About the Amazon

As you probably know already, the Amazon river is the largest river system in the world – by extent of watershed, by volume of water, and by some measures distance from the sea to its furthest tributary source.

We sailed offshore from Brazil, out of sight of the shore. We saw the color of the ocean change from deep blue to coffee-brown a day before we saw the river shore. The volume and force of the outflow of the river turns the ocean fresh for many miles beyond the coast.

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Typical view in the open ocean
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View in the Amazon waters, far from shore
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Ocean waters
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Amazon waters
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When different tributaries mix
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The scale of the river – like the ocean

The distance from the mouth of the Amazon to its Andean sources is about 4,000 miles. That is the width of the continental US. We sailed about 1,000 miles up the river to the city of Manaus. There is another 3,000 miles more beyond Manaus. Imagine one tropical forest and river system from Sacramento to Washington DC. Hard to comprehend.

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The part of the basin where we sailed is for the most part flat. From the ship, we saw a large foreground of sometimes brown water, sometimes black water; a thin strip of green, just a tree tall; and huge sky above. Not as dramatic as a fjord or a river in a gorge. We had to reflect on where we were, and on the immensity of forest beyond. 

It is amazing that you can call up Google Maps even in the Amazon. When you choose satellite view, you see that beyond the forest front there is sometimes only more forest, and often there is a patchwork of cleared land and soybean fields (at least where we were). Settlements are few, strung together with a few roads. 

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Our guide on a forest walk, who is from an indigenous tribe, said that his village is something like 2,000 km away; only about half of the length of roads between Manaus, in the center of the Amazon basin, and his village are paved. Imagining the immensity of the Amazon is a challenge; seeing in the satellite view of Google Maps the amount of deforestation is stunning.

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Examples of the forest at the edges of the river:

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Challenging Manaus

After our organized forest tour near Manaus, we walked a bit into the streets near the port of the city.

From history classes in middle school, I remembered a bit about the rubber boom in Brazil around the turn of the twentieth century. I always liked the story of the surprising opera house, styled after the Garnier opera house in Paris. How bold and rich to build, of all things, an opera house in the middle of the Amazon basin. On the cruise, we learned that this fantastic rubber-based prosperity was short lived, from about 1879 – 1912. Some English people smuggled rubber tree plants out of the Amazon, where they are endemic; they established huge rubber plantations in Southeast Asia, and undercut production in Brazil. Since the crash of the rubber industry, Manaus has for the most part remained a poor place.

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Nonetheless, today, Manaus is a large city with over two million residents. It is the principal trading and economic focus of the Amazon basin. I was curious about what the city was like.

We were required to take a shuttle bus from the cruise ship to the cruise terminal. The terminal is a large airy modern building, moderately active. As we stepped out of the shuttle bus, a young woman with name tag and uniform told us, without our asking anything, to be very careful in Manaus. Beware of thieves, she said.

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Town markets are always interesting, and there is a municipal market not far from the cruise terminal. We headed out to the main road that leads to the market. Everything was hot, chaotic, dirty, and hard to evaluate. We were certainly conspicuous. Along the street, we saw rows of shops that opened directly onto the street, with tables of goods spilling out onto the sidewalks. The streets were crowded with cars, trucks, pedestrians, people pulling carts, and people milling around. Men crouched against walls and fences. All the buildings we could see looked unkempt and stained, bland modern concrete shells. 

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I traveled extensively in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. I spent a little time in Kenya, Egypt and Jordan. I wandered streets and explored neighborhoods. Of course, in my youth, I was oblivious to threats. Now, in Manaus, I couldn’t find anything intriguing enough to overcome the discomfort and worry. 

We continued on to the city market. Since this was the afternoon, the main halls of produce and meats were empty. The aisles with local artisanal products were still open, but they were dark and hot. The vendors looked uninterested. We didn’t linger. We retraced our steps back along the chaotic streets, self-conscious. (Sorry that we don’t have photos of the market area; we felt too unsure to bring out the cameras.)

