Friday, March 27, 2015


June 22, 2009 was the day the Washington D.C. Metro died.  That was the day when a Red Line Train heading for Shady Grove left the Takoma Park Station during rush hour and plowed into the back of a train that was stopped on the track, waiting for another train to leave the Fort Totten Station.  The NTSB investigation revealed that a faulty circuit had disabled one of the train’s Automatic Control System, essentially making it invisible.  Nine people, including the driver, were killed.

Now, in a sane world, they would have picked up the pieces, learned from their mistakes, and then moved on.  But not Metro.
I mean, a plane crash at National Airport wouldn’t bring the place to a screeching halt for months on end.  Service would be restored the next day and life would go on.  People need to fly.  Fix the damn problem and get on with it.

A horrific accident on the Capital Beltway does not shut lanes down for days on end while they sort things out.  They clear the debris, assign blame, and reopen the road.
Oh, but Metro would tell you that running a subway system is much more complicated than highway or airport systems.  Really?  Well, if that’s the case, then I would say that’s a fatal flaw. (no pun intended)

After the deadly crash at the Fort Totten Station, Metro initiated a new system, a system based on the premise that the computers could no longer be trusted.  Trains crept down the tracks and drivers were instructed to stop before every blind turn, or when entering a station, and then lean out the window to visually confirm that the coast was clear.  You can’t make this stuff up.  And that’s how Metro operated for – well, I don’t really know, because after being late to several shows while stop-starting and sitting on the tracks for god knows how long, I simply stopped riding Metro.  When it costs you more in time and needless aggravation, you bail.

But like Linus and Lucy with the football, I would, over the course of the next few years, give Metro another chance.  And EVERY time I rode it, they managed to make the trip a pain in the ass.  Like the time I got on at New Carrollton, waited for thirty minutes for the train to leave before it stopped about 200 feet from the next station down the line at Landover, sat there idling for about twenty minutes and then finally pulled into the station so that everybody could disembark and catch a bus to Potomac Avenue.  Was there a sign posted anywhere at the New Carrollton Station letting riders know what was awaiting them?  And did they make an announcement over the PA when we arrived at Landover, telling us to get on the bus?  Of course not.  That would have involved customer service.  And Metro does not do customer service. 

Walk up to one of the command center kiosks in any station and you will find a station master either reading the paper or nodding off.  They will scowl at you as if to say, “What the hell do you want?”  Their responses are usually unintelligible.  In fact, it seems like Metro’s business model is predicated upon the principle that no news is good news, so keep everyone in the dark.  Other than the maps in each car and at the stations, you are essentially on your own.

Stand by the rather confusing fare machines in any station, especially the busy tourist areas like Smithsonian, and watch the out-of-town visitors trying to figure out how to buy a ticket.  And then see what happens if they have the gall to ask a Metro employee for some help.  Or try asking a Metro worker when a train might leave, or just start moving again, and you will often see them walk right on by without even responding.  Listen to the drivers over the intercom when a train arrives at a station and try to decipher their incomprehensible gibberish.

Metro employees are surly, indifferent, and walk around like they are wearing a big sign that says, “I HATE MY JOB!”

And if you think that I am some disgruntled Metro rider who after endless days, weeks, months, and years of terrible service has finally had enough, I’m not.  I live in Annapolis and only occasionally use Metro when I come to D.C. for an evening show or on weekends.  And I used to be Metro’s biggest fan.  I told everyone I knew how great it was.  And when I got my SmartTrip card on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009, with President Obama’s smiling face on the handy dandy credit card, I felt proud and overjoyed.  I still carry that card.  But I don’t use it anymore.

Lately, there has been a lot of debate about how to fix Metro.  It is millions of dollars in debt.  Many of the cars need to be replaced. The tracks and stations are in desperate need of repair.  Employee morale is at an all-time low.  What should be done?

The Metro Board suggested a rate hike and all hell broke loose.  Why such outrage?  Because Metro sucks in every way and they shouldn’t ask for more money until they figure out how to run their operation like a real business and show some accountability.

So, the Board quickly backtracked, assured the public that fares would remain the same, and proudly declared that the solution to their many problems was to borrow more money.  God help us all.  We really have gone mad.

This isn’t rocket science.  Transportation services need to be efficient and reliable.  That’s it.  If it should take thirty minutes to get from point A to point B, then do it.  Every day.  If you can accomplish that mission, people will gladly pay to ride the train.  And if there is an accident, or some sort of emergency, the riders will understand.  But when riding on the Washington Metro is like tumbling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, you get in your car and drive.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

St. Kitts

St. Kitts is affectionately referred to by the locals as the “Mother Island” because it was the first British outpost in the Caribbean.  It is one of the Leeward Islands in the Lesser Antilles.  Don’t worry, no one knows what the hell that means.  Probably the best way to describe it is to say that it is part of the West Indies.

