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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Oh yeah...the Wedding

The magical day arrived and I was kicked to the curb while the women folk got their nails and hair done. Left to my own devices I realized I was hungry. I decided to do a little street surfing and locate something off the beaten path. I walked several blocks eastbound along Royal St. hoping to find something unique. As I walked, I came across a picture of the Mona Lisa hanging from the balcony floor above. I turned to discover a quaint Italian Restaurant hiding behind the thin framed French doors. I entered and was immediately seated amidst four walls covered….I mean covered with various paintings of the Mona Lisa both traditional and modern to abstract. Very cool and weird at the same time. What was important was the menu. Very traditional selections and the best thing was they had Lasagne. Now, many of you may know Lasagne is my Kryptonite. I gauge every Italian restaurant I attend by it’s Lasagne. Lasagne is a sacred delicacy, mana from the Gods and can only be properly enjoyed by true believers who risk everything as they approach the serving alter (lots of genuflecting here). Kind of like my Great Pumpkin, if you will.

I ordered the Lasagne and waited patiently, sipping cautiously on my ice tea, munching on my cheesy and lightly toasted garlic bread in clear view of the kitchen door, like an expectant father watching for the doctor to burst forth with the new bundle of joy.

And then, the door creaked open disgorging my server cradling what can only be described as a football of Lasagne. He gingerly maneuvered it around me like the arm of a great crane arcing its load gently to the ground. As it settled onto the table cloth steam rose from it as though it had gently exhaled from the exertion.

This thing was big. It consumed the entire oval metal baking dish and swam in a sea of red tomato sauce like a great ship seeking shelter in the dry dock of the hot metal dish. It was three layers of pasta oozing cheese and more red sauce trying to reunite with it’s siblings below. The tender pasta had ever so crisp edges where it was touched with the heat of what I'm sure was an Italian brick wood-fired pizza oven. None of this high-tech stainless steel convection oven crap….no, not in my Walter Mitty world.

This Lasagne was amazing. Not too hot…you know…not that over baked kind where the first sample of cheese sears then sticks to the roof of your mouth and from then on, you’re incapable of tasting anything thereafter. The sauce was sweet without being obnoxious and not stepping over the bay leaf and garlic infused inside. The three tiered monster was sturdy enough to require a knife to carve it like a block of butter. I was only able to eat half of it and was further disappointed when I realized I was unable to box it up for the trip home. It was like saying goodbye to an old friend as my server reluctantly returned it to the kitchen for disposal.

But luck would have it, there was a dessert menu. A limoncello cake was calling to me on the menu and I ordered it to salve my wounds. My wedge of a delightful yellow two layer cake cemented to the plate with a delicious strawberry shmear and Mascarpone frosting was sweet and enjoyable.

But I digress. The wedding was a modest affair in the back of a bakery. It was a favorite haunt of Nicole and Rob and they thought it would be cool to have the wedding there. The  Croissant D’or Patisserie is on Ursilines St. in the French Quarter just a few blocks east of Canal. Far enough away from the tourist madness, it serves breakfast and lunch to the natives and the tourists that stumble upon it. It has a neat outdoor courtyard behind it which reaches up to all three floors above.

The owners made the place available after-hours so we had it to ourselves. At the appointed hour, we all assembled and laid out the bubbly and cake the bakery made for us (how appropriate). A small crowd of family and friends watched as Jared, our preacher (newly ordained Internet Cleric), did a fine job and impressed those assembled with the depth of his invocation. Really nice.

Then came the picture taking. I had asked our good friend Tameka to come along and document the event. Tameka is a native of New Orleans and it also gave her a chance to sneak in a visit with family and friends. Tameka brought along her cousin Lorraine to help photograph  the proceedings. Check out Tameka’s work at her website: Passionate Photography.

With all of the wine and champagne gone, we moved to  Deanie’s, a seafood restaurant on Iberville St. just a block east of Canal Street. Pretty much everything seafood is there and much of it batter fried and delicious. I'm not much of a seafood guy but I must say their presentation was “family style” with big portions and awesome service. After making sure everybody was able to get back to their hotels without a police escort, we wandered back to our hotel and quickly fell asleep…hey, we’re old and it was way passed our bedtime.

