Thursday, July 18, 2013

Day in Dublin

Windstar was glad to see the back of us.  The all-ashore (aka "get the hell off my boat") was at 8:30 this morning.  They dropped us in Dublin, which was a bit of a concern for a lot of the guests, as there are actually two ports in Dublin, which we'll call "the one all the travel agents thought they used" and "the one they actually used."  Having been told by our travel agent that we'd be at the one all the travel agents thought they used, she assured us that it would be a ten minute cab-ride to the airport.  When we discovered the other day that they were really using the one they actually used, and that the ride would be 45 minutes and you'd better pre-book a car, we made arrangements.  It did not look like everyone else did -- as, when we were driving out of the port, we saw a lot of people standing around looking for those ten-minute taxis to the airport, which were nowhere to be found.

We got dropped off at the Dublin Airport Hilton, but it was way too early for the rooms to be ready, so we got a taxi into the city proper.  My parents and I had both been to Dublin before, and had both missed out on the Book of Kells, in a library exhibition in Trinity College.  This time, we planned to see it, no matter how long the line.

The line was not all that long, and we got in after a reasonable wait.  I'll be honest with you:  the Book of Kells was nifty and interesting, but not all that exciting as a tourist attraction (it's faded and kept under low light).  The really fun bit was after the Book of Kells, where you get into the Long Room (I got pictures!) 

which is, y'know, a long room.  Trinity College's library is one of them official state libraries (kinda like the Library of Congress) in that it's entitled to a copy of every book printed in the country -- and Ireland has been around a bit longer than the U.S. -- so they've got a lot of books and, indeed, a lot of old books.  And you know how my favorite kind of  museum is a manuscript room, so I was an extremely happy camper.

(Me, at Trinity College, being a happy camper.)

We then, on the recommendation of the driver (who took us from they port they actually used), visited a placed called Dublinia, which is an interactive exhibit about how people lived in Ireland in the Medieval times (with a bonus exhibit on the Viking Era).  It was good for what it was -- but what it was was 90% exhibit for school children (and/or tourists) made up of recreations and maybe 10% actual artifacts (the only things you weren't allowed to actually photograph).  It was fun -- although my mother refused to try on both the Viking helmet and the medieval chain mail -- but I would have preferred more artifacts and less "Smell this herb and guess what medieval doctors thought it would cure."

And that's about it.  We came back to the hotel and got our rooms.  I hooked up to wi-fi and commenced posting.  We're going to go out for an early dinner as we have to leave for the airport at the inhuman hour of 5:30 tomorrow (and I still have repacking to do).  The journey home will consist of shuttle bus; three flights; and a car ride.  I will be wiped out, but am looking forward to seeing my cat.

(The Dublinia exhibit had a cat skull, confirming that Vikings had them.  Although they noted that dogs were kept as pets while cats were "prized for their fur."  I'm just going to assume they sheared the cats, like sheep.  Yes, I am.)

Last Day in Wales

My parents claim their favorite parts of this cruise were the shore excursions I arranged.  I am not entirely certain they aren't just being nice when they say they liked the archeologist-guided walk on the Scilly Islands.  (I think my father had his fill of prehistoric stuff.  And neither one of them really enjoyed that walk up to one last bronze age standing stone -- as they each independently referred to it as a Death March.)  But when they say they enjoyed the tour today -- a BusyBus tour through North Wales (called "North Wales Adventure"), I genuinely believe them.  Heck, about five minutes into this tour, I wanted my Windstar comment card back, as I'd said some of our tour guides were "excellent."  This is wrong; I'd simply forgotten what an excellent tour guide is like.

Peter from BusyBus picked us up at the Holyhead terminal as promised.  The van was packed totally full, as not promised.  Hell, the BusyBus website makes a big deal of saying they don't overpack their tour busses like other companies, but our bus was packed pretty full.  (Indeed, a bit somewhat fuller than full.)  But Peter was really cool about it -- there had been a booking problem (well, an overbooking problem), and he made sure everyone on the bus was down with the plan to get everyone on the bus.  And he made the whole thing fun -- we didn't feel all grumpy because we were crammed in there; we felt like we were all taking part in making sure everyone had a good tour experience.  

And we were off.  On the road, we were told some very important statistics (the population of Wales; the population of Welsh sheep; the rarity of black sheep) and then put on a black sheep hunt -- anyone who spotted a black sheep out the window was eligible for a special prize at the end of the tour.  And it worked -- rather than being bored while the bus was tearing down the road from place to place, we all had our eyes peeled, checking out every field for a black sheep.  (Two were spotted!)

Nor were we on the road for particularly long.  We covered a lot of ground, but only in 20 or 30 minute shifts.  First stop was Caernarfon Castle, the traditional place where the Prince of Wales in invested.  We all took pictures standing outside the door to the Eagle tower, where the next Prince of Wales (William, one assumes), will appear when he finally gets the title. 

Back on the bus to Snowdonia National Park, the second largest national park in Great Britain.  Beautiful scenery ... and holy crap!  beautiful weather! ... I think our tour guide was genuinely surprised at how gorgeous it was, as he's usually visiting the place in rain.

Those who wanted to were permitted to get out of the bus about a kilometer from the actual rest stop and walk the distance.  A group of us got out and went for the walk.  As per my own standard operating procedure, I ended up at one end of the pack (as per non-standard procedure, I was at the front, as opposed to the rear, of said pack).  I got far enough in front that I couldn't hear any of the footsteps (or talking) behind me.  I could only hear the soft rush of a distant waterfall, and nearby sheep doing their sheep thing.  (I kept being reminded of that line from Arcadia about the sheep being picturesquely placed around the landscape.  I'll look it up for when I post the photos.  Ed. Note:  "The slopes are green and gentle.  The trees are companionably grouped at intervals that show them to advantage.  The rill is a serpentine ribbon unwound from the lake peaceably contained by meadows on which the right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged."

