Friday, December 23, 2011

Cruise 2011

Once again, we are off to cruise the Caribbean. Our much-awaited yearly cruise began as we got up at O-dark thirty to wend our way to New Orleans by way of a fog shrouded East Texas. With Dianna firmly wired into, and tapping away on her iPhone as she listened to her book on tape. Understand, we had a long heart-to-heart with the International roaming people assigned to our case. The same folks who unceremoniously cut off Dianna’s Internet access last year in Roatan, Honduras. Apparently, Dianna had single-handedly brought down the entire AT&T network as she Twittered, Face booked and texted her way through Central America almost bringing the Death Star’s data network to its knees. Where’s  Al Gore when you need him.

That said, in our mandatory counseling session, we were given strict orders that, once on-board, we were to immediately turn on “Airplane mode” and disable data roaming so we wouldn’t incur the 100 dollar a minute shipboard cellular network and untold thousands in data transfer. With this knowledge, weighing heavily on her mind, Dianna made the most of the trip over and our day in New Orleans to check her email and update her many Facebook followers before stepping off the dock. We were warned that the only time we were to turn on those features was once we were on dry land and not within the umbrella of the ship’s network. The customer service representative even said….I kid you not, if we didn’t follow her instructions, we were “on our own” when the bill came.

I love this, the sign reads, "Please respect our children, Do NOT write on the walls."
Thus, having taken the phone company’s twelve step program we fired up Patty and fled to Louisiana and the craziness of the French Quarter. I was able to secure a night at the Hotel Montelione on Royal Street. This afforded us a short walk to most of what the French Quarter has to offer. We made our way to pay homage to the Hustler Store and had to have a frozen Margarita at the Gateway on Bourbon and Iberville. Dianna had one dubbed “the strongest drink in the world.” I had a simple fruit punch flavored Margarita. Yes, Dianna’s was the strongest Margarita I’ve ever tasted. This thing could have fueled the Space Shuttle. She was ready for bed almost as soon as we got back to the room.

Our hotel had its share of amenities. The original hotel was built in 1886 by Antonio Montelione and has been in the family for four generations. Over the years, it has expanded to encompass the entire block, including on-site parking. Its Lobby was seen in 1999’s “Double Jeopardy” – Starring Ashley Judd and Tommy Lee Jones as well as other movies and television shows. It also has a pool deck and bar on the top floor which gave a respectable view and perspective to the French Quarter which, from above, looks rather plain and, like any other urban metropolis, a series of simple rooflines which conceal the colorful storefronts and wacky people who stalk the narrow carriage paths below.

We decided on dinner at Dickie Brennan’s Bistro on Royal. I had a delicious Po Boy BBQ beef sandwich. I got what appeared to be an average Po Boy but had a surprise in the addition of a wonderful shredded marinated red cabbage, which really brought out the flavor of the beef. Dianna had a blackened beef filet with an awesome bacon infused blob of mashed potatoes. Really tasty and both very reasonably priced in a very warm inviting dark wood setting with an excellent serving staff. We had a great sleep in our big ol’ four poster bed and headed out to the dock and board our ship.

Now, I am not a fan of airports, airlines and theme parks, but I can usually muster enough patience to stand in line to get something accomplished. Those patience were tested to their limits as we drove up to the River Walk cruise pier in the shadow of the Greater New Orleans Bridge. In our last two outings, we usually casually drive up to the Julia Street parking structure for the long term parking.

We were surprised to see the entrance closed and were inextricably linked to a growing line of cars, cabs and shuttles. Like a river weaving its way through the canyon created by the shopping mall and the cruise center, it seemed to run as far as the eye could see. Frustration began to show as first one then several travelers began pouring from their cabs and shuttles into a what became a sea of people dragging and clutching their suitcases out onto the roadway and began a mass migration toward the cruise center entrance. Like watching miners heading up the Klondike, they trudged their way toward registration and the reward of the drink of the day (Southern Tea, traditional Long Island Ice Tea with Southern Comfort Sour in it).

