Imagine a mix of Mardi Gras, Halloween, Puerto Rican traditional music and dancing, high school marching bands all with a dose of Burning Man and surrealism. What do you have? The Sardine’s Funeral on the last night of Carnaval in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
At the historic Parque de Bombas in Ponce
We headed down to Ponce on Tuesday afternoon (the day before Lent) with very little expectations. We heard something about the burial of the sardine. What does that even mean? Well, as we came to learn it is a raucous and very strange celebration mocking death and mourning the end of Carnaval. It is held in the historic town plaza of Ponce and there are lots of other fun things including a bomba dancing and singing show. This year it was a pretty quiet night, but the outlandish festivities made up for the low numbers.
With the young bomba dancers
There are also lots of vejigantes (folkloric scary figures to scare away the demons) walking around and occasionally startling people. In modern times a lot of them wore Halloween masks along with the traditional robes and cow bladders that they would beat. We found a few deflated bladders left around. It was rather weird!
Britton with a deflated cow bladder -Yuck!
With some of the scary clown/vejigantes
More strange fun…note the balloon looking bladders they are carrying
With a werewolf vejigante
It wasn’t until the funeral procession for the sardine that we saw some of the more traditional masks.
Here you can see the sardine in the casket as well as some of the vejigantes
Me and the funeral procession
Lifting and then carrying the casket onto the stage
Death and a marching band
Crazy cat man? Plus creepy dolls…
The whole parade itself was a peculiar event, but the sardine and the wailing mourners took the cake. When they brought the sardine up on stage, they said a eulogy for all sorts of silly things including broken cell phones and flat tires. Then they lit a hang-man on fire in effigy. The whole thing was bizarre but they definitely put the “fun” in funeral.
We ended the night overlooking the entire scene from high atop a luxury hotel building. We then danced our way out listening to the final band playing “Hot, Hot, Hot” and limboed lower laughing all the way. I would highly recommend the Ponce Carnaval that lasts 5-7 days before Lent every year. And for the strangest event ever, come the night of the Sardine’s funeral!
An interesting part of living in Puerto Rico is that we are front and center of Caribbean geopolitics. A recent case in point was when we came upon a yola near Sandy Beach in Rincón. A yola is a small boat usually from the Dominican Republic that is used primarily to transport fleeing people who immigrate (illegally) to Puerto Rico and then potentially to the mainland US. Sometimes they are Haitians who have fled to DR and then from DR they come to PR. It is sort of a follow-the-money game where people leave the poorer country for the richer; much as many Puerto Ricans are leaving the island to the US proper for better job opportunities.
With a yola on the beach
These are fairly common sights, but this was the first time I saw one recently vacated. There was still clothing strewn about and the remnants of a small fire, probably the people who were waiting for them to arrive. They paint the boat blue and throw a blue tarp over top in order to blend in with the ocean and not be spotted. Sometimes people come over without any plan at all and just run through the jungle looking for water to drink and clothing to wear.
Eastern DR to West PR is less than 100 miles, but through pretty rough seas
I can only imagine the feeling of desperation there must be for someone to make the decision to leave everything they know and take a treacherous 2-3 day journey on a boat like this with nothing certain awaiting them! It reminded me of when we saw the stranded people out on Desecheo that didn’t quite make it to Rincón.
The motor was removed shortly after arriving and the side of the boat was cut (by police presumably) so that it would be harder to re-use
This was a successful journey for these Dominicans. It’s not always the case that all of them end up alive at the end of the trip.
Puerto Ricans call the whole country of the Dominican Republic Santo Domingo, not just the capital. And in terms of relations of Puerto Ricans with people from Santo Domingo, there is a tolerance, but also a sort of feeling of superiority due to the citizenship status and also wealth. While Puerto Rico is not rich by US standards, in comparison to a poor undocumented yola newcomer, any Boricua has it far better by most measures.
Here is a short video about the yola that washed up on shore.