At dinner that night, two of our friends told us their story in Manaus that afternoon. They had selected an organized city-overview tour for the morning, on a bus. However, they have a passion — and expertise — for cut gems. Brazil is a prolific source for many precious stones, such as aquamarine, amethyst, citrine, diamond, emerald, quartz, ruby, sapphire, and topaz. They had identified a gem store near the opera house. They asked the guide if they could leave early, in order to do their shopping. He was happy to help.

He had the tour bus driver stop at the gem store. He escorted our friends into the store, and talked with the store manager. He insisted that the manager arrange a ride for our friends back to the ship after their shopping. Satisfied with the manager’s agreement, he bade our friends goodbye.

Our friends spent some time shopping, and did find a few nicely-priced quality gems. Per his commitment, the manager arranged a car to take them back to the cruise ship; in fact, he went with them in order to ensure their safety. His explanation was that there were certainly people watching the store. If our friends left the store unaccompanied, they would be robbed. It didn’t matter if they had bought anything or not. He didn’t say “might be robbed;” he said “will be robbed.” 

I’ve never visited anywhere where mugging was certain. It hurts to think that places like Manaus are so aggressive and violent. Disorienting. We needed to reflect on our remarkable good fortune, and struggle with the realities of the challenging lives of people in difficult places such as Manaus.

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A walk in an Amazon forest

We went for a guided walk in the Amazon forest not far from Manaus. 

Our guide was a resident of Manaus and of indigenous heritage. He grew up in a traditional forest village far from Manaus. He told us that, when he was a child, American Baptist missionaries spent time in his village. When he was a teenager, one of the missionary families was going to move to Manaus. They invited him to come with them. He said that, once in Manaus, he learned Portuguese at school and English at home. 

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Our guide explained that in his home village, everyone sleeps in hammocks. When he arrived in Manaus, his hosts showed him is bedroom, with a western-style bed. He said that, while he finally acclimated to sleeping on a mattress bed, to this day, sleeping in a hammock is his preference.

He married a woman from Manaus. They have four children. Two of the children, now young adults, live in his home village. He says they love the forest, hunting, their family’s indigenous culture, and being out in nature. His other two children live in Manaus. He said he had to learn about computers and video games in order to stay connected with them. He was a very interesting man who somehow lives simultaneously in traditional indigenous and modern societies.

The outing started with a 20-minute boat trip out of Manaus, across the four kilometer wide Rio Negro. We passed under the recently-constructed Rio Negro bridge along the way.

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Manaus sits at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Amazon River. The Rio Negro — Black River — gets its name from its color. It is black because of organic material from its tributaries. The Amazon proper is the color of café-au-lait, because of soil sediment upriver. The “meeting of the waters” is famous: For many kilometers from where the Rio Negro and the Amazon meet, the brown and black currents flow parallel. They are not eager to get married for quite a distance.

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When our boat reached shore, we could see the dark beer-like color of the Rio Negro.

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Our guide explained that the river changes hugely between the dry and wet seasons. We were visiting just at the start of the wet season, so the river level was relatively low and its width the narrowest of the year. He explained about how some of the plant and fish species have adapted to these great seasonal changes. He pointed to the trees all around us at the shore. At the peak of the wet season, the trees are completely submerged. There are species of fish that lay their eggs only in the treetops! On our dry day, high above our heads, were the nurseries of fish!

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Our guide led us on a 2-hour trek into the forest. We walked through the dense green growth, sweltering in the hot humidity. 

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At the first stop in the forest, our guide gave us a stern lecture, including, “The Amazon forest is not a zoo!” He said that, while there are plenty of animals in the forest around us, they don’t want to have anything to do with us. We humans are loud and smelly. They sense us from far away and steer clear. 

Invisible to us, and perhaps close by, there were likely capybaras, sloths, monkeys, agoutis, caimans, anacondas, many birds, and even a jaguar.

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The theme of our walk wasn’t the flora and fauna of the forest, but survival in the forest.

At one stop, the guide and his assistant showed us a camping hammock.

