Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Great Stirrup Cay

Some cruise lines own their own little island.  NCL has a little number called Great Stirrup Cay, in the Bahamas, about 30 miles off the coast of Florida.  Although I'm not on an NCL cruise, our cruise ship has use of Great Stirrup Cay for the day.

According to the brochure we picked up on the island, there are lots of activities.  According to our particular cruise, much fewer of those activities are available to us.  According to the weather, nobody is doing anything.

After breakfast, we piled on to a tender over to the island.  By the time we'd arrived, it started raining.  My Dad grabbed some shelter; my mom and I looked at the little shops (which were protected only by sun parasols, so all their goods were quickly becoming soggy), and the snorkelling desk (manned, inexplicably, by entertainers from our ship, who hadn't been on the island before and therefore could reliably answer very few questions).  After an hour had passed, the rain had not stopped.  If anything, it had become more severe; the sandy beach was turning muddy.  We gave up, piled back into the tender, and returned the ship.  I believe it stopped raining just as we were returning.

(I showered and set all my wet -- although unused -- gear to dry, and went up for lunch.  Now, a couple hours later, it looks as though the sun is coming out and I could, in theory, get back into my snorkel kit, queue up for another tender, and give it another go.  Practically speaking, though, this is not a good plan.  I'm already warm and dry and dressed for dinner; I've got plans for one last round with our trivia team in an hour and a half; and -- although the rain has stopped, it's still pretty overcast, so there's no guarantee the rain won't start up again if I tried to set foot on the island.  The only way this plan would have worked was if I had managed to snorkel in the morning, giving my stuff time to dry out before I have to pack it tonight.  If I did a late snorkel, I'd be stuck packing a wet wetsuit, which does not appeal.)

So, this is pretty much an end to our wild little Caribbean adventure.  It -- at least partially -- was the relaxing week we were looking forward to.  Mostly, I managed my goal of having a really solid break from daily life.  Oddly, though, this isn't a vacation I don't want to leave.  In fact, I'm kind of eager to get back to my regular life, which, I guess, is a good thing.

Monday, January 12, 2015


OK, so, yesterday, we were at Cayo Levantado, an island off the coast of the Dominican Republic.  We'd cancelled our beach day in Cayo Levantado (because it seemed to cost more than it was worth) and instead tried to get on a shore excursion called "Discover Samana," a bus-based trip in the Samana area of the Dominican Republic itself.

We did get on the excursion, no thanks to the jerk Destination Services employee (but, instead, thanks to the nice, good Destination Services employee).  The excursion was sold out, but we'd been told to go the boarding area (aka The Lounge) and see if there were no-shows.  So, we show up at the boarding area and ask the jerk, who tells us he's sorry but that excursion is totally booked, and pretty much waves us off out of the area.  I ask if everyone has shown up yet and, at this point, the nice employee says they haven't, and asks if we'd like to be wait listed.  We would.  Turns out there were several people who didn't show -- we easily got on.

The tour, however, was not exactly as described.  This is, word for word, the description of the tour, as provided by Destination Services:  "Depart from pier to the Church (approx.10min).  Outside visit of the Church (approx.5min).  Transfer to Whale Exhibition (approx.10min) & visit (approx.30min).  Free time at Las Terrenas for shopping, beach time (approx.1hr40min).  Trip back to Samana Town (approx.45min)."

