Sunday, February 24, 2013

Cruise 2013 Part Two

Once on board, typical of these cruises, we were  thrust into a virtual melting pot of humans yearning for the drink of the day. From bib overall wearing farm folk (no...seriously) to the brightly attired Hindus trailing what seemed like hoards of unrestrained little Hindus (some wearing  leashes...really) or packs of giggling adolescent young women clutching their cellphones to instantly respond to text messages from the girl right next to them.

Most cruisers would agree that Carnival is kind of the "poor mans" cruise line. Don't get me wrong, they have a pretty good all around cruise experience but, probably because of their competitive pricing, kind of attract a certain segment of the cruising public. More beer drinking than wine drinking going on if you know what I mean.

On this particular cruise, there seemed to be a lot of groups of "plus size" women aboard sans men. There's something a little unnerving about watching very overweight 40 somethings dancing on the Lido Deck in two piece bathing suits my daughter might look cute in, with big old rolls testing out Newton’s "action-reaction" principle. Yeah, I know I'm going to be getting some cards and emails but I just don't know if I should admire them for their courage or laugh at their lack of fashion sense.

Of course, game day came on the first sea-day and once everyone was in place to watch the Jumbo-tron on the Lido Deck....... it rained. A cloud burst washed over the ship as we headed south to our first stop in Progreso, Mexico.  Just as quickly as it began it was over and the chicken wings and beer flowed throughout the rest of the night (and ensuing blackout) only to see the 49'ers make an amazing come-back and throw it all away in the final moments of the game.

The rest of the time, the Jumbo-tron is used as a subliminal device to transmit the hypnotic Carnival message to go downstairs and order up another cruise. The viewing area is a large bowl of seating all pointed at the screen. Except for the occasional Miami NBC affiliate television programs and movies, there is a continuous loop showing Carnival ships gliding through placid Caribbean waters silhouetted against beautiful sunsets and equally beautiful, scantily clad people prancing around majestic white sand beaches having the time of their lives. You can see the post-hypnotic suggestion taking hold as one after another make their way below to the Carnival kiosk to sign on the dotted line.

First stop is the port of Progreso. It's a neat place but, interestingly, more a major fishing town and import/export center than cruise line tourist trap. We seemed to be the exception than the rule for the towns folk who primarily service the fishing industry and serve as a vacation destination for the locals from the three states of  Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo. There isn't even a shopping tour of Progreso. Progreso is one of the gateways to the Mayan Temple of Chichen Itza.    Mérida is the capitol of Yucatán, among the 12th of the most populous Mexican metropolitan areas and has the bulk of the shopping and histrionics.

Of course, personally Mayan Templed out from other cruises, we opted to do something physical because that's how we roll.....well, yeah maybe not. We decided to try something new. Last time it was Segways, this year it is kayaking. Yes, Dianna and I power stroking our way through a nature preserve wetland in a place called Laguna Rosada.

It all sounded good on paper but once off the ship, things took (as is typical of our vacations) an odd turn. Herded onto our classic third-world non-air conditioned bus with our non-English speaking bus driver Gilberto and our very perky guide Graciela.

Graciela is typical of the many tour guides we have come across. Very knowledgeable and energetic but having to make do with a non-event venue and trying really hard to make it fun (sorry, no pictures for fear our phones and the Rocks in my Sandals camera might get it turned out both a wise and prophetic precaution). The "wetland" was little more than a tideland that, as it turns out, runs out of water during low tide. Guess when we arrived.

Joined by safety man Rueben, we were given a quick safety brief, novice paddling instructions and the mandatory life vests which turned out to be completely unnecessary. Once loaded and launched off into the unforgiving wind and tide, we almost immediately beached on a sand bar. Try as we might, Dianna and I could not get off that sucker only digging the equivalent of a Panama Canal in the silt below us. Guide Graciela happily came by to inform us there may be times one of us (well, me) would  have to exit the craft to pull on the convenient handle at the bow and, like Hugh Jackman in the opening scene of Les Miserables, pull the kayak to deeper waters (she actually said to me with a well practiced twinkle in her eye in her clipped Latin accent, "Remember..we're on an adventure, no?"), get in without tossing your partner into the brine (would not have heard the end of that one) and continue the tour while Rueben and Graciela paddled happily about in their single passenger kayaks. A well-disciplined squadron of naval ships we were not. The untrained eye might not even conclude we were together. Hey..we were all over the place and a hazard to navigation if there had been anybody else out there.