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He then pointed to the trees around us, asking us which trees would we use to pitch a hammock. He started scraping the trunk of the tree next to him. Almost immediately, streams of big black ants, about 2 cm long each, sprung up from holes at the base of the tree, scurrying up the trunk. Our guide said this was not a good tree for a hammock post. In the night, the ants would emerge and climb all over the hammock and you. One bite from these ants is purportedly painful; a second bite will make you very sick; a third bite can kill you. Happy camping.

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Our guide and his assistance showed us how they would start a cooking fire in the forest. They scraped thin fibers from a small tree trunk, making something like a puff of cotton. Then, of all things, two C-size batteries, and piece of aluminum foil. They created a circuit by touching the foil to the ends of the batteries, which in turn heated up and ignited the plant fibers. We expected a lower-tech approach, but this worked just fine.

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They cut some of the thick vines around us, and showed us how they are a source for fresh clean water.

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They also showed us animal traps, made just from forest materials. One was a triggered lasso that would snag and hang small prey. The other was a triggered bow and arrow. The guide explained that human forest residents would know intimately the habits and paths of the various edible animals in their region. If the path is frequented by larger animals such as capybara, they set the arrow higher; if the target are aglouti, they set it lower. 

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Local residents need to share information with their friends and family about where they have set these traps. They can’t say, “On the corner of 9th and Avenue A,” or “Behind the old school.” Their collective knowledge of the forest means they can pinpoint paths, trees and other natural landmarks. To us outsiders, the traps were almost invisible amid the undergrowth.

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At a point when we were the furthest into the forest, the guide asked us to stand still and be silent, and to listen. It turns out that humans, at least the cruise variety, are terrible at being quiet. We could hear a few birds in the distance; that was all. It became quickly clear that to experience the Amazon in even just a little more depth would take much more time, and a very adventurous, tolerant, patient attitude.

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Boca da Valeria, Brazil

At many of the ports of call of this cruise, the cruise line offered organized tours. However, at Boca da Valeria, the cruise director invited all interested passengers to visit the village on our own. 

A presenter on board our ship had explained that the ancestry of the villagers was mixed Portuguese and indigenous. On cruise-ship days, people from this and neighboring villages converge to entertain and sell to the tourists. 

The ship anchored off shore, and tender boats with about 80 passengers each ferried us to the small dock. You can picture us and our fellow passengers: mostly aged 60 and more, a lot of white hair, a lot of cameras, and a lot of sensible hats and caps. Meeting us was a receiving line of mostly children and young adults. On the arms and shoulders of many children were green parrots, big grasshoppers, and the occasional baby sloth. Some parents had dressed their kids up in local tribal headdresses and costumes. We don’t know how authentic these decorations are. Vendors displayed rough handicrafts of unknown origin at a few covered stands.

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The shoreline village comprised about a dozen residential structures, raised on stilts above the ground and river level; and a solid church and a school. Some dogs slept in the shade beneath the very simple wood houses. Dirt, sand and mud paths meandered among the buildings.

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Two boys held a small sloth. The sloth lounged against the chest of one of the boys, lazily munching on leaves. Sloth faces include an upturned mouth and bright round eyes; it is hard not to interpret these faces as smiles. But we project…

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A woman hosted a glorious toucan. She encouraged us to offer an arm for the toucan. The toucan nonchalantly climbed aboard. He (or she?) continued to turn his head in various directions — perhaps scoping us all out, or ignoring us altogether. 

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An adult man stood bedecked in a tribal array, awaiting photo ops. At one point, he suddenly lifted off the immense headdress and set it aside. He ran over to where a canoe full of our fellow tourists was returning to shore. He helped his fellow villagers pull the laden canoe onto the shore.

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Our presenter had coached us to bring single dollar bills. The children and the adults all expected to be given a dollar for each contact. Rub the fur of a sloth: one dollar. Be a toucan perch: one dollar. Be led in hand around the village by a boy or girl: one dollar.

