EXPLORING THE NATURAL TREASURES OF THE LOWER CARIBBEAN & ORINOCO RIVER - aboard the M/V YORKTOWN CLIPPER

Another Wendel family trip on board the Yorktown Clipper. This time we're all going to the lower Caribbean and the Orinoco. It took two days of tension and travel reach the Yorktown Clipper. This made a poor start to an eagerly anticipated repeat of last year's trip.

All the tension and an extra day of travel were courtesy of American Airlines. In the several hours they required for check-in, we missed our flight to Miami, hence missed our connection to Curaço. Coming back to the ship was like returning home. There are several familiar faces here, including the hotel manager, Scott Gahagan. Both Nathan and Natalie seem quite at home. Nathan had his usual linear 2-hour breakfast in the Observation Lounge this morning.

The ship left Curaçao at midnight and arrived at Bonaire around 6 a.m. A shower greeted us, and the Sun, this morning. As the shower passed by, the harbor scene was framed with a brilliant rainbow, at times doubled. We have checked out our swim fins; Donna, Chris, and Nathan are off on the Samur for snorkeling at Little Bonaire; Beth has run and is now showering; Jodie and I are waiting for Natalie to wake up so we can go on a little shore excursion. Beth, Randall, Jodie, and I will snorkel this afternoon.

Randall seems to have won ready acceptance from those for whom this is a first meeting. And Nathan, who was the first of the tribe to meet him, was quite upset to have to snorkel with his parents rather than with Auntie Beth and Randall.

1/9/97

Snorkeling was fabulous!

We traveled about an hour from the ship on a genuine copy of a Chinese junk built in Thailand, part of the time under sail and part using the motor. We anchored very close to the shore and swam over a coral garden.

I just can't describe the fish. The brilliance and variety of their colors defies description. When I see things like this, the whole question of evolution vs. creationism wells up in my mind. I can't quite envision the Divine Creator sitting down at his drawing board and saying, "Let's see, I think I will make a fish that is all black and vertically symmetrical. But that's a bit dull. How about a neon stripe right where the dorsal and ventral fins join the body?"

But, on the other hand, it seems improbable that this incredible but systematic diversity could occur by random combinations over the eons. I have that same problem with the human body. It offends my ego to think that all things, including the human body with its magnificent brain is the result of a cosmic crap shoot conducted over the ages. However, if God set out to build man, why such complexity? Again we picture him at his cosmic drawing board. "And I think that I'll use minute muscles to control blood pressure but they will be activated by an enzyme."

Enough philosophy. Last night was the "gala" Captain's Welcome Cocktail Party and Dinner. All were elegantly dressed and, in keeping with the occasion, lobster was the primary dinner selection. Seating in the dining room is open, that is, there is no assigned seating. Because of the size of our group, eight, we have a table assigned for us. I don't know if that is a courtesy to us, allowing us to sit together, or a courtesy to the rest of the passengers.

We departed for Isla Margarita in the midst of dinner, at 8 pm, so Dramamine was also on many menus. Both Nathan and Natalie had some before dinner so Natalie went to sleep before dinner and Nathan barely made it thru dinner. Nathan woke at 7 this morning and I haven't seen Natalie yet.

1/11

Thursday was spent at sea, on the way to Isla Margarita. These days at sea are pretty low impact. Arise at a fairly civilized 7 am with the first lecture after 9. Lunch at 12:30 followed by an ice cream social. Another lecture in the afternoon, cocktail hour with, of course, hors d'oeuvres, dinner at 7 and another lecture after dinner.

We arrived at Isla Margarita pretty early and the wake-up call for those flying off to Angel Falls/Camp Canaima at 5:30. We awoke at 7, went for a walk about this part of town, then went swimming. After lunch and siesta the whole group hired a couple of cabs and ventured into downtown Porlamar.

This island is part of Venezuela and owes its current success to its status as a duty-free port, primarily for Venezuela. With some trepidation we loaded into two cabs and set off. The first group arrived at the center of town but the second cab was no where to be seen. We weren't sure that their cabby knew where we were headed. However, they showed up in a few minutes.

The streets were bustling with many vendors set up along the sidewalks. We walked and shopped a lot but bought little. Didn't take advantage of the duty free shopping. Our cabs were due back at the drop-off point at 5 pm so we made our way there around 20 of. At 15 of they both showed up and hauled us back to the ship in Pampatar. Jodie and Chris indulged in some heavy duty bargaining with a pearl vendor at the ship gangplank.

