Searching for the Vikings

Friday, August 25 - Day 24: Douglas, Isle of Man, UK

Here we are at the Isle of Man. “Where?” I hear you asking. Time for a small geography lesson. Wait, don’t run away. I’ll make it short and simple, I promise. Imagine, if you will, a triangle with a sharp point upwards and a flat bottom. See, this is really a geometry lesson instead of a geography lesson. Isn’t that better? Lets call this triangle Great Britain. Now imagine a smaller triangle to the West, or left for you directionally challenged, of the big triangle. This is Ireland, both Northern and Southern. Now in between the two triangles is a narrow body of water called the Irish Sea. Now zoom in and imagine a little island smack in the middle between Great Britain and Ireland. That’s the Isle of Man. See, that wasn’t so bad was it.

The Isle of Man is a strange place. So is Brooklyn, NY, but for very different reasons I won’t enumerate here. The Isle of Man is technically part of the U.K., but isn’t exactly. It has its own laws, its own Parliament, its own Prime Minister, its own taxes, and its own currency. It is technically owned by the Queen of England. Strange, like I said. About their currency, it is called the Manx Pound, and is worth exactly as much as Pound Sterling, which is the currency used in England and Wales (The Scots have the Scottish Pound, but it’s essentially interchangeable with the Pound Sterling). The people of the Isle of Man will cheerfully accept Pounds Sterling at face value, but if you ask the people of the rest of the U.K., a Manx Pound is only useful for wrapping fish.

The Isle of Man is also where you find the Manx Cat, which is a genetic mutation that has no tail. Actually, some of them have a very short tail, and some have no tail at all. They are called “stumpies” and “rumpies”, respectively.

We had an excursion booked for today, called “Victorian Railways and Snaefell”. More about that soon. So, we were scheduled to meet in the ship’s theater at 8:20 for an 8:30 departure. We got to the theater and it was almost full. There was a line of people waiting to get their “stickers”. The stickers were stuck on you to identify which bus you would eventually get on, and which tour group you were “stuck” to for the day (pun intended. Sorry), and also to mark you with an embarrassing identification to all and sundry that you were one of those “Cruise ship tourists”.

We got our stickers and sat down, next to a Chinese American gentleman who was reading. Eventually we started talking with him. Well, that’s not strictly correct. He started talking to us, and never stopped. The tenders were delayed due to wind and rough seas, so we were sitting with the gentleman for about an hour, and during that hour we probably got in ten words. He talked about global economics, statistics, politics, science, human nature, and the game of Bridge. He had been a high level manager at Bell Laboratories. He was very smart, and a lot of what he said we agreed with, we just couldn’t actually say so because he never slowed down long enough.

Finally, our sticker number and color was called and we boarded the tender and took a rather long and bumpy, rocky ride to the tender port. We set foot on the Isle of Man in its capitol, Douglas. Cool! We then boarded a double-decker bus. Also Cool! The bus took us on a short ride from one end of Douglas to the other. During the ride, our tour guide, who told us that he had been the town baker in the little town of Laxey, attempted to give us a talk about the Isle of Man. I say attempted because the PA system on the bus cut out in the middle of each word he said, so his talk was a collection of single syllables followed by a click. Eventually, after many frustrating minutes, he gave up.

Then, we transferred from the bus to the Laxey, Snaefell & Ramsey Tram. This was an electric tramway built in 1893. I’m not talking about the fact that the railway was created in 1893. I’m talking about the car we were riding in. It, along with the track, etc. was built in 1893. You could tell from the wood cracking and creaking as we rode along. Again, cool! I think.

We rode along, seeing a good deal of the island, through little suburbs of Douglas, through farms, and other little towns. Almost always going uphill. Imagine our surprise when the over one hundred year old tram stopped at a little covered bus shelter and let two people on. This antique was the Manx mass transit system.

We reached a tiny little town called Laxey, where we disembarked the 1893 tram and transferred to the much newer 1895 tram, because the next part of the journey was up to the top of the Snaefell mountain, and this part used a different gauge of track. Snaefell is the tallest mountain on the island. It is also the only mountain on the island, which makes it automatically the tallest. This tram wound its way up steeply through valleys and hills, which were quite pretty, and would have made great photographs if only the weather were not grey and overcast, and also if they weren’t on the other side of the tram. I could have taken pictures of the shrubs on my side, but wasn’t inspired.

During the ride, we found out about the motorcycles we had seen waiting to get on the ferry yesterday in Liverpool. Next week is the Manx Grand Prix, a big motorcycle race. There were motorcycles, cyclists in black leather, cycling ads, racing posters, etc. everywhere. I had thought that the one or two hundred motorcycles waiting to board the ferry were a lot. We were told that next week there will be 20,000 motorcycles on the Island. During the big race in June, there are 40,000 motorcycles.

Eventually we were within a few hundred yards of the end of the line at the top of Snaefell, when we saw something interesting approaching. Some of you may be able to guess what it was. I’ll give you a hint: It was an old friend. Yes, we were going directly into a cloud of fog. By the time we reached the station, we were completely fogbound. The promised spectacular views from the top of Snaefell were purely a matter of speculation.

We went from the tram into the little building at the top which was called a Restaurant and Hotel. The restaurant was more of a tiny snack bar, and the hotel, which we didn’t really see, must have been a tiny room with a cot. We had been given half an hour before the tram left. Even with this short schedule, a lot of the Rotterdammers decided that this was the time to chow down, so the cashier’s line was long. I saw two women eating a scone with jam, and drinking two beers.