This experience was interesting, odd and uncomfortable. We were strolling on a muggy tropical day in a tiny village on the shores of the Amazon! While there were some power lines above the buildings, and even an empty satellite dish, the structures were extremely simple. This group of well-off, elderly, and for the most part Caucasian visitors outnumbered the local people on this day. The children and adults seemed fully comfortable with the parade of aliens. No one seemed joyous; they seemed attentive and yet a little bored. Just another day when the foreigners visit.

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Seeing and interacting with the sloths, parrots and toucans was great fun. I never thought I would stroke the furry head of a sloth — who instantly grabbed my fingers with his clawed hands as if I were a tree branch. The toucan’s colors and giant beak are so outrageous to be awe-inspiring.

When I crouched by the boy who was holding the sloth, his buddy seemed to want me to say “sloth” in Portuguese or some other language. It took me a couple tries to approach the right pronunciation. The boys giggled with amusement. Was it at my botched rendition, or that they had taught me a different ridiculous word? But they were cute and engaging, and doing their job for the day.

It was hard to be there in our bubble of affluence and at the same time in an extremely basic, perhaps precarious village.

Later that evening, after our village visit, we developed our thoughts a bit. We don’t have any idea what the villagers think about this meeting of worlds. We don’t know what is “authentic” and what is manufactured show. We presume that our dollars are useful for the villagers. But isn’t this much the same as other created tourist experiences throughout the world? In Hawaii, visitors enjoy attending an enactment of a luau. They know that the luau, chants and hula are staged for their enjoyment and cultural enrichment. The performers are talented and accomplished, but everyone knows that the performances are their jobs. The performers willingly assume the roles and costumes as part of their work. The visitors pay for tickets, fully aware they are paying their part of the costs of production, including the salaries of the performers. The local people provide entertainment and service; the visitors provide money to make it possible. No one harms or takes advantage of anyone else.

At Boca da Valeria, the disparity in wealth between the performers and the visitors is greater than at a Hawaiian luau. Our dollars provide access to opportunities that, if we didn’t visit, the villages might not have access to. (We presume.)

Does this commercial meeting of worlds distort something for the villagers that would otherwise be more natural? We know so little about their lives, their measures of prosperity, their opportunities, and their society. Perhaps, just like anyone’s second job to help pay for a child’s college or to save for a vacation, the villagers use cruise day to make things a bit better.

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Devil’s Island

One of our stops was a curious one. You probably know about Devil’s Island from the 1973 movie Papillon with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, or perhaps from the recent re-make of 2017. 

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What we think of as Devil’s Island is really three islands about six miles off the coast of French Guiana. Collectively, they are known as les Îles du Salut, or Salvation Islands. They are the site of the notorious, deadly French penal colony, which operated from 1852 to 1953.

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We visited L’Île Royale, which housed the main administration for the prison, as well as the cells for most of the prisoners. Close by is L’Île Saint-Joseph, which housed the most violent prisoners, mostly in solitary confinement. Completing the cluster is Devil’s Island, which held political prisoners. The most famous political prisoner was Alfred Dreyfus, who spent five years there at the end of the 19th century after having been falsely accused and convicted of spying and treason, largely because of anti-semitism.

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Devil’s Island, viewed from Île Royale

Today, most of the buildings from the penal colony are ruins or in decay. A non-air-conditioned hotel with its restaurant and gift shop stands amid the ruins. We wondered who would elect to spend nights here among the ruins and memories — perhaps writers and historians?

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As we climbed stairs in the jungle, walked along rock walls, and stepped into ruined stone buildings, we tried to imagine the forced labor to build this place. Most people sent here did not leave alive. Cruelty and malaria killed many.

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Even though the ruins are quiet, and the jungle is fresh, the brutality of the people in charge and the pain and despair of the condemned left us awfully cynical about our fellow humans.

On the other hand, the jungle and its non-human inhabitants have happily reclaimed the islands. While on our walk under the tree canopy, we spied a few residents:

A pea-hen and a peacock meandering and oblivious of the camera-toting cruise tourists.

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The ruins and the jungle seemed full of agoutis, which are brown-furred rodents. They typically weigh between 6 and 12 pounds.

