context. The store had a better selection than a comparable Brazilian store, but it was unmistakably shabby and run down around the edges. Our purchases in hand, we headed home.

More out of the desire to fiddle with gadgets than because it needed doing that moment, I set to work trying to get Carl's brand-new, high-tech, super-dooper combination TV-VCR-FM radio-clock to work. After a bit of experimenting, I managed to get two or three TV stations to come in, albeit rather fuzzily. One of the stations was showing the hit American show E.R. -- another incongruous encounter with something familiar. The show had been on in Brazil, and Eleanore and I had often watched it. I kept looking for the subtitles. Throughout the day, Eleanore and I had felt the same strange confusion. We were very clearly in a quite foreign land --certainly much more foreign than England or Canada, and, since we were long since used to Brazil, much more foreign to us than Brazil -- and yet everything was in English. We kept expecting not to understand what was said or written, and yet understanding.

As getting an actual TV broadcast, as opposed to a video tape, to appear on the screen was quite a novelty for Carl, he and Joan settled in to watch the show. Dog-tired myself, it was off to bed. That was yesterday.

This morning we set ourselves a much more leisurely pace. The big job of the day was to get Joan off to the airport, but we wanted Joan and Carl to be able to say their goodbyes without an audience. We decided to head out to the botanical gardens if we could find them and they looked open, then head to a local fruit market. The gardens were a bust. By the time we finally found the entrance, we had run out of time to see them, and so pressed on to the market, which was much more successful. The main hall for the fruit market was hidden behind a worse-than-scruffy set of small shops selling things that few people would likely want. Inside was a big, dark, hot hall full of fruit sellers, and produce of all descriptions, all of it fresh and good. We bought mangoes, a coconut, avocados, and a few other things. We stopped on the way home for Jerk Chicken (that being the slightly unfortunate name for a terrific sort of spicy chicken) and then Carl dropped us off at the apartment before taking off with Joan for the apartment. We have spent the afternoon lolling around the apartment, and I have spent a good part of it getting this journal up to date. We have various plans for this evening and the next couple of days, but for now, that just about brings me up to date.

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Tuesday August 19, 1997,11:57 A.M., Kingston, Jamaica.

Things have been busy enough since my last entry that I'm going to break the last three days down into day-by-day entries.

Evening of Saturday, August 16, 1997. Picking up where I closed yesterday's entry, on Saturday night we went off to have dinner and hear some music at Redbones, the Blues Cafe -- an open-air restaurant. It was a lovely night, the food was quite good, and the music good, though not exceptional. But there was something splendid about listening to the old standards under the sky, with an occasional shooting star going past overhead. We had a busy day planned for Sunday, and so we left about 11:00 p.m. and headed home to bed.

Sunday, August 17, 1997. We got up at about 8:30 or so and threw a few odds and ends in overnight bags. We had a leisurely breakfast at home, and Eleanore made sandwiches for the trip. We climbed into Carl's Jeep and headed off into the hills, up the tortuously twisting B1 Road. It was quite badly eroded and washed out in places, and nerve-wrackingly narrow in many of the same places. Goats were browsing on the side of the road in many places, and lying down in the middle of it for a nice rest in others. After about an hour of jouncing along the road, we arrived and passed through a training center for the Jamaican Self Defence Forces. Flat ground was at enough of a premium that the training center and the road had to share: the road went right through, and merged completely into, the parade ground and exercise yard for the recruits. We rolled right through as the recruits went through their calisthenics. We went onward a bit further and got to Hollywell National Park, where we hiked up Mount Oakley over a steep but pleasant trail. Just at the start of the trail was a big, important-looking sign that said that the trail was closed for renovation, and that we should not go up it. Eleanore and I pointed this sign out to Carl, but he said he had run into one of the park's trustees recently. They had talked about the trail (which Carl had seen on a previous visit) and she had told him that the repairs were complete, and they were merely awaiting the opening ceremony. She said he should go ahead and hike the trail and not worry about it, and that is exactly what we did.

The trail was in excellent repair, and when we got to the top (more than a bit out of breath) we were rewarded with spectacular views of both the north and south shores of the island. Jamaica is about fifteen miles wide at that point, and we were about a third of the way inland from the south. We admires some lovely little birds and butterflies near the peak, and then made our way down -- where we were met by an extremely annoyed park ranger (who was dressed in quite military-looking camouflage fatigues and army boots). He point out the three-foot-tall sign we have ignored, and gave us a mild chewing-out for going up, and had a few choice words for the park trustee who had muscled in on park authority. But he let us off with a slap on the wrist, and we walked back the last few hundred yards to where the Jeep was parked.