Lovely, lovely walk, and I really liked the opportunity to get out of the bus and enjoy the landscape, rather than just stop for a photo.  (I'm also pleased that the bus followed a bit later, and picked up the walkers who had some issues with the fact that it was a bit steeper than it initially looked.)

There was some construction going on at the rest stop, so, after the walk, we drove off to our next rest stop.  This one really was just for a quick picture and/or stop at the restroom.  (High quality bano.  Clean -- and it had some of them newfangled stations where you hold your hands out and a machine dribbles soap on them, then showers them in water, then blows warm air.  Substantially better than the john the other day where the toilet paper was chained to the wall.)

Oh, and we drove by the ugliest house in Britain.  (Which was a nice companion to our later brief visit to the smallest house in Britain.  

And I don't think it was as ugly as the smallest house was small.  But I quite enjoyed the street sign that genuinely pointed the way to "Ugly House.")

THEN, we went to Conwy, were we had, like, an hour and a half for lunch (at Peter's recommendation, we got fish, chips, and mushy peas, and ate them down by the seaside -- against his recommendation, however, we wussed out and used them little forks) and an optional visit to Conwy castle.  

This was the most castley castle we've seen all trip.  It's got something like eight turrets, and some of the turrets had turrets.  And none of that stately home crap -- this was a castle, where you parked the King and occasionally parked the army, and there was a portcullis and murder holes, and lots of ways to kill you if you decided to invade.  There wasn't much in the way of interior -- a lot of the inside was just walls, or even ruins -- but the turrets were in good shape, and you could climb up a winding staircase in any of them, and then walk all along the top of the wall.  Or walk even higher up to the top of the turrets.  Once I made it to the top of the wall, I was so impressed with the view and Wales in general, I saluted the Welsh flag flying at the top of one of the turrets.

 I then figured I'd walk up to the top of a turret, and decided to pick the one with the flagpole.  Continued up to the top of the turret, and it was great up there (and an easier walk than the bit in Snowdonia).  Nobody had bothered to rope off the "windows" up there, so I was able to step up and sort of lean in one.  Wedged in there, I got myself a decent signal on my cell phone, and looked up the answer to a question Peter had posed while we were on the road.

On the way back the ship, we stopped off for a bit of shopping at a massive souvenir shop right next to the town with the longest railway station name in the world.  (Photo of same to come.)

The whole thing was great fun (and way cheaper than what Windstar would have charged us for a lesser shore excursion) and the only thing that was missing was that William and Kate's baby wasn't born today, as it would've been really cool to be in Wales when (perhaps) the future Prince of Wales was born.

Oh My God, They've Kilkenny!

Yeah, like I'm the first person to make that joke.

But first, the Windstar update:  Day of week -- Tuesday.  Journal access -- none.  Number gross stains on new duvet -- none.  As I'd mentioned before, they are responsive.  I just wish they'd be a bit more proactive, so these issues wouldn't arise in the first place.

Also, I'm sitting in the Library -- about a half deck away from the lounge -- and I can hear a lounge singer singing "Like a Virgin."  This is on a par with a Bat-Mitzvah band playing "Gangnam Style."  Credit where it's due, though, at least she knows the words.  Which is more than I could say for her rendition of "The Rose," the other day.  (No.  Wait.  I spoke too fast.  She's moved on to "Material Girl" (good Lord, it's a Madonna medley) and she screwed up a verse so badly, she ended up singing the same line twice.  Quick, let me sign up for tomorrow's talent show.  I won't subject anyone to my singing; I'll just recite accurate Madonna lyrics.)

ANYWAY, this is the second-to-last night of this cruise, and since it's obvious that my journal is still blocked, I'm now trying to burn up the internet time they've given me.  Which is harder than it sounds, because they weren't kidding when they said the connection was (a) slow; and (b) unreliable.  (They say that watching videos would eat up my megabytes quickly, but if they think this connection could support actual streaming, bwah!)  

(See, I am writing this post while checking my mail.  Because I'm writing in an offline app, while every new screen on AOL takes its own sweet time to load.)

So, OK, Kilkenny.  We took a shore excursion called "A Day in Medieval Kilkenny."  It was somewhat misnamed as we didn't spend a whole lot of our time on Medieval things.  The highlight was a castle (it's always a castle), which did, in fact, have Medieval roots -- and some of the preserved exterior and excavated lower levels were on display.

But the bulk of the castle was restored to its Victorian era glory.  Which is all well and good, but I could see Victorian restorations in (and around) London -- I don't need to cruise to Ireland and take an hour on a tourbus to get out to a Victorian restoration.  Our tour guide pointed out that the family that had lived here picked up and got the hell out around the time that Ireland voted itself an independent republic.  Seeing as the family were loyalists (who made all their money from taxing imports to Ireland by grace of the royalty) and seeing how well they were living behind their high castle walls, well, if I were them, I would've grabbed the art and hit the road, too.