This cruise is a joke. I don’t know what’s more disappointing, the ridiculous price I paid for a balcony cabin on this rust bucket or experiencing the terrible customer care when checking in. There was no indication parking would be outside of the usual Julia Street parking structure which we had used the prior 3 years or the lack of direction  by Cruise Terminal staff that all check-in traffic was being routed to a single garage entry to drop off luggage. Ok… three thousand cruise guests making their way through one glass, double-door.

Someone must have caught on to the developing chaos because, out nowhere, suddenly New Orleans cops appeared and began directing traffic. A satellite luggage staging area was quickly assembled and we were able to tag and send our luggage to the port security without waiting to get through to the queue at the front door to the Cruise Line entrance. Then, having survived the rapids of the river of cars, we were sent off to an outdoor parking lot (there is now a hint of rain in the air) which could have been accessed from the street prior to entering the car death march to nowhere.

My temper flared once we got inside when we were pulled out of line to have our tickets checked for validity. Then, after having diligently entered all the data on the Royal Caribbean website months ago, had to further fill out another manifest form and the infamous two question health form. Really…after spending all this money on a non-refundable cruise…what boxes do  you think I’m going to check on the form on the state of my health? It’s just silly and time consuming. Oh yeah, then there was the mix-up on the boarding cards. These are the keystones to ship security when moving on and off the ship and is the vehicle to charge for services (and alcohol) on the ship. No card, no hay paso.

When Dianna picked up the boarding cards (as I was ranting and rolling my eyes at the booking agent), she handed me a card to go to the photo station. Here ship security matches your card to a photo they will save and look at whenever the card is run through one of their scanners. Well, Dianna had handed me her card and she got a picture using mine. We then had to return and have the photos retaken under the laughing gazes of the security people I’m sure wondering if we were pulling a fast one for Al Qaeda. But we were finally aboard and my mood didn’t improve until the next morning.

Yes, a day at sea is both calming and cathartic. You can wander around and see the ship and its many wonders. The Voyager of the Seas is an “Eagle” Class seagoing hotel that can accommodate about three thousand passengers and a crew of 1200 speaking five different languages. This isn’t the largest ship in the fleet. There is one larger class of ship (the one with the wave surfing machine on the stern. The place is massive. Just the Promenade deck is an inside mall ¾ the length of the center of the ship on deck 5 and enclosed by the upper floors 6 through 9 like a Pharaoh’s burial chamber. They can change the lighting to make it look like a city street to a disco with moving stage lighting ala Studio 54. The day we hit Cozumel, was Monday Night Football night. Of course, many of our shipmates were from the New Orleans area and the game was the Saints vs. the New York Giants. Saints fans took over the mall, absconded with every chair that wasn’t nailed down and with a huge projection screen above, created a giant sports bar theatre to chant, cheer and rave for their team.

Our first stop was the island of Cozumel, Mexico. The weather had not been kind to us this trip. We left New Orleans for the Gulf of Mexico in a rainy gloom. The weather apparently took a liking to us and followed us down into the Caribbean. Now we’re from Texas and Texans get accustomed to and a certain affinity for the constant winds we experience at various times of the year. Cozumel was a horse of a different color. We spent a bumpy night of gusty winds and bumpy seas….the docking at Cozumel was crazy. The ship is very broad and makes a great backstop for a crosswind. Cozumel had straight line winds around 30 mph with gusts to 40. This was driving whitecaps into the pier and seawall of the town causing spectacular fountains of seawater shooting up like the Halona Blow Hole in Honolulu, Hawaii. This turn in the weather caused the cancellation of most of the water sport excursions and limited many other activities because of the angry seas around us.

And we didn't fall once
But we did get to do one cool thing. We had signed up for a Segway riding tour and snorkeling excursion. The snorkeling was out but we did get an extended riding tour out of the deal. After a brief instruction and driving practice, our tour guide Fred (can’t be his real name, like those help desk people in India) took us onto the streets of Cozumel for a trip along the beach and a stop for chips and salsa at Uval, a small beach resort. We then rode our steeds back to the rendezvous point at the Discover Mexico Park. It was my first time on a Segway…but now I want one. It was way cool. Even Dianna got into it. If I could figure a way to use it around town, I would do it.

