Saturday, November 30, 2013

Holiday Greetings From the Littler Latitudes

The Year 2013 was a historic year in many ways.  Probably the most memorable thing that happened this year (other than my daughter's wedding of course) was that the Pittsburgh Pirates made it to the play offs for the first time since 1992!  Long considered the Chicago Cubs of the Allegheny River the Pirates who do their spring training just up the road at Pirate City in Bradenton kicked ass, took names, and made it to the post-season.  They didn’t get beyond the first round but they made it.  And the naysayers out there need to keep an eye on them because 2014 is going to be even better.  No speculation there….pure fact.

Long before the Bucs dominated the National League Central Division I was scurrying around on my latest Buffett mission.  I saw Jimmy in back to back shows in February; one night in Pensacola and the next night in Jacksonville.  These were my 36th and 37th Buffett shows.  As part of the trip I stopped by the Margaritaville Beach Hotel in Pensacola Beach, then the Margaritaville Casino in Biloxi and from there to his birthplace in Biloxi before (all in the same day) having lunch at his sister's restaurant in Gulf Shores Alabama before getting to the Pensacola show that night.   Later in the year I visited new Margaritaville Cafe's in Panama City, Panama, Bossier City (Shreveport) Louisiana, Cincinnati Ohio, Myrtle Beach South Carolina and sailed by cruise ship to the Cafe on Grand Turk island.  At years end I also made it to the new one in Falmouth, Jamaica, mon.  Needless to say it was a very Parrothead-like year. 

2013 saw the publication of not one but three recent books of mine.  Those included “Continental Drifting” and “Sojourn to South Africa” which are both travel books and “Minor League Heckler,” a baseball novel set locally at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota.  By years end “Slices of America’s Pie” a travel book about my successful quest to visit every county in the 50 states had been accepted by a publisher and is now slated to be published in early 2014.  Not wasting any time I finished writing yet another travel book “Following the Sun” about travel south of the Equator.  I am putting the final touches on “A Dozen Random Islands” another travel book that looks into why I have this unquenchable passion for islands.  I still occasionally work on “The Phosphate Pupfish” an environmental novel that blasts the phosphate mining industry in Florida, but only when I’m not distracted by writing about travel.  One of these days it will be final also.

Personal travel this year took me to 20 different states but to only 8 different countries (Panama, Jamaica, Haiti, Turks and Caicos, Bahamas, United Kingdom, The Gambia, Senegal).  Two of them, The Gambia and Senegal for my annual birthday present to myself, were new for my travel list and were the 110th and 111th countries visited.  Most domestic travel was to watch minor league baseball games in new stadiums or to add new Margaritaville Café’s to my growing list.  I’ve now been to 31 of the 36 existing Cafes and have plans for several new ones next year. 

My oldest daughter Jennifer was married in a ceremony in her mother’s yard in northern Minnesota in June.  I made the trek north to witness this exciting event and quickly understood why I simply cannot take cold weather any longer.  I took my first cruise in October (Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands) and enjoyed it so much I’m going on another one in December.  Warm Florida summer nights were generally filled with some serious heckling of the 11 hapless minor league baseball teams that played against my home town Bradenton Marauders.

A major milestone this year was turning 62 years old and I am not taking that reality well because I am now legally a senior citizen!!   My body is telling me I’m 62 and my brain is saying I’m 26 and therein is a hellacious conflict.  On my 50th birthday I began counting backward so I’m actually 38 again now and with luck I’ll be checking out at 20 or so.

Here’s hoping that you and yours have a happy and healthy holiday season and that 2014 is even more productive than was 2013.  As for me in 2014 my only plans at the moment are to nibble on sponge cake and watch the sunbake and rejoice in the fact that every day is Saturday.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

A Long Weekend at Guantanamo Bay Cuba

I want to get lost in old Habana
I long to walk down the wide Malecon
Quiero hablar con los pescadores
Y oler las flores
And drive in a '56 Caddy right into the dawn …
Jimmy Buffett

(Note:  This is a chapter for my upcoming book "A Dozen Random Islands")

One of the most consistent and memorable parts of any trip to the tropics, and especially to the Caribbean, is the inevitability of something going wrong that eventually rights itself.  There have been days when the plane I was on broke in mid-flight and we became stranded on an island waiting for someone to arrive who could fix the plane.  There was the sight of the Tontons Macoutes lining the highways of Haiti each packing a side arm looking for the next person to get out of line so they could “educate” them.  There was a time when lifting off from Panama City enroute to Isla San Andres when lightning hit the wing of the plane and a blue flash of ozone filled the cabin. And there was the inevitability of either Bahamasair or LIAT, either running two hours late or losing your reservation or both.  No matter what, however, all things eventually work out.

That was what I was thinking on one April weekend morning as Mark Oberle, Jon Andrew and I were making our way to Fort Lauderdale so we could launch off to Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, Cuba.  The trip began with massive amounts of consternation very early in the morning.  Mark was supposed to leave Seattle on Friday, overnight in Atlanta and then fly to Fort Lauderdale on Saturday morning however his Friday flight was cancelled and Mark was still in Seattle a mere 3,200 miles away.  This was not the most auspicious way to begin a journey to the islands.  Luckily he was put on a later flight through Denver arriving Atlanta in the early morning hours of Saturday.  From there he made his way to Florida.

Then there was Jon.  We talked about 6:15 that morning as he was leaving his office for the Atlanta airport.  For some reason at the conclusion of our conversation I had the words “don’t forget your passport” sitting on the tip of my tongue but I did not say them.  I wish I had because on his arrival in Fort Lauderdale two hours later, Jon discovered that he didn’t have his passport along with him.  Although Guantanamo Bay is a US Navy base non-Navy travelers need a valid US passport to get on the plane to go there, and they need a passport to clear US Immigration on the way back.  It’s a very important little document to have and Jon didn’t have his.  After some frantic calls to Guantanamo Bay, a way around the lack of a passport was worked out.  Instead of the physical passport, if Jon could get a copy of its title page faxed to the airline for him to carry to Guantanamo Bay, he would be allowed access to the base.  Luckily one of his colleagues lives not far from Jon’s office and was able to fax the front page of the passport to the airline. At the same time he sent the passport by priority Fed Ex so it could be carried to Guantanamo Bay on Monday, the next day that Lynx Airlines had a flight to the base.

Far from a luxury airline and lacking any restrooms for the three hour flight, Lynx Air delivered us to Guantanamo Bay and brought us back again.  I guess I can't really ask for anything more.

My consternation was not nearly as frustrating or potentially damaging as either Mark’s or Jon’s.  Mine involved delayed flights – the bane of every traveler.  Despite boarding on time and being prepared to leave on time, for whatever reason we were 45 minutes late pushing back from the gate enroute to Memphis.  Our progress was slowed down considerably because of strong head winds finally arriving at the same time my connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale was leaving was scheduled to leave.  But never fear.  The plane I was supposed to take was delayed two hours arriving from Dallas, so I was not left behind. Now, instead of arriving in Fort Lauderdale at noon, it would be sometime after 2 pm.  When the plane finally limped to the gate in Memphis at 11:00 a.m. (3 hours late) I asked one of the flight attendants “so, what was the delay in Dallas?”  She simply said “tornadoes” and I thought, yup, that will do it.  I finally arrived in Fort Lauderdale at 2:15 pm where I caught up with Mark and Jon in the commuter terminal part of the airport and here for our 5:00 pm departure to Guantanamo Bay.