Our tour then took us to a local pub lunch at a pub which allegedly won a "pub of the year" award a number of times.  Now, I realize that a certain percentage of my posts here could be read as complaints, but that's mostly because whenever I sit down to write, I get grumpy about the whole journal situation.  This is actually a pretty enjoyable trip.  Also, the food has been quite tasty.  So, please, believe me when a tell you:  If the restaurant in the Langam hotel at Kilkenny is pub of the year, I have monkeys flying out of my ass.  Perhaps, sometime in the past, it was pub of the year.  I assume that was before their cook left and their servers quit -- because the food we ate was ... well, I could honestly call it food ... and the service was slow and not entirely competent.  Slow was a real problem here, as we were on a strict timetable -- and, indeed, we ended up getting back to our ship a 1/2 hour late, to the serious pissed-off-ness of our captain, our tender crew, and the other passengers that were waiting on the dock for a half hour (while they held the tender waiting for us).  The food we were all served (no menu options -- we were all given the same meal, so there really was no excuse for not having it ready for us) was allegedly Irish stew.  There were potatoes and carrots and random other vegetables, and small bits of (fatty) meat we were told was lamb, all boiled until there was no taste left in them.  Served in a clear(ish) broth which was very likely the water it was boiled in.  (Irish?  Yes.  Stew?  Not so much.)  The best thing I could say for it was that it was inoffensive -- although it likely caused offense to real Irish stew, which was diminished by the fact that tourists coming to this pub may actually believe that this stuff is good Irish cooking.  Somewhere, someone's Irish grandmother is weeping.

The tour then went to a Cathedral, which was pretty impressive (the second longest in Ireland) even though a lot of it was also restored, as Cromwell and his cronies didn't take much to religious art, so destroyed what were some very beautiful stained-glass windows.  We also learned about the town witch, who, although "convicted" of witchcraft, managed to skip town, leaving her maid (who was also implicated) to have the dubious honor of being the first person burned at the stake for witchcraft in Europe.  Interesting to see how the cathedral handled this, as both the Bishop who prosecuted her and the alleged witch herself are memorialized in the same building.  Don't get me wrong, the cathedral clearly takes the position that the Bishop was in the wrong on this one, but he still has a place of honor.  At the same time, they've got a memorial to the convicted witch in there, and a line of exclusive jewelry based on a cross design associated with her.  (Then again, it's all about the witch herself, not the maid, who was the one who really suffered for all of this.)

You get no pictures of the castle or the Cathedral.  (I think I got one of the castle exterior, but that's about it.)  No pictures of the interior of the castle, because they were forbidden.  No pictures of the cathedral because it feels totally disrespectful to walk around a house of worship snapping pics.  I've done it on occasion, when they've been very clear about photos being allowed and encouraged; and I'm more likely to do it when the church is more of a tourist attraction than a functioning house of God.  Here, the place was somewhere in between -- the Cathedral's administrator took us around on a tour, but the little brochure she gave us talked about the building's holiness and peaceful serenity and such, and I thought I spotted a couple people in there actually trying to pray, so I kept my camera to myself.

did get some pictures at our final stop, which was, in fact, a photo stop, at a little town which didn't have much going for it except a couple shops and a very beautiful river, complete with picturesque bridge and some horses delicately placed in the landscape on the other side.  I tried it from a few different angles to the get the best shot, and I have hopes that at least one of those pictures will work.

(The little town also had some public toilets (to which our tour guide directed me), and I so wanted to take a picture in there -- except for the whole problem of wanting to douse my camera in anti-bacterial gel if I took it out of my purse in there.  You walk in and there are three stalls.  One stall has a bunch of toilet paper jammed in the toilet.  Stall number two has a relatively clean toilet, although I discovered that the lock on the door wasn't functioning.  I didn't even check the third stall -- I figured I'd found a clean toilet, so I just pushed the door shut and hoped.  One could see the toilet had been replaced -- because on the floor, you could still see the yucko-encrusted outline of where the old toilet used to be.  On the wall next to the toilet is a chain -- an actual, made-of-big-heavy-links chain -- and hanging on the chain are two rolls of toilet paper.  One roll has paper falling in a cascade to the floor.  Clearly, I'd use the other roll -- and in using it, I understood the cause of the situation with the second roll.  See, both rolls were next to each other in the center of the chain, and their edges were touching.  Pulling paper off one roll turned it.  Turning the first roll turned the second, like gears in a clock, resulting in the second roll spilling more paper to the floor.  (Move the rolls apart and gravity pushes them back to the center of the chain.)  You finish your business in there and turn to flush, discovering that, over the toilet, someone has scrawled "Push Three Times" over the flushing button.  Do as you're told and everything works.  Go to wash your hands and there are two sinks, each with a single tap.  One is blue; the other is red.  Both are rusty.  There is no soap.  I used my anti-bacterial hand gel and got the heck out of there, declining to stay any longer to snap a picture.  My father reported that he used the toidy in a nearby coffee shop -- he'd had to buy a cup of coffee for the privilege.  In retrospect, given that we'd each paid over $200 for this tour, the tour company should have slipped the coffee shop a twenty and obtained permission for us all to use their facilities.)

I should really find another picture of the pretty bridge to put here.

(OK, not the bridge -- that's Kilkenny out the window of a moving tourbus.  Not bad, eh?) 

Day the Fifth

OK, now they're just messing with my head.  Today, after dinner, the "hotel manager" -- who is very nice, friendly, and accommodating -- came by my table and asked if we were going to participate in the post-dinner entertainment (read: dance party).  Answer:  no.  I did inquire, however, if my journal was working yet.  He said no, it's still the weekend.  We have to wait until Monday.  I said, "Really?  It's still the weekend?"  "Yes," he said, "It's Sunday."

Now, I know this means little to you, seeing as you're probably not reading this until sometime much later in the week.  But I went back to my cabin, and read my schedule for tomorrow, which was clearly labelled "Tuesday."  Now, I may be suffering a bit from Vacation Brain, but I'm pretty sure Monday comes before Tuesday.  Grrr.