This is how the tour actually went:  Tender over to pier in open boat while it's raining.  Get on bus with blasting a/c while sitting in wet jeans.  Sit in bus for 15 mins for no good reason, while the other bus on this tour departs.  Ride in bus to church.  Sit in bus outside boarded-up church and listen to guide talk about church.  Drive around corner to another church and park in front of that one for a similar talk.  Continue to ride in bus to whale museum.  Walk around front of whale museum while guide points out different types of trees.  Watch other tour leave museum.  Enter whale museum with tour guide and realize the 15 minute delay (and the introduction to the trees) was to kill time because the two-room whale museum is too small to hold two busloads of tourists at once.  Observe the sole exhibit in the whale museum (a humpback whale skeleton).  Listen to tour guide talk about a group he took whale watching and think (not for the last time on this tour) you'd rather be doing that with him instead of your current tour.  Pause for restroom break (the men's and women's restrooms each had seating for two -- and were surprisingly clean and well-supplied given the looks of the place.)  Reboard the bus.  Go for a drive and listen to the guide talk informatively about the history of the Dominican Republic.  Notice the level of poverty (and sanitation) of the houses you're driving past.  Bus stops while the guide walks up to one of the small, nondescript buildings in a village by the side of the road.  Guide was obtaining several fresh loaves of the local delicacy: coconut bread (made with coconut milk).  Guide passes out coconut bread.  Enjoy hunk of nice, hot coconut bread.  Continue bus ride.  Get off bus at crappy gift shop.  There's a huge step down from the bus to the ground in front of the crappy gift shop.  They've placed a cement brick there to act as a step, which my father proceeds to gash his leg on.  Watch while the guide and the nice people at the crappy gift shop open up a First Aid kit and disinfect the bloody wound.  (Watch, somewhat amused, while the crappy gift shop gives my dad a sip of the local hooch -- some 30% alcohol -- to take the edge off.)  Crappy gift shop is crappy, and we inquire as to whether there isn't better shopping at Las Terranas.  There isn't.  It's Sunday, and everything is closed.  Indeed, our guide had to call ahead to Crappy Gift Shop so that they'd open just for us.  If we want to buy ANYTHING in the Dominican; this is pretty much it.  (And the choices range from local paintings to baseballs with the Dominican flag on them.)  Back on the bus for more stories (continue to think that despite the lack of seeing anything worthwhile on the tour, the guide is really excellent -- it probably would have been better if they'd just invited him on the ship to give us a talk about the country) and ride to Las Terranas, which appears to be a small area consisting of:  a narrow piece of beach (maybe 20 or 30 feet to the water); a church where people were selling local paintings; a local biker bar; and a restaurant.  Guide tells us we'll be here for AN HOUR -- we wonder what we're going to fill the time with.  He takes us to the restaurant and suggests we can get drinks here; also, there are more restrooms (again, with seating for two).  We stand around.  A disabled local comes up to us begging.  Two more locals come up and offer to sell us unidentifiable homemade food items.  We stand around some more.  We continue standing.  Eventually, we get back on the bus.  Bus starts to head back to the pier.  On our way, we pass a small, but new-looking area of shops, which is clearly the "shopping" which had been promised at Las Terranas, but was also clearly closed, as our guide had told us.  Ride the bus through more impoverished towns, although also pass some shiny new four-star-looking resorts (with gates and guards).  Learn that tourism is the number one industry of the Dominican Republic (last year, they had 5 million visitors; their President hopes that will increase to 10 million) and realize that this is one of those places where guests come to be pampered at lovely resorts with all the amenities, while just outside the walls (where the guests NEVER go) there are people who, in our guide's words, "work today to eat tomorrow."  Listen to the guide talk about an excursion he offers called "What Your Eye Doesn't See," where you meet and interact with local schoolchildren, and go to a cockfight ring, and visit a voodoo shop.  (Think again, "Yes, I would much rather have done that.")  Listen to him say that when guests meet with the schoolchildren, it teaches the local kids that the white people aren't rich because they're white, they just have more possibilities.  (Have an "Aha Moment" when you realize how crazy privileged you are to have grown up in a country where nobody ever told you your possibilities were limited.)  Listen to him say that he tells the kids that if their parents saved up all the money the spend on drink every day, they would have enough money at the end of the year to make a visit to our country, as we are visiting theirs.  Listen to him say that, rather than have millions of dollars spent on a memorial to Christopher Colombus in the capital, he'd rather they spent the money on a university or a hospital in Colombus's name.  Listen to the fact that, despite all of the poverty, and the lousy educational system, our guide has tremendous pride in his nation -- and that he wants to make it better and offer a better life to his kids, but that he would never leave it.  Learn about his love for the community and the natural resources of his island home.  Listen to him say that he was among the first to sail around the island to Haiti after the earthquake, and his reports on the initital devastation.  Leave the bus and pile onto a tender racing back to the ship (because you're now an hour late).  The seas are choppy (later reports say the guy who tendered back the folks on the first bus damaged the tender slamming it into the ship) and when you're reboarding the ship, you aren't so much "helped in disembarking" the tender, but "unloaded" like cargo -- people are pretty much thrown on board.  It's messy, but effective.