As Graciela and Rueben herded us around the preserve in between squishing slimy silt between my toes and me pulling us off the latest sand bar (seriously..... as we sloughed around, we passed fisherman standing in the middle of these "ponds" in ankle-deep water), we got to see exotic sea birds and a couple of flying fish hurtling about. One in particular was the Cormorant which the Chinese capture and train to catch fish. The fisherman launch the birds from their boats and once caught, the birds disgorge them into their owners hands and go back for more. The birds are restrained from swallowing their catch by a band around their necks but they dutifully retrieve fish after fish until called off.
NOT us

A word about two-person kayaking. I am now convinced it is a "sport" secretly designed by the Devil himself (or herself.....hey, I have an open mind) to test or undermine what seem to be solid married and committed couples, to the brink of divorce and break up. We almost immediately ran into troubled waters when we couldn't get our ( paddling coordinated. Things got out of hand quickly with Dianna finally deciding to stop paddling altogether as we rolled left and right seemingly incapable of holding a straight course leaving me to my own devices. I thought this might make a great "reality" show on Fox.

But we had something the others didn't have (we were the oldest couple there). Bringing forth those couples communication 101 skills we had been so diligently honing all of our 38 years of dating. That's right, I did exactly whatever Dianna told me to do and we successfully navigated our way around and got back to the starting point without a hitch. Well, until I debarked to help Dianna out of the front seat.

See.... for all the lack of water everywhere else in the park, in my haste, I found the only spot at the landing that had a huge drop-off much deeper than I anticipated and I went in right up to my sunglasses. Of course I was the only one cavalier enough not to allow Rueben to retrieve my loved one. So I had the honor of being the only one dripping wet for the trip back to the port.  Oh guessed it, I didn't listen to Dianna in bringing that all important change of clothes suggested by the tour description in the pamphlet either. After having huffed and puffed through two hours of kayaking (or pulling off sand bars) we were ready to depart for the ship but not before having two shots of Tequila first to toast our accomplishment.

Re-boarding our venerable bus (I was looking for the DOT number...couldn't find it), Gilberto began the long and arduous ride back to the port and ship. Turns out the harbor (like the tidelands), is very shallow so they had to dredge out the shipping lane at the deepest point but several miles from the nearest strip of land. So the Mexican government (I'm sure involving some misguided stimulus program) decided to build this really long causeway to the pier. This thing goes on for several miles. And the speed limit is 25 miles per hour so if you have say....a full bladder from slamming down water and Tequila, you can imagine my relief (literally) when we got back to the tourist trap entrance to the pier.  Yeah....I didn't listen to Dianna (or Tonia's voice in my head for that matter) telling me to go at the conveniently located bathroom at the kayak landing.

As some of you may know, cruise lines are institutions ruled by the clock. They have very specific rules about being on-time to insure they get from place-to-place in the requisite time alloted. So there is always a warning from the cruise staff that, if you're not on board by the last sound of the horn, you will be rewarded by the best photo-op, a shot of the ship pulling away from the dock. It's up to you to make other arrangements to meet the ship at it's next stop.
Hmmmm, "Keep off Propellers" has there been
a rash of people standing on the ship's propellers?

So it was, that at the appointed hour of 4 p.m. and several pulls of the ship's horn, we still hadn't slacked the lines for departure. Minutes ticked by and we could easily see harbor and ship staff huddled together at the gangway gesturing at the causeway and at each other and a lot of radio chatter from the handheld radios everyone had.

Finally, the subject of all the ruckus, a lone off-white Mexican cab, came careening up onto the pier and slid to a stop at the bottom of the gangway. The back door was flung open and a young couple, with beach and shopping bags in hand, stepped out onto the quay to the jeering and applause of all the passengers leaning over the port rails.

Not to be outdone, the young woman, like a rock star, stepped out of the car, did her best Miley Cyrus two-handed wave back at the crowd. Then, almost on cue, tripped on her flip flop mounting the gangway as they returned to the safety of the ship. Lucky Bastards, I say.

Stay tuned for Part 3....

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Mexico Cruise 2013 Part 1

On to Galveston for another cruise to Mexico to reflect on life,  our relationship and drink whatever copious amounts of alcohol that our host Carnival can provide.

Note to reader: Normally, being the type A that I am (yeah...right) I would have immediately put pen to paper to enlighten and hopefully entertain you about our recent cruise. But, when we got home, we learned that the Carnival Triumph follow-on cruise was capturing the world's attention as it floated, powerless, off the coast of its first stop (and ours) Progresso, Mexico. So I held off writing this until the ordeal concluded, thankfully successfully, in the port of Mobile, Alabama. Interestingly, a cruise terminal Carnival had once used extensively and abandoned in an earlier downsizing by the company in October 2011.