Other than a military transport, the only regularly scheduled air service to the base from the United States is on Lynx Air International.  Lynx specializes in flights to the Bahamas so, by definition, you can expect flights to run late and ours was no exception.  First they told us that we would be boarding at 4:30 for our 5:00 pm departure. Then they told us there would be a “slight” delay which never bodes well.  At the time of our scheduled departure we were told that the plane we would be using was on the ground and being refueled. Then we heard that the plane wasn’t there and neither were the pilots.  At 6:00 we were told that the plane hadn’t arrived from the Bahamas yet but the pilots had (so, we were making progress).  Fifteen minutes later rumor had it that our plane had just arrived from Bimini and we’d be boarding “soon.”  Of course after nearly 30 years of traveling in the West Indies I realize that soon is a relative term. 

Finally at 6:40 we were told we could board and as we did the pilot jokingly said that the onboard restroom was broken so any unmet biological urges needed to be taken care of now.  Because we were flying on a Swearingen Metroliner, a 19 passenger flying cigar, there was no bathroom on board to be broken.  We taxied away from the gate at 6:55 and were airborne a couple minutes later headed southeast.  About 30 minutes before arriving I saw lights from an island off the left side of the plane that I thought were from the northern peninsula of Haiti. Instead they were from Great Inagua in the southern Bahamas.  After a rather uneventful 2 hours and 27 minutes in the air, the 15 of us on Lynx Air flight 518 touched down to the east at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station

After four US Marines made an in depth check of our luggage, we took a van to the ferry terminal and caught the 10:00 p.m. U Boat to the windward side of the base. Here we were met by Jon’s friend David who took us to the Bachelor Officers Quarters where we crashed for the next 3 days.  Knowing that our flight would be late and that we would arrive after the restaurants had closed, David had stopped by the Jerk Shop and picked up three jerk chicken dinners and a six-pack of Red Stripe for our late evening dinner.

The website has this to say about the recent history of Guantanamo Bay and how it became not only a US Naval base but also a huge thorn in Cuba’s side:

In 1898, the Spanish American War united Cuba and the United States as Cuba fought for independence from Spain.  At the same time the Spanish surrendered as the United States captured Guantanamo Bay.  That same year the Treaty of Paris was signed granting Cuba independence from Spain.  Not long afterward, the United States formally leased this 45 square mile parcel from Cuba to use it as a fueling station. The lease was renewed in 1934 and it required consent of both parties should either want to withdraw.  Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba were severed in January of 1961 and in their continuing hope that the United States will forfeit the land the Cuban government no longer accepts the $5,000 annual American rent. In 2002, Cuba officially requested that Guantanamo Bay be returned however interpretation of the 1934 mutual consent agreement differs, causing frequent squabbles between the two countries.

In 1964, Fidel Castro cut off the base’s water supply in response to the U.S. government fining Cubans for fishing near Florida. As a result, Guantanamo Bay is self-sufficient, and produces its own water and electricity and even has its own McDonalds, although I’m not sure if that is a positive or not.  The naval base itself is divided into two functioning areas on either side of the bay. The east side of the bay is the main base, and the airfield occupies the west side. Today, both sides of the base’s 17-mile fence line are patrolled by U.S. Marines and Cuban militiamen.

During the 1990s, social upheaval in Haiti brought over 30,000 Haitian refugees to Guantanamo Bay. In 1994, the base provided humanitarian services to thousands of migrants during Operation Sea Signal. That year, civilian employees and their families were evacuated from the base to accommodate for the influx of migrants. The migrant population climbed upwards of 40,000. By 1996, the Haitian and Cuban refugees had filtered out, and family members of the military were allowed to return.

Following the September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington DC, several detention camps were built at Guantanamo Bay that held hundreds of detainees. Many of the prisoners originated from Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. There is longstanding debate over Guantanamo Bay’s role as a detention facility, particularly among lawyers and human rights activists. Its true nature and inner workings are somewhat elusive to the American public, and are under constant scrutiny. One can only speculate the future of Guantanamo Bay and as history suggests, its utility and habitation are ever changing.

My interest in traveling to Gitmo was twofold, one involving birds and one involving politics.  Since first traveling to the West Indies I had made it a goal that I wanted to see every island-specific endemic bird species in the area.  An island-specific endemic is just that.  A species of bird that occurs nowhere else on earth is endemic to that place.  An island-specific endemic occurs only on one island or only in one island nation.  For instance the Bahama yellowthroat is endemic to the Bahamas but there occurs on several islands.  Not far away, however, the Jamaican lizard-cuckoo occurs only on Jamaica.   Among the 646 bird species that still occur in the West Indies (the area inside of what is commonly referred to as “Bond’s Line”) 152 of them occur nowhere else on earth than in the islands.  Among those 152 species, 83 of them are specific to one island.  Those numbers range from 28 endemics on Jamaica to 1 each on Barbados, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Montserrat. Cuba with 21 island specific endemics was a high priority island to visit.  Following a trip to western and central Jamaica in 1990 I was missing only three Cuban endemic bird species.  Among the missing three, two of them were widely distributed in eastern Cuba and rather easily found on Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.  The only challenge was getting to Guantanamo Bay.

Cuban Grassquit is a common and conspicuous member of the Guantanamo Bay avifauna

The other reason I wanted to visit Guantanamo Bay was because I was outraged with the person then-occupying the White House who had enraged the entire civilized world when he began putting human beings who likely had committed no crime into cages at Guantanamo Bay and claimed that he was protecting the world from terrorism.  I considered Bush’s detention of people primarily because of their Arabic heritage to be a moral, political and ethical indignity of astronomic proportions.  If anyone deserved to be imprisoned in a cage it was that smirking bastard and his vice president with a permanent snarl.  To top it off under the recently passed “Patriot Act” the Bush Administration was tapping the phone lines of otherwise law abiding citizens and those wire taps along with millions of emails, were being read and deciphered at Guantanamo Bay.  Making matters even worse, Bush was operating outside of the U.S. Constitution by establishing military tribunals where the Arabic cage-dwellers were supposed to be put on trial for unspecified crimes.  It was easier and swifter to prosecute outside of the Constitution in a tribunal at Guantanamo than in a court of law in the United States where the Bush Administration would have to abide by the Constitution.  If you remember from some of his earlier comments George W once said that the Constitution was “just a god-damned piece of paper.”  His approach to sidestepping it at Guantanamo Bay was not surprising.  I wanted to see the place where Bush was holding people in cages he should have been in and where he was making a mockery of the Constitution he swore to uphold.

Confirming my earlier suspicion that there are McDonald's everywhere on the planet I wasn't overly surprised to see one behind a barbed wire barrier at Guantanamo Bay. Personally I would have preferred a Margaritaville Cafe, but that's just me.

Our first morning we were up and out the door by sunrise having been awakened by a raucous group of Greater Antillean grackles squawking around in the yard of the Bachelor Officers Quarters.  While they were making noise, Antillean nighthawks were flying overhead singing “pity-pit-pit” and gray kingbirds were cranking up their dawn song.  We stopped for a quick breakfast at McDonalds and then headed out on the road to Camp Delta, the site of one of Bush’s infamous detention centers.  About 200 meters before the entrance to the detention center at Camp Delta we turned right on the road to Windmill Beach and stopped in some likely looking desert scrub and started searching.  La Sagra’s flycatcher was the first species identified here followed quickly by Cuban emerald, red-legged thrush and Cuban tody.  A rather industrious pair of Cuban grassquit was busily constructing their bulky nest in a roadside bush.  Not long afterward we heard the melodious burps, farts and gurgles of great lizard-cuckoo, a species I’d not seen or heard in 17 years since my last visit to Cuba.  Next was bee hummingbird, the smallest bird on earth, followed by several Cuban blackbirds and a tawny-shouldered blackbird.