An eco-tourism operation in Port Antonio, on the north coast of the island, had set up an interesting diversion for suicidal masochistic overachievers in tip-top physical condition. They drove a collection of mountain bikes up to the park, where we were, then drove in the would- be bike riders in a bus, and let then saddle up and bike down the mountain. As the road they would travel was in extremely bad condition, very steep, full of blind curves, and went up nearly as much as it went down, and was full of such obstacles as oncoming and overtaking traffic, goats, dogs, random passers-by, boulders, and what-have-you, it didn't seem the most prudent way to spend a Saturday morning. But the tour operators had been getting the bikes ready when we first arrived, and the riders were just getting back as we prepared to depart. A woman had also materialized from somewhere and was setting out fruit to sell. (How she got there, and where she got the fruit, I have no idea.) We bought some oranges and a June Plum, which had an interesting flavor and texture, but didn't overwhelm any of us. While wandering the area and noshing our fruit, I nearly invented a disaster for us, and Carl averted it. He noticed my wallet -- full of U.S. and Jamaican cash, credit cards, IDs, and what-have-you, lying on the ground about ten feet from where I had just sat down. That was a close one.

After we finished our fruit, it was time to finish our fruit and press on up the B1 Road toward the north coast. Most of the rest of the drive was more of the same, and more so -- possibly the toughest driving I had ever seen -- and I wasn't the one doing it. We jounced and bounced and crept and swerved and rolled along, threading our way along any number of switchbacks, and driving through tiny towns that were more or less hanging off the side of the road. It was a grueling drive. By the time we finally emerged onto flatter ground, and then stopped for a break at Buff Bay, Carl had decided that drive wasn't one he'd be willing to do again any time soon -- once every six months, tops.

Buff Bay was a raggedy little town, with a pretty, if trash-strewn little bay, the shore made up of rounded fist-sized rocks, rather than sand. And, of course, a half-dozen or so goats were wandering about as well. It was a pretty spot, with the blue, blue, water and the blue, blue sky -- but a little work collecting the trash would have improved it considerably. After our break, we turned east and headed down the A4, the coast road. The road was vastly improved, but still rough in places, and it took about half an hour or so to make the run to Port Antonio, a picturesque but run-down coastal town. Our destination was the Dragon Bay Villa resort, a mile or so beyond the town. We were able to check in at the desk when we arrived, but our rooms weren't available, so went down to the beach for a dip and a loll by the seashore. The resort vaguely resembled the Village as seen in the old TV series The Prisoner, with handsome little building running down a steep hillside to the shore. There was a fair-sized lawn at the bottom of the hill (plenty big enough for croquet, though they'd need to do some landscaping) a chessboard about fifteen feet on a side, with three-foot-tall pieces to match, and a perfect little crescent-moon beach. A little stream ambled out of the hills and made its way to the sea by going right through the beach. The inevitable beachside restaurant and bar completed the picture. Eleanore and I went for a quick dip, and then found places in the shade of a tree and relaxed. Carl decided to take a swim, and headed up to see about the room not longer after we had gotten there.

We got up to the room to discover Carl was in the midst of a well-deserved nap, so Eleanore and I headed back down to the seaside restaurant to get a little something. We each had a complicated fruit-juice drink, and I had an overprices and undercooked but still rather good hamburger. (I always feel a bit guilty having something as American as a hamburger whilst overseas, but on the other hand, except for 20 hours or so in the Washington area, I had been out of the States for nine months. A real hamburger was a real treat -- though I was silly to pay nine bucks for it. Still, it was comparatively cheap next to the rest of what was on offer.)

. Back up to the room (sorry, villa) to loll and read and nap a bit ourselves. What we had actually rented was an upper-level suite with bedroom, sitting room, and self-contained kitchenette, along with a separate lower level that was just a room and bath. There were the usual sort of hotel doors that can be latched from either side, connecting not just the upper and lower levels, but the "villa" next to us. By locking and unlocking various combinations of doors, the suites could be mixed and matched to accommodate various-sized parties. The air-conditioner in the upper suite didn't cool the air, the locks on the outer doors of the lower suite didn't work, and neither room had hot water, but what the hell. The place was beautiful, and we weren't there for long.

Carl woke up, and we headed off to the very nearby Blue Lagoon restaurant, set in (well, actually, on piers over the edge of) the Blue Lagoon itself. And yes, that's where Brook Shields swam nude in the stupid film of the same name. I never got it straight if they renamed the place after the film came out, or what.

Dinner at the Blue Lagoon tasted good, once it got to the table -- but it certainly took its time getting there. I had the dish describes as "A Little Bit of Everything," which meant a little portion of everything else on the menu -- jerk chicken, jerk pork, a seafood or two, and so on. As the only light at our table was from a very dim candle, I can't be more definite than that. I couldn't really see much of what I was eating. I can report there was plenty of okra served with it, however. The okra tasted pretty much like all the other okra I have ever had. More's the pity. But for all of that, the setting was splendid -- a ramshackle open-air restaurant directly over the clear, dark water, with a full Moon rising over the trees, and Saturn exactly abreast the Moon as well.