Eh, whatever.  I go to put away my laundry (my nice, clean laundry) which requires laying it out on the bed, and I notice a spot on my duvet.  Not on the part of the duvet that touches me, but on the duvet itself, under the duvet cover.  Is that blood?

I pull the duvet out from where it is tucked in and peel the cover back.  Yes, that does appear to be blood.  

There's also an inkstain (which I didn't bother photographing) and an "eww, what the heck is that?"  

 All on the far end of my duvet, on top of my feet.

Yes, that's on the duvet and there is a cover between me and it.  Even so, I am pretty ooked out.  (Take that, Windstar.  You block my 'blog, you get my undercover reporting.  And what is under my covers is kinda gross.  I thought you just did a renovation -- didn't that include the bed covers?)

OK, let's set that aside (really, though ... I've got the pictures on my camera.  I wonder what the hotel manager would say if I showed him tomorrow.  And a calendar.  I should probably show him a calendar.  IT'S MONDAY!)

So, yes, setting that aside.  We were in Wales today!  Never been to Wales.  Took some photos from the tour bus window.  It's green there.  With sheep.  And cattle. But mostly sheep.  

Today's shore excursion took us out to Pembroke Castle.  This was an actual castle, as opposed to a stately home. 

There was a keep and a dungeon and, although royalty didn't own the place, Henry VII was born there, so it's close enough.  (The dungeon was noteworthy.  In that they noted that although everyone thinks there were always people imprisoned in castle dungeons, it very rarely occurred.  But it did occur at Pembroke.  Henry V's younger brother owned Pembroke at the time, and got into a dispute with someone regarding the ownership of some land on the Isle of Wight.  So, he resolved the problem the old-fashioned way -- he locked the other claimant up in his dungeon for, like, seven years.  Dude went blind, as well as suffering many other ills.  (The brother of Henry V who did this was apparently also Duke of Gloucester.  In hindsight, this probably should have been a sign that those Gloucesters had a nasty habit of taking out anyone who stood between them and what they wanted.)

We did not have a ton of time at the castle, so I separated from the tour guide, in order to peek at the dungeon, shoot a picture out one of them arrow slots in the wall around the edge, 

and ... and then I had about ten minutes left, and decided to go down the spiral staircase into the cavern.

The cavern was neat.  It was also quite old -- inhabited in prehistoric times old.  I was also alone in there -- which was slightly creepy but mostly awesome.  I like being alone in historical places -- it just gives me a chance to experience the place directly, without having my thoughts guided by some preconceived notions coming from a tour guide.  Most places, I'd touch the walls to get a (literal) feel for it, but these walls just said "don't touch."  (They also said, "we're potentially growing thousand-year-old bacteria.")  Alone, the place just felt ancient and untouched.  I got a mystical feel from it, too.  The castle was a well-preserved tourist attraction with placards and a dummy in the dungeon to help you envision what it must have been like for the prisoner.  But the cavern was unkempt and genuine, with something dripping from the ceiling.  Also, it made for awesome echoing.  (I considered singing a bit of "Floyd Collins" in there, but that would have been wrong.  I just let out a very soft hum and it reverberated around the room and came back to me in stereo.)

We then piled back on the bus and went to Tenby, which is ... hell if I know what it is.  It was a walled city, probably medieval, but I won't swear to that, as, again, I ditched the guide to get some time on my own.  Tenby had an old church in the middle of it.  But it was also a old-fashioned British seaside resort city, full of little shops selling cornets and candy floss.

 (I asked the woman selling ice cream which flavor was best.  She said "raspberry ripple."  So, of course, I had to buy some.  Welsh raspberry ripple is way ahead of Cornish triple chocolate.  I'm just saying.)  This is the view I had where I stopped to eat my ice cream.

Tonight, Windstar had a massive barbecue for dinner.  There was a ton of food, a lot of which was tasty.  I ate my very first pineapple fritter.  (I then went back for my second, third and fourth pineapple fritters.  I decided they worked better as a dessert, so I put some vanilla ice cream on top.  The dude serving the ice cream seemed to approve of my creation.)

That's about it for today.  Let's see what happens tomorrow.  TUESDAY.

Days the Third and Fourth

I'm pretty sure you're going to all of these posts via a massive content dump.  (Upload dump?)  The saga of my Windstar wi-fi has reached a satisfactory conclusion -- in that they're still working on unblocking my site, but seeing as it's taking so damn long, they're refunding me the amount I invested in wi-fi (but letting me keep the 66 MB of access anyway).  I gotta hand it to these folks -- they do screw some stuff up, but they do their best to make it right.

Which explains the free bottle of wine in my cabin today.  Yesterday, we were in Falmouth (which my father turned into Foul Mouth) and took a shore excursion out to a castle.  ("Castle" in the sense of "stately home some dude built in the early 1800s," not "castle" as in "royalty lived here.")  To get to the castle (called something like Caerhays Castle), we took a tour bus.  And it was fairly toasty, weather-wise.  Seriously, we've had gorgeous weather so far -- in the mid- to upper- 70s temperature-wise -- and this made everyone on the bus a bit warm.  The guide on the bus told us how to operate the little air vents above us.  My little air vent cheerfully blew out cold air, as it was supposed to.  Other passengers' apparently did not -- my parents, who sat in the row in front of me, said their vent blew only warm air, which is kind of useless.  When we got back from the excursion, we all had notes in our cabin apologizing for the technical difficulties with the air on the bus.  Today, we all got new notes saying that the local shore excursion company now says there wasn't a damn thing wrong with the bus; it was just a lot hotter than the bus had been designed for; sorry it was toasty in there, but we did nothing wrong.  Windstar felt bad about the whole thing and, in the time-honored tradition of cruises everywhere, decided to make it up to us with free drinks.  Hence, the bottle of wine in my cabin today.  (Drunk passengers are happy passengers.)