The next day was to be Georgetown on Grand Cayman Island. Same problem. When we arrived at 10 the following morning, the seas were still heaving and beyond the safe limits of the ships ability to tender passengers to shore. When cruise ships can’t dock, they stand off-shore and drop their own boats or private boats from the port to move passengers to shore. With the chop as bad as it was, the Captain decided to try another port on the other side of the island but soon learned it too was closed for tendering. With no other place to go, we headed off to our next destination, Falmouth, Jamaica. This was especially bad news for the locals. Two other cruise ships from Carnival and Norwegian (NCL) also cancelled as well. Must have been a bad day for the tourist industry in Georgetown.

I decided to reinvest our refund into a special dinner night at the Portofino Restaurant on deck 11. Portofino’s menu advertises an upscale Italian cuisine. They also suggest you set aside TWO HOURS for the complete meal. They charge you extra for the experience as well.

We both started with a Pruscuttio salad. When it came out, we were presented with a mound of prosciutto meat interspersed with sliced apples and artichoke heart leaves. Which begs the question, shouldn’t a salad have some actual green leafy stuff in it? Isn’t there some kind of international standard, which dictates what a salad should consist of? Well it was good. It was so much prosciutto we both had to stop so we could ensure we could get through the rest of the meal.

Next, was the main course, Dianna ordered the Beef Filet and I got the Tuna Steak. Hers was loaded with mashed potatoes and some veggies. She remarked it was the first steak she could cut with a fork in a long time. My Tuna was over beautiful white pearl potatoes layered with cheese and a spicy tomato sauce. Awfully good.

Our server brought us what we thought was the dessert tray and turned out to be a dessert “appetizer” of little cakes and chocolate covered strawberries. We then ordered a Tiramisu for Dianna and a nutty tort with strawberry and apricot drizzles splashed on the sides and a couple of coffees. Nice. The only disappointment was the arrival of the chef. A customer next to us asked to see him and he arrived to get some advice from the guy. Now I’m not a food connoisseur or a cultural snob, but the chef turned out to be Indian the red dot kind (sorry). I wasn’t sure if the noise I heard was the rumbling of the ship or my Dad turning over in his grave. The meal was exceptional. Oh yeah, we left almost exactly two hours after we arrived, amazing.
Historic Trelawny Parish Courthouse

The next day was at Falmouth, Jamaica. Falmouth is the most historic of the tourist destinations on the island. The town probably has the most modern cruise ports I’ve seen next to the one in Roaton, Honduras. Falmouth had built a pretty good rendition of a British era sea port with period (though modern construction) Victorian era style brick buildings containing shops to relieve you of your cash. The cruise lines have a lot invested in these destinations and they want you to have the “experience” in a controlled environment. Cause let’s face it, once you leave the gate, the reality of Jamaica becomes quickly apparent.

Abject poverty reigns throughout Jamaica and is evident all over. I know I’m being overly sensitive, but I find it almost embarrassing to ride through the countryside in our shiny air conditioned bus as we roll by shacks and rundown buildings crying for foreign aid. Clearly, whatever treasures are being gotten from tourists like us, are not making it to the locals except in low end jobs sweeping up after the tourists when the ships leave.

Ok….off the soap box. Jamaica is a beautiful place, lush, green and all the Jamaicans I spoke with were very friendly and anxious to tell you of their culture good and bad. They all speak of the slavery they experienced in the 1700s and 1800s but just as quickly proudly tell of how they revolted against the slave owners and ended slavery in 1834 (way before our country in 1863) and got full emancipation in 1838.

