Ukuleles on the Spanish Main
Arriving in a new country by air, everywhere looks very similar. Arriving by sea is a slow reveal, especially when we approach in daylight. Our first view of St Lucia was of glorious forested mountains, neat multicoloured houses and small harbour and bays. Port of Spain, Trinidad was a noisy city, Aruba affluent and low lying with turquoise coral reef beyond the quayside and elaborate Dutch colonial buildings.
Docking at Cartagena in Colombia brought us the heart of the Spanish Main. In the 15th and 16th century this referred to the mainland ports of Spain along the Caribbean coasts, where gold from the interior of central America was shipped home to Spain. The area was rich pickings for pirates, who spent their time waiting to pounce on the heavily laden galleons to relieve them of their load, or attacking the towns and harbours. Francis Drake was a legal pirate, authorised by the Queen and knighted for his successes at hassling Spanish colonies and pinching their loot. He took a fleet to Cartagena in 1586, managed to capture the town and held it to ransom, doing a bit of damage whilst he waited for the money to be paid over. The walled town is well placed to defend itself from the sea so it was not an easy target. Luckily Drake and other marauders left most of Cartagena intact for us to appreciate. We went on a guided walking tour of the old town, its narrow streets lined with beautiful balconied houses, glimpses of cool courtyards through grand archways. It’s full of contrasts, from beggars, hustling street vendors and heat outside to the air conditioned calm of the gold and emerald museums. There’s not much time to sketch on a guided walk but I did my best!
Yesterday we made the transit through Panama Canal. I did this last year on ‘Aurora’ and it was no less of a thrill this time. The new locks at each side of the Canal have recently been finished to take the bigger ships so there are now a few supertankers on Gatun Lake, but the canal itself seemed quiet and peaceful, just the occasional passing ship. I was teaching in the afternoon; of course my class size was much reduced as most people were out on deck, but it seemed slightly surreal to be giving my lesson on the importance of tonal values in pencil drawing whilst the ship slid between the ancient walls of the Milaflores locks.
Ship life is full of contrasts, a bubble of Britishness floating round the tropics. There are flying fish and frigate birds outside whilst tea and cake is served in the drawing room amongst the jigsaws and scrabble games. Several passengers have their ukuleles with them and they practice every morning on sea days; they invited other instruments to join them so I go along with my autoharp and play along with them to familiar tunes as the coast of Central America rolls by. Yo ho ho and a nice cup of tea, anyone?