This was not, in any way, what I'd expected.  A lot of people HATED it, complaining (somewhat rightfully) about the lack of promised shopping (or "beach time" as we generally define the term) and the fact that the tour didn't quite match up with what was on the tin.  I found the whole thing profoundly moving in its own way.  I was just posting about how the absence of recognition of the terror attacks in France (and the coming together which immediately followed) had seemed weird to me.  Here, now, were people who didn't talk about what had gone down in France because terrorist extremist attacks took place in a completely different reality from the world they were living in.  They're worried about food, reliable inexpensive electricity, hot water, a decent standardized education system, and how to pull their country up into First World status.  Leave the "Je Suis Charlie" business to people who don't have to worry about where dinner is coming from.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Also, France.

I haven't blogged about what's been going down in France because, here, it doesn't exist.

I mean, sure, we get a little four page newspaper summary every night (of which one page is actually news, and all of it is about 24 hours late), and, depending on the seas and our location, we have television access to some of the 24-hour news channels, but, by and large, the real world doesn't exist.

Which is really weird.  I imagine that if I was at home, this would be the Number One topic at lunch for days on end; there would be that somewhat numb feeling that comes when there is a horrific terrorist attack somewhere in the world -- and you sort of have to recalibrate your default settings of general safety and understanding of the level of shitty behavior of which our fellow human beings are actually capable; some cautious optimism for any good that might come out of all of the coming together that we've been seeing; and some general pessimism for how someone, somewhere will very likely turn the coming together into a justification for something hateful, and we'll all return to our partisan corners and maybe nothing good at all will come out of something legitimately horrible.

But the weirdness, the utter weirdness of being on a Caribbean cruise when something like this is going down is that there is, by and large, a general unspoken consensus that we're here to ESCAPE the real world, and nobody is going to really BRING THIS UP, unless it is to just generally make sympathetic noises about how (obviously) the attacks suck.  And while I could understand this happening on the ship, where everyone is presumably on vacation, the whole conspiracy of silence seems to be going down in our destinations as well.  (Even St. Barts, which is, as previously mentioned, French.)  Now, I don't know if after the last cruise ship of the day leaves, everyone gathers in the local watering hole and has the conversations I would be having if I was at home.  I mean, perhaps they think the tourists (on whose dollars a lot of them really depend) aren't going to spend money if they're thinking about the real world, so it will just be Happy Party Rum Times on the islands until the tourists pack up and go.  But there is definitely a disconnect between a happy island escape and the world we all know we can't really escape FROM.  But we keep proceeding in our reality-free vacation, even though each and every one of knows reality is actually out there.

So, yeah, it's still snorkelling, and shuffleboard, and bingo, and shopping, and team trivia, and casino games, and no "Je Suis Charlie" anywhere, and no raising our voices against extremists, and no acknowledgement at all of the extraordinary events going on in the world.

The Journey Continues

Where did I leave you?  Tortola?  I think it was Tortola.  Dolphins were involved.  (The internet around here, like everything else around here, is crazy expensive.  I'm on the "buck-a-minute" plan, whereas the alternative is something like $280 for unlimited access for the whole cruise.  So, I'm writing these posts offline, then sending them in really quick.  Usually, they post in less than two minutes, but it depends on how strong or crappy the wi-fi signal is.)