Checking out the port of St Maarten from atop the ship
After another full day at sea in which we found a variety of activities on the ship including dancing in the night club until about 3am on the top deck of the ship, we arrived on the Dutch side of St Maarten. The first thing I noted about St Maarten was that it had the prettiest, most picturesque port (at least on one side) of all the other islands we visited. Unlike the dry ABC islands, we were back to a lusher part of the Caribbean, nearly home to green and beautiful Puerto Rico.
Our group at the dock
We decided that for our last day we should make it a group outing with our whole dining table friends.
Pretty St Maarten from our water taxi
This was our shortest day in port. They wanted us back on the ship by 3:30pm, leaving around 4pm! That didn’t leave us with much time to explore, so we all decided that a nice dip in the ocean, a few beers and a little stroll around the downtown would be plenty for us.
Flags of St Maarten
My main impression of St Maarten was that it was the most influenced by the cruise industry and tourism of all the islands. This meant that we were harassed and bothered to buy things by the vendors all down the line of shops. The taxi drivers over and over were asking us if we needed a ride, and even when we bought their umbrella/beer special on the beach, women constantly came up to us and asked if wanted to buy some of their knickknacks, get our hair braided or a massage. It was probably the most annoying stop for me, and what I had worried the rest of the trip might be like.
One of about 10 women who came up to us every 5 minutes to try to sell us stuff
Perhaps if we had gone a little further to the French side of the island or really any distance at all from the ship, this wouldn’t have been such an issue. We heard that there is a cool beach that overlooks the airport and also that the French side of the island has nude beaches and that the Dutch side has gambling. Choose your delight…
Street scene in St Maarten
A hot and sunny day in St. Maarten
The best thing about all the competition for tourist money was that everything was very cheap compared with the other islands. We got a bucket of 6 bottled beers on ice for $10 and they were advertising T-shirts 5 for $20.
Watching our friend Jason on the jet ski
St Maarten had the whitest sand beaches I had seen yet
And the water was so clear you didn’t need a snorkel to look through it
After our short and mainly pleasant stay in St Maarten, it was time to load up on the boat and pack our things. Of all the islands, I felt that I would like to visit St Maarten/Martin again. Lucky for us, it is pretty close to Puerto Rico.
Goodbye for now, St Maarten!
That night on the ship we packed up our bags and watched a farewell show from the bay window of our room and then watched St Maarten and the rest of our first cruise fade away on the horizon.
A tiki spectacle right from our room
St Maarten fades away into memory
A beautiful end to our first cruise
6am in the port yard Puerto Rico
The next morning bright and early we arrived in the port of Puerto Rico and by noon we were back on the farm reflecting of our fabulous days and dreaming of the lobster, shrimp cocktails, escargot and crème brulee of nights before. It was a wonderful trip and helped us to also remember how fortunate we are to live on one of the more beautiful islands of the Caribbean.
Our first morning glimpse of a sandbar off the coast of Aruba from on high in the ship
We couldn’t get that song out of our head as we arrived in Aruba and sang it throughout our time there, which would be our longest day in port. From 8am to 11pm! We decided since we had extra time that we would make this day an official “excursion day” in which we bought the trip from Royal Caribbean at their desk located next to client services. We chose the “Best of Aruba tour” which was an air conditioned bus because Britton’s ankle had swollen up and he wanted to do a little less strenuous activity than the days prior. We were also super sunburnt from Curacao the day before, so we needed a break from the beach and brutal southern Caribbean sun. I wished I had brought some aloe for my poor skin! We had some time prior to the tour at 1pm, so we explored near the ship as well.
Oranjestad, Aruba from the ship
All of the stops accepted the US dollar, but in Aruba, they had their own currency, the florin, as well. I really liked the little square coins we got back as change from our stop at the gas station where they spoke to me in Papiamento and my Spanish was understood better than English.