On a map, St. Kitts looks like a whale, and the neighboring island of Nevis sits at the end of the tail like a big round rock.  Technically, they both stand together as one country: the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis.

There are about 45,000 people living on St. Kitts and the capital, Basseterre, is tucked away in a cozy bay on the south side of the island at the base of the whale tail.  Most people on the island are of African descent, speak English, and charmingly refer to themselves as Kittians.

Joan Armatrading, one of my favorite folk singers, is from St. Kitts.

The neatest thing about St. Kitts is that the eastern coast faces the dark blue Atlantic Ocean and west side faces the turquoise-colored Caribbean Sea.

The second coolest thing about St. Kitts is that the national bird is the pelican.  I love pelicans!

We docked at the cruise terminal around 7 in the morning and were off the boat by 8, after a yummy breakfast on the sunny fantail.

We were traveling with our friends Richard and Olga from Bethesda, and Peter and Esther, our Canadian buddies who we had cruised with once before.

When we arrive at a port, Peter always does recon, sniffing out the local tour guides and seeing what they have to offer.  And he always finds the best deal.

As we walked onto the expansive dock, Peter was there with a welcoming smile.  “I found a great tour with Ian, the Lion King.”
Lion King Taxi & Tours
Sugar Land Tours
Mr. Ian Nisbett
Tel: (869) 765-3616/ (869) 664-7858
Home: 465-0397
International: 1-718-355-9484

 And while his words made little sense, we implicitly trusted Peter’s judgment and gladly followed him through Port Zante, the airy 27-acre cruise ship terminal and marina reclaimed from the sea.  The architecture was domed, yellow, neoclassical with duty free everything and pulsing reggae.  As usual, Bob Marley provided the soundtrack for our Caribbean experience.

Outside the terminal it was controlled chaos as dreadlocked tour guides in guayabra knockoffs hollered at the milling boat people, “Come with me, Mon.  I show you da very best of St. Kitts.”

The tour vans were parked in a line along Bay Road while vendors hawked their colorful wares from the crowded sidewalk.  We definitely were not in Kansas anymore.

Peter led us over to a cream-colored, 15-person van emblazoned with a flashy “LION KING” logo. 

Ian, our friendly guide, welcomed us with open arms, giving each of us a big hug.  Joining us on our 6-hour tour of the island were a very nice couple from Cleveland and some newlyweds from Puerto Rico, along with the bride's parents who spoke little or no English.

The cost of a tour was predicated on the number of people.  The more you have, the cheaper the tour.  With twelve people, the Lion King was only charging $25 per person.  What a deal!

St. Kitts is about 18-miles-long and 5-miles wide.  So, it’s easy to see the whole thing in a short day, even stopping at the premiere hot spots.

We all piled into the van and Ian drove through the center of town, describing the scenes outside the windows.  The first thing I noticed was that there were no roundabouts or traffic lights.  Traffic converged at stop signs and then jostled together in a honking scrum.

We drove past Independence Square, the capital’s chaotic center where Eighteenth Century Georgian buildings and tropical gardens hearkened back to a time long gone. St. George's Anglican Church and the Fairview Great House and Botanical Gardens stood in all of their glory like beacons to Colonial rule.  You could almost hear the sound of bullwhips cracking in the wind.

These days, all is not sunshine and roses on St. Kitts.  In Independence Square there was a large, but well-behaved, anti government, pro-democracy demonstration in full swing.

“What are they protesting?” I asked Ian.

He turned down the reggae blasting from the stereo and looked at me in the rear view mirror. “Dey are fed up wit da corrupt government dat has been in power for 18 years.  We have da second highest per capita debt in the world.  And it tis very hard for many people in my country.”

The monetary situation on the island is a bit sketchy.  All of the banks are Canadian.  And there is no income tax.   Massive debt would seem to be a given.

The history of St. Kitts reads like most Caribbean islands.

At a place called Bloody Point, 4,000 Carib Indians were massacred in 1626.  Supposedly the water ran red for three days when the French and English teamed up for a little ultra violence.  And then, when the country had been secured from the unruly natives, they divided the island into two and went back to fighting each other.

As we drove past Halfway Tree, the old demarcation line between the French and British halves of the island, Ian boiled the truth down to its essence.   "Once dey finished stealing all of our resources we were given our independence."

We headed out of town on the Old Road, which is essentially the coastal highway, past the rundown remains of the first permanent English settlement in the West Indies, founded in 1624 by Thomas Warner.

