Saturday, October 24, 2015

11 days on a Cruise

Here we go on another adventure. We decided to blow our two weeks of vacation on an 11 day cruise to the Eastern Caribbean. On the Carnival Dream we have scored a “sale” off-season cruise to Nassau, Bermuda, St Maarten (not sure why it’s spelled with two As), St Thomas, ending in San Juan, Puerto Rico. On sale because it’s hurricane season.

Check-in was uneventful for one exception. During the rather droll question and answer period, Disneylandesque chicanes and the phalanx of ship photographers insisting on documenting your every cruise moment we all endure during one of these sojourns, one stood out. The lovely Toya leaned over her laptop and, lowering her voice, asked my wife if she thought she might be pregnant. Imagine our surprise at this 20-something asking my clearly 59ish wife if she might be with child. After all the questions about our health and if we had ever been around any human who may have coughed or sniffed in our direction. As it turns out, the cruise lines have a “Pregnancy Policy”. Apparently one can only sail if they have been pregnant less than 24 weeks. The generic response is that they don’t have the needed medical facilities to handle miscarriage or delivery. Ok….I can go with that.

It might also cause a little rift when it came to the child’s nationality. There are no stedfast rules to go by but generally (thanks to GPS), the child’s citizenship might be determined by location on the high seas. The child could be registered under the country flag the ship is registered to (Panama for the Dream), the proximity to either the port of departure or arrival (New Orleans, USA, Puerto Rico, US Territory), or the parents can weigh in under the legal concept of Jus Sanguinis (right of blood). No worries….that ship has sailed for us.

On our first Sea Day, we woke up to….rain. Hurricane Joachim had just wound it’s way through our destinations the week before but left behind a nasty Low Pressure cell over the southeast and Florida leaving places like South Carolina with 14 inches of rain and major flooding they haven’t seen in about, according to their Governor Nikki Haley (I love the spelling of her name), 1000 years. Well, how do they know that…..I’m not sure the native Americans had rain gauges back then. I’m picturing a little guy in a lion skin deftly drawing a charcoal weather summary ala Weather Underground, looking a whole lot like Al Roker, scratching away with his charcoal tipped stick. Maybe there’s a cave in the Carolinas somewhere chronicling the weather patterns of yore.

As we sat sipping our early morning coffees on the Lanai Deck (Dianna cannot go far without the guarantee of an Iced Moca Cappuccino at the end of the trail), I contemplated how much rain the vast body of water before us (the Gulf of Mexico) needed to keep it filled. I know….pretty lame but inquiring minds (yeah…mine) need to know. A quick check of Google (things are improving, we actually have inexpensive Internet access now) brought the usual avalanche of information.

Due to the ebbs and flows of the atmosphere, the tropical oceans generate the most rain and, depending on the region, can cause between 115 and 197 inches (holy cow!) of rainfall per year (yes Tonia….about 1/3 of an inch per day). Of course, that moisture then gets carried back over land (well….except for California it seems) and falls collecting in rivers and streams which also flow back into the ocean (in various degrees of cleanliness) refilling it that way as well. The Amazon has the highest flow of 55, 211,960 gallons into the Atlantic….A SECOND! This re-circulation is referred to as Hadley Circulation and helps in driving global weather which generates the hurricanes, tropical storms and thunderstorms we watch on the Weather Channel and our weather apps. So as long as this continues (depending on your views on global warm……opps, sorry, climate change) we thankfully, won’t run aground anytime soon.

Remarkably, after surveying the ships compliment, we determined there are few riders under 50 and lots older than that. There is a smattering of 20 and 30-somethings but they are so few as almost to be nonexistent….and absolutely no little kids except for one infant in a stroller I saw (Ok...turns out there were 78 kids aboard...who knew?). Thus the halls and decks are littered with walkers, wheel chairs and a collection of canes and crutches. The fun began when, during the safety briefing, when asked for a show of hands of how many needed special assistance in the case of a water emergency, like half the people there raised their hands. Hey…there’s even a blind lady with a walker AND a service dog (a really cute yellow Lab). Well and to say there was also an older woman who had her little Bijon in a stroller too ( can't make this stuff up). I can’t wait to see how this all plays out on the excursions when we get to land.

To say the clubs close down early is an understatement (you can hear crickets on the various decks around 10) but there’s always a long line at the buffets. Evening dinners are punctuated by the openings of those 7 day pill organizers, which sound like the soft popping of gunfire off in the distance. And, on a personal note, they may be old but they pack the workout room and walking/jogging track every morning.

Another interesting factoid I learned while eavesdropping (I do a lot of that) is that now you can hire a male or female “host” to be your escort. A pioneering placement agency for speakers and entertainers works with the various cruise lines to hire “hosts” to be an escort to single older passengers for $30 dollars a day to dine and dance with. Officially,  no hanky-panky allowed but really, who knows what transpires. They are treated as employees and can take advantage of any of the amenities and act as part of the entertainment staff. What a cool gig.