ANYWAY, after Tortola was what we've been politely referring to as "the big day," in Philipsburg, St. Martin (or, actually, Sint Maarten, since that's on the Dutch side of the island).  As holiday presents to each other, my parents and I, er, chartered a boat to take us out for a half day.  They took us for a cruise around part of the island; we went snorkelling; the captain (who was also a certified dive instructor) took me for a SCUBA dive; and they grilled us up a nice lunch while we sat on the deck and people-watched.  (A "show" was provided by a nearby party boat -- they had installed a trapeze near the side of the boat, so guests (in various states of inebriation) could swing out on the trapeze and drop in the water.  There were a couple of people who managed a full rotation before dropping in; most just swung out and jumped; one face-planted; another did a rather painful-looking "butt-flop."  And we watched them all, eating our lunch, sipping wine, and being perfectly relaxed.)  I really, really enjoyed this -- particularly as it came around the middle of the cruise.  I've been having a good time on this cruise, and have met a lot of nice people (Laundry Wench notwithstanding) but sometimes, it's really nice to get away from the 1200 people you've been trapped with on a small floating city, and have a little private time.

There was one small lingering problem.  Well, two, actually.  First, I was wiped from the dive.  I mean WIPED.  My brand new mask had fogged up (I hadn't used toothpaste on it to clean it beforehand), so I had to borrow one of theirs.  When we stopped for lunch, I wanted to go for a snorkel as more of an equipment check.  I'd tried cleaning the mask with some boat polish they had around (why not, right?) and jumped in to test it out.  I managed to swim maybe halfway around the boat when I realized my arms were too tired to complete the journey.  I kicked my way back (thank you, fins) and got back onboard.  On the plus side, the mask was slightly better.  On the minus side, I was well and truly spent.

Problem the second was the sunburn.  I'd doused myself in sunscreen (and, as directed, bug spray with DEET) and ended up fried nonetheless.  (I idly wondered if the bug spray acted as a thin coating of oil in which I sizzled.)  Clearly, I failed to sufficiently reapply.  But my back and arms got well and truly toasted.  (Still, it was worth it to sit on the front of the yacht, wind blowing in my face, sarong flapping in the breeze behind me.)

Both of these things were problems because we'd signed up for a snorkelling excursion the next day -- and this cruise line has a 36 hour cancellation deadline.  So I'd be stuck on a snorkel excursion when I had no strength left to snorkel, and CLEARLY no desire to be out in the sun.

But first:  shopping!  Of the ports we'd visited so far, Philipsburg was the best set up for cruise ship tourists.  First, it had a big enough port so that all the mega-ships could dock; there was no tendering in necessary.  Second, they had about two-and-half blocks set up of storefronts right freakin' there.  Some were stands where people were selling handmade stuff; others were legitimate shops (possibly second locations of shops that are normally located more inland) -- but everyone wanted your money.  I scouted around for gifts for people back home, a little something for myself, and some damn aloe for the sunburn (which I ended up not buying, because the shop in which it was $6 was closed when I went back, and I'll be damned if I'm paying the $10 the open shop wanted -- this was a decision I came to regret that night when the SHEETS HURT, but I digress). 

There must be a shoplifting problem in Philipsburg because all the shops had warning signs about security cameras and sending your ass to jail if you steal.  When I was in one shop, a store employee started yelling at a couple customers to open their bags, because she'd found an empty hanger on a rack where the customers had been  looking, and, y'know, there should have been something on the hanger.  English was not her first language, and she was raising her voice -- in a combination of that thing people do where they think shouting makes them better understood, and accusation.  The customers finally opened their bags and no shoplifted store items were found therein.  They were permitted to leave and then I listened to the store's proprietress give an earful to the employee along the lines of "You've got to be sure" before you accuse someone because it is otherwise "bad for business."  I figured now was a good time for me to make my own exit, so as to underline her point.  (Too bad; they'd had some cute earrings.)

After Philipsburg was Gustavia in St. Barts.  What you need to know (or, certainly, what I needed to know) about St. Barts is that it is the snootiest of all the Caribbean islands (to hear a dude on the ship tell it, an appetizer bowl of tomato soup ran him something like $28), where all the shops are crazy high-end.  (Also, French.)  Our quick look at the shops confirmed this, where even their crappy tourist scarves cost way more than the crappy tourist scarves we'd seen elsewhere.  I did, however, stop in a convenience store and grab the bottle of post-sunburn-aloe stuff for just UNDER $6 -- I assume this is the best buy on the whole island.