I wish I could tell you something about Falmouth, but, honestly, there's something about tour busses from cruise ships which make me sleepy (even though I'm getting much more sleep at night here than I do at home).  With the guide telling us all about Cornwall and the (sorry, everyone else) cool breeze coming out of my air vent, I just dozed off.  Three times.  And I wasn't subtle about it, either.  I kept waking up realizing I had my head back and my mouth open,

Things I managed to learn about Falmouth:  It's part of Cornwall.  Its original industry had to do with the harbor.  It is one of the deepest harbors on the planet (3rd deepest -- after Rio and Sydney); however, the old harbor area, during low tide, gets so dry that we saw boats just sitting there in the mud.

Cornwall is famous for Cornish pasties.  Also Cornish cream (which comes from Cornish moo-cows). 

At the castle (I have a picture of its exterior someplace, but we weren't allowed photos inside as someone still lives there),

 we had a Cornish Cream Tea, with some seriously yummy Cornish Clotted Cream to put upon our scones.  I also have the answer to a question which has been bothering me ever since I first had a proper British cream tea back in my college days:  do you put the preserves on your scone first or the cream on your scone first?  I could make an argument for going either way -- if the cream is first, it's like the butter which goes under the jam; if the jam is first, it's like the cream on top of the sundae.  Well, guess what -- if you're from Devon, you put the cream first; if you're from Cornwall, you put the preserves first.  (It's the sort of dispute which I imagine has led to some drunken bar fights, if not knights actually going against each other in mortal combat.  "Thou vile knave, putting cream first upon thy scone, when all the world knows that the preserves must be applied first!  Have at ye!")  We were in Cornwall, so we had the cream on top.  Holy crap, that was some good cream.  (As with most clotted cream, my arteries yelled, "no! no!" when I started to eat it, but my taste buds overruled their objection.)  Seriously, though, I tipped my hat to the Cornish moo-cows on the way out, because damn.

Today, we went to the Scilly Isles (the "c" is silent), which are technically part of the Duchy of Cornwall... (although our tour guide told us that the islands are often competitive with mainland Cornwall, on such varied topics as sailing and who makes the best ice cream -- we very much wanted to try Scillian ice cream so as to help resolve the dispute, but our guide didn't know of anywhere on our particular island where it could be found.  I fear Scilly is going to lose this competition by defaulting, if they can't get their yummy ice cream out to the judges).

There were a couple of tours being offered, none of which interested us, so we hired our own guide.  (A very nice archaeologist named Katharine, who runs a website called ScillyWalks.  Ha.)  Katharine runs public walks for a couple pounds per person, but you could hire her yourself for something like 50 pounds for a half day, which (even when you throw in what we paid for a taxi) is cheaper than it would have cost for one of us to go on one of Windstar's shore excursions.  And, this way, we got ourselves a tour at our own pace, with someone who could tell us all about the bronze age burial mound we saw (dating back to, say, 1800 BC) and the Iron Age village (which was a lot younger -- I think she said more like 700 BC, but I've forgotten already).  Scilly's history (or, more precisely, its prehistoric history) shows no evidence of wars or invaders (the Romans knew about the place, and may have stopped in on their way to other places, but didn't try to take it), so you've just got some very straightforward evidence of how people lived thousands of years ago, and how their homes and tools evolved.  Cool shit, really.  After my father was all pre-historied out, Katharine took us up to an unfinished fort buillt in 1551.  (Well, not exactly built then, as they never finished it.)  It was intended to guard the place (in Tudor times) from war from Spain and/or France.  There were, however, two problems with it.  First, it was built in the wrong place -- you couldn't see ships approaching the harbor from this particular hilltop.

Second, they ran out of money partway through.  (Apparently unfinished construction 500 years ago was somewhat similar to unfinished construction today.  Although I imagine that then, there was a much greater risk of being beheaded for drawing up the wrong plans.)  After the fort, Katharine walked us back into town, where we partook of Cornish Ice Cream (and, lo, it was good), and then came back to the ship.

The fog has rolled in.  I'm sitting out on deck in that sort of dangerous weather where you can get a serious sunburn even though you can't see the sun.  <Ed. Note:  I so totally got sunburned.  And it isn't like I didn't see it coming.>  But it's quite pleasant (not too hot) and there's just a vague sense of creepy to it, which works nicely with the zombie novel I've been reading.  There were some crazy beautiful views from Scilly (Scilly's main industry is tourism; its second-largest is flower export) -- I shot a couple pictures of the views.  I'd intended to get a few more later, but the fog rolled in while we were eating ice cream.  Seriously -- at first, you could see our ship anchored just outside the harbor, as pretty as a postcard; twenty minutes later, there was a bank of fog with a few masts barely visible.  So, I came to sit out on deck of the "ghost ship," reading about zombies.  Good times.