An example of this was the tour we took to Good Hope . This was a beautiful hill top plantation home owned by Thomas Williams. When he found a bride, Elizabeth Baker, he built Good Hope in 1755 for her. Unfortunately, she was taken from Thomas probably by malaria in 1762 and he buried her in a ground floor room aptly named the “Grave Room.” The tour guides said Jamaica has a rich history of SanterĂ­a and Obeah (sometimes spelled Obi, Obea or Obia) voodoo and the natives say the room is haunted by a “Doppi” or ghost. Of course, there are Doppi-man ghosts and Doppi-woman ghosts, Elizabeth is, of course, the latter.

The house was original period right down to the floors made of a native wood with their square nails visible through the years of shellacking. All the windows were sashed and the glass poured. One thing I find true among the poor countries I have traveled in, unless somebody takes a special interest in the buildings, nobody really takes very good care of them. It appears Good Hope is in private hands and somebody needs to put a stripper and scraper to the fine woodwork. It’s just awful to see what has to be incredibly detailed cornices and fascia boards layered with God knows what kind of paint over the years. It really could use some help to bring out what is classic Victorian amenities.

The home has gone through several hands and thus updated to accept electricity and indoor plumbing. One of the bathrooms has a lead (that’s right) lined tub and sink. Other than its durability, I’m not sure why you’d line your fixtures with lead, but hey, it probably would not fly away in a hurricane.

In the rear of the home was a very nice outdoor patio and garden. A fixture in the back yard is a two story building, which had held a storage room on the top floor and the dungeon for the escaped slaves on the ground floor. Today, the Good Hope doubles as a bed and breakfast. We were told the upper floor of the dungeon building was decorated as a bedroom and many people pay to spend their honeymoon night in that bedroom. Quite a message you’re sending there. Being in the politically correct world we live in today, our Jamaican tour guide assured us the owner Mr. Williams was considered a very good slave owner and “hardly ever” punished his slaves in the dungeon. I’m sure that was the sentiment of all the indentured slaves he owned. What a guy.

The two day trip back to New Orleans was uneventful. The weather improved enough to allow Dianna (and most of the other travelers) to catch some of the hereto unseen sun to get the tan lines they needed to show their friends back home. The last days of the cruise are when the ship pulls out the stops of shopping deals and discounts. We were witnesses to a scramble for small gifts, jewelry and watches on the Promenade. The sale was for 7 pm and anticipation grew with every update heard from the PA system. The crowd was at fever pitch when they counted down the hour like the launch of a Space Shuttle. Then came a rush only equal to a Wal-Mart Black Friday.

There were arms and elbows flying. At one point, inextricably drawn into the vortex, as if some unseen force or current enveloped her, Dianna dove in as well getting some prizes for stocking stuffers for friends and co-workers. It is both frightening and kind of funny to see this with all the men standing on the sidelines like fathers watching their kid viciously tackle another kid, elbowing the guy next to him saying, “That’s my wife” as she rips a valued scarf from another’s grasp. A little disturbing to behold yet with a sense of pride at the tenacity that was exhibited that day. This went on throughout the balance of the cruise.

Once out of Jamaica, the rest of the cruise began winding down. Two solid days of sailing would bring us to that long slow sojourn up the Mississippi back to the Port, our departure and drive back to Frisco.

The return cruise is always jammed pack of store sales, midnight buffets, the belly flop contest and various other drinking contests and activities in an attempt to drag every last dollar out of you before the gang plank scuffs the dock. Everybody gets into the act, including, as it turns out, the Captain. During one of his daily Captain’s status reports from the bridge, promptly at noon, at the end of the report, he added that each guest should make an effort to get to the Casino before they shut it down upon leaving International Waters. I kid you not, he remarked we needed to do this to, “Make a contribution to my retirement fund.” That says it all.

