Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Thunder, lightning, the Panama Canal, and Rail Rage…

I was awakened during the night before our Panama Canal transit by some furious thunder and lightning plus a beautiful show of a  tropical rainstorm. So much, it seems, for “But, it only rains in the afternoons!” Then we were awakened by the wake-up call at 0530 to watch the entrance to the Canal locks. I’ve mentioned before that there should only be one 5:30 and it isn’t in the morning!

Both Randy and I have read The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough and we transited the Canal in 2002 so we thought we were prepared for, well, everything. But we weren’t. We had seen the Culebra Cut but somehow the sheer size of it was more than astonishing to us; we had watched ships in the locks before but this time the almost unbelievably tight fit of the ships and the speed of filling those giant locks just blew us away; the new locks (still under construction) we hadn’t seen before and they are even more impossibly big than the current ones. But there was one thing that I was absolutely not prepared for from our previous transit in the Zaandam: what we have taken to calling Rail Rage, the, yes, in many cases, rage from people who seemed to think they had the right to do whatever it took to get their perfect picture, nevermind who else was around. The pushing and shoving to get that perfect picture, the elbowing when someone was in the way, the name-calling when one person does what another doesn’t like, the snide comments about how some person is behaving; THAT we were not at all prepared for! I know it’s been ten years since we came through the Canal but I do not remember any of that from the Zaandam!

Another thing that many people commented on was the engineering of the canal. Remember, this was engineered and built almost 100 years ago. The lock gates are the same gates that were installed 100 years ago, the locks themselves are essentially the same as were built 100 years ago. And everything works! Still! The “mules” (they keep the ships centered in the locks) are now locomotives but the original idea is still in use. Seemingly, the engineers thought of everything!

We stayed long enough to see the ship enter the first lock and went back to our cabin to watch from the stern for the rest of the day. Our room service waiter gave us the idea to have a lunch on the deck so we ordered hamburgers and hotdogs and french fries for 20 and set about calling people to invite them. We ended up with 18 people who more or less spent the day with us on our deck watching the locks and the lake and just generally having a great time socializing and taking pictures. It didn’t really matter that we were looking aft rather than looking forward, the view was great and there was plenty of room at the railing for everybody and plenty of beer and soft drinks for everybody. Some people came a bit late because they didn’t get the message (we didn’t get the idea or start calling until about 1000) but there was plenty of everything except perhaps coolness.

The tropics are hot and steamy but luckily there was cloud cover for most of the day. That doesn’t make for the greatest photos but it sure made the hot and steamy more bearable. And we had our room to repair to on occasion to get a “cool fix.” Kathy, our daughter, and probably a few other people got to see us go through the Miraflores Locks (we were the only cruise ship transiting the Canal on the 29th) although they couldn’t see the American flag hanging from our railing; after all, it’s only four feet by six feet!

As the afternoon wore on the clouds got darker and darker and eventually a few drops spattered down and then whoosh, a bunch of drops—we all got drenched by one of those afternoon “showers.” As we were passing the last two locks we were being watched by hundreds of people! All these people had gathered in what appeared to be a restaurant right next to the locks and they were having a gay old time watching and waving and getting wet. We were having an equally great time waving to them and we all were taking pictures of each other.
Pam taking a picture of Steve and the hat that's gone around the world. It may be retired after this trip.

Party-goers on our deck watching the dredge.

Pam and Randy with Centennial Bridge behind them

Very, very early in the morning, starting toward the first lock.

Some of the group partying on our deck
Some of the crowd watching us go through the locks
Approaching the locks

Notice the little rowboat? They will grab the lines from the ship and bring them to the locomotive "mules" which will keep the ship centered in the lock. Why still use rowboats and not motorboats? "Oars don't malfunction."
One of the "mules"

A ship photographer taking pictures of us from the edge of the lock.

The standard digital photographer look, checking the photos on the tiny screen.

A closer look at the "panga" or rowboat that brings the line to the mule

This is why there is rail rage, nobody at the back is allowed any room to take a photo.

Happiness is a medium-rare hamburger and a salt shaker on the table…

Today was a we’re-not-going-to-do-anything-but-wander-around day in Aruba. Our memories of Aruba are fuzzy at best but what memories we do have are of the sort that it’s not a place we would go back to. It’s pleasant, not too hot, not too humid, not much to do. Do we didn’t do much. Except shop. Randy—yes, Randy—convinced me that he really—REALLY—wanted to buy me a 50th anniversary present. Never mind that the cruise, in a suite, no less, was a 50th anniversary present. And that the ring with his mother’s diamonds was a 50th anniversary present. So I am now the proud owner of a sapphire and diamond pendant necklace from Diamonds International.