My dad and I went on the snorkelling excursion anyway (my mom stayed back on the ship -- she was too spent to even go), although there was no way we were actually going to snorkel.  This decision was confirmed by the really choppy seas when we were tendering over -- waves kept crashing to such a degree that water was raining in windows on the TOP of the tender (conveniently showering me with salt water -- and making everyone jealous of my awesome all-weather hat).  But the trip wasn't all bad -- there were about 20 of us they took out on a catamaran, and maybe 6 who didn't want to snorkel at all (my dad and I decided in advance; a few others were convinced by the state of the sea) and a couple more who snorkelled for a few minutes and gave up.  We gathered on that net/trapoliney bit at the front of the cat, and just hung out there while everyone else snorkelled.  Rum punch was also involved.  So, really, no complaints.

We're presently on our way to an island off the coast of the Dominican Republic (which is part of that country, although not technically sitting on Hispaniola).  We had (timely) cancelled our shore excursion for this one, as it was a "beach day" which was to include transport to a lovely beach and all "non-motorized water sports."  We cancelled because they decided that it no longer included non-motorized water sports, and I couldn't really see much advantage to paying $80 for transport to a beach when there is beach EVERYWHERE and I don't even get a kayak to play with.  We're trying to switch to a more city-based excursion instead, but that one is sold out.  (However, given our own experience with the snorkel thing yesterday, we know that some people who can't timely cancel still decide not to go, so we're hoping we can sneak some spare tickets at the last minute.)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

They Made the Boat!

For anyone wondering if my parents managed to catch up with the cruise in San Juan, they did!  Much happiness.

San Juan itself was ... well, I don't know what I was expecting, so can't really say whether it met expectations.  The ship docked in Old San Juan, and there were SIX other ships in port, too.  A nice man in a shop (a nice man who tried to sell me earrings for $65 which others were selling for $25...) said that they usually have about 2 in port, so having 6 would make the city crowded.  He wasn't kidding.  I did most of my wandering when we first docked and a couple of the other ships hadn't yet arrived (or discharged passengers) and the city was fairly pleasant crowd-wise.  But, by noon, it was just tourists everywhere.  They had police out directing traffic at intersections, and the cars were pretty much gridlocked.  (I would have said it was chaotic, but the police did a good job of keeping people moving, albeit at a slow crawl.) 

There is history in Old San Juan -- a few old forts and such.  Other than that, it's shops and restaurants and bands playing music in various open squares throughout the town.  Three kinds of shops:  1,  Tourist Crap (the bulk of which was made in China or India ... with the occasional clothing item made in Honduras).  2.  Higher end American retailers who have outlet stores here.  3.  Jewelry stores.  (Two kinds of the latter, too -- both catering to tourists.  The pricey ones which are the same stores you find in ports on any cruise; and the totally cheapo ones selling semi-precious or not-really-all-that-precious-at-all stones.  Several of this latter type have a pirate theme.  Because Caribbean.  Yarrr.)

I confess I parted with about $20 here, but it was the Old San Juan Walgreen's, just stocking up on stuff I'd forgotten to pack.  Curiously, the Walgreen's was right across the street from a somewhat more local operation -- also selling necessaries as well as Tourist Crap -- but prices for everything in the local operation were higher than the prices in the Walgreen's.  I can't imagine how the local one stays in business, unless it's purely from tourists who happen to walk in that one before they notice the Walgreen's.

Today was rather more fun, although I don't have the technology to post the photos (OK, I don't have the bandwidth either, but I also lack the necessary tech at present).  We are anchored off the coast of Tortola (British Virgin Islands).  My mom and I went into town and went swimming with dolphins!