It having been a pretty full day, and there being every reason to expect an even fuller on the morrow, back we went to the hotel, and to bed.

Monday, August 18, 1997.

Eleanore and I wandered out of bed at about 8:30, and stepped out of our room into the main room of the villa to find Carl up and dressed. We got up and organized and out the door by about 9:00, and off to the Bonnie View Hotel, just outside Port Antonio. The driveway up to the Bonnie View seemed to be at about a 45 degree angle, but the Jeep handled it with panache. We parked and walked up to a terrace overlooking Port Antonio, Navy Island (which Errol Flynn owned for a while) and a whole stretch of gorgeous green coastline, blue water, and misty-blue sky. The hotel itself was a bit ramshackle, the food was good, not great, but more or less reasonably priced, and if the restaurant service wasn't quite as leisurely as at the Blue Lagoon, we didn't exactly feel rushed, either. But all those are quibbles, and pale into insignificance compared to the privilege of sitting in the midst of that view. The turkey vultures, locally known as John Crow, wheeled over our heads as we ate, riding the thermals over the island. It was quite a spot.

We left the Bonnie View and stopped for gas, and then headed out in search of the Nonsuch caves. To say the tangle of roads to the caves was not much to speak of would be saying far too much, but after asking our way too or three times, and after jouncing and twisting and turning a bit up the road, and dodging the obligatory goats, we got up to a discreet sign directing us to the Nonsuch caves. There was a ticket-seller's booth with a bored-looking woman sitting in it, and a lethally dour-looking, heavy-set older woman sitting outside, and, about ten feet away, a old man and a young girl watching the other two. It was pretty obvious that we were the first customers of the day, and that our arrival was seen as being more an inconvenience than a cause for rejoicing. Carl dickered over the ticket prices for a while, and paid for three entries. The guide (for such the heavy-set woman proved to be), collected her flashlight, lumbered to her feet with an ill-disguised lack of enthusiasm, and led us toward a tree-lined walk. As we started toward the walkway, a ferociously loud chain-saw started up nearby, and just as we reached the walk, a good-sized tree, at least twenty-five feet talk, dropped to the ground, falling to the left as the guide walked to the left. As best we could tell, she didn't even turn to look. She led us to the base of the walk, and then had us wait for a minute while she ducked around the corner and switched on the cave's lights.

She led us down a smaller path and into the cave entrance, and proceeded to give us the official tour in as bored and perfunctory manner as possible. "This is the entrance. The entrance when the cave was first discovered was a three-foot hole. With expert consultation, it was decided to enlarge the entrance to what you now see. This first chamber was filled with mud. You can see (indicating line on cave wall with desultory gesture of flashlight) how high the mud was before it was excavated. There are many features in the cave. Stalactites and stalagmites. Stalactites grow from the top down. Stalagmites grow from the floor. Follow me to the next chamber. Use your imagination and you can see that formation looks like a woman with a turban. That one looks like a bishop. That one is the pope." All of this delivered in a completely flat, uninterested monotone. The cave itself was nice enough, and the disturbed bats fluttered around our heads in the approved manner. It was plain that a lot of damage had been done to the cave in the process of putting in stairs, lighting, and level floors, but still, there it was.

Once we were done with the cave tour, the same guide led us to a sort of deluxe look-out station, from which one could see a grand vista of all Port Antonio, and a good stretch of the coast to either side. It was a splendid view, but we were cutting things a bit close, and had only a bit more than a half-hour to get back to the hotel and check out, or else we'd have to pay for an extra day. The road leading to and from the caves was supposed to be a loop road that rejoined the A4, the main highway, if you kept going in the same direction. We took the half of the loop we hadn't taken before, on the theory it couldn't be much worse. In the event, it was much better, far better maintained -- and work crews regrading it and doing other repairs as we passed. Compared to the route we had taken going up, the route down was smooth as glass -- and, as an extra bonus, rejoined the A4 only about a hundred yards from the access road to the hotel.

It was the usual sort of all-hands panicked fire-drill of checking out of a hotel in a rush, complicated by all the stairs we needed to get up and down, along with the fact that we needed to change into our swim suits for the next event, and keep some things with us while we checked others at the hotel. Finally, we got everything more or less under control, got the room paid for, and headed back down to the beach for our snorkeling expedition.