My new necklace

I have to say I am impressed with Diamonds International. Randy went in there with the idea to trade in my diamond ring for a better quality one or a bigger one. They told him not to (!), it would be too expensive (!!). They also said we should increase the insurance on the ring  because it was worth a lot more than we thought. Of course the manager did sell us the pendant but that was a lot less than a new diamond would have been.

One thing we had to do while ashore was update the computer and the GPS (have I mentioned how slow the connection is on board?) so we found an internet café and did that for two (!!!) hours—and that was at high speed, just think what it was like at the glacial pace of the ship’s satellite connection. Don’t even try to imagine that because it’s so slow I couldn’t even connect to Garmin on board to start the process of registering and updating the GPS. And I often can’t connect to MSN to get my email or even to Facebook to see what everybody’s up to, or my bank to see if we still have any money (I doubt it).

Once that little chore was out of the way we looked for food. Have I mentioned that we seem to be like Hannibal’s army and we travel on our stomachs? We found a lovely little restaurant where we were hard pressed to make a choice; nevertheless I chose my perennial favorite, a hamburger. My friends and family know that I could eat a hamburger every single day of the year. The ship hamburgers are OK but always cooked to the approximate consistency of a hockey puck. Imagine my joy when the waiter asked how I wanted my hamburger cooked! I forget what Randy had, it pales in comparison to my medium-rare hamburger.

Aside from the medium-rare hamburger, we actually had—O, Joy!—a salt shaker on the table. You may never have had the pleasure of having someone else salt your food but we have been subjected to that since about two days out of Dover or about three weeks. No salting our own food, the server has to shake the salt onto your food—cross-contamination may occur if we hand the salt or pepper to our neighbor. Same with pepper, same with ketchup (Aussies call that “tomato sauce”) and mustard. If we order room service we do get little salt packets and tiny dishes of other condiments. But at a public table for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, anything along the lines of condiments or anything we might hand to another person—gasp!— is Not Allowed. Yet the ship still does not sanitize the “pokies” (slot machines) except once a day; the internet café now at least has sanitizing sheets next to each computer but that has only been in the last three days and is dependent on the person using the keyboard etc.; and the library is still closed so that we aren’t handing books to one another; and there are only hand-sanitizers in the food venues, nowhere else. Do I sound fed up with what I consider ridiculous “feel-good” and inadequate rules?

All our chores completed—well, a hamburger certainly wasn’t a chore—we just wandered about town, looking in windows and chatting with the occasional friend we met from the ship. That was pretty much what we did in St. Thomas as well, a couple of days before. Except in St. Thomas we actually went up the cable car and got a beautiful view of the bay and our ship.
Randy and Flat Stanley in Aruba

Aruba yachts

Randy at lunch in Aruba

Pam getting high-speed internet in St Thomas

Flat Stanley in St Thomas

Pam and Flat Stanley in St. Thomas

Our ship, the Sun Princess ,from the tram in St. Thomas

Another view of the Sun Princess

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fifteen minutes of fame and other happenings on board…

One of the performers on board the ship was a “mentalist” by the name of Brent Webb. I wasn’t too excited about going to see him but our friends inveigled us into going and then, against our better judgment, to sitting in the third row—nobody sat in the front row (they know better) and only one couple was in the second row. Sure enough, about halfway through the performance Brent picked on me to come up on stage to participate in his act. He is actually pretty good and very entertaining—which is all he purports to be, an entertainer; he didn’t try to convince us he could actually read minds. He did a couple of tricks with me but the memorable one was asking me to think of a place that I like to be and a person to take with me who wasn’t on the cruise with me and to tell him and everybody. I thought of our cabin (which provoked a laugh until they realized I didn’t mean our cabin on the ship) as the place I like to go and our daughter Katherine as the person I would take with me. He thanked me for participating and pointed across the stage to a table where there was a gold bag with Godiva chocolates that was my gift. There was a tiny envelope stuck to the bag, I opened it and it said:

Obviously it was some sleight of hand, but it was so well done that nobody could remember his going anywhere near the table. At another point he asked me to think of someone well known, not necessarily really famous (but they could be) but not so unknown that nobody would recognize the name (I thought of Clint Eastwood). He said, “is the person in the film industry?” and then said, “Clint Eastwood.” I have no idea how he did THAT since I  never said anything but “yes.”

Just in case you think we have a dull life onboard, there are, unfortunately, few interesting moments. Two afternoons ago we had to have a helicopter transfer of two patients from the ship. The US Coast Guard sent two helicopters to get the two critically ill passengers and fly them to a hospital in San Juan. Most of the back end of our ship was closed and passengers evacuated from their cabins but not, for some reason, the suites so we had an up-close and personal view of the helicopters coming in. We couldn’t see the actual transfer as that took place about three decks above us but we sure could hear them! The helicopters never landed, just hovered for the transfer. It had to be extremely serious for them to do this as we were only 12 hours from St. Thomas and the ship is not made for helicopters to be flying about her. Additionally they did it just before dark and dark comes very, very quickly in the tropics. Half an hour after the second helicopter left, it was dark!

