There's No Place Like Home
Dorothy had it right. The last several days have confirmed something I've always expected, but have never been able to verify.
Let me set the context. Amy and I will be celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary this year. Several months ago, we decided we really wanted to do something special, something we'd never forget.
Our discussions led us to the idea of a cruise, something my parents have been suggesting for years.
We found a 10-night Caribbean cruise, departing from Baltimore, which made several stops through the western Caribbean.
The ports of call beckoned like a travel brochure; Key West, Cozumel, Belize, and the Bahamas.
Your humble correspondent was really sweating it, though. As a Navy sailor, I had a real problem with motion sickness.
Yeah, yeah, I know, how do you serve in the Navy if you get seasick? Remember, though, I was a submariner, and once you descend, there is no sensation of motion.
The second bogeyman we had to deal with was an extended General Assembly session. The whole tiresome slots versus taxes debate was pushing the legislative agenda further back, threatening a gubernatorial extension.
Fortunately, we did buy cruise insurance, and even more fortunately, session was not extended.
So, the work of the General Assembly, while far from complete in solving Maryland's problems, did approve a balanced budget, freeing us for our anniversary celebration.
The seasickness problem, so prevalent 20-some years ago, never really materialized. Just to be safe, Bonine once a day kept the problem at bay (sounds like a commercial).
Key West, the southernmost point of the U.S., was as beautiful as I'd imagined it would be. Seeing Ernest Hemingway's home, the place where he wrote The Snows of Kilimanjaro and For Whom the Bell Tolls , was a special treat for this aspiring writer. Walking past Sloppy Joe's Bar on Duval Street, you could almost see him sitting at the bar, drink in hand, as the bar staff aggressively protected what little freedom he could find.
Next stop was Cozumel, and this is where the real story of this cruise begins. Amy and I had purchased a beach excursion, sort of an all-inclusive package deal.
We met our tour guide, along with about 40 other people, and boarded a bus for the 30-minute ride to the ferry dock. My wife and I were glued to the window of the bus, and not because of the beauty of the Caribbean Sea. We were shocked by the abject poverty of this beach resort town.
Cozumel, known for white sand beaches, clear blue water, and hot sun, may well be all those things to the casual tourist.
To a careful observer, Cozumel is a paradox; beautiful to an outsider, but depressing and filthy for those who make it their home.
Street after street, we saw shacks and block apartments, litter-strewn yards, and junk surrounding humble little home sites. Residents not fortunate enough to directly benefit from the tourism industry sat on wooden boxes, drinking from bottles and jars.
In some areas, chickens appear to outnumber people, at least in and along the streets. Sure, the beach was phenomenal. I don't regret the decision to take the excursion at all. I still couldn't help but think about what I saw, and the plight of most of the people of this island.
Next stop was Belize, another island, this one a sovereign nation. Our excursion here was to the Mayan ruins at the Temple of Altun Ha, an archeological site known for its importance as a religious center of the Mayan world.
In its heyday, Altun Ha boasted a community of priests and shaman. Common Mayans would also have lived there, but only to serve the needs of the religious leaders.
Amy and I learned much about the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, their worship and culture.
Again, just like Cozumel, the experience was impacted by the drive to and from the location. If I thought Cozumel was depressing, Belize blew it out of the water.
When you hear the words "Third World," images are immediately conjured up. Trust me, Belize is Third World personified.
Narrow, trash-strewn streets, old two (and sometimes three and four) tone Volkswagen bugs, and metal shack lean-to homes dominate the hot, dry landscape.
Little children, dressed in rags, wave forlornly by the side of the road, and you don't know whether their wave is genuine or practiced so as to generate sympathy and donations.
In two places, wild fires blazed out of control across the dry savannah. The guide, Chris, regretfully described how fires like these would consume thousands of acres and hundreds of homes, but when we passed the Belize City fire station a few minutes later, the trucks sat in their bays.
At $4 per gallon of gas, the fire fighters have to make tough choices about when to put the trucks on the road.
Like Cozumel, I don't regret having taken the excursion. I will never forget the sites we saw, and I will work even harder to express joy and thanks for the blessings that fill my life.
The next time I hear some chronic complainer fuss about their tough circumstances, I'll remember those sweet little Belizean faces waving and smiling at us as we drove by.
Finally, on our arrival back in the Port of Baltimore, I was leaning on the aft rail watching the ship maneuvered into the pier. An older woman and her husband were standing next to us, taking in the same sites. She commented that it was too bad that our arrival had to be at such an ugly port. She was comparing the port facility in Baltimore to the Caribbean ports we visited.
Her reference was intended to contrast the rows of shiny new tractors, automobiles, and hundreds of thousands of metal shipping containers with the sparkling blue water and brightly colored vendor stalls.
I smiled and told her that each of the islands we had visited would gladly trade their pretty port facilities for a port that was brimming with commerce, a testament to a strong economy and real economic opportunity. She thanked me for reminding her, and we all expressed our gratitude for being back in "Kansas" again.