The first West Indian endemic I saw was a great lizard-cuckoo perched on the top of the head of a white-crowned pigeon statue as I drove out of the Nassau, Bahamas airport on my first trip to the West Indies.  By the time this trip to Guantanamo Bay came about I had seen all of them but three and those three were all from Cuba.  The most difficult among them is Zapata rail that is not only endemic to Cuba but almost completely endemic to Zapata Swamp in Matanzas Province near Havana.  I tried for it in 1990 and came up empty handed. 

Beside the rail, the other two missing endemics were Oriente warbler and Cuban gnatcatcher.  Both the warbler and the gnatcatcher are fairly common in desert scrub in the eastern one third of Cuba.  Finding them would be relatively simple if you are in eastern Cuba, yet for an American getting to eastern Cuba is a little like having a tooth pulled – you can do it but getting it done is painful.  Until the ineffective and totally politically-driven American embargo on Cuba is lifted and normal relations return, getting into Cuba is a frustrating process. 

The year previously, on his way to the National Wildlife Refuge at Navassa Island off the west coast of Haiti, Jon befriended David on Guantanamo who invited him to return to Guantanamo Bay under his sponsorship to look for birds.  At 7:30 of our first morning on the base, Jon casually announced “I have an Oriente warbler right here.”  It was foraging in some thorny scrub vegetation stopping occasionally to sing and just generally be a warbler.  Largely restricted to arid scrub vegetation, the Oriente warbler has an abundance of habitat to fit its needs in eastern Cuba.  This bird is very closely related to the yellow-headed warbler that is endemic to the western third of Cuba.  In fact, anyone who does not believe in evolution needs only to look at the plumage and structural similarities of these two warblers for proof that evolution marches on.  It would be interesting to do a genetic analysis of yellow-headed and Oriente warbler DNA to see how closely related they are. 

After watching the warbler for several minutes we were drawn to the tooting sound of a Cuban pygmy-owl that absolutely refused to show itself.  We then walked downhill along the road finding a frenetic foraging group of Cuban grassquits.  We walked back up the hill hoping to find the pygmy-owl for Jon but had no luck. It remained in the desert scrub calling incessantly but simply would not show itself.  Not long after giving up on the owl Jon called out that he had the Cuban gnatcatcher. I looked at my watch and saw that it was only 7:56 a.m.  It took only 56 minutes to put myself within one species of having seen them all of the endemic bird species of the West Indies. 

From the Gnatcatcher we moved further up the road toward Windmill Beach. Enroute we saw a white-tailed deer dart across the road – a total surprise and the first deer I have ever seen in the West Indies.  We parked at the recreation area and walked to the beach. The infamous Camp Delta that housed about 400 Middle Eastern people imprisoned because of their ethnicity was just a half kilometer to the east.  Rock iguana’s were present and sunning themselves near the beach. This fantastic reptile is endemic to Cuba and highly endangered there.  Apparently the population on the base is the most stable there is for this reptile.

While Mark was off recording bird voices, Jon and I heard a tooting voice that at first we mistook for a common ground-dove.  Further investigating revealed it to be another Cuban pygmy-owl that was perched somewhere in a patch of sea grape.  We tracked it down and Jon finally saw it, perched maybe 10 feet up and with a freshly captured whip-tailed lizard in its talons.  We watched, photographed and recorded the owl for probably 15 minutes before continuing on the road back toward the central part of the base.  We stopped at one place to look and listen and Mark had a Cuban gnatcatcher fly to within three feet of his parabolic microphone and it began to sing. I think that will become the clearest recording of that species ever made.

We stopped at the intersection of Windmill Beach Road and Camp Delta road where we got out with our binoculars and cameras and Mark with his recording equipment and parabolic microphone and stood by the edge of the road. Guards at the heavily fortified entrance to Camp Delta could see us, and at least two Military Police cars drove by us but nobody stopped to question us or did they get paranoid about us being there with a microphone.  I assumed this was because there was no water-boarding or other compassionately conservative torture going on so they weren’t concerned about the screams being heard.

Searching for birds in the shadow of Camp Delta was a tad disconcerting

We returned slowly to the main part of the base and stopped at a large brackish wetland across Sherman Avenue from the U S Post Office. We then passed through more housing developments and past the entrance to the hospital where we found a large brackish wetland.  Across the road from it we took a street that climbed rapidly up a hill to an overlook. Here we found a picnic shelter and another humongous rock lizard. Directly below us to the east was the infamous Camp X-Ray. This is the place where the wrongly-imprisoned “detainees” were first housed like animals in 8 foot by 5 foot cages.  This is without doubt one of the low points in the recent compassionately conservative history of the United States.  At the overlook we were admonished by a sign to “enjoy the scenery but no photography allowed.”  Curiously later in the day we drove down the hill and up to the entrance to Camp X-Ray and took all sorts of pictures. 

We met David as previously planned at 6:30 for dinner at the Bayview Club, the only place on the base where men have to wear a shirt with a collar if they want to enter.  I had such a shirt (only one of course) but luckily the Bayview Club was closed because it was Sunday.  A few minutes later we found that the Cuban Café was likewise closed because it was Sunday. Finally we went to the Jerk Shop along Deer Boulevard and found it open.  It is adjacent to the Internet Café and also very close to the Tiki Bar. All of these, of course, are highly important places on the base.  At the Jerk Shop we each had a jerk chicken dinner washed down with copious amounts of Red Stripe beer.  It was most appropriate to be sitting in the West Indies eating West Indian food washed down with West Indian beer celebrating the successful search for two of the three West Indian endemic birds missing from my list.

After dinner we drove out to near the ferry landing and then drove up behind the Administrative Building on the hill where Bush’s terrorist court was held.  The building looks more than adequate and secure. However, the Bush Administration planned instead to build a $100 million dollar courthouse facility here on an abandoned landing strip. It would be here in the Gitmo Hilton that these individuals would meet their already established fate because of their genetics. 

The Bush Administration wanted to spend $100 million to build a place to try 400 people who are already convicted in Bush’s mind.  That’s $250,000 for each detainee.  I wonder what sort of advances in port security could be realized if this $100 million was invested in that needed activity?  How many acres of wildlife habitat could be protected for $100 million?  I wonder what sorts of advances could be made in finding a cure for leukemia with that $100 million?  What could have been done in developing alternative energy sources with this $100 million?  Oh well, it doesn’t matter.  Halliburton was in line to receive the contract to build the facility and Dick Cheney’s stock in Halliburton would in value. After all that is the real purpose of the war profiteering?