Donnie and I didn’t want to eat anything, but then, to my dismay, she discovered they sold postcards and stamps. If she can’t send emails to the occupants of the known universe then postcards are just as good, maybe even better. Donnie had discovered that up here at Snaefell you got postcards that were stamped with a special mark that indicated they were sent from Snaefell, and the man who sold her the postcards whipped out his special stampers (you know, the ink pad kind) and ink-stamped her cards. However, he was out of the kinds of stamps (the postage kind) that you use to actually mail the cards. He told her she could get them at the Post Office in Laxey on our way back.

While she was composing her “Greetings from Snaefell", I went back outside to take some pictures, if possible. I got several great pictures of the tram with fog, and the fog with tram. Then, the fog got thicker. You almost couldn’t see the tram.  We and the other Rotterdammers got back on the tram and made our way down the mountain. Donnie and I had figured out which side to sit on this time so we would get the better views. We hadn’t reckoned on the fog sinking lower down the mountain and obscuring those views. It did.

During the ride down, our guide told us a bit about the Isle of Man. He said that they used to make their money from mining and fishing, but the mining is gone and the fishing isn’t as good as it once was, and so now they make some money from tourism but now they mostly make money due to their tax system. Corporate taxes are very low. Personal taxes are only ten percent on any income over 18,000 pounds per year. Before you start packing your luggage, we heard somewhere that it is extremely hard to get permission to emigrate. So because of the taxes, the island is now a corporate and wealthy-person tax shelter, although he said they prefer the term Financial Center.

We got to another little stop on the railway, higher up than Laxey, and we transferred from the tram to another double-decker bus. So Donnie wasn’t able to buy postage stamps in Laxey. The bus took us down to the cruise terminal in Douglas. We had about two hours before the last tender went back to the ship, so Donnie suggested we walk through the town some. It sounded good so I agreed. We walked along the promenade next to the water and then into a shopping street. I should have known. She had an ulterior motive. She made a beeline, or maybe a drunken beeline since it wasn’t easy to find, to the Douglas Post Office where I cooled my heels outside while she waited in line, bought postage stamps, and finished writing a full length novel on the postcards. Afterward we walked back along the promenade, taking extremely unattractive pictures of Douglas in the boring, grey, unflattering light and then got the tender back to the good old M. S. Rotterdam.

(… some famous person, whose name I forget, said that time is what prevents everything from happening all at once. Time did it’s job again …)

We were in the Crow’s Nest in the afternoon, with our laptops, typing away at some silly documents for some reason when the Captain came on the PA with some nautical stuff about winds and waves and anchor chains and ferry traffic and said that our departure from the Isle of Man had been delayed but just quite not enough to prevent going to our next port of call, the town of Portree on the Island of Skye, in the Hebrides Islands, in Scotland, in the United Kingdom. Then Jan, our Cruise Director came on and in non-nautical talk apologized for all the delays in the tendering today and thanked everyone for being so cooperative and polite about the situation. He probably got hit by only three ladies with their canes and walkers.

The Isle of Man was a very pretty, quaint place that looked like a very pleasant place to live. We did enjoy our short time there. We got lots of really, really ugly pictures in the terrible light. It did, however, almost fail to rain.

Once again, true to form, after we sailed away and were in the middle of nothing but water, the sun came out.

(…particle physicists are very weird guys, but even they shun the ones among them who have postulated a particle of Time, they call the Chronon. Nevertheless, if they exist, shmazillions of Chronons flew past, bringing us to a state called evening …)

Donnie, in her sometimes bravado, or foolhardiness, wanted to attempt to get into the 8:00 show. By now you all should know that the tried and true Holland America cruisers all go to dinner at 5:30, and then immediately head for the theater to ensure that they, and their friends for who they hold 16 seats, can all see the show. So we have failed twice to get into the 8:00 show, and others we have spoken to have complained of the same heartbreaking result. Nonetheless, Donnie wanted to try. She didn’t even bring her official Holland America Cattle Prod.

We had skipped dinner because we had eaten a late lunch, so we went to the theater at 7:30, expecting a long line because Jan, the Cruise Director had said a while ago that he was going to only open the doors at 7:30. He lied. At 7:30 there was no line. That’s because the theater was full, or almost full. We found two seats on the very sides against the wall, facing inwards. These were not the comfortable couch-like seats in the normal rows of the balcony. These had cushions made of the finest Carrera marble, or maybe granite, or perhaps brick, or maybe carbon steel. You get the idea, hard, uncomfortable seats. But they were seats. By 7:45 there were people sitting on tables, there were people standing, there were people sitting on the places set aside for drinks to be placed. There were people everywhere. Some of the more inventive ones had brought the kind of walkers that have built-in seats, and they slowly and shakily wheeled them to wherever they wanted and then feebly and carefully plopped themselves down on the seats, blocking aisles and other people’s views.

At 8:00 exactly, the lights dimmed (if they had been one minute late, there might have been a riot) and Cruise Director Jan came on stage to make a couple of announcements and introduce the show. Only a handful of the polite, cooperative cruisers boo’ed him. Anyway the show was a British stand-up comedian named Paul Adams (not a very distinctive name) and I thought he was very good.