After the last nights packing, filling out and accounting for all the purchases we made on the Customs Declaration and making decisions about tipping for the staff we awoke to an on-time arrival at the pier and a surprisingly fast self-debarking onto the shore. Then the long drive back to North Texas into a rain storm trying to abate the drought. Back home to dogs, cat, away from room attendants and wait staff waiting on you hand and foot, fruity adult beverages with little umbrellas to the reality of our humble lives and work.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Peg Mc Kinlay

Peg and her beloved Martini
I wanted to take some time to honor an old friend who recently passed away. Dianna and I knew Peg Mc Kinlay from our days back in California and most recently here in Texas. Peg and Dianna met while co-workers with Bank of America in 1995. Peg was a long time underwriter of mortgage loans with several companies and even did a stint with the Fanny Mae people in DC. Dianna and Peg lost touch when Dianna moved over to Countrywide but became reacquainted when both moved to Texas to work for Countrywide just before the Bank of America buyout.

In early 2011, Peg got some shattering news. She had been sick with the flu but after several weeks couldn’t shake a recurring cough. Her doctors were baffled and decided to get a chest x-ray to see what the problem was. A mass was spotted and a biopsy was scheduled. Peg had been a long time smoker but had quit a few years ago. By the time the biopsy was done, the mass, identified as a cancerous tumor, had spread to other parts of her body. Stage 4.

It was one of those terrifying stories you here about people who are diagnosed, suddenly take a turn for the worse and are suddenly gone. That was the way it was with Peg. The doctors gave her just a few months but those months passed quickly and so did Peg. Toward the end, she needed constant care and had to move in with her son Rob and his wife Amy in Oklahoma City. When she required 24 hour care, they moved her to a hospital. Dianna and another co-worker, Maria, had an opportunity to see Peg while she was there. Amy and Rob cautioned that Peg was in an out of reality and she may not recognize them when they came. Miraculously, for that visit, Peg seemed to be her old self, laughing and joking with her guests. She even relished a custom chocolate cupcake with peanut butter frosting, a personal favorite, Dianna and Maria brought to share with her. But, behind the laughter, everyone had a sense it would be their last meeting. About a two weeks later, Dianna learned Peg passed away.

You always comfort yourself and say it happens to somebody else but when it's somebody you know, it changes your perception of the disease and the fallout which which effects all the people they leave behind.  To help out Rob and Amy, we all pitched in to go through Peg's things she had put into storage from her Texas home while she was being treated in Oklahoma. It was a sad endeavor but at the same time uplifting. It was a chance for everyone to reminisce about the places she had lived, holidays with her grandchildren she cherished and the dinners and football games we watched at her place.

We all had a chance to laugh about having to move her beloved furniture. Over her life, she had collected an assemblage of the heaviest real wood bedroom, dining room and living room furniture you will ever come across. Getting this stuff out of two storage rooms and into a box truck for the trip to Oklahoma was a whuppin’. I think everyone who was there would agree that Peg was looking down and laughing at all of us as we grunted and shoved all that stuff into that rental truck.

Team Peg's patch Top Right
Once we had recovered from that, the suggestion was made to further honor Peg’s memory by doing something positive about lung cancer and as a form of closure to a painful time we needed to put behind us.

We all signed up for the LUNGevity Foundation’s “Breate Deep DFW”  event  on November 12th, 2011 to walk for Peg and to help all those who suffer this terrible disease. We all hoped our efforts will help find a cure so other friends and family won’t have to watch their loved ones go through the same thing we all did. The event was staged at River Legacy Park, Arlington, Texas. This is a huge mixed-use public park and nature preserve  about two miles north of Cowboy’s Stadium on the West Fork of the Trinity River. There is an extra-wide concrete walkway that goes all the way around the central park for a solid mile. The entire preserve consists of several hundred acres of walking, hiking and biking trails.

Runners Kara and Lance
Runner Tom

Team PEG got our Tee shirts and got into the massive cue of people, dogs, runners and walkers. A few of our team (the “runners”) decided to run the route. There were mother and fathers, grandparents, brothers, sisters, little kids and big kids, all wearing their patches, many survivors of this terrible disease.

Dianna and I made two circuits before stopping for free drinks and munchies. I think everybody had a good time and took something away from the experience. Peg, it was a pleasure knowing you.