Our scheduled meeting with the commanding officer of the Naval Station went off smoothly.  He was all gung-ho, fire breathing and very proud of his position and the sailors he commanded.  In other words he was totally unlike a US Air Force General I once met who was in command of Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska.  I had traveled to Anchorage for a meeting to discuss the environmental effects of a large and totally unnecessary radar system that the Air Force was hell-bent on constructing.   The meeting’s purpose was to discuss ways to reduce or eliminate bird deaths at a series of structures called Over-the-Horizon radar that the Air Force wanted to build on the Alaskan tundra.  The theory behind the radar was that by sending a beam of electricity from a transmitter in one part of the state and then bouncing it off the stratosphere, it would be “caught” by a receiving station hundreds of miles away.  To catch this beam of electricity, the Air Force was going to build a series of huge nets made of wire and place them in several parts of Alaska.  Over-the-Horizon radar was touted as the latest and greatest technology for detecting incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles.  With this radar, the military could detect when missiles carrying atomic warheads were thirty minutes away from exploding, rather than the current ten minutes away with contemporary technology. 

When all the fluff and puff and glitter were sorted through, it meant that we could tell everyone to prepare to kiss their ass’s good-bye twenty minutes sooner than we could currently.  The extra twenty minutes we would obtain before Armageddon was inevitable was going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to construct.  Making matters even more bewildering, this venture was the first of four radar systems the Air Force wanted to build to give us twenty more minutes warning before it was lights out.  This was a classic example of the kind of pork barrel priority that ensures the reelection of Congressmen every two years.

Our meeting began with an Air Force General giving a rousing speech about using “warriors” and “patriots” and other hyperbole designed to make you wrap yourself in a flag. The General continued his spiel by telling us how his warriors were going to save us from the invading commie hordes and it would only happen when this stupendously expensive radar was built and running.  Until that happened, none of us should sleep with both eyes shut.  Without this radar, and we had to build it now, Russians would be coming down the Iditarod Trail long before the next sled dog saw it.  The General finally stopped hyperventilating about the imminent and certain carnage that only this radar could prevent, and asked the group if there were any questions.

A police action in Southeast Asia when I was in high school and in college had rather soured my outlook on military hyperbole.  An even more insidious military action on an Ohio college campus on May 4, 1970, had given me a bad taste in the mouth for the military.  Yet the General had asked for questions, and he had given a rousing speech that would pull at the heart strings of even the most devoted cynic such as me, so I decided to ask.

“Ah, excuse me, General,” I began.  “You gave an impassioned speech about the immediacy of building this radar so we can be better prepared for a war that sounds imminent.  However, has the Air Force developed a contingency plan for what to do if peace breaks out?”

Dumbfounded by someone asking him about peace, the General stopped, thought a few seconds, shuffled his feet and said “huh?” That confirmed my suspicions that neither the General or the Air Force had thought very much about how to deal with the imminent outbreak of peace.

The Commanding Officer at Guantanamo Bay was much more pragmatic and down-to-earth than his Air Force counterpart in Alaska.  After all the Commanding Officer at Guantanamo Bay had hanging on his office wall a picture of him personally greeting singer Jimmy Buffett the day Jimmy landed his flying boat in Guantanamo Bay harbor and performed a free concert for all the sailors and Marines on the base. 

“So Commander,” I asked as I pointed my finger at the picture of him and my idol that was gracing his office wall, “does this mean you’re a Parrothead?”  The Commander smiled, put his right hand on the top of his head to simulate a shark fin (a universal greeting among Parrotheads worldwide) and said, “Does it show?”  He immediately rocketed to the top of my list of favorite Naval Base Commanding officers.

Jimmy Buffett occasionally flies over from where he is bonefishing in the Ragged Islands, Bahamas, and puts on a free concert for the sailors at Guantanamo Bay.  How cool is that?

The Base Commander was very proud of his environmental record at Guantanamo Bay pointing out several improvements implemented to protect the precious resources he was legally responsible for protecting.  “Even though we are not on the American mainland,” he said, “I feel that my base should be subject to the same environmental laws that all US Navy bases adhere to so I have made Gitmo no different than the rest.”  One hugely positive improvement implemented by the Commander was a series of wind turbines constructed on the hills above and to the south of the main base.  During the time of our visit we learned that fully one-quarter (25 percent) of all the base’s electrical needs were being met by wind energy.  It was the Commander’s wish that by the time he left Guantanamo Bay the base would be 100 percent reliant on wind and solar energy for its power needs.

As we prepared to leave the Commander to handling much more important issues than three bird watchers from the States he asked if we had seen the barn-owl that nests on the base.  We were each impressed that someone of his stature and rank knew about a single barn-owl and we were then directed to a place to find it.

The barn-owl was “next door” to Camp X-Ray.  It was at Camp X-Ray where the United States first incarcerated Arabic speakers it considered to be enemy combatants (which brings up the question of how can someone be an enemy if you don’t know who you’re fighting?).  And we did this while housing these fellow human beings in 8 foot by 5 foot cages.  It was also here where the United States transitioned from being a strong opponent of torture to a world-class torture master.  Camp X-Ray is where Bush hoped to restore some of his lost testosterone in his quest to finally become a man.  Camp X-Ray was a huge success in helping the United States become more of a torturer than any other country on earth. Bush, of course, was a total failure.

We caught a late morning ferry to the leeward side of the base near the airport.  There we were picked up in a Marine van and driven to the Leeward Galley where we ate extremely well and extremely cheaply ($3.65 for all you can eat of everything).  It was here over lunch that we first learned about the senseless murders of 32 kids and the wounding of 28 more that morning at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg. We are all so lucky that we have the National Rifle Association working diligently to keep guns in the hands of idiots AND let them buy their guns one day before they commit carnage.

Following lunch we stopped at the Marine barracks and picked up a Staff Sergeant who served as our armed guard for the afternoon as we traveled north along the boundary with Cuba to visit the spectacular alkaline wetlands of the leeward side of the base.  On final approach to the runway on our arrival at the base, I noticed a long string of very bright lights extending north from the end of the runway.  I learned later that the bright lights were the base boundary. I also learned that the recent installation of these lights that completely ring the base cost about $35 million dollars. This was done to keep the base “secure.”  The funny thing is that the base boundary can now be depicted from outer space.  The irony of that concern is that just on the other side of the highly secure boundary fence was the poverty of Cuba.  The Cuban side of the fence was protected (from the Americans) by Cuban militiamen who were armed with rifles while on the US side of the fence we road in a Humvee with two massive machine guns mounted in the rear and ours wasn’t the only Humvee with two machine guns in the trunk.  “Overkill” was the first word to enter my thoughts.

The heavily fortified border fence bewteen the Naval Base (left side) and Cuba (right side).  Massive and heavily armed US Marines constantly patrol this border fence.  Something tells me the Cubans would not last long if they tried to break in.

Our Marine guard/guide was originally from southeastern Kansas. He had been in the Marines for 12 years, most recently (six days earlier in fact) in Iraq under threat of being blown up for a lie.  He had attended college “until I was asked to leave” before joining the Marines to get his act together. Despite looking like the typical Marine who could twist the head off a cow just for the hell of it, his goal after completing 20 years with the Marines was to open and manage an art shop.  He was very interested in birds and had done numerous wood carvings and paintings of birds and their habitats. Regarding his interest in birds and his artistic interests he said that while talking with his Marine colleagues “sometimes it’s not a good idea to tell them about some of my interests.”

As we traveled the boundary we found numerous concentrations of water birds foraging actively in the saline soup of Guantanamo Bay.  I asked our guard/guide about his life in Kansas and where he went to college before being kicked out.  He said he had attended Southwestern College in Winfield where he majored in biology.  I asked if he remembered any of the professors there and the Marine mentioned the name of a former colleague of mine was a biology professor there.  Once again surprised by the smallness of the world I said that his advisor was a friend of mine I knew through the Kansas Ornithological Society.  A huge smile crossed his face when he said “He was my advisor.  He used to go to bat for me every time I did something stupid and got in trouble with the University.  I feel really bad that I disappointed him by getting kicked out.” 