Our last full day we decided to try a whole-city tour of the Crescent City (although there are many theories about the nick-name, a favorite is the shape of the bend of the Mississippi at what was the site where Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville (namesake of our hotel) landed with his crew. I admit the Grayline Tour is a little lame but I try to get a tour of a place to help us plan for future visits. We got an opportunity to visit all the major neighborhoods and got to see some cool homes and landmarks.

What we (I) walked away with was a little trivia for those of us unfamiliar with the origins of New Orleans is about Cajuns and where they come from. Most of us have been led to believe Cajuns are just the wilder side of original French settlers who make some spicy food. There's more to it. The word Cajun derives from a French ethnic group known as Arcadians. It was land named by explorer Giovanni Verrazanno for pretty much the whole east coast of Canada and the U.S as "Acadia" (also referred to on maps as Arcadia). Arcadia derives from the  in Greece which since Classical antiquity had the extended meanings of "refuge" or "idyllic place"). The French referred to it's people as "les Cadiens or Les Cadiens or les Acadiens". They originally settled in what's now Nova Scotia in the early 1700s but came under British control after the French lost the Seven Years War in 1763 (yes...the French and Indian War for you purists).

Over time the name was mispronounced and shortened to Cajun.  And it kind of sounds like the origin of "Canada" but that's "kanata" the Huron-Iroquois (native Canadians) word for "village" or "settlement" (I know...more useless information). The Arcadians didn't cotton much to their British rulers and refused to sign an oath of allegiance so the British forced them to leave. This is known as the Great Upheaval or Le Grand Dérangement in their culture.

Now these folks are not to be confused with French Creole people (don't make this mistake in a crowd of Cajuns....that wouldn't be wise). The term creole was first used by French settlers to distinguish between anyone born in Louisiana and someone born "from away." So creole people are considered "native born" in Louisiana. They too have had a major impact on the state's culture; hence, Louisiana is known as the Creole State.

Our last night we dined at the House of Blues on Decatur. Dining was cool but I admit a little creepy. In the ceiling were soffit boxes with the images of famous dead musicians.

Seriously..creepy, right?
Each inset was back-lit in a soft blue light. Really weird...but the bar was pretty cool, to the memory of Jake Blues of Blues Brothers fame (you might know  
Dan Aykroyd is a part owner of the chain)

Wedding accomplished, we made our way back to rainy and cold Texas for what will become one of our coldest winters on record. Lots of ice and snow to come. As the weather improves so will our chances to get out again for more adventures.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cowboy Stadium Tour

Since we moved to Texas, we have seen few visitors from the old country ( know who you are) and so it was, with great pleasure, we had the opportunity of hosting my sister for Presidents Day weekend this year. She is my only other sibling and we have a very special bond we cling to over the vast (cultural and geographical) distance between Costa Mesa, California and the hinterlands of North Texas. Of course, as an added bonus, we were in the midst of a cold snap and I had to warn my dear sister not to bring her flip-flops or tank tops and resort to a heavy coat and some long underwear. On her arrival, in typical Texas style, we made it through the weekend with a Sunday high of 73 to be met on Monday morning as a Canadian low blew through with starting temperatures at 28 degrees with a howling North wind and threats of snow.

My crazy sister insisted on this shot
Undaunted, we were able to get her to the Dallas Arboretum and a couple of first run movies which she loves to do. On Monday, I decided to take her for a tour of our Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Of course, since it's completion in 2009, the owner, Jerry Jones, has sold the naming rights to Dallas based AT&T further disappointing hardcore Cowboys fans who are still reeling to this day over the moving of the Dallas Cowboys from the famous Cotton Bowl Stadium in Fair Park in 1971, to first Irving, Texas and now to Arlington.

Mr. Jones has always been the bad boy of Dallas Football. He's the rich guy everybody loves to hate but he does put on a pretty good show. It was his dream to have the biggest and best stadium to keep Dallas, his beloved Cowboys and...lets face it, his legacy (well and his ego) the center of attention throughout the world, and I dare say he has succeeded.

The original plan was a $650 million dollar wonder which Arlington residents ponied up half in a bond proposition to help with the costs. But Mr. Jones' desire for greatness and additions drove the ultimate price to $1.5 billion. There is a litany of reasons why this happened and most have to do with up-sell. You know the concept, when you go in to buy a two-door sedan and drive off the lot with an Escalade.