It was at this point that I ran into a very slight bit of trouble: I have really big feet -- U.S. size 14, which is a metric size 46 or so. They had a lot of flippers to rent, but the only ones I could come close to prying onto my feet were the only ones with adjustable straps. By spooling the straps out further than intended, I could make them long enough to hold my feet in. Unfortunately, they were clearly marked SMALL on the bottom, and there was no way to adjust the side-to-side fit. So, with flippers that had foot-holes nearly long enough, and nowhere near wide enough, and a cheap-looking face mask and flippers, I was more or less equipped. Eleanore had an identical face mask and better-quality, better-fitting flippers. Carl, who is after all down here for a while, had wisely purchased good quality equipment before leaving the U.S. More or less ready, we went off to the shore to wait for the boat that would carry us out.

To make a very slightly naughty confession, I was rewarded at this point by a slightly illicit pleasure -- the sight of an extremely lovely young lady doing a spot of topless sunbathing. Yes, I looked, while trying not to ogle, and trying not to have my wife slug me, but there she was, and she was worth the looking at. After a brief wait, the boat arrived, bringing the moment of slight controversy to an end. The three from our party went aboard, together with a couple in their fifties who might have been German or Dutch. The dive master and two of his co-workers made up the rest of the party. The dive master ran his two buddies over to the house they were staying in the next cove over -- an luxury villa -- a real villa -- perched right on the water's end. A very nice piece of house-sitting duty to draw. The dive master ran us out to Monkey Island (though the dive master didn't think there had ever been any monkeys on it). Then it was over the side for we five tourists.

I had done some swimming-pool snorkeling as a kid, but I hadn't had a snorkel on in years and years -- maybe decades, and I had never snorkeled in open water. But it would appear to be one of those riding-a-bicycle things, as I didn't have any trouble knowing what to do. What I did have trouble was keeping the fins from flying off, and getting the mouthpiece to form a seal with my mouth. I was more than a little bit too big for the kiddie equipment.

But these were quite minor problems, and I'd have had to try pretty hard to get into any real trouble. I concentrated on enjoying the sights as much as I could, and on my equipment problems as little as I could. The reefs were every bit as busy and full of life as they are advertised to be. All sorts of little fishes of every color and shape darted among the corals, and the corals themselves were complicated and varied enough all by themselves. Everything had a slightly eerie bluish cast to it, caused, by the water filtering the red out of the sunlight. The water was quite clear, if a little turbid, allowing about ten or twelve feet of good visibility. It was a great first time out, despite the silly equipment trouble. When I go do it again, I'm make sure to buy my own gear first, and make sure all the bits fit.

The German-ish woman was the first one to get back aboard the boat, which loitered in the vicinity while we were diving. I reached the point of diminishing returns on getting my flippers back on, draining the leaked-in water from my mask, and struggling to get my mouthpiece adjusted. When I got to the point when I was spending more time putting things back on than I was looking, I gave up and got back on the boat too -- secretly glad that I hadn't been enough of a wimp to get back on first. The other three bold explorers came aboard almost immediately, one, two, three, making me suspect that the desire not to appear to be a wimp had likewise kept all of them out a bit longer than they would have otherwise. Everyone had had a good time, and enjoyed the sights, but we were a bunch of dumb tourists, after all. Better to be sensible dumb tourists who avoid getting tired and doing something tiresome like drowning or getting cramps or whatever.

We headed back to shore, with a slight detour over to the Blue Lagoon Restaurant, which, it would appear, had arranged for the dive master to do a little shilling amongst his clientele. He did a quite spin around the lagoon, told us the restaurant was a real nice place, and seemed a bit deflated by the news that we had eaten there the night before. What's the point of promoting a product after the customer's already bought it? From there, it was back to Dragon's Bay, where it developed that my topless bathing beauty had gone off duty. However, her place had been taken by another. Unfortunately, the replacement was just pulling on a very sensible tee-shirt top as our boat came dropped anchor about twenty feet out and I fell overboard as I tried to get out.

Carl had arranged for us to borrow a room just long enough to shower and change, which we did, albeit with a certain amount of muddle about what bags had been left where and who had what. In the end, we got it all sorted out and left the hotel in reasonable good order.

We left the hotel and headed east again on the A4, heading for a town (though it was barely large enough to qualify for the term "town") named Boston, which, if I have this straight, is one of the places that claims to be where jerk chicken, jerk port, et. al., were invented. No doubt there was more of it that we didn't see, but from the road, Boston looked to be nothing but jerk centres, as such places are called. All of them open-air, some looking respectably permanent, but most looking totally ramshackle, and appearing to have been built out of scrap lumber. We ordered jerk chicken and jerk pork and had lunch, and then drove on, non-stop, around the eastern end of the island, staying on the A4 coast road as it wrapped around the island and brought us back to Kingston. We stopped for ice cream at Devon House (a tourist attraction in Kingston, about which more later) and then drove home. That just about brought a long day to a close. After a bit of unwinding after the long day, and playing a vicious hand or two of hearts, it was bed time.

I have started a new journal file, which commences with the next entry. Click on Summer Journal Part II to keep reading. Most recent revision: August 25, 1997.

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