Returning in early evening across the mouth of the bay we stopped at the Navy Exchange and Commissary (the PX) where we stocked up on Red Stripe and Australian Wine and then proceeded to David’s house for a barbecue dinner. The PX had in its clothing section a t-shirt that read “US Navy – Catching Pirates for 200 Years.”  I seriously considered purchasing the t shirt but then realized if I ever wore it at a pirate-filled Jimmy Buffett concert my life would be over in a matter of moments. 

Our Lynx Air flight on our last morning was scheduled to leave at 8:00 which meant we had to catch the 6:30 ferry across the mouth of the bay.  Predictably, despite having two alarm clocks set for 4:45, I still tossed and turned for most of the night, finally giving up at 3:30 a.m.  I walked outside and stood in the breezeway listening to Antillean nighthawks then got ready. We left at 5:45 for a quick (and final!) breakfast at Mickey D’s then headed to the ferry and made the 6:30 crossing. As we made the 20 minute crossing I pulled out my iPod and cranked up some appropriate Jimmy Buffett music for the situation.  Specifically I pulled up the A1A album (quite possibly the finest album ever written and produced by anyone) as the ferry pulled away from the dock.  In unison with the master of music I was singing these words from his incomparable song songs about pirates, and being the son of a sailor, and about latitude changes, and migrations and about harbors and about the banana republics.  It was a most appropriate way to end my time on this little patch of Americana deep in the bowels of Castro’s Cuba.

Aerial view of the harbor at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station

Lynx Air was scheduled to leave at 8:00 a.m., but things don’t always operate on time in the islands and today was no different. Despite a small hold up we finally lifted off at 8:25 and left the reality of the West Indies as we unfortunately headed north.  Just after clearing the end of the runway the pilot made an abrupt right hand turn over the middle of the bay and headed on a due south course for what was probably 20 miles where he then turned east.  In what I assumed was air space that the Cuban government considered international air space, the plane turned toward the east and proceeded to the easternmost tip of the island.  We stayed on this course for about 90 minutes until making our first “landfall” directly overhead Congotown on the Bahamian island of Andros.  It was refreshing to see such a large island with virtually no development except for along the immediate coast.  The interior of the many islands that make up Andros is totally unscathed and I hope it stays that way for a long time.  Not far north of Andros we intersected the Bimini VOR where we turned due west and began losing altitude over the Gulf Stream.  Two hours and 46 minutes after lifting off from Gitmo we landed at Fort Lauderdale.  We taxied to the gate and were escorted to the Customs and Immigration area where, after more than 3 hours with no bathroom on the plane, I said the hell with the formalities and darted into the first bathroom I could find. 

As I cleared Immigration the agent said “welcome home to the United States.” I replied “thanks but I don’t want to be here.”  He got an inquisitive look on his face and asked me what I meant. I told him that “home is somewhere south of where I have been and where I am now. I won’t be home again until I catch another plane headed off to the tropics.”  He didn’t know how to reply and waved me through.

The US Navy has done a remarkable job of protecting the habitats on the base. This has been done in spite of the fact that they are not required to comply with any US environmental law because they are outside the boundaries of the 50 states or territories.  In addition to a great variety of birds, West Indian manatees are on the base and Guantanamo Bay has a large wake-free zone for their protection.  Given his fascination with Cuba and his love of manatees, I’m surprised that Jimmy Buffett’s “Save the Manatee” effort hasn’t hooked up with GTMO about protecting manatees on the base.  Also, the fact that the Commanding Officer of the base could tell us the density of hutia (the “banana rat” of Cuba) on the base told me that he and the base take environmental protection very seriously.

The US Navy has done a remarkable job of keeping the vegetation on the base in near-pristine condition.  The cactus shown here known appropriately as "dildo cactus" is a conspicuous part of the Guantanamo landscape.

In response to the nationalization by the Castro government of property and companies owned by Americans, the United States implemented a punitive embargo against Cuba in 1960.  That action may have made sense in 1960 but as time has gone on it has become increasingly more obvious that the embargo that is still in place today hurts only the United States.   It should have been lifted ages ago but politics and hysteria and tradition have kept it in place.  It’s akin to the Rural Electrification Administration.  The REA was begun during the 1930s during the height of the Depression.  Its purpose was to provide electric power to rural areas that could not otherwise obtain or afford electricity.  Today in the early 21st century where almost every home has a computer, there is STILL an REA in the US Department of Agriculture!  Americans are able to communicate with their thumbs on a key board of a phone slightly larger than a match book now but still we have the REA because, well, it’s always been there.  The same ridiculous view holds for the Cuban embargo.

In 1960 when the Embargo was put in place the human population of the United States was 179,000,000-.  Today the human population of the United States is 309,000,000.   Simple second grade arithmetic shows us that 130,000,000 people, fully 40 percent of the United States was not even born when the Cuban embargo was put in place.  I wonder how many of those 40 percent are incapable of fathoming the issue.  I was in the 6th grade when the embargo happened and I still don’t understand the why behind it.  Imagine someone born in 1970 trying to get their head around it.

Politicians of all stripes wax poetic about the need to keep a heavy thumb on Cuba because it is a “communist” government.  That alone, supposedly, is reason enough to keep horrible policy in place and at the same time hobble the ability of American companies to invest in Cuba and for American citizens to travel legally to Cuba.  Curiously the American government has absolutely no qualms about maintaining diplomatic relations and numerous business ventures with the communist government of Vietnam, a country in whose own civil war we meddled at the cost of billions of dollars and 58,000 American lives.  Concomitantly the American government has absolutely no qualms about maintaining diplomatic relations and developing business relations with the communist government of China, the largest communist nation on earth.  In fact, the George Dubya Bush administration sold 40 percent of America’s budget debt to China.  So, theoretically, China OWNS 40 percent of the United States.  That communist government is ok, but shaking hands with a neighbor who needs friends 90 miles from our coast is akin to treason.

Every day airplanes flown by Delta, United and American Airlines land in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong China.  Further United Airlines has landing rights for service to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Vietnam from Hong Kong.  Yet the only air service from the United States to Cuba is occasional charter flights. 

I have now traveled to Cuba twice.  Of the 72 islands in the West Indies that I have visited Cuba ranks in the top four of my favorites.  My travel to Cuba has all been legal because I travel there on a US Treasury Department license, a thing required by the Trading With the Enemy Act of 1917 If I did not have a Treasury license I would be in violation of the law.  Hilarious also, because Vietnam WAS our enemy during the Vietnam War and China is no pal (other than owning 40 percent of America) yet Cuba who has done nothing to the US is considered an enemy. Such bullshit.

Curiously when I traveled to China in 1992 I simply sent my passport to the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC and for a fee they pasted a visa in my passport.  Similarly when I traveled to Viet Nam in 2006 I simply walked my passport over to the Viet Nam embassy in Washington DC and for a fee watched them paste a visa in it.  In a matter of seconds I was legally allowed to freely travel to these countries that were our enemies.  Now they are our pals but Cuba is a threat.  Go figure.