The formal dining room provide a better experience than the buffets in that there's a lot of personal service and a better selection to choose from. And seriously there is nothing more entertaining than a bunch of servers (clearly many have not had formal training) from various Asian countries trying to serenade us, singing a Dean Martin song with Italian lyrics.

Our first port was Nassau. Now Nassau has not changed much since our last trip except for the natives. Poor bastards now have to pay sales tax on everything they (and we) buy. Like most small countries, they had been able to get along on the tourist dollars to provide them with a cushion against inflation but, as one worker told us, “They tell us the tax was needed to offset the higher cost of Government but our paychecks never seem to go up.” Welcome to our world Nassau.

I was always cognizant of the humidity in the Caribbean so when we book tours, they must have two criterion. They must have a good customer rating and they have to have air conditioned rides. Thus our Best of 10 stops tour. Our Tour Guide, Teko, was very informative but was somewhat distracted by a woman who plopped herself down in the front passenger seat and ran a running monologue of, “Hey…listen to all the cool things I’ve seen and I know this famous person and that famous person”. So Teko had a hard time getting a word in edgewise.

The coolest part of the tour was a stop at the  
John Watlings Distillery where we got to sample various Rums from their shelves. AND we got to stand where, in 2006, Daniel Craig jumped a wall in a chase scene from Casino Royale (2006). Wow…drinking rum can really smooth out a long tour and I was much better able to tune out Ms. Social Security Administration retiree.

The last cool thing we got to do was stop at Freddie-Gone-Bananas, a neat little restaurant on the “fish-fry” row of restaurants on Arawak Cay. There we got a great little culinary exhibition by their chef on the intricacies of shelling and cooking Conch. We were introduced to Conch in Key West and had no idea how important Conch was to the diet and economy of the Bahamas.

The entire Conch is utilized and nothing goes to waste. The shells are used to sell or made into jewelry, the whole Conch itself is edible but some parts are more palatable than others. Those not used for food are used as an excellent bait for other fish species in the area. The Conch is loaded with protein and, of course, in every third-world country, there are elements of it that are considered aphrodisiacs. Particularly the  “pistol” a wiggly little appendage that both male and female Conch possess. Our tour guide explained it is Bahamian Viagra and guarantees a night of magic. Well…except for Marine Biologists who believe Pistols are used to aid digestion in the little Conch but who wants to rain on that parade.

What we (I) really took away from that session was the incredible Banana Rum drink they made. Obviously Rum is mixed with banana syrup and blended with fresh banana almost to the consistency of baby food you were able to suck through a straw. When I get to that assisted care living place (the one my daughter threatens to pick for me), that will be the soft food of choice I want.

I want to applaud Nassau on their health care system as well. There are two hospitals on the island, Doctors Hospital which is private and the Princess Margaret Hospital which is public. Because of the tourist money, anyone can check in to Princess Margaret for a $10 dollar co-pay. After being diagnosed it’s sliding scale costs and free prescription medications. Its’ like $20 bucks for an x-ray and all insurance is accepted. Pretty cool.

Back on board (after a little nap…yeah, I’m taking a lot more of those too) we got to watch “Insurgent”, the second of the Divergent movie series, on the big screen on the pool deck. Very cool under the stars with a nice warm box of fresh popcorn. Awesome.

There are those “days at sea” listed on the daily schedules. I’ve often overheard how many feel days at sea are a little discomforting. They need to be busy or on shore doing some activity or other. I kind of like those days just chugging through the ocean on the way to somewhere else. Seated on our veranda looking out over the gently rolling waves is rather calming and at the same time foreboding. A view some might call beautiful is, after all, a vast steppe if you will. Someone remarked “beautiful, beautiful, magnificent desolation” (Buzz Aldrin, 1969).

With life thriving underneath, above, it might as well be a desert. You can’t eat or drink what might be on the surface and your chances of survival off the ship would be slim to none if you couldn't be found within a very short time. At night, with no moon, it can give one pause as to the possibilities of rescue. Hey, they still can't find that Malaysia 777 Airliner have they! So we put our faith in all the modern technology to keep us safe. Wait a minute….isn't that what they said about the Titanic?

First time in Bermuda and first time for an overnight port. We scheduled a water tour and snorkel adventure. This little beauty is still a “British Overseas Territory” wayyyyy out in the Atlantic about 640 miles to the nearest US point of land (Cape Hatteras). Originally discovered by the Spanish in 1503, some Portuguese guys got shipwrecked around 1543 and were the sole residents until the British Virginia Company established the first permanent settlement in 1609 and the British just hung on to it to this day.

