Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Cruise Part Deux

Food on a cruise can be summed up as pretty bland food and lots of it. We have concluded that, because of all the different folks they attract on these cruises, they pretty much hit the culinary center with some pretty generic food stuffs. I think they just figure you’re going to spice it the way you want it and hope for the best. Not to say the food is bad but it wasn’t Iron Chef material. Breakfast lunch and dinner at the famous buffets will satisfy and fill you up but the real deal is at the formal dining room or the specialty restaurants you can make reservations and pay extra for.

And there is always the presence of alcohol. They have staff walking through every venue of the ship trying to get you to purchase one of the many signature drinks being hawked about. Of course, the ticket you bought is all-inclusive. You could make it through a cruise and never pay for anything but that’s where they get creative. Once you leave the banality of drinking ice tea, coffee, milk and juice you enter the world of “pay as you go” cruising. Every alcoholic drink, soft drink, spa service and shopping service you participate in costs you extra. There are some bargains to be had (mostly from Duty Free shops) but a lot of people get some big surprises when they see that last days invoice slipped under your door. Some folks have been known to spend more than the cost of the cruise in alcohol alone. We’re not on dry land, it takes an act of God to get a bartender to cut you off here.

Here is where the cruise took a bad turn. We are pretty much tea totalers but our time to shine is on our cruises. As we wander the ship or take in a show, we like to get our fruity nectar of the gods with a prominent umbrella well ensconced in it’s frozen surface. Hey, somebody else is driving. Around day two, Dianna was feeling a little puny and I convinced her to take it to the Ship’s Doctor to get an opinion. Cruise ships have had some bad press recently about epidemics running through the passengers and crew ending up with quarantines coupled with refunds and law suits.

So you can imagine the concern a Ship’s physician has when you show up with symptoms which may remotely look like a pandemic disease (really remote). The good doctor loaded her up with anti-biotics and, believing by osmosis I might also be a carrier, loaded me up too. Problem was, because of the type of anti-biotics they had on hand, we were warned by the good doctor, would become toxic in the liver when combined with alcohol and we might die a horrible slow death. So, with that happy prospect in mind, for the duration of the cruise, we could not drink. I must say, this cruise was getting better by the minute.

The cruise lines always have some kind of song and dance troupe on board doing two shows a night. It’s hard for them to attract the best performers. I don’t think anybody thinks of this as a real résumé builder but they do get some energetic performers and some have some real talent. We caught the 7 o’clock show because we’re old and wouldn't stay awake for the 9 o’clock show. Of course, with our malady in check, we could only order “virgin” drinks drawing a distinct look of disdain from our tip hungry servers.
The next day we were awakened by bright sun and much warmer temperatures as we slipped into the harbor at Costa Maya, Mexico. Costa Maya is a small village situated on the Yucatan Peninsula just a stones throw from Cuba. It is our second time in Costa Maya. Costa Maya has had it’s share of bad luck.  Hurricane Dean  in 2007 struck and really tore up the place. It has taken these past three years to make a comeback. When we first came here they had not quite recovered from the hurricane and the port was just beginning to rebuild.  Things have improved since then with an expanded port and a redeveloped downtown. But still rather sparse in activities. If you don’t fish, snorkel or drink, there is little to do. We took a quick trip to the outdoor port shopping center and with new Tee shirts in hand, quickly returned to the ship.
Our next stop was Belize, Central America. Belize is a grand place still steeped in its Spanish and British Colonial past. It should be noted that a long coral reef runs along the coast of Belize making the water too shallow for deep draft vessels like our ship to cross. It is part of the 560 mile long Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which is continuous from Cancún on the northeast tip of the Yucatán Peninsula down to Honduras making it the second largest coral reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  This requires cruise ships to anchor off shore and requires the use of boat tenders to move people from the ship to the shore and vice-versa. Sometimes the cruise ship uses their own lifeboats. It gives the crew a chance to keep up their skills with the rescue craft but sometimes the cruise lines contract with local water taxi services to do the heavy lifting. This was one of those times.

We stopped at  Belize City , the former capitol of Belize. It took the destruction of Cat 5 hurricane Dean to convince the government to move the capitol further inland to the town of  Belmopan . Belize City, like New Orleans, is below sea level and even an unusually high tide can flood the city.