My first trip to Cuba I flew on Cubana de Aviacion, the national carrier of Cuba from Toronto to Varadero, a beach resort on the north coast of Cuba.  Because of the ridiculous embargo we were required by Federal law to fly directly to New York, then 200 miles offshore from the United States south to Andros Island in the Bahamas. There we could make a right hand turn and fly into Varadero. The trip took 5 1/2 hours and we had to do so because it was a Cuban aircraft. Had we flown on Air Canada (that also had nonstop service) we could have flown directly over American airspace the entire way and made the trip in 3 1/2 hours

Recently I wrote a letter to the World Trade Organization asking for data on who many American corporations conduct business daily and legally with the communist governments of both Vietnam and with China.  I want to use any data obtained to plead a case with myopic Florida legislators who steadfastly oppose normalization of relations with Cuba.  That letter to the WTO follows.

Dear World Trade Organization

I find it increasingly frustrating that the Congress of the United States steadfastly refuses to allow the normalization of relations with the government of Cuba ostensibly because it has a communist government. At the same time, however, the Congress and American businesses fall all over themselves in various business ventures with the communist governments of Vietnam and China.

I have searched the internet trying to find a piece of information that would be useful in arguing against the continued policy against Cuba because of its communist beliefs.  However I have not been able to find that information anywhere.  I'm hoping that the World Trade Organization has that information or could at least direct me to a source that does.

Specifically I would like to know how many American businesses (that we know of) have formal agreements to conduct business (e.g. maintain offices, factories, etc) in 1) China and 2) Vietnam.

Also I would like to know how many American businesses (that we know of) have entered into Memoranda of Agreement and other formal agreements to facilitate trade between them and the governments of China and Vietnam (e.g., the Jones rice company having an agreement to ship rice annually to China, etc).

Lastly I would like to know if there are any estimates of the amount of money $US) spent by American corporations to develop, support, and maintain their business ventures in China and in Vietnam.

Thank you in advance for any assistance you might possibly be willing to extend.

I have never received a reply from the World Trade Organization or have I received a reply to letters written to my Congressman or either of my US Senators (one Democrat, one Tea Party) urging that we end this nonsensical embargo of a neighbor who could use friends just 90 miles from our shores.  I never will receive a reply from them because to actually do something to end this nonsense would not be met favorably in the political realm by people who think it’s important to continue to inflict pain on the Castro government when in fact the only people feeling pain are the Cubans we ostensibly want to help.

Time on Guantanamo Bay, complete with its McDonald’s restaurant, opened my eyes to many things and one of the most important things it made me realize is just how hurtful and misdirected policies and programs can be that begin well intentioned and then morph into the absurd.  Several years ago I watched a television program that included an interview with then-Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.  The interview was filmed in his office and during the discussion he opened the top drawer of his desk and it seemed to be overflowing with paper checks. Each of the checks was a US government payment of $5,000 each year for the lease of the land at Guantanamo Bay.  Castro had never cashed any of the checks (and by 2014 after 54 years of the Revolution, he was sitting on $270,000 that could have been used for badly needed infrastructure improvements even on the road to the Bahia de Cochinos) because to do so would be perceived as his tacit approval of the legality of the lease. 

Meanwhile the United States government continues to joust at windmills and act tough as it thinks that its punitive embargo is hurting Castro.  It is not.

One of my wishes before I take leave of the planet is to see US Marines along the heavily fortified fence marking the west boundary of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base reaching their hands through the fence to shake those of the Cuban militiamen on the other side.  It’s a gesture that needs to happen on the heavily fortified (and land-mine riddled) border between Israel and Jordan and it also needs to happen at Guantanamo Bay.  In my wildest imagination I’d like to see peace break out along that border fence on the southeast coast of Cuba.  Perhaps if the outbreak is extensive enough it could infect the entire western hemisphere.  Of course I’ve always been a dreamer.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Florida Governor Thankful for the 5th Amendment to the US Constitution

TALLAHASSEE, FL – In a wide-ranging and often rambling interview with the first legitimate news organization he has spoken with since taking office, Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, described to Al Jazerra America reporter Mohammed bin Laden the things for which he is most thankful this Thanksgiving.

“To me,” Scott said, “the thing I am most thankful for is the 5th Amendment of the Constitution and its ability to protect people from self-incrimination in court proceedings.”

Scott, elected by one point in 2010 over his nearest opponent during a year of anti-government hysteria unmatched in American history is now facing a tough re-election bid against former Florida Governor Charlie Crist.  Recent polls have shown that Scott’s approval rating is only slightly higher than that of dead opossums and slightly lower than syphilis.

Before becoming Governor, Scott was the CEO of a large health care company that had been charged by the US government with what became the largest health care fraud indictment in history.  On the witness stand Scott refused to answer any questions other than his name, instead invoking the 5th Amendment a record 75 times.

“I used the 5th Amendment so much you’d think my name was Corleone and I was from Sicily,” Scott grinned as he threw bags of dog biscuits at homeless people for their Thanksgiving dinner while they hovered over warm air vents on Bald Cypress Way in the capital city.

Asked if there was anything else for which he was thankful, Governor Scott smiled and said “I’m thankful that I live in a state where the legislature passed laws that allowed our prison industry to be contracted out to my political cronies.”  Scott then added, “I’m also thankful that we have laws in this state that require welfare recipients to be drug tested before receiving benefits.”  Scott, through his wife, is the principal owner of the main company that conducts the required drug testing. 

Throughout his term in office Scott has usually granted media interviews only to reporters from Fox News affiliates and almost entirely in The Villages, a Lake County enclave of retired nutcases closely allied with the Tea Bag Anarchy Party.  When asked by Al Jazeera America why he was giving this unsolicited interview away from the safety of The Villages, Scott snickered, “Hey, what the hell.  It’s a holiday and I have to appear like I care about more than tearing down the government and destroying this state.”

Concluding the interview, Al Jazeera America asked Governor Scott if he had any plans for his post political life.  “If I am ever removed from office by the voters or by a political coup, I’ll just move to the Cayman Islands and live in the sun.  Most of the money my wife and I have made while I have been in office is growing daily on the interest in a certain bank there anyway so why not find a house on Seven Mile Beach and just laugh at all of the corruption and confusion I created while driving this state into the ground,” Scott snarled.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Dozen Random Islands

What is it about islands that makes it impossible to stay away?

Having completed my most recent tome (Slices of America's Pie) about my quest to visit every county in the United States, I began thinking of what should be my next travel topic to discuss.  Ever since June 4, 1984, when I stepped off a plane in the Bahamas for the first time I have been fascinated with, intrigued by, and in love with islands.  There is simply no other way to put it.  The database I maintain tells me that I have visited 372 islands world wide from relatively gartantuan ones like Borneo in the South China Sea, and Tasmania in the Tasman Sea, to tiny 1-acre Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge in the middle of Mille Lacs Lake in northern Minnesota.  Aside from their apparent size differnce every island has been different but every island seems familiar and for the longest time I wanted to figure out that conundruum.  

Several recent discussions with long-time friends has convinced me that my next book will be about islands and why I am addicted to them.  I certainly have more than enough experiences to relate and stories to tell and it was simply a matter of figuring out which islands to describe that would tell the story I want told.  A recent discussion with my sister gave me the title of the book and after making that decision it was easy to figure out which islands to portray.  