Day the Second and an Explanation

I am about to get into a $50 fight with Windstar.  Last night, I purchased their (as previously mentioned) outrageously expensive internet package.  (I believe I went to the desk said, "This is where I pay you a big pile of money for a tiny little amount of internet access.")  And they tried to talk me out of it -- informing me how spotty the coverage was, and that I'd be better off just looking for free wi-fi in the ports.  But I persisted because (also as previously mentioned) I didn't want to spend my whole vacation looking for wi-fi in the ports.  I figured I'd write all my journal entries offline, and then take a few seconds to post them on those happy occasions when a signal was present.  (They charge by the MB, not the minute, so it isn't absolutely necessary to do one's work offline.  But since the connection is spotty, I figured working offline would probably be safer, in the long run.)  So, anyway, that was the plan.  I wrote up the first three posts (covering the start of the cruise and the day prior), and logged on in order to post them.

Unlike several of my shipmates, I did, in fact, connect to shipboard wi-fi.

However, my site -- this very journal -- was blocked.  Stopped by Windstar's filters because, apparently, there is inappropriate content here.


Inappropriate content?  The only thing remotely inappropriate is my stray (but measured) use of an expletive here or there.  Does Windstar seriously block every website that drops the F-bomb now and again?

Fuck that.

I couldn't believe that I was blocked.  I quickly loaded another website, just to make sure I was, in fact, connected.  Other website loaded fine.  I closed out the other site and logged out of Windstar's wi-fi, leaving on my screen the "Sorry, your blog is blocked" screen.  I showed it to the woman at reception, pointing out that the only reason I'd bought their damn wi-fi was to update my journal.  If I couldn't update my journal, this was of no use to me.  She took down my name and my URL, told me she'd ask the IT guy to unblock it, and they'd leave a note for me the next day.

The next day is today.  I received no note.  After dinner, I went back to the same lady at the reception counter and asked about progress on unblocking my website.  She said she sent a message to the IT guy, and he received it, but she hasn't heard back yet.  He's (allegedly) trying to make an exception to their firewall.

She then adds that this problem has occurred before, with another passenger, and they were unable to fix it (although that was a different IT guy).  She says that if they can't fix it, she can only refund my $50 internet purchase if the plan is intact -- no data used.  I point out that I did use, like, less than 1 MB loading one other website just to prove that the plan was working.  She says she's sorry and they can't refund it if I've used any data.  I politely inform her that, should it come to pass that my website can't be unblocked, this is unacceptable and they'll need to refund my money.  (I recall signing a form recognizing that the connection might be unstable and agreeing that the package was non-refundable.  I do not recall signing a form saying that their super-sensitive censor may block my journal, and that I should check that before using any other data.)  I walk away from the counter with my heels nicely clicking against the wood, hopefully giving the impression that said heels will be walking over her head to get my damn money back if the IT guy can't unblock my blog.

(On the other hand, I'm about to submit my second bag o' laundry.  Windstar has a flat-rate laundry package, which I purchased.  I don't think they were thinking that people might approach this cruise with a week's worth of dirty laundry already in their suitcase, which is, in fact, my situation.  I intend to take full advantage of the laundry package.  Let me tell you how much advantage I am taking of the laundry package.  They also have a "premium beverage" package where you pay a flat rate for the cruise and can drink all the alcohol you want.  I am doing the laundry equivalent of walking around hammered 24/7.)

As for the actual day, we went to Dartmouth.  Setting aside the naval college (which wasn't open to visitors), Dartmouth is a quaint little seaside town with many quaint little shops.  And we didn't book a shore excursion for this one -- we just tendered over to the town and wandered around it (spending money). On a previous trip with Windstar, I noted with dismay that, in one French town, I tendered over only to discover that all the shops were closed.  Not so here. Here, our tender (a tender, mind you -- not the whole ship, just one little tender with, like, twenty passengers) was met by the town crier who greeted us, and a couple of ladies in period costume handing out maps of the town and cheerfully answering questions about the location of interesting shops.  I don't know if this is just a difference between France and England, or if Windstar planned better this time, but, either way, the shopkeepers and restauranteurs of Dartmouth were excited to see us. 

My folks and I had a lovely wander around town, and, indeed, we all came back to the ship with stuff.  (I bought some presents for the folks at work, and my parents bought me a couple dresses as a birthday gift; my mom bought a pretty jacket; and, after my dad left to go back to the ship for lunch, my mom picked up a nifty gift for him too.  Everybody wins.  It was just a lovely day all around.

Until the bit about the wi-fi.

Day the First

OK, first things first.  I am on a cruise ship right now.  The ship's internet rates are really high.  Really high.  To put this in perspective, the ship is charging me twice as much as Verizon for two-thirds as much internet.  Seriously.  Anything that is more expensive than Verizon for international data is ... well ... fucking expensive.  The crew here cheerfully informed me that I should probably just use free wi-fi at various restaurants in the ports, but I've got shore excursions and activities planned for the ports, and I'm not going to carry my chromebook around with me (particularly when tendering to shore) in the hopes of hitting upon free wi-fi.  All of which is to say:  I've purchased a certain amount of data and that's all she wrote -- I'll update the journal (text only) using said data on a (satellite-permitting) daily basis until such time as I'm out of data.  Thereafter, the writing will continue but the posting won't resume until I'm safely on shore in the presence of free wi-fi.  Probably an airport hotel at the end of the cruise.  Possibly the airport itself.

Second things second.  Here is how today was supposed to go:  I wake up early.  I head out around 9:00 a.m., drop by Covent Garden market, and buy a couple things I should have bought earlier.  On the way back, I stop off at the chemist (pharmacy, whatever) and buy some more ThermaCare back wraps.  Back at the flat by 11:30.  The driver picks me up; then picks up my parents; and drives us out to Portsmouth.  We get to Portsmouth around 1:30; drop our luggage on the ship; wander around Portsmouth; have a nice lunch; get back on board by the 4:00 all-aboard; and commence the cruise.

