Archive for December, 2019

Devil’s Island, French Guiana (2019)

     The morning of March 16 found Prinsendam anchored near Ile du Royale, the largest of the three Salvation Islands.  This is the one island that can be visited from a cruise ship; the other two are called Ile St-Joseph and Ile du Diable (which means Devil’s Island).

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     For just over 100 years this archipelago was part of a French penal colony.  It was opened in 1853 by Napoleon III after his coup, and eventually more than 200 republican opponents of his regime were stashed there.  After a lot of bad publicity the French stopped sending prisoners here in 1938 with the intent of closing the penal colony, which they did in 1953 after a delay caused by the German occupation of France during World War II.  Today it welcomes visitors from cruise ships, private yachts and people ferried here for a look on local boats from the mainland some 8 or 9 miles away.

    We tendered in as early as we could after finishing breakfast.  The island is lush and beautiful, and studded with the ruins of interesting penal colony buildings.  The tiny port has a small but sturdy tender dock.

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     This is a beautiful tropical island, lush with palm trees and surrounded by surf.  Add in the extra interest of the ruins of the prison camp and some nice weather and you have the makings of a very nice port stop.  But there is little to do here other than explore the island on foot: no excursions, no busses, no beaches, no zip lines.  So that is what we did, just as we did on our first visit, although our routes differed a bit.

We walked down the path to the left in the picture above.  Upon entering the forest we encountered some Capuchin monkeys and then some steep stairs to get up to the level that was the center of the prison.

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    On the way up the hill we spent some time in a small museum, filled mostly with explanatory displays about the history of the prison colony and the prisoners who served time here.  At the top we came upon the prison chapel, in good shape (probably restored) and perhaps currently in use.  Inside were some interesting paintings on the walls by a prisoner named LaGrange who was a counterfeiter.  Across from the church was the hospital, looking well restored at least on the outside, and nearby were some real ruins not restored at all.

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     We visited the ruins of the main prison, where prisoners were chained to a long bar stretching the length of the room so they couldn’t even walk around their cells.

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     We visited buildings with cells for prisoners in solitary confinement.  Pretty depressing looking cells, tiny and dark.  These two buildings were still pretty much intact, in much better shape than the prison walls above.

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     We visited the much nicer area where the guards and other prison personnel lived.  We think the personnel who manage the island and the space port tracking station may live there today.  The French Space Agency (CNES) operates its launching facility in Kourou, on the mainland near these islands, and there is a tracking station on Ile Royale.  In fact, the French Space Agency is in charge of managing the islands, which are evacuated before launches.  Near these guard houses we passed the French launch tracking station.

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     We walked over to the hotel, which we have read started life as the guards’ mess when the prison was active.  Yes, you can book a room and spend your vacation on this island, but why would you want to spend your vacation at an infamous old prison?  The hotel has a restaurant and it sits on a hill with a nice vista of the sea and Devil’s island across the water.  It also has a souvenir shop, but it was pretty expensive (no competition, we guess).  There is a peacock living on the grounds, although we didn’t see it during our visit.

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     We descended some steep steps behind the hotel toward the coast nearest to Devil’s Island.  Devil’s Island is only about 600 feet away from Isle Royale, but the water is very rough and infested with sharks.  This is why it was almost impossible to escape. The book & movie Papillon were presented as the memoirs of Henri Charriere, a prisoner who escaped Devil’s Island on pontoons & had many adventures.  But it turns out he actually was imprisoned on the mainland and never set foot on the islands (it is nevertheless worth reading).  Very few of the 80,000 prisoners sent here over the century of operation ever made it back to France.  A majority died on the islands and French law required prisoners to stay in French Guiana after leaving the prison for a number of years equal to their prison terms; if the term was 8 years or more they had to stay for life. And even those who were no longer prohibited from returning to France could not do so unless they could pay their own way.  To keep the sharks around prisoners who died (as most of them did eventually) were rowed out from the shore and dumped in the water.  This happened often, so the sharks stayed around.  Because taking a boat to Devil’s Island was so treacherous there was a cable car built between the islands to transport supplies.

     On our way to the coast we encountered another monkey and an agouti (a rodent related to the guinea pig).