Now on the eve of Thanksgiving 2013, I have started work on "A Dozen Random Islands."  They extend from the frigid waters of the North Atlantic off Ireland (Tory Island) to the tropical heat of Bonaire a few miles off the South American coast. From there east to the Mediterranean and on to the South China Sea (Borneo and Singapore) and ending on the languid shores of Western Samoa in the South Pacific..  In the chapters I want to talk about more than birds and more than beer and more than where to find the best coconut shrimp.  I also want to explore the concepts of "island time" and "island mentality" and with it to understand how the word "manana" doesn't mean "tomorrow" on islands.  It means "not today."

Following are the 14 chapters that will be included in the story.  The first and last are, of course, introductory and summary discussions and the middle 12 chapters will be the dozen islands I want to write about.  That is followed by the very rough version of Chapter 1.

I sincerely request that anyone reading this post look at Chapter 1 and give me your feedback.  Do I set the stage for what I want to discuss in the book? As a reader what else would you like to know up front?  Am I too verbose and do I need to pare things down?  Feedback would be greatly appreciated either as an email to me if you have my email address or as a comment at the end of the post.   Thank you.

1.  Introduction (including interest/passion for islands)
2.  Prince Edward Island Canada

3.  Everybody Wears Shorts in Bermuda

4.  Cuba (Guantanamo Bay)

5.  A Return to Grand Turk

6.  Bonaire

7.  You Flew All the Way Here to See One Bird? - Tory Island, Ireland

8.  Mallorca Spain

9.  Maderia, Portugal

10.  The Girly Men of Singapore

11.  Borneo - In The Shadow of Mount Kinabalu

12.  The Little Penguins of Tasmania

13.  Almost Heaven Western Samoa

14.  What Is It About Islands?


Christmas in most families is an elaborate affair with gifts exchanged and dinner served and fights mediated.  After all of the drama has subsided there are hugs and kisses all around as everyone makes plans to repeat the scene again next year.  At least it has worked that way for most Christmases I have been around. 

One exception was the Christmas my daughters spent with me one year in the Washington DC suburbs.  As we exchanged gifts I could tell from the size and texture of the package that it was a type of clothing.  My oldest daughter, Jennifer, had given me the gift and the snicker on her face told me to expect something unusual.  Peeling back the first layer of wrapping paper I saw that whatever was inside was coal black and made from cotton.  Removing a few more strands of wrapping paper revealed gold lettering on at least one side of the clothing and when all the paper was off I held in my hands a large, black, and much needed sweatshirt.  Placing my hands on the shoulders I twirled it around to read the words printed on the front.  I burst out laughing as I did because the front of the sweatshirt said in huge yellow letters, “Does Anal Retentive Have a Hyphen?”

The shirt and its message were indicative of how well my daughter knows me because if I am any one thing its anal retentive.  Only someone with a high degree of anal retentive behavior would traipse across the country counting the counties he has visited and the airlines he’s flown and the airports he’s departed from and the state parks he’s visited.  Only a select few would proudly reveal to friends that he maintains a computer file with a picture of the entrance sign of every state he’s visited and the entrance sign for every county in Florida (there are 67 of them) and a database of all the Margaritaville Cafes where he’s consumed a beer?  A friend, Jon Andrew, used to introduce me to people saying, simply, “This is my friend Craig.  He’s an excessive-compulsive, anal-retentive.”  Jon had it figured out long before my daughter.

And, yes, anal-retentive has a hyphen.

One of the many examples of my anal tendencies is the database I maintain of all of the islands I have visited worldwide.  The database fields include the name of the island, the state and country it’s in, the day I visited it and the body of water in which it sits.  A routine sort of the data tells me that I have been on 19 islands in the Bahamas and 72 islands in the West Indies and on 111 islands offshore from Florida.  Most importantly I have visited 372 islands across the globe.  Some I have driven to, some I have approached from a boat, many I have flown to, and there is one to which I swam in the Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers, Florida.

I don’t remember the first island I ever visited but I do remember the first one I saw in the West Indies.  It was New Providence Island in the Bahamas, the island on which the bustling former pirate town of Nassau sits.  A massive Delta Airlines jet brought me there on a blistering hot June afternoon long ago.  I was on the island at the start of what became an odyssey.  It was an odyssey of travel among the islands and an odyssey that helped me heal from an emotional trauma.  At first I was running away from everything around me and islands were the logical antidote for what ailed me.  Eventually islands became more home than home and I was more myself there than anywhere else.  It didn’t make any difference which island I visited or which ocean it was in, an island was a safe haven and the more I learned about them the more I wanted to be on one.

Depending on where you travel and how hard you travel islands can be the home of many debilitating afflictions.  On Hispaniola, for instance, I became gravely ill once after drinking some of the local water supply in Santo Domingo.  After several hours of feeling like I was going to give birth I scurried to the United States Embassy where the medical officer checked me to determine what malady had laid me so low.  A few pokes here and there and a few samples of body fluids later the doctor in the Embassy determined that I had contacted a liver fluke from that one drink of water.  It was a nasty creature that still, to this day, raises its ugly head on occasion and makes my life uncomfortable. That and a bout of giardiasis from Western Samoa, however, are about the only negative things I have encountered on any island I have visited.

David Tresemer, a PhD psychologist from Tasmania said several years ago at a professional meeting held on an island that “islands are defined by mystery.”  Dr. Tresemer described islands perfectly.  For most of us the first time we are on an island everything around us is new.  Many of the birds on Jamaica, for instance, are the same as those on nearby Cuba but on Jamaica there are 29 species of birds that occur not only on no other island but also nowhere else on earth.  British ecologist David Lack long ago addressed island biogeography in an exhaustive treatise titled “Island Biology.”  In it Lack examined the theories and the realities of evolution on islands and discovered that two things stuck out above all else.  Although seemingly elementary when you think about it, the larger the island the more likely it will have more species of plants and animals than a small island.  Secondly, the more isolated an island or island group the more unique the organisms are living on it.

The Hawaiian Islands, which I never wanted to visit until I finally visited them, demonstrate the duality of Lack’s hypothesis.  There on the most isolated island chain in the world, plants and animals and especially birds, have evolved in wildly and widely different directions.  All native bird species in Hawaii probably evolved from one ancient ancestral honeycreeper that somehow found its way across thousands of miles of open, inhospitable, ocean to the shores of Hawaii.  There over time the ancient descendants evolved nut-cracking bills while others developed nectar-sucking bills.  Some evolved elaborate and highly colored feathers and feather patterns while others evolved very drab and mundane feather colors and patterns.  Here also those ancient ancestors were able to populate the islands according to their size.  Large and dominant Hawaii (also known as the “Big Island”) has more species and more unique species than much smaller Kauai.  Even fewer species of lesser uniqueness exist on much smaller Molokai and Lanai.  Evolution here fits the pattern that Lack hypothesized but the fact that it occurs as Lack predicted remains a mystery for biologists to unravel. 

The people who inhabit islands are another of their mysteries.  Residents of Newfoundland, Canada (“Newfies” in colloquial Canadian-speak) have a different outlook and a different way of living and being and even talking than do other Canadians even on nearby Prince Edward Island.  Did this occur by random chance or was there some biological or societal force in motion that made Newfies so unlike other Canadians?  Although geographically not a part of the Caribbean, the residents of Bermuda are much more highly refined and groomed than, say, many residents of islands in the Bahamas a mere 1,000 miles away.  People from many islands in the South Pacific (Vanuatu and New Caledonia immediately come to mind) are the descendants of headhunters and cannibals.  Yet there is no evidence of that behavior ever in the ancient populations of the Mediterranean or Caribbean.  Why is that? What forces were at work in the South Pacific that gave many of its residents a taste for human rump roast while residents of other islands elsewhere in the vast oceans never gave it a second thought?  It is another in a long list of mysteries that make islands intriguing to even the most casual observer.