Here is what actually happened:  I sleep in until about 10.  I rush around to finish all my packing and tidy the flat before I leave.  The driver rings me at 11:20 -- I'm not quite ready.  He (very kindly) bounces my luggage down the stairs and loads up the car.  We pick up my parents.  We head out to Portsmouth.  There is a massive accident on the M25.  Someone apparently flipped a caravan (trailer).  Nobody is going anywhere.  Our driver rings his boss and they try to figure out how to get us to Portsmouth.  It involves a 50-minute detour -- much of it in the opposite direction -- and tearing down tiny country roads at vast rates of speed.  We get to Portsmouth around 3:00; get checked in on the ship by 3:30; and barely get a snack in before the all-aboard and safety briefing.  Not very exciting, although we did get here before the ship sailed, which is, y'know what matters.

Last Night

Yeah, we also had some good Italian food, and saw Daniel Radcliffe in a play.  But it isn't like we saw him nekkid or anything, so who really cares?

(Kidding.  Totally kidding.  It was The Cripple of Inishmaan, and he was actually pretty good in it.  But it's one of those sad/funny/sad/funny/no, really, it's sad sort of affairs, which left me wondering exactly the point of the play in the first place.)


(MAN, would it kill this app to default my font to Arial?)

Yesterday, as promised, was interesting.  We did a day trip out to Bletchley Park, which was (shhh) where all the smart-asses were during WWII who ultimately broke Enigma (the Germans' kick-ass coding system).  I had two take-aways from Bletchley.  The first was that they didn't break Enigma in any awesome math geek code-breaky sense.  Instead they broke Enigma by building a machine (not a computer, our guides stressed) which would brute force the problem.  Mostly.  Enigma had too many possibilities to allow for actual brute-forcing a solution in time for it to be of any use.  But if the geeks could take a reasonable guess at what a string of letters could conceivably mean (which was apparently possible due to a combination of a flaw in Enigma in that it never coded a letter to itself and a reasonable knowledge of the types of messages the enemy sent at particular times), they could narrow down the options enough to something that the British machine (named Bombe) could brute force a solution to in a reasonable amount of time.  And once Bombe got it right, they'd have the Enigma settings for that day in that particular arena and could decode any message.  Then the whole thing would start all over again the next day -- with geekery and brute force working on the next set of messages.  The work at Bletchley is estimated to have shortened the war by about two years, which equates to a lot of lives.  So, y'know, yay.  

I hold the second take-away for a moment, to get down to the particulars of visiting Bletchley.

For my American friends who want to visit Bletchley:  they've got a two-for-one admission deal if you go out there via National Rail.  The problem is, you have to print out the damn voucher -- you can't just show your National Rail tickets or prove that you've signed up for the plan by showing an email on your phone.  (And signing up is itself fairly exciting, as you need to give it a home phone number, and it won't take an American number.  And if you give it a random string of digits of the right length, that won't work either.  Grrrr.)  Anyway, register (google for something like "fake London phone number") and print out your voucher before you go.  Also, if there are more than two of you, book your rail tickets online.  You get a discount on the third and fourth ticket, but you don't get that discount if you buy at the ticket machines at the station.  You're welcome.

They say you can spend a whole day at Bletchley Park, and this is true.  We didn't have a whole day.  We got there at about 12:03 -- missing the noon tour and, as it turned out, not being able to get tickets for the 12:30, either.  (Tickets are limited; first come, first served.)  We got tickets for the 1:00 tour -- and then waited in the cafe for said tour to depart.  The tour was supposed to be 45 minutes.  It actually ran an hour fifteen, and the guide stood around shooting the shit with my parents for another 15 minutes.  This was a problem.  It was 2:30 by the time we were done with him, and we had to leave by 3:30 to get our train back in time for dinner and theatre that night.   Another tip for Bletchley -- unless you have a ton of time, blow off the tour.  They tour only covers the outside areas -- you don't go into any buildings or see any exhibits.  The guided tour basically tells you everything you should go back and visit on your own -- but takes up way too much time telling you that.  Instead, get oriented with your (also free, also outside-areas-only) multi-media guide (not just audio!  It's on an ipod) and then go see what you want to see.

Since we had only an hour left, we split up -- my Dad wanted to see the architecture in the main house; my mom wanted to see Alan Turing's office; and I went right for the Enigma machines and the working Bombe replica.  (Eventually, both of my parents joined me at the replica.)  But there really is a ton to see, and I don't think we made the most efficient use of our 3 1/2 hours there.

OK, here's my second take-away from Bletchley.  You've heard of Turing, or at least his work.  You can walk around Bletchley and read, in addition to his fairly massive contributions to codebreaking (and, therefore, the Allies' victory in WWII), some of the many many things he added to the overall knowledge.  I mean, there are several places in Bletchley where there'll be an exhibit that talks about how Turing is the father of an entire field (artificial intelligence for one, obviously), and how much modern computing and computer science owe to the guy.  Smart, smart dude.  (I read the opening paragraph of one of his lectures -- being a math nerd, I could understand the words, but I had no damn idea what it was actually saying.)

What I didn't know, though, were the circumstances of his death.  (Someone asked our guide where he was buried.  Our guide (who was, as his running long should indicate, just crazy enthusiastic about Bletchley Park and Alan Turing) didn't know.  I expect I could google it (when I'm not paying by the MB), but the real point here is that he didn't know.  Apparently, he isn't buried in a place of honor someplace.)  Here is how Turing died:  After all of his service to science and Britain (and his award of an OBE), he was convicted of "gross indecency" (i.e., being homosexual), for which his punishment was chemical castration.  About two years after that, at age 41, he died of cyanide poisoning.  The coroner ruled it a suicide.