An example is the floor tile. The architects envisioned standard grey tile interspersed with stock black tiles strips. The black tiles were around $5 a tile. But knowing how Jerry loved his Cowboys, somebody did the research and found a tile from Labrador called Labradorite in which the crystals produce an iridescent play of colors which, when struck by a light ray, flashes a bright blue color as you pass over it. It's quite remarkable to see in person and mimics the Cowboy Blue of the teams logos. Well... he had to have those tiles and they are everywhere and cover the floors of all the elevators. He purchased them by the thousands at $35 dollars each.

The structure is mammoth. The roof is the largest free-standing dome in the world weighing in at 14,100 tons of structural steel (which, I am told, is equivalent to the weight of 92 Boeing 777s) covering 3 million square feet of stadium (73 acres) which stretches 900 feet from end zone wall to end zone wall. The roof soars to 292 feet over the field and the arches stretch 1/4 mile from end to end. Of course, for strength and durability, they had to be made of the strongest steel in the world. Grade 65 steel..... from Luxembourg of all places. Little known fact is that the roof is not in contact with any of the sides of the building. The entire roof is held up by the twin arches which are anchored into the ground on the exterior of the building like two huge Roman Arches gathering strength as each welded and bolted section transmits the weight to the ground at each of the four points.

The arches are also responsible for holding up the giant video display of the two 1080p main 72’ high by 160’ wide panels are made up of 5,168 individual lighting units or panels per side or 10,336 total. End Zone Displays (which the fans sitting in the end zones view) are each 51 feet wide and 29 feet tall. Each end zone display screen weighs 25,000 pounds. Mitsubishi custom built this thing which weighs about 400 tons and can also accommodate another 90,000 lbs of lighting and sound for concerts and other events. The tour guide remarked that the $40 million dollar cost of the video complex cost more than the original old Texas Stadium this stadium replaced.

Astro Turf storage

Thus we were led into the bowels of the stadium and its inner workings. We were given access to Jerry's booth where he monitors every home game. It's almost "bunker" like in that is surrounded by thick concrete and very thick glass (Hey Jer. What are you worried about?). Went into a Suite and were told the stadium had the most suites of any stadium (of course). 360 suites occupying all levels and you too could be an owner. Prices range from the high 6 figures to several million and six percent of the suites remained unsold. Our tour guide pointed out that 60% of all the bathrooms in the facility were women's bathrooms and he has never heard a complaint of lines in the bathrooms yet.

We made it down to the basement where all the warehouses and team rooms can be found. We visited the Dallas Cheerleader dressing rooms and Cowboy locker room as well as the press room where Head Coach Jason Garrett and Jerry explain the victories and loses of the team to thew media.
Sister and the Burlwood

Little known facts about the Cheerleaders is that there are no tenured Cheerleaders. Each of the 40 Cheerleaders must try out each year in May when several hundred other women come to tryout as well. Jerry Jones’ daughter, Charlotte Anderson has been in charge ever since her family bought the team in 1989. And if you're caught dating a're out, no appeals.

The Cowboy Locker room was very spacious with defense on one side and offense on the other with a separate locker room for the practice (read second stringers) team members. Our tour guide often pointed out the extravagant appointments of Jerry's Stadium and this place was no exception. He noted that the wood used for each locker was a special Burlwood which was commonly found in the interiors of fine cars like Bently's and Rolls Royce cars.

A very fine tour and kudos to our tour guides Bob and Susie, both were fellow retirees and this was a part time gig a couple of times a week and on game days. On a personal note, I have been to many sports facilities and I was struck by how clean this place was. I firmly believe you could eat off the floors of this place and clearly these folks take their jobs seriously. Bob said, on any given day, there are about 350 employees working but on game many as 6,500 are roaming around tending to the fires and making your visit as seamless as possible. Amazing place.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

New Orleans

We find ourselves in New Orleans, not for one of our cruise adventures (which I know many of you are pretty much done with), but for our daughter's wedding. Some of you may know Nicole and Rob Orbe had already tied the knot here in Texas but wanted a more formal ceremony where Rob's family could easily travel to. And, coincidentally, in  a place they found special at a bakery in New Orleans which also had a an area behind the store which could become a neat wedding venue. Now that their 13 month old, Rob Jr., was more able to travel (and is now making those first furtive steps walking) it was a good time to make it happen.