Some islands were formed from volcanic activity, and some are basically massive coral reefs.  Cayman Brac is a huge butte-like structure that rose from the ocean at the end of the last glacial period.  Others like Tarawa in the South Pacific are only a few inches above sea level and a prime candidate for being consumed by rising sea levels.  The beaches of Eleuthera in the eastern Bahamas are a coral-like pink color for almost all of the 100 mile long extent of the island.  However 1000 miles away in the Lesser Antilles the island of Dominica is surrounded by coal-black sands.  Spectacular wing-like cliffs called pali’s line the north shore of Molokai where they seem to plunge vertically into the snarling waters of the Pacific.  Yet in that same ocean several thousand miles away, the shore of Pohnpei slopes gently into the ocean and its muddy beaches are lined with almost impenetrable forests of mangrove.  As with the people and the plants and the wildlife on islands, the structure of them is all similar but at the same time wildly divergent.  How did that come to be?

Many travelers and tourists flock to islands to absorb what is known as “island time.”  It’s a concept afflicting many contemporary residents of large cities and over active nations who want to escape from their self-imposed rat race and live if just for a brief time, in a land or a place where things happen when they happen.  In the Spanish language the word “Manana” means “tomorrow.”  However on many islands and especially in the West Indies, and even those that are not Spanish speaking nations, “manana” actually means “not today.”  When someone tells you that they will do something for you “manana” don’t expect it tomorrow because it likely won’t happen.  It will happen but only when they want it to happen.  I long ago learned about this concept on Inagua in the southern Bahamas after a Bahamasair plane I was flying broke in mid-flight and we had to be rescued before we could continue further.

Bahamasair flew four Hawker-Sidley 748 propeller-driven jets in those days.  The one we were on was scheduled to eventually leave Nassau and fly first to Mayaguana and then on to Inagua before passing over the international border and landing at South Caicos in the Turks and Caicos Islands.  There we were to make a simple connection and eventually spend a week or so exploring Grand Turk.  Bahamasair and their broken plane had other plans.

All was well for the first 75 minutes of the 90 minute flight to Mayaguana but suddenly the noise level in the plane dropped by half as the propellers on the right engine quit spinning around.  The Bahamian pilot quickly explained our dilemma but then added that “there’s nothing to worry about.”   We limped into Mayaguana where the pilot radioed Nassau asking them to send one of the three repair crews the airline hired to maintain its fleet of four Hawker-Sidley 748s.  As our luck would have it the three repair crews were on three other islands fixing the three other planes and we were told we would have to wait until tomorrow to be rescued.  Tomorrow eventually came and with it came the repair crew from Bahamasair that fixed a faulty wire (that could have easily caused an engine fire) and by late morning we were on our way to Inagua.  Our original arrival time on South Caicos was at 2:00 p.m. yesterday and by 11:00 a.m. today (21 hours late) we were sitting at the airport in Inagua waiting to depart but there was no pilot in the cockpit and in fact no pilot anywhere on the plane.  Our erstwhile pilot was outside by the nose landing gear talking with his friends and getting caught up on local island gossip. 

My purpose in being in the West Indies then was to conduct research on the winter ecology of Kirtland’s warbler, an endangered species of bird that nests in Michigan and winters in the islands.  At the time of those original travels there were maybe 500 individual Kirtland’s warblers left on earth and we were charged with figuring out if something was happening in the winter that was causing their population to not expand.  This included travel throughout the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands and one reason for the trip to Grand Turk was to meet the nation’s Prime Minister to brief him on the research effort and to foster good relations between the two countries.  To accomplish that end I had a meeting set for 11:00 that morning on Grand Turk and now I was going to be miserably late.  Instead of talking to the Prime Minister I was on a plane that was not air conditioned as it baked in the tropical sun and with no pilot to be found.

Incensed that I was being personally held hostage by this incompetent pilot (who had no idea that I existed or was even on his plane) I bolted from my seat, stormed off the plane, and found him with his buddies telling stories by the nose wheel.  Incredulous with my situation I laid it on thick to the pilot informing him that his actions were personally causing not only me to miss my meeting but likely to be the reason the endangered Kirtland’s warbler would go extinct.  I was incredibly important in my mind and I made no bones about letting him know how I felt.  As words flew from my lips the pilot kept talking to his friends.  The more he ignored me the more upset I became and finally I screamed at him “You need to get your ass back on this fucking plane and get me over to South Caicos NOW!”

As I stewed and fretted and further lost my temper, the pilot kept talking to his friends and acting as if I was not even there.  Completing a sentence with his friends, the pilot turned to me pointed his right index finger in my face and in a very low, slow, and deliberate Bahamian way said, “Sir, you are now in the land where time stands still.”  He seemed to put particular emphasis on the words “time stands still.”   Finishing several more stories with his friends the pilot finally turned back to me and said, “There, now we can go.”  He had royally put me in my place and it was my first serious introduction to the concept of island time.  I eventually arrived on Grand Turk but not when I wanted to.  The important thing was that I was there.  Island time dictated that I arrive when I fit into the island’s schedule not the other way around.

“Island mentality” is a concept associated with islands and island life.   The online Urban Dictionary defines an island mentality as “A psychological state more than a geographic state of a person: a belief in a community’s or culture's superiority, correctness, or specialness compared to other communities or cultures. Inspired by positive-minded well-meaning groupthink, increasing homogeneity over time, isolation-induced ignorance of other cultures or communities, fear of the unknown or being outnumbered (and a desire to compensate for their smallness amid the world), and lack of conflict with/lack of destruction by other communities (improving relative progress and social harmony and giving some credence to their feelings of superiority).  This concept is not a universal component of islands everywhere because so few island people have the ability or the inclination to be “superior” to anyone else.  Some have said that this definition of island mentality is best associated with the British and the Japanese and a strong argument can be made for this being a valid concept for those two islands.

After more than 30 years of exploring islands from the Arctic Ocean to the South Pacific I have more questions than answers about them.  That conundrum and my innate inquisitiveness may be the principal reasons I continue to hop on planes or cruise ships and deposit myself on an island.  The psychology of “there” keeps bringing me back and I simply cannot get enough of them.

In the following pages I describe visits to a dozen divergent islands ranging from the frigid waters of the North Atlantic in Canada to the equatorial currents of the Indian Ocean at Singapore and then on to Samoa.  Each island had its challenges and each island was different yet at the same time each island was actually no different than the last one I visited.  What’s needed to discern the differences is an open mind and a degree of patience (“island time” exists everywhere – it is simply not restricted to the West Indies) and an inquisitive nature that pushes travelers to learn more about where they are than the names of the best spas and the closest British pub.  Some of these islands will be familiar and some will make readers scratch their heads, yet all of them will likely generate an urge to board a plane or a cruise ship and set out to explore.  The purpose of travel is to expose the uninitiated to experiences and opportunities that simply cannot be appreciated by watching the Travel Channel.  Islands seem to be a living laboratory for experiments in biology and physics and sociology 101.  They are everywhere and they yearn to give up their secrets and it’s up to us all to uncover the mysteries that are exposable on each of them.