Belize has traded hands a couple of times and most recently as a British possession. Most of it’s past revolves around the lumber industry. For many years, it was prized for it’s rich supply of mahogany. When the Europeans saw the extent of the wood supply, they imported many African slaves to help them develop the industry and the region. Brutal times they were with the British slave masters getting their slaves to harvest the wood in the tropics with little or no support. Although the British gave the workers some provisions they weren’t all that good at keeping them supplied. So the slaves began foraging for themselves to survive. They watched the local indigenous folks and noted they fed themselves from various fruit trees like papaya and something they referred to as a “provision tree”. It had a large hanging fruit which can be boiled and eaten. It is thought that making a tea from its bark helps to build the blood. The flower is really beautiful.
We took an excursion which took us up the Belize River and over to a Mayan Temple complex called Altun Ha. The weather had followed us and the area was experiencing unseasonably cold temperatures and we needed to go up-river in an open outboard motor boat which looked a lot like the ride at Pirates of the Caribbean. With Mike as our driver, Sam (think Denzel Washington in “X”) and Hilberto as our guides, we launched up-river into a biting cold wind. Our first stop was a  Manatee breeding area at the mouth of the river. Manatees are endangered and the Belizians protect them well. They fall victim to boat propellers as they remain just below the surface and only expose their noses to take a breath. As our guides pointed out surfacing Manatees, Dianna, sitting at the gunwale (pronounced: gun'al the top edge of the side of a boat), was pointing out what she thought was a silhouette of a Manatee to members of our group. Sam looked over and deadpan says,”It could be a Manatee….or a croc.” I never saw Dianna pull her hand back so fast. Belize has Crocodiles not Alligators. They are little guys and although Sam insisted they were not aggressive, who’s going to make that gamble.

They also have the biggest Iguanas I have ever seen. The Belizian’s call them “Bamboo Chicken” because they are harvested for food and can usually be found in a local “Spiny” bamboo which grows along the rivers. Now they too are protected but the locals can take up to three at a time if they need too. Of course, Sam said they taste “just like chicken” when cooked.
We also saw several local tropical birds but the best thing was the Howler Monkeys we saw hanging in the trees. They vary in size with the males being the biggest. They are jet black and kind of hard to spot except they occupy a tree as a family and you lock on when you catch one jumping through the tree branches. There are two monkeys indiginous to Belize. The  Spider Monkey  and the  Howler. The spider monkey is found in the rainforest and mountainous regions.
Just before arriving at the landing for our lunch and transfer to a bus for the run to Altun Ha, we rode under a bridge and Sam pointed out another cool local animal, the “Insect Bat”. The locals don’t intervene in their living arrangements. It is this cute little bat that lives under bridges and along rivers. They are a natural insecticide because they eat just bugs and mosquitoes so they help keep disease under control.
Although Belize (formerly British Honduras) looks like a poster child for third world countries, it is actually regarded as one of the wealthiest countries in Central America. Once seceding from the British September 21, 1981, wood and sugar are still major exports but they are moving their country forward with the recent discovery of oil. They export primarily to the US and we have reciprocated with providing free health services to the population as part of our foreign aid program to Belize. Your tax dollars at work.

Hilberto told an interesting factoid. In the late 1800’s many Mennonites (hard core Amish) moved to Belize for their religious freedom and their penchant for living without modern amenities. They lived simply and made their living using their skills as master furniture makers and still have a significant presence in Belize. Well things have changed. Hilberto reported they can now be seen driving around in cars and talking on their cell phones. And that oil that was found? Apparently most of it was found under land owned by the Mennonites. Hilberto said the locals now refer to them as the “Moneyites”.
We arrived at the Mayan Temple  Altun Ha to a beautiful open national park run by the government of Belize. It was well cared for and had park rangers all over the place. The Temple complex is very large and is the only part that was uncovered by Canadian archaeologists back in the 60’s. Hilberto said the complex is only a small part of a large city built around 200 A.D. that occupied the area and was inhabited by more than 10,000 people. He pointed out several mounds throughout the park and said there were probably a thousand more in the forest we couldn’t see. It was weird seeing these dirt mounds all around with full grown trees sprouting out of the sides and tops of what were peoples homes. It forced a visual of what will probably occur when our time ends and the earth takes back what we’ve built. It’s still a mystery as to what happened to the Mayans. Their very advanced culture grew throughout much of Mexico, Central and South America (there’s evidence they even made it well into North America) up to about the 9th century then decentralized up to the Spanish Conquest of Yucatán in 1697. Although there are still many Mayan descendents still around, they pretty much walked away from their creations and have never been heard from as a society again.

Driving back through downtown Belize is like driving through most Mexican border towns along the US border. Lots of poor housing and poverty is a little overwhelming but the Belizians make due. Sam told us the minimum wage in Belize is around 35 dollars a week and it takes two Belizian dollars to equal one US dollar. Gas is 10 Belizian dollars a US gallon. Hilberto pointed out they never took on the Metric system and use the US system of measure and drive on the right. Our guides said you could buy land and build a “mansion” in Belize for about $40,000 US dollars and one of the largest cultural groups who have migrated to Belize are Taiwanese. After the big hurricane, Taiwan (Republic of China) was one of the largest contributors to their recovery and are still big investors in the country. Belize is very scenic and probably worth a full time vacation.
A moment about Dianna and her cell phone. In my pre-cruise preparations, I made contact with all our credit card folks and cell phone provider to keep everything running when we start making our purchases overseas. That was fine as long as Dianna wasn’t using her phone. We got two days into our travels and I noticed Dianna seemed to be using her phone a lot. Seems she was taking photos, texting and emailing everybody in the free world. AT&T, concerned about usage, cut her off and silenced her phone. This drew her ire and initiated a call to the phone company. AT&T was somewhat apologetic but after Dianna got a stern talking to about her single handed reduction of worldwide bandwidth, they re-established her service. Our next stop, Roatán, Honduras, promises to have calm seas and warmer weather.

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