The Angel Falls day trippers returned starting about 6:30. The group in the first plane saw part of the falls, the second didn't, however they seemed to have enjoyed the visit to the jungle. I guess since most of them showered upon returning to the ship they were somewhat dressed for dinner. We weren't

The Yorktown Clipper departed during dinner. After dinner there was a video shown in the dining room. Most viewers fell asleep.

Today has been another at-sea eating day. The early bird breakfast was truncated at 8:30 so that the staff could begin preparing for the champagne brunch at 11:00 am. This was preceded by pre brunch hors d'oeuvres and champagne in the lounge. We had to wait until 2 to eat again. After lunch there was a dessert buffet in the Observation Lounge. With all this eating it is a shame that the seas have been so rough.

Chris arranged a private bridge tour for himself, me, and the kids at 8 am. Natalie slept through it. It was much better than our visit on the last cruise. On that one I couldn't see anything because of the number of people. The bridge is fairly small. Manual steering is accomplished by a lever, not the more traditional wheel. Most of the time the ship is under the control of the autopilot. The addition of a satellite telephone link allows the ship to access the Internet for news and weather, and to communicate with the home office. Passengers may make telephone calls for $4.50 a minute, much better than any other ship I have been on.

At the Captain's Welcome Dinner, Capt. Dan Ahrens had a neat way of covering for his apparent youth. He announced that he has a letter from his mother allowing him to be a ship captain.

We have had grey, rolling seas all day that turn angry at our passage. They well up around us as if they resent our presence.

1/13

After our exciting day at sea we reached Tobago and anchored in Man of War Bay, at the village of Charlottesville. The paid activities here included an island tour, a walk in a rain forest, and snorkeling. We opted for snorkeling, with the exception of Jodie who took Natalie.

A tropical rain forest must be in the tropics, that is, between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. It should have an average rainfall of 80" and an average temperature of 80o. At least 80% of the nutrients are tied up in the biomass, which is why slash and burn farms fail after a few years. Fungus converts the fallen debris into sugars that other plants may utilize. Areas in a rain forest, ground or undergrowth, canopy, emergent.

Epiphytic load accounts for 25% of the fallen branches and trees. An epiphyte is a plant that derives its moisture and nutrients from the rain or air and grows on the surface of another plant. There is no wind for pollination so the plants must rely on insects and animals.

Anyway, Tobago is the home to the oldest nature preserve, established in 1776. Since we were snorkeling we didn't see it. Those who did said it was muddy. We were the last ashore and boarded some tiny Japanese van which carried us up and down some very steep winding roads, all the while driving on the wrong side of the road. Tobago was once a British possession.

We arrived at a lovely resort at Speyside and boarded a glass-bottomed boat. It cruised over the various coral beds and then tied up to a float. Snorkeling was fabulous. Hard to believe that there are such vivid, beautiful fish with exquisite variety. In addition, the corals, both hard and soft, populate the ocean floor as if planted by some landscape gardener.

The hard coral are a symbiotic relationship between the coral animals and a plant, zoozantheli (I have no idea how to spell that). The plant uses sunlight to produce food which the coral consumes. The coral provides a home for the zoo. The soft coral look like plants weaving in the tide. Unlike the hard coral, they have no symbiotic relationship, don't build permanent structures, and disappear when the die.

We left Tobago in early evening and bounced all night long. The ship finally settled down a bit early this morning. It is now entering the Orinoco river delta. We just picked up the pilot. After getting further into the river we will drop a zodiac for the naturalists to scout out areas for exploration this afternoon.

1/16

We anchored opposite a temporary village approximately 40 miles up the river. Technically speaking, we aren't in the Oronoco any more but in a smaller tributary. Our turn out in the zodiac was scheduled for late in the afternoon. Since customs clearance came quickly, we got out earlier than schedule - good, since our original trip would have been cut short by darkness.

Since our group numbers 8 we had the zodiac to ourselves and Claudia as our driver/guide. On this ride, in fact, on all three, we saw lots of kingfishers. They perch on bare branches extending out over the stream. This location facilitates finding food and also looking out for rivals encroaching on their territory. Several took us to be large competitors and took to the air, shrieking their territorial cry.

When we reached our furthest distance up stream, Claudia cut the engine and we drifted back down stream. Without the motor noise we could hear the sounds of the forest, doves calling to each other, and many other bird sounds. We also encountered some hoatzins in a tree along the river. My view was severely impacted by fogging glasses although I did get a good view of a tail.

Each time the Yorktown Clipper anchored, natives came out in dugout canoes from their dwellings nearby and just hung around the boat. They didn't seem particularly friendly, they weren't begging, weren't trying to sell anything, just curious. There was little interaction with them, they wouldn't respond to waves. Some of the dugouts held 7 or 8 people. In one there was a male paddling, three adult females, two with babies, and more kids. Since these people are polygamous, I assume that this was one family.