Loaded up with festive decorations, wedding dresses and the smallest luggage bag I have ever seen Dianna use in the 40 years we've been together. This is the woman who had to bring four bags of her own on our first trip to Hawaii. Recalling all we ended up wearing were shorts, T shirts and bathing suits for five days but we were prepared for the possibility of winter snows, tsunamis and an unannounced invitation to dinner on Air Force One if the the President called. We did a midweek run out the I-20 to the I-49 descending to the I-10 almost running into the Mississippi and lodging at the Bienville House on Decatur, a short walk to Canal St and some of my favorite people watching in my small world.

The boutique Hotel is pretty cool, typical of the small footprint Pensiones in other lands, but very clean and on-site parking in a town where parking is at a premium if you don't park in the large pay-lots. Originally occupied by Planters Rice Mills, the space became home to Thompson’s Rice Mill and Southern Syrup Manufacturing. By 1835, the building had been completely transformed and the North American Hotel opened. However, by 1837, the hotel’s owners had parted company, and the building was split into a small French Quarter hotel for boarders and a Fire House. Eventually the building would become the Royal Bienville, 20 luxury apartments that marked the revival of Decatur Street. By the early 1970’s the building was once again a New Orleans hotel and after surviving a fire that destroyed a warehouse across the street, the 82 room “motor hotel” was purchased by the Monteleone family in 1972. The Bienville House hotel is still family-owned and operated by the Monteleone family.

A quick walk west and you hit Canal St. Just down the street is the House of Blues where we passed a bevy of blacked out motorhomes parked and fenced off from the public. Rumor had it they belonged to the NCIS New Orleans crew taping episodes in the French Quarter.

The French Quarter is the oldest neighborhood in the city of New Orleans. After New Orleans (La Nouvelle-Orléans in French) was founded in 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the city developed around the Vieux Carré ("Old Square" in English). The district is more commonly called the French Quarter today, or simply "The Quarter," related to changes in the city with American immigration after the Louisiana Purchase.

Most of the French Quarter's architecture was built during the late 18th century and the period of Spanish rule over the city, which is reflected in the architecture of the neighborhood. The Great New Orleans Fire (1788) and another great fire in 1794 destroyed most of the Quarter's old French colonial architecture (and a law placing the building facades closer to the streets to be used as fire breaks for future fires creating the French Quarters very narrow sidewalks), leaving the colony's new Spanish landlords to rebuild it according to more modern tastes.

Many of the buildings date from 1803, when New Orleans was acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase, although some late 19th century and early 20th century buildings were added to the area. Since the 1920s the historic buildings have been protected by law and cannot be demolished, and any renovations or new construction in the neighborhood must be done according to city regulations to preserve the period historic architectural style.

When Americans began to move in after the Louisiana Purchase, they mostly built on available land upriver, across modern-day Canal Street. This thoroughfare became the meeting place of two cultures, one Creole and the other American. The median of the wide boulevard (Canal St) became a place where the two contentious cultures could meet and do business in both French and English. As such, it became known as the "neutral ground", and this name is used for medians in the New Orleans area.

Our first night, we dropped into the Palace Cafe for dinner. I had the Pecan Crusted Catfish and Dianna had the Rotisserie Chicken. We followed up with the White Chocolate Creme Brulee for Dianna and I got the Cheesecake. Oh,

The following morning, in an attempt to mix business with pleasure, I had set us up for a tour of two plantations. I have always wondered how they worked and how the slave workers conducted their lives. We booked with Old River Road Plantation Adventures. A cool feature was that they pick you up at your hotel so no driving and parking. Our guide, Richard, was very informative and reminded Dianna of me if I became a tour guide, you know, the perky bearer of all useless information about anything.