Actually, I called our adventure, "Photos with Dolphins."  I'd read some reviews of the operation, and several of the negative reviews complained that the playing with dolphins is all about "turn to the camera and smile" while the dolphin does each trick, and then a high-pressure sales pitch to make you buy the totally overpriced photos.  However, the folks who run the dolphinarium (yes, that's what they call it) added a new package which includes all your photos on CD (if booked in advance) -- and it didn't cost all that much money at all.  Result:  no high pressure sales pitch (indeed, no pressure to turn and face the camera either -- they don't care if they get the shot or not, since you've already bought it), and I've got a disk full of pictures of me and my mom kissing dolphins, hugging dolphins, doing the ol' belly swim, and being foot-pushed by dolphins.  Our dolphin (named something that sounded like Gracia) was a sweet thing -- about 15 years old -- who had only been training in "interactions" for about a year, and she was very good at responding to the trainer's hand signals.  (Although, I admit, my favorite part was when he had my mom and this other dude swim out into the pool.  The dude had a boogie board, and he was waiting for the dolphin to push him by his feet.  My mom was just getting into position for the belly swim.  So the trainer gives the command for the dolphin to foot push the guy.  Gracia swims out there, checks out the guy, and decides she'd rather belly swim with my mom.  Somewhere on the disk, I've got a picture of my mom doing her Surprise Belly Swim.)

Came back to the ship; did some laundry.  Met some folks hanging out in the Guest Laundry Room, and it just emphasizes the wide range of people we have on the cruise.  There was one person standing there ironing -- when I commented that that's devotion, the reply was that they iron every day; it's required of the uniform.  (I took another look at that passenger's posture -- straight up; I guessed we're talking military uniform and not wait staff uniform.)  There was another woman who came in and didn't quite get how the washing machine worked.  Another woman and I walked her through it -- all the while I was thinking, "I guess some people on this ship have never actually operated their own washing machine."  But the champ was this totally humorless woman sitting there waiting for her laundry (obviously concerned some other passenger would steal her delicates or something).  My folks had given me a few items to throw in with my laundry, so I'm standing there loading the machine, and I joked that my parents were making me do the washing.  Humorless Broad digs out her testiest schoolmarm voice and asks, "Well, who paid for the cruise?"  I told her we each paid for ourselves and she had no damn answer for that, so just went back to reading her kindle and watching her clothes slosh around.

I promised my parents I'd meet them at trivia (STILL missed finishing in the top 3 when someone on our team had the right answers; we just couldn't make the call on what to put down on our paper), which required taking the laundry out of the dryer a bit early.  It felt warm and dry, but, upon further investigation, a few of the pieces are more warm than dry.  So my cabin has jeans and other clothes draped upon every available surface, and I'm hoping stuff will manage to dry here, despite the humidity.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Snorkelling... or not

Initially, I'd signed up to go on a snorkelling shore excursion.  My parents had signed up for it too, so we were going to go for a snorkel together.  (I'm pretty sure it also included a drink with rum involved.)  But I haven't snorkelled in years -- indeed, I haven't been in an ocean or sea, since... well, ... now that I think about it, I was technically in the ocean in Santa Barbara, when I flipped my kayak a few feet from shore.  But I haven't attempted anything in the swim, snorkel, or dive arena since that cruise in the Mediterranean, when (on an excursion involving a much smaller boat), I jumped into the water and floated there for a bit while someone took my picture, just so's I could say I swam in the Mediterranean.  But that was ages ago and I didn't like it all that much.  (I kept getting mouths full of saltwater.)  I haven't had a really POSITIVE ocean/sea experience since Fiji (omg, the ocean is SO BLUE over there), and that was way more than a decade ago.  So I figured this particular excursion would be a fairly decent way to reintroduce myself to swimming in something other than a pool.  I went through all my supplies, upgraded my mask (to come closer to my eyeglass prescription), upgraded my snorkel (because snorkel tech has really improved in the interim), and even got myself a shorty wetsuit (thanks, Merete!) so that I would have gear that would give me the best possible chance of a pleasant time out in the water.

But when my parents had to take a pass on this port (as, hopefully, they'll be joining us in the next one), I slightly revised the plan.  A small group of folks I'd (sort of) met on the internet had planned to privately charter a boat to go snorkeling, and I wanted to go in on this instead.  Two reasons:  first, it was cheaper than the excursion offered by the ship; second, it was a smaller group of people, and when I'm alone, I can "work the crowd" better in small groups.  This gave me a reasonable chance at getting to know these folks -- even MORE reasonable, as we'd had an informal get-together the other day, and I'd managed to remember at least 4 names, and a couple of the faces that went with them.