There is, at Bletchley Park, a rather eloquent apology from the British government -- recently obtained after a massive petition drive, spurred on by the LGBT community.

I was reminded of that holocaust memorial we saw in ... shit, I want to say Vienna, but a lot of that runs together in my memory just now.  Anyhow, it's the sculpture in the shape of a building of bookshelves, with all the books facing away from you, so you can't pull anything off the shelves.  It is supposed to symbolize all of the books that will never be written by the victims of the holocaust -- all of the literature (and other art, I imagine) of which society has been deprived because of the slaughter of all of those people.  It reminds the people of (yeah, I'm going to go with) Vienna that this loss isn't just personal to the families of the victims, but belongs to society, because we all miss out on what the victims could have, and would have, done.

And that's my second take-away from Bletchley Park.  You look at an actual genius like Alan Turing -- who was critical to the effort of breaking Enigma and ending the war two years earlier; who invented entire fields of study the rest of the world had yet to even conceive of -- and realize that his life was cut short for no reason other than persecution based on his sexual orientation.  Imagine where we'd be today, if we'd had another 30 years of his accomplishments. And it looks like the only things that are responsible for preventing every single one of us from reaping the benefits of another 30 years of Turing's genius are human stupidity, hatred, and intolerance.

Bletchley Park, our guide cheerfully told us, was a place where, for a very brief period in time, nobody paid any attention to who you were -- they gathered together the smartest people they could find.  National origin didn't matter; age didn't matter; class didn't matter; gender didn't matter; and orientation didn't matter.  All that mattered was what you could do.  And, in the absence of societally-imposed preconceived notions about limits of ability, the people gathered together at Bletchley Park accomplished truly amazing things.

It shouldn't be a fucking museum.  It should be a way of life.

Upload Party!

We're having an upload party, from the Dublin Airport Hilton (which, as two taxi drivers have already pointed out, is misnamed, as it's about a ten minute drive from the airport; also their "courtesy shuttle" is misnamed, as it costs 2 Euro per person).  ANYWAY, I drafted each post in order, every night (or so), but they didn't get posted for reasons you'll see soon enough.

Without further ado, then, I give you the last of the London posts, and then everything from the cruise.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


My parents -- and I say this with all respect and the knowledge that they read this blog -- are getting older.  This, truly, happens as a matter of course to all of us.  (Certainly throwing my back out while doing nothing at all isn't a sign of the second hand spinning backwards.)

But what's interesting about my parents getting older is that I haven't quite noticed it.  I mean, yeah, sure, they're moving a bit slower and I'm trying to be cognizant of it while leading them all over the London underground.  But I think what's tipped me off to their aging is that every time we get on a train, someone gets up and offers their seat to my mom.  Which gets marks for politeness, surely, but that's not the point.  To me, she doesn't look like someone of the age deserving the offering of one's seat.  (To me she looks right around "Do I take her word for it that she's eligible for the senior discount?")  I reckon it's hard to see one's parents purely objectively.


Today, I dragged my parents (not unwillingly) out to the HMS Belfast, one WWII warship (Dad loves war history stuff).  Impressive.  They had audio guides and a few exhibits set up, focussing on what life was like onboard the ship as well as the accomplishments of her crew during the war.  My folks were into the war stuff; I was a bit more into the decades-old tech.  (Dad wanted to see the really big shells; I wanted to see the targeting system.)  I continue to be amazed by what people accomplished with what is, by today's standards, pretty effin' rudimentary.  ("We got to the moon with this shit?")  But the earlier technology seems just a lot more clever.  I mean, obviously, today's tech is much, much smarter than yesterday's -- but it seems like yesterday's solutions relied more on the user's own brainpower because you didn't have a smart computer in your pocket.

(We're planning to go to Bletchley Park tomorrow, to see some seriously smart solutions from the same era.)

After the HMS Belfast, we went for a very nice snooty tea at a hotel near the Thames.  I'd booked us a table out on the terrace, hoping we'd get some nice views, but the terrace was all walled off (so the proles don't see what the snooty are up to).  It was still lovely -- the weather today was just about 80 degrees, and it was nice to enjoy such (rare) warm weather in London.

Then I did a bit of shopping with my mom, while my dad went back to the hotel for a nap.  Then we met at the theatre to see a revival of Pinter's The Hothouse.  Odd little play (not as odd as the crazy Punchdrunk thing I saw on Saturday) but not entirely straightforward either.  Didn't entirely matter -- it starred Simon Russell Beale and John Simm, either one of whom I would travel many miles to see.  (I have, actually.  I flew to Phoenix to see Beale's Hamlet, and, actually, I took a train from London to Sheffield to see Simm's.  Don't ask me to compare them -- such wildly different interpretations, you wouldn't think it was the same play.)  So, I mean, two of them sharing a stage was a real treat.  They're both such good actors, I could never decide which one to watch -- as the reactions were just as fun to watch as the actions.  Just a delicious little acting treat.  (Interesting, though, that I thought one of the supporting players couldn't keep up.  I, personally, am not an amazing performer -- but when I did some acting in school, my performances were always elevated by working with good actors.  Which does make me wonder if this guy was normally even weaker than what I saw.)

We didn't have dinner.  The snooty tea -- although, on paper, a bit on the pricey side -- involved an insane amount of food, so I had no interest in another meal.  Just munched on some baby carrots back at the flat, and I'm good.

Tomorrow is our last day in London.  Let's see what kind of trouble we can get into.