The first plantation was the famous Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie (pronounced Vashery), Louisiana along the Old River Road. In the early days of French occupation, the area was all dairy farms thus the French name for cow is Vache (pronouned Vash) so the place where the cows are. Richard said there had been some 160 major plantation homes prior to the Civil War (The War of Northern Aggression in the South) and there were probably 20 left, all Antebellum homes, that is, built in the period prior to the Civil War. Most were formed facing the east and west banks of the Mississippi. Today we would be visiting properties on the west bank along the original "Old River Road" which is now LA 18 with the east bank road the LA 44. The road didn't exist until the 1930s because the Plantations mostly used the River for transportation since La Salle "discovered" (let's not forget the place was crawling with Native Americans when he arrived) the Mississippi in 1682. Most suffered destruction during the last months of the Civil War or stopped operating because of the collapse of the Southern Economy mostly due to freeing of the free labor force of slaves.

Another misnomer of that period was that cotton was grown on most plantations. Cotton was grown primarily in Northern Louisiana but here in Southern Louisiana, it was Sugar Cane. It required lots of water and thrived in the warmer (and more humid) South. Most plantations were constructed by slave labor from on-site materials. Still growing prolifically in this region are the famous Bald Cypress (taxodium distichum) trees seen everywhere. These were majestic trees wrapped in Spanish Moss. Ok...kind of useless information, it's called Moss but it's not a parasitic plant. Contrary to popular belief, it may appear to have roots growing within the host tree, but it is (big word alert!) an Epiphyte. Epiphytes grow on other plants without taking any water or nutrients from them, and use the host plant for support and protection. Little known factoid is the stuff was so plentiful, Henry Ford had the stuff collected, shipped to Detroit and used it to stuff his early car seats. Cypress proved to be a hardy material for the heat and humidity typical in this part of the world. Bricks were from mud and clay dredged from the River, molded, dried and kiln fired all within the plantation grounds.  

From the street (or River), these homes seemed large and spacious. They were all built in the Greek Revival style which was the rage during that period. What was surprising was how small the homes actually were. Recalling the cost of building the homes, they were built to impress passers-by as to the relative wealth of the owners. Because there was no air-conditioning, they had to build walls of deep brick up to 16 inches thick. Thus the interior spaces suffered and made the rooms small. They were usually two floors and generally had 6-10 rooms. Figure a Master bedroom, a children's bedroom, a guest room, dining room and a parlor and there wasn't a lot of free space. Many had faux columns and woodwork to look like marble to trick the uninformed into believing the owners were wealthier than they were. Because of the danger of fire and the heat generated by a 24/7 kitchen, it was located in a separate structure outside the main house. The outside wrap-around porches were actually the primary living spaces where people met, read, conducted business and even slept on during various times of the year. Oh yeah, no basements with such a high water table it would have always been flooded.

Our hoop-skirted guide walked us through the Bon Séjour Plantation, as Oak Alley was known then. It is a very well preserved example of an Antebellum Plantation home (anything built in the period before the Civil War) and has been used as a location for several movies and TV shows with it's most prominent feature being the 28 Virginia Oak trees (Quercus virginiana, also known as the southern live oak) lining what was the main approach to the mansion. No one knows who planted the trees but they were already there about 175 years before the house was built by Jacques and Celina Roman in 1839. Cool detail of the house was the signed door panel of Jacques and by some of the workers on the second floor. It was a tradition back then for owners to sign a feature of the house when it was completed. The trees are now ready to celebrate their 300th birthday.

During the question and answer period, there was a moment of high drama when our guide went to explain why she was missing her arm. It's a frequently asked question on the tour so she went on to give the sorted details of an innocent swim and a chance meeting with an alligator. At the end, there was a stunned silence broken by her laugh and further explaining she was actually the victim of an auto accident in her youth. It was quite the ice-breaker. What a hoot!

Success was short lived. Jacques Roman died in 1848 of tuberculosis (ridiculously common back then) and the estate began to be managed by his wife, Celina. She wasn’t very good at managing a sugar plantation and her heavy spending nearly bankrupted the estate. In 1859, her son, Henri, took control of the estate and tried to turn things around. The Civil War and the end of slavery made it no longer economically viable; Henri became severely in debt, mainly to his family. In 1866, his uncle put the plantation up for auction and it was sold for $32,800 to John Armstrong.