Of course, the ship's snorkel excursion left at 11, while our private one was scheduled for more like 8:30, right when we docked.  I had a good long think last night as to how early I'd have to wake up, and how to best organize the process of getting dressed for the excursion (swimsuit and shorty), applying sunscreen and DEET (sunscreen can go on pre-wetsuit, DEET can't), and eating breakfast (probably best done before putting on the damn wetsuit, as I'd have to take it off for a pre-trip bathroom break) in the least amount of time.  Considering all possible scenarios, I set my alarm for 7:00 a.m., and ordered room service breakfast (might as well use some of these "all-inclusive" features I'm paying for) for 7:45.

Which is how I found myself, at roughly 8:00 a.m., doused in sunscreen, wearing a bathrobe, enjoying some tea and toast, with my hand in the drawer just reaching for a swimsuit, when the ship's captain came over the loudspeaker and told us that due to high winds and waves, he can't safely dock at Grand Turk, so we're just going to have another sea day.  Terribly sorry and all, but safety first.

I so heartily agree with the whole safety first thing, I'm not going to argue.  (And, indeed, the part of me that was nervous about snorkelling rather enthusiastically suggested that I really didn't want to have my first experiment with it in over a decade in choppy seas.)

In any event, I was surprised to hear about all the other things the cruise staff quickly added to the daily schedule, in order to fill our time.  These included a wine tasting ("nominal" fee of $50) and a martini tasting (somewhat more nominal fee of $15.50).  There's a rum tasting too -- don't know the fee for that, but I'm sure there is one.  This surprised me because the last time I was on a cruise ship that had to skip a port, the ship made up for it by comp'ing everyone a free drink.  (Which did, in fact, put us in a happier frame of mind.)  Now, sure, some folks might still be hung over from the couple HOURS of free drinks the other night (the Captain's Cocktail Party), but it does sort of irk that this cruise line's attitude toward skipping a port is, "Terribly sorry.  Here are some more activities for which you can give us money."

I'm not falling for that.  Since I was all sunscreened up anyway, I went out on deck, sat in a lounge chair (amazed by all the people breaking the rule about Don't Reserve a Lounge Chair with Stuff -- supposedly enforced by the crew threatening to remove your stuff if you're not there with it), and had a read.  I'm now off to find food, which, I'm guessing, is not a really difficult task.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Hanging With The One Percent

My uncle passed just before my parents and I were scheduled to go on a Caribbean cruise.  A certain amount of phone calls to airlines and the cruise line later, it was worked out that my parents would fly to Maryland for the funeral, I'd go to Florida for the cruise as planned, and  -- assuming all connections work -- my folks will meet me on the ship at our next port.

This leaves me on the ship by myself for a couple days.

No biggie.  I've cruised alone before; although this one is a bit different because I'm not exactly alone, just temporarily alone.  I here recount the relevant portion of a conversation with the social director of the cruise:

Her:  Excuse me, but are you here alone?
Me:  Er, yes.  Sort of.
Her:  Well, we're having a dinner for the solo cruisers later in the week, I'd like to give you an invitation.
Me:  Well, I'm solo now, but I don't intend to be later in the week.
Her:  [Eyebrows going way up]  I'm not sure what to make of that.

Yeah.  So I had to convince the social director I'm not a giant slut tryin' to find me a rich widower or something.

Not that this wouldn't be the place to find one.  Lordy, but there are some wealthy people on this cruise.  I mean, look, this trip was expensive.  I had words (many of them loud and several unprintable) with the travel agent regarding the amount of money this thing cost.  And that's for ten days in one of their lower cabin classes.  Sixty percent -- sixty freakin' percent -- of the people on this cruise were on the ship when it docked in Miami; they're just tacking on this ten days to the end of whatever other cruise the ship just did.  I met some folks who cruise three times a year... and I learned that there are some people who spend SIX MONTHS out of the year living on this ship.  (And you can bet it's in one of the super-pricey cabins.  The ones that come with butlers.)  It is hard to wrap my head around that kind of disposable cash.