Ian waved at a spooky, palm tree-lined, white stone cemetery with a wee grey church in its center at the top of town, facing the sea.  “Dat is da Hotel California, Mon.  You can check in, but you can't check out.”

Our first stop was Romney Manor.  The very nice brochure that comes with the tour of the grounds pretty much says it all:

One of the most celebrated sites on the island is the oldest colonial plantation and its mansion, Romney Manor. Established in the 17th century during the first major stage of colonial development, the property has been owned by only six families in over 350 years.

Before colonizers gained control of the land surrounding Romney Manor, it is believed the site was occupied by the village of Chief Tegereman - the leader of the Carib Indian tribe. Soon after European colonizers defeated the native tribes, the land came to be owned by the ancestors of Thomas Jefferson. Many of the structures from the once-successful tobacco plantation known as the Wingfield Estate date to this early colonial period. Adjacent to the Wingfield Estate, the Earls of Romney established their own sprawling plantation and resided over both estates by 1735.

The story of Romney Manor in the 18th century is, in many ways, the story of the Caribbean. In the fields, African slaves focused on the cultivation of sugar cane while the Romneys tended to their airy Caribbean mansion. After the emancipation of slaves in 1834, sugar production slowed considerably - not just at Romney Manor, but also throughout the region. As more Caribbean nations gained independence in the 19th and 20th centuries, plantation farming came to a halt and colonial structures such as Romney Manor fell into disrepair.

Today, Romney Manor features one of St. Kitts' most celebrated local businesses - Caribelle Batik. Using the traditional Indonesian method of treating fabric with wax to resist dye, the artisans of Caribelle Batik have been creating their apparel and tapestries for over 30 years. When you visit the site, you can watch the artists at work and even learn the technique during hands-on demonstrations. Known for their durability and inventive designs, handcrafted artworks from Caribelle Batik are some of the finest souvenirs you can find in St. Kitts.

Outside the main home, you will find some of the most beautiful botanical gardens on the island. Spread over six acres, the gardens feature many varieties of tropical flowers and plenty of animal life. At the heart of the gardens' diverse plant life is a 350-year-old saman tree, also known as a rain tree. Having seen all stages of St. Kitts' diverse history, this giant tree - it covers nearly half an acre - has long been one of Romney Manor's most popular sites.

At the farthest reaches of the botanical gardens, you can even spot the beginning of the island's dense tropical rain forest. As you walk amongst the ruins of the oldest plantation in St. Kitts, you can hear the creatures of the rainforest calling to one another and see the land rise to the volcanic peak of Mt. Liamuiga

What I remember most about Romney Manor was the batik shop where I bought a beautiful blue tropical shirt.  And the web-limbed rain tree in the front yard was so bloody big it dominated the entire hillside, drawing us to it like a magnet.

After that, it all starts to get a bit blurry because when I came out of the batik shop, there was my buddy Richard with a big smile and some frosty Caribs – three for $5.  And when you start drinking beer in a warm climate at nine in the morning, you are definitely in for some silly surprises.

Many of the houses we drove by were unfinished.  Some folks just build the first level with the second floor doubling as a roof, and then construct the rest of the second floor later on when they have the money and time.  Rebar stuck up in the air like spiked hair above the temporary roofs.

There was a large subsidized housing community on the outskirts of town where the owners were charged $250 a month for 25 years.  So, they end up paying $75,000 for a brightly-colored shack with an ocean view.  I guess that slavery comes in many different forms.

There are several international universities on the island, including the Ross School of Veterinary Medicine.  Why are there so many medical schools in the Caribbean?  It seems like every island has at least one.

Our next stop was Brimstone Hill, a 38-acre stone fortress that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was built by the British and was besieged by the French at the battle of St. Kitts in 1782.  The views from the towering ramparts were out of this world, with several nearby islands shimmering in the sunlight.

Next up was Sandy Point, St. Kitts’ second biggest city, located on the west end of the island.  Ian was, of course, as is the British custom, driving on the left-hand side of the incredibly narrow road.  And it seemed like we were having near misses all of the time, trying to blindly get around parked vehicles because there was no on-street parking.  The houses were perched right on the edge of the road, giving the place a fishbowl feel.  Driving on St. Kitts in some places takes nerves of steel.

We came upon the Carib Brewery in the middle of town and asked Ian to stop so Richard and I could load up on some fresh Carib and Skoll lagers – one for each hand.

There aren’t a lot of businesses on St. Kitts.  Most of the sugar cane plantations shut down about ten years ago because they couldn't compete and were losing money.  The only remnant of the island's slavery cane past was the narrow gauge rail line that had serviced the largest sugar cane factory in the 1700's, where they made molasses.  The carnival train now carts tourists around the island for a narrated glimpse into the marvelous brutality of the island's Colonial past.