During the night the ship moved further up river and anchored. We did another trip with Claudia in the morning. The ship moved again during lunch and then we made another zodiac adventure in the afternoon. On this last trip, the best, we journeyed up a very narrow tributary, weaving around snags and floating plants. Rain was intermittent, at times heavy. This place could be called kingfisher alley. We also encountered some howler monkeys, some brown hawks, and some black hawks. So many fish were jumping that their rings looked like giant rain drops falling on the water. Comorants patrolled the stream moving in front of us as we returned to the ship.

When we were out of sight of the ship but returning, Claudia let Nathan drive the zodiac. He really got a kick out of that.

Currently, we have just arrived at Port of Spain, Trinidad. The morning tour has just left and we are waiting for the exercisers to finish and then we will all do a bit of shopping. Tonight is the Captain's farewell dinner. Tomorrow is American Airlines Hell.

Actually, instead of shopping we took a 3 hour tour of this end of the island. Jodie found a driver, named John, who has a minivan. She negotiated with him while she was off on her walk. This is a very pleasant town whose English origins are quite evident. Carnival is coming and preparations for the band competitions are well underway.

For me, the most interesting part of the trip was a stop at an abandoned cocoa plantation. Most cocoa plantations have been abandoned since the labor costs are too high to allow competition in the world market. An entrepreneur has set up a table there. He has picked a cocoa pod from one of the trees and displays it, along with some beans that have had the white coating removed. He also has a ball of ground cocoa about the size of a golf ball. This is to illustrate how the stuff is processed. There are two long, low buildings there, both with roofs that slide back. These were drying sheds, one used to remove the white coating, the second to dry the cocoa beans using the heat of the Sun.

We also saw nutmeg, both in its husk and out. The spice mace comes from the nutmeg husk. There were also some coffee plants in the plantation. At the end of his presentation he offered a collection of things for sale in a small paper sack; a ball of ground cocoa, a nutmeg, some lemon grass, some ground coffee, and a small grater, all for $2.

After lunch back on the ship we strolled into town and walked along the main shopping street. Beth and Randall had been looking for a real steel drum but decided not to buy since they cost $2,000. Instead they settled for a tourist model.

Tonight was the Captain's Farewell Dinner. I think there is a problem with having the farewell dinner the same night that all the bags are to be packed and out for pickup. The evening was a delight, at least I think it was since it wound up in a fairly thick alcoholic haze.

1/17

We arose at 5 am and "enjoyed" a breakfast buffet in the dining room. Most of our group seem somewhat under the weather, Donna, Natalie, and Nathan excepted. We must have caught something last night at dinner.

When we turned out at 5:45 to board the bus, there was no bus. Eventually a parade of taxis arrived and started boarding little groups of passengers. One of the drivers was John who waved us into his van.

At the airport our adventures with American Airlines started once again. Our seat assignments had disappeared into AAlimbo so we were scattered about the plane. In their divine wisdom they seated Natalie all by her self. Of course, our special meals were not present.

The flight was an hour late departing since the crew wasn't available. Our connection in Miami was an hour and 45 minutes which included going through Customs and Immigration.

Upon arrival in Miami, we sprinted several miles to C&I and passed through rapidly. One good thing, we were able to recheck our baggage immediately outside of Customs, rather than carrying it to another check-in counter in the domestic terminal.

Our sprint continued on to the boarding gate, where we arrived about 10 minutes before scheduled departure. We then discovered that the gate agent in Port of Spain did not process our boarding passes properly so we had to stand in line again. And again, our assigned seats were gone but we did get seats all together, but, of course, no special meals.

We finally boarded and settled into our seats, wiping perspiration from our brows. Departure time came and went, and then the captain announced that there was a "little" problem and that the mechanics were working on it. The little problem turned into a 3 hour delay. During this time, we wandered off and on to the plane. They bought us a lunch at a Cuban restaurant out in the main terminal.

After all this, the flight finally departed. Chris had badgered the crew enough so that our special meals were delivered during the long delay. As an example of AA courtesy at the 3 delay, we each got one (!)free drink before dinner. Perhaps because of the late departure, the cabin crew was really great, the best of all four flights. The flight, however, was very rough. The seat belt sign remained on throughout the flight.

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In spite of American Airlines, it was a fun trip. It was fun because of the company of our wonderful family and because of the Clipper Cruise Lines staff. The itinerary was disappointing. Almost all activities were optional, paid shore excursions. There was a lot of time when there was nothing going on. I wouldn't do this trip again but I would go with Clipper again