Another view from our cabin

This C-130 flew cover for the helicopters the whole time, just circling the ship.

Getting ready to recover the patient

One of the paramedics coming down to the ship
Other than that, however, our lives onboard are pretty dull relaxing. We have lectures about the upcoming ports, some very entertaining and others, well, let’s just say there is often the sound of soft snoring coming from around the audience. And now that we’re in the Caribbean, we have a “shopping specialist” on board who tells us all the best stores to go to for diamonds and emeralds and crystal and tanzanite (we’ve been cruising since 1991 and early on we were told that we should buy tanzanite because there was only one mine and it was going to run out “soon;” it obviously hasn’t run out yet!) and where to go to get freebies (always a popular topic!). Then there are the games (the bridge lessons are a bit too beginner for us to enjoy) like Carpet Boules and Trivia (fights have broken out over trivia) and various other activities like get-togethers for  like-minded folk (singles, Americans, GLBT, aviation enthusiasts, teachers, etc etc etc) and presentations on finance and cooking and space. There are classes on beading and pottery—they actually have a kiln on board—and mah jong and other things. The cooking demos are good but not anywhere near as good as they were in the dedicated kitchen on the Holland America ships. Here they just set up the Vista Lounge with all the accoutrements that the chef needs to demo his cooking.

Every evening we go to the Rendez-Vous Bar where several of our Cool Cruiser friends gather every night for cocktails and stories about what we’ve been up to over the past day or so. And of course there is the occasional lunch with the Cool Cruisers and the day after every segment starts we have a “Meet & Greet” for the new people to meet the Cool Cruisers on board already. If you have no idea who the Cool Cruisers are: there is a website called Cruise Critic where they sell cruises but also have a lot of very active forums (ideas for things to do in ports, answers to all kinds of questions to do with cruising, that sort of thing) including the “Roll Call” for each and every cruise. Some roll calls are more active than others. The seven-day Caribbean cruise roll calls are not too active but our World Cruise was extremely active with over 2500 forum messages, including a list of everyone who wanted to be listed as going on the cruise. We named ourselves the Cool Cruisers and that is how we’re know on the ship (we didn’t like Cruise Critic because it sounds rather negative, which we are NOT!).

Food is a BIG part of shipboard life; not perhaps as much as on other ships merely because of size. Our ship is kind of small (compared to the Oasis of the Seas that was in St. Thomas with us; she has over 5000 passengers, we have fewer than 2000) and doesn’t have all the venues that the bigger ships have. We have a pizza place (I’m less that enthusuastic about that), the Horizon Court (aka, the Horror Zone), and the two main dining rooms. There are a couple of others that are only open in the day time. We almost always have breakfast in our cabin. Just like a great hotel, we order the night before, choose the time for delivery, and George (our Room Service waiter) brings it along with whatever else HE thinks we should want—like strawberries or a plate of bacon—and a tablecloth. Nevermind that we only have a coffee table, he sets the table as if it were at the finest restaurant. Now that we’re back in warmth, we may start having breakfast on the deck. Aren’t you feeling sorry for us? Last night we had a traditional Australian party in the Regency dining room, Christmas in July, with a gift exchange at our table including our head waiter Johann, our senior server Lisa, and the assistant server as well as the eight of us.

Steve, celebrating at Christmas in July! I tried to post this on FB and it wouldn't post, no matter how many times I tried!

Joe, Lyn, and Angela, three of our tablemates

Cheryl has a birthday that she didn't really want to celebrate!

Our Christmas in July table

So life will continue for another 34 days. I can’t believe how close we are to finishing this trip of a lifetime! And Bill, we’re not even close to a divorce, so I think I’ll take down the Cheap Divorce for Cruisers certificate you gave us; it’s been on the wall for 70 days and I don’t think we’ll need it. Probably.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Rain, rain, go away—two…

Verrazano Narrows Bridge on the sail into NY, 5:30am
Day One in New York City.

There should only be one 5:30 in a day and cocktail time is when it should be, NOT in the morning. Nevertheless, we were up by 0530 to go up on deck in order to watch the sail-in to New York. The captain had assured us a couple of days ago that it would be hot and sunny (the proverbial 90-90, or 90°F-90%), but then he changed it to hot and cloudy, then cool and cloudy. All were wrong and he was only talking about two days later! The day progressed from cold  (55°F/13°C) and cloudy to cold and drizzly to cold and steady rain!