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A troop of spider monkeys trundled across the main path just before we arrived. Some of our fellow travelers reported that they stopped to grab Cheetos from a tourist’s hand, but disdained fruits and nuts. We saw them scampering through the tree canopy above us. We think they threw seed pods at us. They fascinated us; apparently we amused — or annoyed — them.

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From atop the island, we could see the coast of French Guiana, and the launch structures of the European Space Agency’s facilities. What a contrast between this infamous prison and today’s optimistic spaceport.

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Bridgetown, Barbados Food Tour

Rather than going on one of the cruise-line organized tours, thanks to Tripadvisor and Google, we found a food / walking tour of Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados.

Eight food stops punctuated the four-hour tour. Our guide, Claudette, filled the gaps with interesting detailed stories from the history of Barbados. By education, she is an accomplished historian. 

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Her stories spanned from before the arrival of Europeans up to present-day independent Barbados. She exuded pride and passion for her country, and how it emerged from a challenging history of exploitation, slavery and racism. That sounds heavy! But her joy and knowledge showed again and again how adversity and conflict became the foundation of liberation and self-determination. Quite a feat to lead hungry tourists along this interesting path.

Before I get to the food, here are a few things we learned about Barbados, along with a few photos.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to come to the island, at the end of the 15th century. They didn’t find it interesting enough to settle, but they did release a number of pigs onto the island. Plenty of pork waiting for them if they were to return.

There is evidence for human inhabitants prior to Western “discovery.” The first Europeans found a wood bridge over the river that now flows through Bridgetown. The Portuguese reported finding no native inhabitants. Perhaps that is true. It is possible, however, that they rounded up the native inhabitants and carried them off into slavery. Historians don’t know.

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The pre-European bridge was here.

The first English settlers arrived in two waves starting in 1625. The English crown — James I and then his son, Charles I — “sold” the island twice. The first group of settlers were not pleased when the second batch arrived. The second group founded Bridgetown.

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The Barbadian flag: blue for the sea, yellow for the sand of the beaches. The broken end of the trident to signify liberation from the colonial past.

The island was considered a plantation from the start. However, it took some time for the English settlers to discover that sugar cane grows well in Barbados. Growing and harvesting sugar cane requires a lot of labor, and so started the era of African slaves.

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Up through the 20th century, Barbadian society was a strict hierarchy of social / economic / racial classes. The white, landowning elite on top; other whites just below; and then minutely defined strata of “colored” people, from mixed-race to 100% African. (Our guide said that, while she understood that “colored” has distinct pejorative meaning in the modern world, she used the term in her explanation as people used it in past centuries.) 

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One of the main shopping streets in Bridgetown.

There is a statue of Admiral Lord Nelson in the central square of Barbados. Claudette highlighted the huge incongruity of there being a commemoration of Nelson at the heart of the capital city, directly across from the Parliament buildings. Nelson was a cruel, racist, philandering man. He acted violently and aggressively against Barbadian people. He was cruel to his subordinates, and insubordinate to his superiors. When he died, it took a generation before anyone erected a statue to him; purportedly because his contemporaries so despised him that only after they passed away did successors honor him because of his military accomplishments. So why does this statue remain in Bridgetown? Because the heart of Bridgetown is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This means that it is not allowed to change the buildings and monuments in the Site.

We began the tour in front of the statue of Errol Barrow, the founding father of modern, independent Barbados. Barbados achieved its independence from Britain in 1966. Claudette used this statue to explain how Barrow’s forebears valiantly worked to lead non-white Barbadians out of oppression. They started trade unions, and suffered grave repercussions. Many Barbadian men, technically British as they were, left to fight for Britain in the world wars. In many regions of the wars, as black men, they were relegated to subservient roles and not allowed to fight. In the Middle East, however, they were allowed to serve fully, and many distinguished themselves. From their experiences mostly of discrimination, many returned to Barbados dedicated to transform their island into an independent democratic country.

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A statue of Errol Barrow overlooks this plaza.

Claudette helped us develop our own experience — from tourists looking in, to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Barbadian society and culture. We couldn’t fail to feel her pride.