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     At this point Mary & Bill decided to return to the tender pier while Rick & Robert continued the walk around the edge of the island.  There were good views of Devil’s Island and a sign warning you to be careful as this is a dangerous area (no kidding!). 

     Probably the most famous person imprisoned on Devil’s Island was Captain Alfred Dreyfus, framed by the French Army because he was Jewish for an act of espionage committed by another soldier in order to preserve the public image of the army.  Sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in 1894 after conviction for treason, he was freed and his army rank restored after about five years because of a campaign of public protest led by Emile Zola, among others, and the discovery of the suppressed evidence that he was innocent.  There is a restored stone hut near the water on Devil’s Island that we think was where he was kept, but if not, this was like the one where he lived under close supervision, with no hope of liberation because he was not told of the campaign in France to free him.  We do not recall seeing this hut when we were here in 2012, so it may have been restored since then.

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     On the walk around the rest of the island to the tender dock Rick & Robert encountered a sea turtle in the water and an iguana sunning itself on a rock.  When we reached the tender pier Bill & Mary were nowhere to be found.  Rick thought we were to meet them here but Robert thought they were going straight back to the ship.  Fortunately, Robert had it right.

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     On the ship that evening the wait staff were dressed in striped prisoner attire and one of the penguins was standing guard over some prisoners outside the dining room.  We had some fruit carvings in the Lido during the afternoon.  The next day was a sea day and we were invited (along with a number of other passengers) to dinner in the Pinnacle restaurant with the Captain.  Everyone who took the full voyage was invited to one of these soirees but as the trip was coming to an end we had not received an invitation.  Feeling a little slighted, we asked our travel agent hosts, Henk & Lucia, if they knew why.  Before long we received an invitation for March 17.  It turned out we were on the list for an earlier Captain’s dinner but the invitation was never delivered to our cabin.  This was a good example of why it is good to have a travel agent host aboard, especially one as effective as Henk & Lucia are.  Prior to the Pinnacle dinner there was a cocktail reception in the Captain’s quarters.  For reasons we won’t go into here, the Prinsendam Captain’s quarters are reputed to be the largest and most lavish in the fleet, and we won’t argue with that since the reception was held in a large room next to his living space equipped with a bar.  After this we headed into the Caribbean to visit four islands on the final leg of our journey.

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Three Days at Sea (2019)

     It took a couple of days to sail from Alter do Chao to our next stop, Devil’s Island.  These were “sea days” in that we spent the whole time on the ship, but most of the time we were still in the Amazon, so we guess these were really river days, rather than sea days.  On March 14 we sailed toward the mouth of the Amazon on the north side of the Ihla de Marajo, the largest river island in the world:  it is a little larger than Switzerland.  We had sailed into the Amazon along the Para river near Belem, which runs along the south of Marajo.  Marajo has a population of more than 450,000 and almost as many water buffalo as people (the police ride them on patrol).  Here is a picture of the riverbank taken that morning, but we aren’t sure any more whether it is Marajo or the opposite river bank.

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     On this day we crossed the equator for the fourth and last time on this voyage.  We crossed the line as we sailed past the city of Macapa on the north bank of the Amazon, across from the island.  This city of about 500,000 calls itself “the capital of the middle of the world” because the equator runs through it and they have built a monument on the spot where the equator passes through called “Marco Zero.”  We didn’t see the monument from the ship, but we passed the equator there anyway.

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     There is a navy tradition dating back at least 300 years of initiating sailors making their first crossing of the equator.  It’s pretty silly, but still fun.  The novices, called pollywogs, are brought before King Neptune and his spouse (Queen Neptune?), where they are charged with heinous but hilarious “crimes,” then judged by the ship’s senior officers with a thumbs up or thumbs down.  They are forced to kiss a fish then lie on a table while they are slimed with brightly colored yuck.  If the judgment is thumbs down, they are forced to jump into the pool; if the judgment is thumbs up they go and side on the side of the pool (those who get thumbs down have the advantage of having the slime rinsed off).  After surviving the ceremony the “pollywogs” become “shellbacks,” and aren’t supposed to have to do this again.  This is supposed to be done on the first crossing of the equator, but our Captain saved it until the last crossing, apparently unafraid of reprisals from an easily offended Neptune.  The passengers got to watch, rather than participate, even if this was their first crossing, and a large crowd turned out to watch the fun under a hot sun.