Successive owners could not afford the cost of upkeep and by the 1920s the buildings had fallen into disrepair. In 1925 the property was acquired by Andrew Stewart as a gift to his wife, Josephine, who supervised an extensive restoration and modernized the house. The Stewarts ran Oak Alley Plantation as a cattle ranch (Longhorns were often seen grazing in and around the beautiful oak trees lining the yard. Josephine had grown up on a cattle ranch in Texas and was familiar with this type of industry. Sugar cane cultivation was reintroduced at the plantation in the 1960s. The Stewarts were the last owners to live in residence. Josephine Stewart left the historic house and grounds to the Oak Alley Foundation when she died in 1972, which opened them to the public.

Thus we went down the road to the Evergreen Plantation in  Edgard, Louisiana originally built in 1790 as the Becnel Plantation. It's claim to fame is that it was originally a Creole style home which meant it was a raised home with an open ground floor like the stilt homes of the Caribbean in case of flood with the living spaces on the second floor.

The home was remodeled in 1832 where the ground floor was enclosed which added three more rooms making a total of six. It too went into disrepair after the Civil War and was purchased by the Songys in 1894. The depression hit in the 30's and the house remained vacant until 1947 when Matilda Geddings Gray from Lake Charles, took over. An oil heiress (yes, another Texas oil success story), Gray was the ruling matriarch of her family and its highly successful businesses. There was an extensive renovation in 1944 and today, it remains a private residence opened to the public when the owners are not occupying the residence. The property contains 37 original structures including 22 original slave quarter cabins which housed most of the 150 slaves the plantation needed to function. Even after the Civil War, many of the then freed slaves and their descendants, continued to work the plantation up until 1947 when it changed hands.

Original Slave quarters
It's considered the most complete example of plantation life in existence and thus was used by Quentin Tarrantino for the backdrop of the movie Django Unchained.

Very moving to walk along the Oak Lane of that plantation where slaves would have been scurrying to work the fields or service the house and tending to their own Cypress shacks in the humid shade of those trees...if they could only talk and speak of the 300 year history they witnessed, what would they tell us.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

2014 Winter Cruise

Again into the breach..we are on our winter cruise. This time departing, for the first time, from Houston on Norwegian Cruise Lines Jewel. Starting out with a stop at one of our favorite places, Cozumel, we will then trek to Belize and Roaton, Honduras before returning home.

The Jewel is a neat ship built in 2005 and slightly smaller than others we have sailed on. One of the benefits of sailing in the off-season, is the clientele tends to be older and a lot fewer young children in the mix. But they still have the shows and clubs to visit and plenty of food (one of my personal requirements). Leaving Houston was a little weird in that it is a very narrow channel which has ships passing each other like a freeway.

The Jewel is a little low tech in that it doesn't have the rock climbing/water parks and big screen TV/Movie screen on the pool deck but it has all the other accouterments. One in particular was the Bar Hop. Since our Pub Crawl in Key West, we have decided to get into any Pub Crawl/Bar Hop stupid (but well supervised...yeah by other drunks) drinking activity we can attend. Thus the Bar Hop on the Jewel.

Oh yeah, got the "Romance Package",
something different everyday

Tea Service
Sponsored by the Cruise Director, it is a "tour of the ship" in which we visit four bars playing games, in between, to progress to the next bar.  We began at the Skyhigh bar above the pool deck. We got our drink "Adios, Mother****er". A delightful passion fruit flavored drink spiked with Curacao. There we were instructed, as we passed throughout the ship, to be as loud and obnoxious as we could be. Clearly this group had no qualms about following those orders.

Look at all the bacon
The second, was a trip to the Spinnaker Bar where we had to conduct our first game. Split into two groups, we had to successfully pass a large softball neck to neck through our ranks before we could get our next drink. We were part of Team 2 and we won the pass hands down. Team 1 never had a chance. Our reward was a Norwegian folding Frisbee which came with it's own storage pouch which I thought could double as an excellent Condom holder.

Small enough for the purse or man-bag
The drink, Sex in the City, was another umbrella drink with a similar fruity taste laced with a couple of different rums.  We then made our way to "The Great Outdoors" which is a lovely getaway at the stern overlooking the bubbling blue Gulf waters. There we had another game involving the putting on of a T shirt, removing it and passing it on to the next team member. We kind of lagged on that one and lost to Team 1 but their reward was they were thrown only one Norwegian T shirt that only one of them could snatch up. Pretty lame but by then, nobody cared. The drink resembled a Tequila Sunrise with more fruity punch to mask the alcohol.