After five days at sea first at the mercy of the currents and wind then towed several hundred miles back to Mobile and safety. I'm sure you'll see news stories to describe the experiences of the guests as well as the crew and there will, no doubt, be a plethora of investigations to determine the cause and effects of the on-board fire that struck the great ship impotent. I can only imagine the stories the couple who got married on-board will be telling around campfires and anniversaries to come.

Driving south from Dallas or any major metropolitan area of Texas takes you from bustling metropolis to instant rural backwater. It's not a gradual passing. One minute you're amongst tall buildings bristling with cell towers and the next it's pastures, cows and horses standing at the fences watching the cars and trucks whizzing by.

You drive about five hours and the cows and horses become fewer and farther between then the suburbs of Houston approach and you're back to urban sprawl. A little farther south you pass the Johnson Space Center then skirt the Texas City oil refinery complex where 40% of all the gasoline  in America gets produced, hit the causeway and cross over to the sleepy island of Galveston.

The trip to Galveston was also our chance to see how they've recovered since hurricane Ike, the big storm of 2008. The last time we were there, for a cruise to the western Caribbean, was three months before that terrible storm. The change was stunning. The whole seawall district has been remade. Where once torn and twisted piers stood, are new pilings holding up a new entertainment venue called Pleasure Pier (I know, it had a different connotation when I first heard of the place). Kind of looks like the Island of Lost Boys in Pinocchio.

Of course being neither sports fanatics or crazy party-goers with a penchant for wearing brightly colored beads or flashing people (....well, I can't speak for Dianna), we unknowingly timed it just right (sarcasm just doesn't come across in print) that it was both Mardi Gras and Superbowl weekend in Galveston. Yes....we need to get out more.

We did our usual drive-about of the island and discovered a treasure trove of new beach houses (ah, didn't they get the memo about the hurricanes?), now on really tall stilts. We had seen houses on stilts before but these babies were double the height of the older homes we saw. Somebody must have updated the building code.

Just looking out of our hotel window we discovered an old cemetery right next door (Ok...a little creepy). Rosewood Cemetery was set aside in 1911 as a resting place for the African-American residents of the island. Back in the day, cemeteries were segregated like bathrooms and eating places so the city acquired the land for that purpose. As the years went by and cemeteries became integrated, the lot fell into disrepair and developers began annexing the land for commercial use. the original 8 acres has been paired down to what is now a single acre and has a handful of visible headstones. Makes you wonder where all the others went to not to mention the adjoining lots with other hotels on them, ahhh like the one we were in.

With the increased number of tourists comes an increase in traffic and drunks. To avoid collisions we stopped at our favorite watering hole, Captain Jack's, in front of the Holiday Inn Sun-Spree (weird name) hotel overlooking the sea wall. A favorite of the natives, it affords a thatched roof shelter enabling us to consume the $5 Margaritas at Happy Hour as we people-watch those walking or jogging the seawall. Hey, why do they call it "Happy Hour" when it lasts from 4 to 7? Shouldn't it be "Happy Hours"? The whole thing becomes moot after the second plastic cup of manna rushes down your throat like that first drop at Pirates of the Caribbean.

I asked the bartender how they made out with the last hurricane. She said the bar had been completely wiped away. The bar is on a raised concrete platform right across from the seawall about four feet above the sidewalk. It was pretty much wiped clean and completely rebuilt. As a tribute, the statue of Captain Morgan was returned to his rightful spot  at the entrance but was not repainted as a reminder of the devastation. The Captain stands in his classic pose greeting all who come to repose.

The day of sailing was briefly marred by an urgent email we received stating our ship, the Carnival Triumph, was delayed returning to port because of a mechanical problem (ooohhh...queue the spooky music) delaying its arrival and our subsequent boarding. No gave us (me) more time to check out the 1900 Hurricane Museum and Elissa tall ship exhibit at Pier 21.

We discovered the Pier and Museum had suffered major damage in the hurricane. Pier 21 is on the northern side and overlooks the Port of Galveston. Although the hurricane had its effects on most of the island, the port had a double whammy of wind and the storm surge that came up through the shipping channel and arced into the port driving the waterline much higher than  the docks and structures.The pier, museum and restaurants are slightly higher than street level but the museum folks said the surge came up over the pier and brought in around six inches of water into the museum. The Historical Society was able to get some FEMA money to rebuild the pier and the maintenance workshop for the Elissa iron Barque (pronounced Bark) tied up at the pier. If you've been to the Island, you know they have a wonderful theater where they show a great documentary about the 1900 hurricane. They are still working on getting it operational.  