OK — a bit about the food!

Savory pastry with slightly spicy shredded beef. This type of pastry is often part of a morning or afternoon snack.

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We stopped at the town market and enjoyed some sorrel juice. This isn’t the same sorrel as the green herb of continental cooking. This sorrel is a variety of hibiscus from West Africa. It tastes something like a mix of cranberry, raspberry and green herbs. We liked it so much that we brought a few bottles back to the ship, and, among other things, made sorrel mojitos.

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Turmeric root in the box.
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Cassava

Claudette led us through a chaotic shopping arcade to a food truck for fried codfish cakes. Salted or preserved cod shows up in just about every cuisine of the Atlantic, from Spain to the Caribbean to Brazil.

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The Ladies just finished a full morning of fishcake cooking.

Pig’s tails, with cassava. Yes, pig’s tails. A bit of bone with succulent meat and barbecue sauce.

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Bajan (proud colloquialism for Barbadian) soup: chicken, pumpkin, dumplings, and green herbs. Bland!

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Mauby, which is a drink made from the bark of the mauby tree, and some herbs and spices. These little cups are samples because the drink is an “acquired taste,” as Claudette put it. She said that only last year did she try it for the first time. It is bitter, a bit like Campari. After the first surprise of the bitterness, we both found that we liked it. The taste grew on us; or the mauby killed some taste buds. So we ordered larger glasses of it to go with lunch.

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Coucou is the yellow round food in the middle: cassava and okra. To the right is fried flying fish. Flying fish are the official fish of Barbados. We saw them flying away from the ship after the pressure waves of the moving hull startled them.

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Finally, some tamarind ice cream, and auntie-made ginger and molasses cookies (almost solid sugar!).

Miami’s Wynwood Walls

Street art has transformed a formerly derelict warehouse district into a cultural destination. We wanted to see first-hand how street art rises from random graffiti to something more.

Many of the streets, while lively, retain their urban / graffiti / industrial character.

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At the same time, high-end — but arty — condos and lofts are being built. Gentrification is a double-edged sword. Affordable under-used districts harbor artists; artists create attractive value; development for people who want to be part of the art energy raises prices so the original artists can no longer afford to live and work there. And so it goes.

Wynwood Walls proper is a collection of curated wall art, and some sculpture.

We found many of the wall art fascinating, beautiful, fun, irreverent, and fine. Excerpts are often the most seductive.

While the rest of this post is images, which we hope you’ll enjoy, I’ve included at the end of the post the official description of how and why this neighborhood has evolved.

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Here is the description provided by Goldman Properties & Goldman Global Arts (clearly with a self-congratulatory PR bias, but informative nonetheless):

In the early 2000’s, Wynwood was much like any other industrial urban neighborhood that had fallen on hard timers. It had its share of failed manufacturing businesses, abandoned warehouses, and crime. Pedestrian activity was non-existent. Joey Goldman was tasked with finding the next zone for the Goldman Family; he discovered Wynwood.

Enter Tony Goldman, founder of Goldman Properties. Rather than work to erase what others considered blight, Tony envisioned a town center that highlighted what made Wynwood authentic and provided a place for people of all walks of life, from all over the world, to congregate, explore and be inspired. In 2009, The Wynwood Walls was born. Comprised of six separate warehouses, the exterior walls served as giant canvasses for the greatest street art collection ever assembled in one place.

In its nine years, The Wynwood Walls has helped ignite one of the largest art movements in history, elevating street art to a genre that is widely respected by art lovers of all economic classes and changing the paradigm of how people interact with art. Thought-provoking and celebratory of creativity and talent, The Wynwood Walls have become a focal point of what is happening in the world of street art. Since its inception, The Wynwood Walls has been a platform for more than 100 artists, representing over 20 countries, and covering over 85,000 square feet of walls. Since the passing of Tony in September 2012, his wife and Chairman of Goldman Properties, Janet Goldman, has lovingly continued to support Goldman’s legacy. The Wynwood Walls are a love letter from the Goldman family to the world and its curation continues to be a passion for its members.