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     Polliwogs kneel before King Neptune while the charges are read, then must kiss the fish (while everyone chants “kiss the fish!”).

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     In the early days the KIng Neptune ceremony was much rougher than today.  On Captain Cook’s 1768 voyage to the South Pacific crew members who had not crossed the equator before had to give up their wine allotment for four days or else be ducked three times into the ocean.  Joseph Banks, the ship naturalist, recorded that some came out of the ocean “grinning and exulting in their hardiness” while others “were almost suffocated”.  On the second voyage of the HMS Beagle in 1832 young Charles Darwin was one of the novices (called griffins at that time)..  The griffins were assembled on a dark and hot lower deck, then led by “four of Neptune’s constables” one at a time, blindfolded, up on deck while “buckets of water were thundered all around.”  Darwin, the first victim, was “placed on a plank, which could be easily tilted up into a large bath of water – They then lathered my face & mouth with pitch and paint, & scraped some of it off with a piece of roughened iron hoop. – a signal being given I was tilted head over heels into the water, where two men received me & ducked me . . most of the others were treated much worse, dirty mixtures being put in their mouths & rubbed on their faces” . As late as World War II US Navy ship ceremonies included beatings with wet fire hoses and poking with an electrified piece of metal.

     Compared with all that today’s ceremony was pretty tame, with no injuries and a  lot of fun.  After kissing the fish the pollywogs were led to long metal tables where they had to lie down and be slimed by attendants wearing surgical attire.  On one side of the pool the slime was mostly pink and on the other blue.  The slimers were very enthusiastic in their work.

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     After being slimed, those receiving thumbs down from the officers were mercifully “helped” into the pool, while those who received thumbs up had to sit on the side & bake in the sun fully slimed.

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     As we neared the end they were running out of pollywogs faster than slime, so some people received entire tubfulls.

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     King Neptune read a final proclamation and he and his consort walked out, signaling the end of the ceremony.  As you can imagine, the pool was closed for hours for cleaning and restoration.  Everybody received a certificate signed by the Captain and “Neptune Rex” that we had crossed the equator (the certificate inexplicably left out our first crossing in Ecuador).

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     March 15 was Mary’s birthday.   When you have a birthday on a HAL ship a small birthday cake is provided after dinner and the waiters and other dining room staff gather around your table and sing the Indonesian birthday song.  This is done with great enthusiasm, including beating on the bottom of pots with wooden spoons.  With only 365 days in a year and almost three times that many passengers, this can be heard just about every night and often twice.  Mary’s birthday was no exception, although an added touch was that this was a gala night so everyone was dressed up.  We had the cake sliced nine ways so there would be some for our waiters too.

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     Before dinner we listened to some lovely chamber music by George & Agnes (Adagio) in the Explorers’ Lounge and we ended that night with a difficult to identify towel animal.  During the afternoon in the Lido the food artist was active.

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     We are going to cheat a little here in the name of efficiency.  The Indonesian Crew Show was presented on March 20, five days later and after several interim stops, but we are going to include it here because it was a sea day and because presenting it out of order will save posting an additional episode.  We had seen the Filipino Crew Show much earlier in the voyage,, while we were in Chile.  The Indonesian crew had a band and a singer who, if we remember correctly, doubled as Master of Ceremonies.

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     There was a performance we have seen before in which the participants wear white gloves and kneel down in a row on some cushions.  Then they do synchronized movements to the music.  First every other one does a movement with hands up while the other half do one with hands on the floor, then they reverse.  Perhaps the pictures will explain it better.

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     The solo singer who opened the show came back for a number or two with the band.  He was quite a showman.

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     The last performance involved most of the Indonesians on stage along with several people from the audience.  Each had a wooden contraption that emitted one note when shaken.  Some kind of musical notation was on a plaque that was mounted on a stand in front of them, which indicated when each note was to be played.  Songs were played by people shaking their instruments in turn.  The passengers then left the stage and the Indonesian performers all took their final bows.

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