As I mentioned, there is the wonderful iron Barque Elissa alongside the museum. The ship has an interesting tale to tell much of which has to do with its refitting and return to Galveston.

Elissa was built in Aberdeen, Scotland as a three masted merchant vessel in a time when steamships were overtaking sailing ships. She was originally launched on October 27, 1877. Elissa is named for the Queen of Carthage, Elissa (more commonly called Dido), Aeneas' tragic lover in the epic poem The Aeneid.

Elissa has sailed under many names and flags. In 1918, she was converted into a two-masted brigantine and an engine was installed. She was sold to Finland in 1930 and reconverted into a schooner. In 1959, she was sold to Greece, and successively sailed under the names Christophoros, in 1967 as Achaeos, and in 1969 as Pioneer.

In 1970, she was rescued from destruction in Piraeus after being purchased for the San Francisco Maritime Museum. However, she languished in a salvage yard in Piraeus until she was purchased for $40,000, in 1975, by the Galveston Historical Foundation, her current owners. In 1979, after a year in Greece having repairs done to her hull, Elissa was first towed to Gibraltar. The restoration process involved removing all the post-refurbished stuff returning Elissa to her original three masts and sails and continued until she was ready for tow on June 7, 1979 where she was brought to Galveston for completion and display.

Elissa made her first voyage as a restored sailing ship in 1985, traveling to Corpus Christi, Texas. A year later, she sailed to New York City to take part in the Statue of Liberty's centennial celebrations. She was the oldest ship to sail in the tall ship sailing cruise.

Ok…..piece of sailing trivia. What's the fuzzy thing on the line above the yard arm? Well of course.... it's Baggy Wrinkle, Dana. It stops the line from rubbing against and abrading the sail. It's made from many individual short lines tied together and their ends frayed to create a big furry muffler-like bumper for the line.

Because we had some time before boarding, we decided to take an hour tour of the harbor. The port has always been a lifeline port since the Spanish occupied it back in 1816. The Spanish gave way to pirates that helped Mexico rebel against Spain. The pirate Jean Lafitte organized Galveston into a pirate "kingdom" he called "Campeche", anointing himself the island's "head of government". Lafitte remained in Galveston until 1821 when he and his raiders were run off by the fledgling US Navy.The Port was established in 1825 and, after the Texas Revolution, became the new country’s capitol in 1836. By 1839, the city was by then a burgeoning port and attracted many new residents among the flood of German immigrants to Texas in the 1840s and later, including Jewish merchants.
Porpoise Pod in the bay

Because of it's importance, its played a major role in the building of America.  Because of that, Galveston became one of the most advanced and wealthiest cities in America in the late 1800s. First all-electrical city and playground to the rich and famous. Galveston was considered  an important financial center in it's hay days some say equal to New York or San Francisco. Just as important as New Orleans in the exporting of cotton, beef and importing of manufactured goods, it was a strategic holding for the South in the TWONA and came under blockade by the Northern Navy to stop the flow of goods supporting the Southern economy.

Although still an important port today, it really lost it's edge when the great storm of 1900 came through.  Because of the devastation, shipping moved north into the Houston/Texas City river channel and never really came back to pre-1900 levels. It is still an important port servicing the vast number of off-shore oil and gas derricks in the Gulf.
Galveston suffered a huge loss of life and many of those who survived decided not to rebuild and moved elsewhere.  But because of that storm we forever changed the way we predict and report the weather world-wide probably saving thousands.

Added bonus, with your tour ticket, you get a discount at the Pier 21 restaurant, Willie G’s right next to the museum. It was such a nice day, we were able to sit under the canopy at a table on the pier. Lunch was a Salmon salad for me and Dianna had the fish and chips. Vacations for us tend to result in excessive alcohol consumption so we added two Marti Gras special drinks as well. Hey....we had to get the cool collector cups and "free" neck beads....well worth the extra cost.

Back to reality, as with all cruise endeavors, we were once more run through the human grinder that is the check-in and boarding  process.  Serpentine chicanes turning left and right leading inexorably to a bored clerk swiping passports and asking us if we had the flu or didn't feel well. When this medical expert was satisfied we were not contagious, we were allowed to walk the gangway to our floating buffet palace. Next installment....the road to Progresso or how not to row a kayak.