Bermuda is the result of a volcanic caldera which gave it it’s shape as a kind of fish hook with the high points of the caldera making up the land mass. It is small…about 26 square miles with about 64 miles of beaches some, on the south shores, appear pink as the result of the pink coral shavings from tidal surges mixing with the white sand giving a pink hue. Very cool.

Our tour guide Zander (cool name) and the whole crew of the
Restless Native were native Bermudians. He told us the island is rather secluded from the normal Caribbean style of island and rather exclusive. As you can imagine, it’s kind of expensive to live here. But the average income is around $100,000 and the typical home is worth $1.5 million. We were surprised to hear tourism was  only 10% of their GDP. They don’t make anything here except money. The most prevalent businesses here are (of course) banking and reinsurance. Yeah, I didn’t get that either.
Reinsurance Companies buy other insurance companies policies to spread the risk of high dollar clients over more than one company in case of catastrophic loss. Kind of like the secondary Mortgage market, buying riskier mortgages as investments to keep a particular mortgage company’s portfolio healthier so it’s stockholders or investors stay happy (yeah…we all care about that!).

We got into the cool water and kicked around for about an hour just so we could get out and get to drink the alcohol. Yep, no drinkies until after the death-defying swimming with the fish. I must report the Swizzle and Dark and Stormy rum drinks were awesome. A Bermuda national drink, Rum Swizzle a mixture of local Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, pineapple, orange juice and their Ginger Beer, are quite refreshing and worth a try. The Ginger Beer adds a little effervescence and just a hint of spice as it hits the back of your throat. Really tasty.

The next day came bright and cool and another full day on the beach I like to refer to as the “shopping day”. We woke late (cause we were pooped out from yesterdays snorkel adventure and drinking binge) which made debarking easy because everybody with an excursion had already left. So we took the shuttle around the Naval Dockyard and wandered the shops looking for……stuff. Hanging, knick-knack, skin refreshing, cute, grandson wearing stuff. We did four hours and about a hundred dollars an hour all told.

The surrounding buildings we walked through were all built around 1860 to 1867 as the British established a Naval way-station for their Navy and ships headed for the Americas. There’s a prison from which the British got their labor force with an equal number of slaves to develop their base and a Vituallary (yes Doug..that's where the word Vittles comes from) where food and supplies were prepared and warehoused for resupplying ships passing through . It was the staging area for the Naval Blockade of America during the War of 1812 and was where the troops who attacked and burned the White House in 1814 departed from, the first of the only two times America was invaded by foreign troops (correct Frank….the Japanese hit the Aleutian Islands on June 6th, 1942 landing on Kiska Island).

Although used continuously from 1795 to 1995 it’s focus changed as on-board refrigeration and food preservatives became more common but the base was very busy during World War II as a radio relay station for convoys and stop overs for Naval Warships looking for U-Boats. The British military finally moved out of Bermuda in 1958 turning over most of the Crown’s property to the local government. Parts of the base were still occupied by elements of the Canadian Navy and US military until 1995.

Buildings in the Dockyard are typical of most dwellings in Bermuda where water is still a precious commodity. All have wide slightly pitched whitewashed roofs (limestone slate in the older homes) which, by law, must recover all run off to a central tank or cistern for purification and home use. There are some wells and they can be used for everything except drinking. The government does collect water as well and supplements the home collected water. Their entire water supply is completely dependent on the amount of rain they get. And….get this America…you’re only allowed one (that’s ONE) automobile per household. On an 26 square mile island with 65,000 people on it. It’s probably prudent.

Buildings ride out hurricanes and storms well in that most are constructed of the islands natural coral limestone which is quarried around the islands. Their inner wood construction for many early homes is the Bermuda Cedar tree. When early settlers came to Bermuda, it was covered with Bermuda Cedar. They harvested the wood for all types of construction from shipbuilding to furniture making and by 1627, they had practically deforested the islands causing the local government to restrict the use of the wood to shipbuilding. Luckily, by the 1850s, shipbuilding moved to iron and steel so the forests slowly recovered to where, although it is still scarce and expensive, the wood is still used in high-end interior woodwork and furnishings. Because of that, it’s very strong aroma in a home is often associated with wealth.

Before we got back to the ship (before our money ran out), we (I) got hungry and we stopped at the Dockyard Pastry Shop for lunch. Dianna had the Avocado sandwich and I had the Vegetable Panini. Both extra good with lots of fresh Avocado in Dianna’s sandwich. Dessert was a chocolate “Pyramid Tart” with two different chocolate mousse layers and a chocolate cake roof. Soooo good! Two thumbs up if you don’t mind the upscale cost (hey…everything in this burg is expensive) they all claim it’s the import costs of everything. It will definitely set you back some.