Local Aruban junk food and change
Exploring the area near the port -this building was like a wedding cake
From the wedding cake looking toward the ship
A lot of people tried to get us in their stores, mainly jewelry shops
Around 12:45 we loaded onto the bus for the tour of northern Aruba. My main impression of Aruba was that it was the Arizona of the Caribbean. Hot, dry, and windy! There was a cheaper open-window bus tour that seemed a little more fun, but I think we chose well to get the air conditioned bus instead. We are used to heat in Puerto Rico, but I was shocked by the dry heat, the searing sun, and the lack of shade trees nearly anywhere in Aruba.
A few things we just drove past like this 1700s church and cemetery
Private residence with cactus fence like in Bonaire
We drove past a lot of things such as an old church, an ostrich farm and private residences. We made a few stops at various locations such as the rock formations, collapsed natural bridge (which must have been spectacular but now is not nearly as interesting), the cool California lighthouse and I think we probably got the best feel for Aruba than any of the other islands because of this 3-hour tour! What was a little disappointing was just how stick-in-the-mud everyone on the bus was save for the bus driver, us, two Puerto Rican women behind us and a Dutch kid who liked fart jokes. We were the only ones laughing and having a good time. It was like death warmed over with the average age being around 65.
At the collapsed Natural Bridge in Aruba
A smaller bridge near the large natural bridge (son of a bridge as the busdriver called it) that they say will soon collapse too
At the Natural Bridge area they had a gift shop and small café. They tried to charge us $1 each to use the bathroom and wouldn’t refill our water bottles with tap water. As jungle hillbillies, we have become comfortable peeing in the bushes, or in this case in the cactus.
Ayo Rock formations
Our next stop was to the Ayo Rock formations. This was pretty cool because it had a beautiful view of most of Aruba including the haystack mountain. They also had a little bar with decent priced beers, filled our water bottles with ice cold water and let us use the bathrooms like normal modern human beings.
Bon Bini (welcome) to a friendlier place in Aruba than our first stop!
View of Aruba from atop the rocks
What else can you do with rocks and boulders besides sit on them or make granite counters?
Britton and the view
Because we got so sunburnt from our beach day in Curacao I had been looking for aloe all day. Ask and you shall receive. Not only did I find aloe on this tour, but a whole aloe vera factory! ha!
At an aloe vera farm/factory in Aruba
Aloe vera demonstration
Inside the factory as they made soaps and lotions with the aloe
Our final stop was to the California Lighthouse in northern Aruba. It was a very iconic lighthouse and from the restaurant we enjoyed a panoramic view of the rest of the island.
At the California Lighthouse
View from the restaurant of the California Lighthouse
A short video of the tour
When we returned from our bus trip we still had a little more time before we needed to get back on the ship for dinner so we walked to the nearest grocery store to refill our stash of illegal alcohol. A friendly Colombian woman pointed us in the right direction. As we arrived near the store, a drunken homeless man started talking to us in English and Spanish and asking us what we were doing, what we needed etc. He ran in front of us to the store and told someone who worked there to show us the alcohol section of the store. We thanked him and told him we would give him a shot of whatever alcohol we bought when we exited.
When we left we sat down on a step near the store to pour the liquor into the water bottles and give him the rest of the bottle. He was not happy with just that though and wanted us to give him $5 for helping us. We said that seemed a little ridiculous, (especially because we didn’t need nor ask for his help) but sat and talked with him a bit more. I was giving Britton the eye that we had better get out of there before something weird happened. The man said he was a portrait artist and he could draw me. I took this as an opportunity. “Ok, but where is your paper and pen?” He staggered up and ran off to find some. I told Britton we should book it. We grabbed our stuff, left a dollar under a quarter of a bottle of rum and literally ran off. We could hear him yelling “Come back, here! Come back!” but we were long gone around the corner and had another pretty good story to tell our tablemates at dinner that night.
Goodbye (Ayo, Tanten! in Papiamento) Aruba and southern Caribbean!
The adventures are almost always found off the main roads in life! Oh Aruba, I won’t soon forget you!