But New York is NEW YORK! even cold and gray it was impressive to sail under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

NY has changed a lot—gee, what a surprise!—since the last time Randy and I were there probably 15 years ago. New skyscrapers, of course, but even the general look of the waterfront is different. They even have a driving range on the waterfront! Lots of old pilings jutting just above the waterline. I really wonder why they leave them; seems like it would be really dangerous.

 The big things for the first day were a tour of the Intrepid Air, Sea, and Space Museum, a visit to Ground Zero via WaterTaxi, and later, The Book of Mormon on Broadway.

We had a group of 22 for the tour of the Intrepid that I had arranged. I was a basket case over the tour because the ship’s staff had put the proverbial fear of God in all of us by telling us it could take as long as four hours to get through American customs and immigration. It didn’t, it only took about one and a half hours but I was so afraid we would miss the tour (we only had a fifteen minute grace period) that I had everybody gathering at 0730.

We found a coffee shop not too far from the Intrepid—which was berthed at Pier 86 and we were berthed at Pier 90—and several people got to try a NY staple, lox and bagel. Of course by now it had ceased being merely cloudy and progressed to drizzle, but at least we had entry without standing in a two–three hour line.

Phil was our guide and he was great albeit a bit wordy. We were supposed to have a “Humanity Behind the Hardware” tour but it seemed to be more emphasis on the hardware than the humanity, but a lot of fun nonetheless. And we got to go behind the ropes that kept most of the riff-raff out so that was fun. I got to see my favorite plane, the SR71 but Phil said it was actually the A12, the precursor to the SR71. Nobody but an airplane nerd could tell the difference! It is still the fastest airplane ever built.

Most of our tour was either undercover (which sometimes meant the wing of an airplane) or the rain had (temporarily!) ceased. We got to see the ball turret that George Lucas studied to make Star Wars more believable; we learned that one of the folding-wing designs came about because Mr. Grumman was twisting a paperclip in an eraser (his son still has that eraser and paperclip on his desk) and that a plane catapulted off an aircraft carrier goes 0–150mph in three to five seconds; and that the links in the anchor chain EACH weigh 150 pounds. The 20th was only the second day that the space shuttle Enterprise display was open to the public so we got to see that as well. I really had NO idea how big the shuttle is! See how educational cruising is?

By the time we headed for the WaterTaxi it had stopped being a drizzle and become a steady downpour. Troopers that we cruisers are, off we went to the dock and WaterTaxi ride followed by a WALK of about a kilometer to Ground Zero. Ground Zero is truly impressive and I wish the weather had cooperated. We were so much like drowned rats by the time we got through all lines to go through the layers of security (I think we had to show our passes at least five times) that we glanced at the fountain, took a few pictures, and decided to take a taxi back to the ship. My recommendation: don’t try to get a taxi in NY in the rain on a Friday afternoon.

We have had tickets to The Book of Mormon for several months and we planned to have dinner afterward at Carmine’s with Chris and Phil. Randy laughed a lot during the play; I fell asleep several times. It was definitely irreverent but there wasn’t any “bad” language. I imagine that Mormons would take exception to the play because of the irreverence but not the language. I’m glad we went, but in hindsight I might have preferred another of the hits on Broadway. But it was an Experience! As was dinner at Carmine’s, a very nice, filling, Italian experience. And the walk down Broadway at 2300 from 49th to 44th. THAT was a New York experience! Almost as crowded as it was on the New Year’s Eve that we spent in Manhattan.

We took a taxi back to the ship because even Randy, who likes to walk, didn’t think it was a great idea to walk at night from the theater district to the ship at 48th and the West Side.

Lady Liberty in the gray, misty dawn.

Lady Liberty a little closer.

The famous and FREE Staten Island Ferry

The three bridges, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg.

The replacement for the World Trade Center; it's now the tallest building in NY

Pretty much our first view of the Empire State Building
We proudly flew our American flag off our deck during sail-in and for the duration of our stay in NY.

The Navy does have a sense of humor

Happy grandparents Steve and Donna buying a space suit for their grandson.

Pam, still smiling in spite of being drenched.

Ground Zero Memorial fountain, and yes, it absolutely drowns out the sound of traffic, even all the car horns.

The Intrepid Air, Sea, and Space Museum. The Space Shuttle is under the dome.

Our happy group waiting to get off the ship

Phil, our guide for the morning

our happy group by the anchor chain

Some of the art work on the anchor deck

Home, sweet home...if you were an officer!

Phil telling us about the Intrepid

Some of the really comfy seats on the Intrepid

A man actually fit in this ball turret and was expected to be able to fire the gun accurately.
...and this is where the ball turret was on the plane.

Phil and Randy

The Space Shuttle was much bigger than we thought.

...and the Concorde was much smaller!

Our happy group in front of the A12