We noticed a few small convenience stores and several rundown plants, making concrete from the native limestone.  But most businesses on the island could easily fit in the bed of a pickup truck.

As with all of the islands in the Caribbean, tourism is tops.  Ian called it, “white candy.”

Our next to last stop was Black Rock, a volcanic cliff where waves pounded the rocks relentlessly, sending sea spray into the air like white explosions.  It was here that we met the "Monkey Lady".  Give her a buck and she would let her creepy monkey on a leash climb around on your head.  Inna thought the monkey was very cute.  Personally, I really like monkeys, but I don’t trust them.  They are always messing with you with those little monkey hands.   

Richard and I hung out with this old coot named Ringo Star who was selling these funky brown coconut shell turtles and crooked crosses glued to tiny magnets.  Ringo wanted to be paid in beer.  And there were old ladies in flowery print dresses selling dollar beers from large white coolers.  So, it was a win-win for everybody.

By the time we left Black Rock, it was about two in the afternoon and Richard and I were pretty lit.  We continued our circle tour along the coast and soon crested a steep hill dotted with expensive creamy houses and flowering cactus.  Ian pulled the van into a large gravel parking area filled with other tour vans and loud vendors selling trinkets and frosty beverages.

The view was amazingTo our south was the Caribbean and to the north the Atlantic.  Our cruise ship sparkled below us in the sunlight like a bright jewel.

Behind us lay Friars Bay Beach and Frigate Bay Beach, where the Marriott St. Kitts featured two championship golf links – the Atlantic and Caribbean courses – lushly laid out on the narrow green whale tail.

Richard and I bought another round of Carib beers and watched the tourons pay to have monkeys crawl on their heads and shoulders.  It was all very amusing.

Ian walked over to our group with an interesting proposal.

“Every day when we stop here, I do the Lion King Tourist Link Up on ZIZ 96.  I have the radio feed equipment in the van.  The DJ down in town will interview one of you – you know, ask you a few questions about your visit to St. Kitts.  Who wants to be the spokesperson for da group?”
Steve!” exclaimed my fellow tourons in unison.

I was half drunk and thought, “What the hell.  Why not?”

At 3 PM sharp, a friendly DJ with a deep Caribbean voice, came on the air and after a brief intro from the Lion King, the interview began.

“What’s your name, Mon?” asked the DJ.

“My name is Steve.  Steve Carr,” I replied with great gusto.

My friends giggled.

“Where you from, Steve?”

“I am from Washington, D.C.,” I answered proudly, “and I bring greetings from the great white father, Barack Obama, who is black.”

The DJ had not been expecting my crazy response and was a bit flummoxed.  “Okay … thanks ... that’s very interesting, Steve.  But how do you like our island?”

“I LOVE St. Kitts!” I almost screamed.  “Right now, I’m gazing down from a rocky perch atop an extinct volcano, on the luxurious Marriott Hotel where all the rich white boys and girls dressed in their colorful golfing outfits are hitting their little white balls around the tropical whale tail, and it’s looks like a smoking hot piece of paradise.”

There was dead silence on the other end.  The Lion King was grinning from ear to ear and nodding for me to continue.

And so I did.  

“We’re standing at this amazing overlook above two twinkling seas where monkeys are climbing on the tourons and there’s icy cold beer for all.  Cruise ships are shimmering off in the distance.  The Egrets are fishing.  The lizards are dancing.  The catfish are hopping.  And the living is easy.  So if you ask me, St. Kitts is the cat’s meow!”

The DJ burst out laughing and then cued some calypso music to take us on home.

Our group was speechless.  But not the Lion King.

“I have been interviewing tourists for years, but I have never heard anyone as crazy as you, Steve.  Dat was the best!  People all over da island heard dat interview and I bet dey are still laughing der asses off.”

Well, as it turned out, a lot more than the local Kittians had listened to my little rant.  ZIZ 96 can be heard all over the West Indies.  And I became an instant celebrity.
When we stopped at Dominica the next day, Peter greeted us as we left the ship, shaking his head.  “Steve.  You are a rock star.  There are fifty tour guides at the end of this pier, and almost every one of them is waving a sign with your name on it.  They all want to be the ones to give you an island tour.”
I thought he was pulling my leg.  But he wasn’t.  The islanders had heard me raving on the radio the day before, and they knew that our ship was coming there next.  Every tour guide on Dominica wanted to be the one to show me the sights.

And for the rest of the cruise, whenever we came into an island port, this scene repeated itself.  It became a running joke.

Which just goes to show that when you travel abroad, the unexpected often hits you without warning.  So, you need to be flexible and always remember to pack a good sense of humor.  And a couple of cold beers wouldn't hurt either.