No, I lied, I can wrap my head around it.  This because I (out of curiosity) went to the presentation by the ship's Shopping Coordinator.  (There's your first clue -- the ship has a shopping coordinator.)  The lady in question advises that she'll be on shore, in the jewelry shops, to assist.  And if you need something resized, not to worry -- she'll make sure it gets done for you while you're relaxing on the beach, and she'll pick up your goods and deliver them to your cabin.

And we're (obviously) not talking about shells on a string.  Nope, this is all about diamonds (partially about tanzanite, and occasionally about watches -- although that's only to keep the men interested).  In her hour-long (I nearly dozed off) presentation, the phrase "tax and duty free" was mentioned dozens of times.  (I idly wondered if what she really meant was "tax and duty free, if you happen to forget to declare your purchases.  Wink, wink.")  But what I was really there for was to find out who, exactly, she thought she was talking to, and what a "bargain" actually was for this particular group.

There was a mention of a $139 pair of tanzanite earrings (with a free pendant with purchase).  OK, I'll allow that as a potentially reasonable price.  But most of the Super Bargain prices she mentioned were in the high three-digits and low fours.

I woke up, though, at the $150,000 watch.  And when she suggested all the women on the cruise turn to their husbands and say -- speaking of their engagement rings -- "Honey, don't you think it's time we upgrade?"  Because, you know, whatever carat-size you got back when you were engaged is certainly too small now.  And the store she highly recommends (I know she highly recommends it; its name showed up a zillion times in her slide show) has a TRADE-IN program.  That's right, ladies, give 'em your old engagement (or wedding, I guess) ring, and they'll give you full value for the stone in trade for a much nicer one.

I am not a husband.  Indeed, I am an unmarried female.  But I can't imagine what it would be like to have one's spouse suggest trading in a ring with all the emotional significance attached to one's engagement or wedding ring, in order to get a bigger rock.  It kinda made me sick.

(But it's tax and duty free, so it's ok.)

This isn't to say that applies to everyone on the ship.  Not everyone here can buy and sell small villages, and a lot of folks I've met are genuinely nice -- regardless of net worth.  Still, you hear some odd things when you happen to find yourself in an environment that caters to the high end.

More Sad News

My uncle passed away.

He's the first of his generation to pass in my family (I only just lost my last grandparent about a year ago), and when death hits that generation, it's the sort of thing that makes you take a good long look at your parents' mortality.  It's like Death is standing over there in the distance, reminding you to cherish the time you have.

But, more importantly, there's the fact that the man himself passed away.  He was a good guy; I genuinely liked him.  He loved his wife and kids, doted on his grandkids, and had a special relationship with the family dog.  He was one of the first of my relatives to treat me as an adult, which I appreciated; but he also treated me like an adult with whom you could sneak a late night pudding pop from the freezer, which I appreciated even more.  Every time our extended family would get together, our little family unit would vote on the "favorite relative award" in the car on the way back to the airport.  Uncle Stanley won favorite relative so many times, we pretty much gave it to him on a lifetime achievement basis.

He was a photographer.  If there's a picture of my family all grouped together in front of a fireplace, or a bunch of extended family piled on a sectional sofa, Stanley took it.  (And he always saved a little spot for himself, so he could jump in the picture when the timer went off.  Once, he even tried to get into a panoramic shot once on each end.)  He also took my very favoritest picture of me at my law school graduation.  (Of course he came, even though it was several states away.)

Stanley always had time for family.  One year, for a special birthday present for my father, we gave him a "fighter pilot" experience, where he goes up in a plane and shoots lasers at the opposing plane.  Stanley flew out to Vegas to be my father's surprise opponent.  So, the two of them go up in their planes while the rest of us are having a cup of coffee in the teensy weensy airport, waiting for them to get back.  They get out of their planes, and we ask "Who won?"  Stanley, proudly showing us his air sickness container, said, "The bag won."

I hate that he's gone.  I hate that there won't be any more memories to be made with him.  But I take comfort in the fact that he lives on in his kids and his grandkids -- and is probably goofing around with his dog right now.