Chocolate Strawberries are always good
Running and yelling our way through the Garden Cafe buffet we arrived at our last stop, the Topsiders Bar, for a quick drink.  Then we had four members of each team volunteer to do our last game which involved secreting a Norwegian Cruise souvenir coin into the crotch of your shorts or pants and strutting (without dropping said coin) to a plastic cup on the deck and release the coin, like the bombardier of a B-17, into the cup. At first blush, it seemed daunting yet each member quickly accomplished the impossible (recall we had already had four drinks) and our joint reward was another drink to down. Notice, at this writing, I am unable to recollect the names of the last two drinks. Oh well.  After a wonderful nights rest, we made landfall at Cozumel.

Now, as mentioned above, we have been to Cozumel on several occasions but try to get into a new excursion each time. In this case, I booked us into a Joy of Chocolate tour. It was described as an historical look at the discovery and production of Chocolate in Mexico.

Cocao is a Meso-American (the area from Mexico all the way to Honduras) discovery probably by the Olmecs in the area south of today's Vera Cruz. Chocolate came about by accident (isn't that usually the case?) as early Mayans observed monkeys eating a tree fruit which they seemed to enjoy. (Ok..a little trivia, did you know that the words Tomato and Chocolate come from the Aztec words "xitomatil" and "xocolatl"?) Unfortunately, the stuff turned out to be very bitter and not too much fun to eat. Some innovative Mayan (probably between human sacrifices) discovered that if you boil the seeds it made a pretty tasty drink called Choco-ha (yep...the first hot cocoa.

Another Mayan grabbed his mortar and pistol (locally known as a Mexican Blender) and ground the crap out of the seeds then added some sugar (to thwart the bitterness) and vanilla to make a paste and, after drying them out,  voila! hard chocolate bars. It became quite a cash crop for the Mayans who ended up using it to pay tribute to the Aztecs (kind of like what we do every year to the IRS) when they consolidated their power over southern Mexico and Central America.

After learning the history we were tasked with making our own chocolate. This was tougher than was advertised. Hey, we tourists are there to be taken advantage of, spend money and have fun. We really don't sign on for hard work. So our troop were all stationed at our respective grinders and after receiving our ration of cocoa beans, we were told to grind away to make a coarse powder. Our guide Eric then tightened up the grind wheel and we ran the powder through again. Did I mention it got progressively and significantly harder to turn that grind wheel? Three more cycles and tightenings and we were rewarded by a thick paste of chocolate (and a pulled muscle or two). But don't try to taste it....well, I did. Yes, I was told by my Mom, I was one of those kids who had to touch the hot stove or burning candle. It must have been my natural tendency to distrust authority (I am not paranoid..I know you're all out to get me).

The key is to add some coarse brown sugar and a splash of vanilla(Mexican Vanilla...the best). Another couple of grindings and a thick, bitter paste is transformed into delicious chocolate. We were given plastic forms to press our chocolate into, then passed to a freezer for a rapid cool. Once cool and dried, Dianna, because of her qualifications as a Crafter, (apparently Nick was unable to wrap a square piece of paper around a round object correctly) quickly wrapped our two pieces into a product ready for this case consumption.

Once done, we were escorted through the outdoor exhibit of miniature Mexican historical buildings and ancient sites (always cool when we visit but even we noticed the miniatures are not being taken care of...lots of little pieces falling apart or in need of repair).

There we watched the spinning guys doing their ancient rain ritual, Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers), or Palo Volador (Pole Flying). These guys do this everyday and probably don't think twice about the danger but it was a little uncomfortable watching them climb up and make their preparations as we could hear the loud creaks and groans of the mechanism they freely dangled from with no net or back-up harnesses to prevent their fall. Then even weirder when you learn these guys only get paid with the Tips they ask for at the end. Or (I's that paranoid lack of trust issue I spoke to above) it's a great marketing ploy...once they said that, just about everybody dropped something in the basket (yeah, me too).  After some trinket buying, it was back to the ship headed for Belize.