Thursday, December 6, 2018

Day 883 to 909 of the Third Voyage: In which while normal people buy a t-shirt to commemorate their travels, the Deck Boss collects body parts.

Lest you think that all we do is fix things in the morning, huddle in front the AC during the heat of the afternoon, then stand around in a swimming pool from four to six imbibing in two-for-one cocktails while bitching about boat repairs and the heat, we do in fact engage in other activities.

For instance, the Captain and I volunteered to “teach” English-conversation classes as part of a program started by some local expats. I use the term “teach” loosely because basically all we did was follow a weekly themed curriculum (on topics such as work, food, travel, health, etc.), help the students with their pronunciation and comprehension, and then banter back and forth to get them comfortable speaking English in a social setting.  We were a bit nervous at first because A) as noted above, we’re not teachers and B) our (and by “our” I mean “my”) Spanish skills leave a lot to be desired. Case in point…I’m constantly mixing up “vacio” and “vaca”, but by now our water-delivery guy knows that when I say, “the tank is a cow” what I really mean to say is “the tank is empty.” You know, that kind of stuff. But I think the kids got a kick out of the fact that most of the volunteers had minimal (aka “just enough to get by”) Spanish-speaking abilities. They liked correcting our pronunciation or helping us find a corresponding word in Spanish and I think it helped them to realize that it’s okay if you’re not fluent so long as everybody sort of understands one another. Proficiency comes later. (And with some of us…much, much later. If at all.)

Most of the kids ranged from tween to early twenties and you had to admire their dedication. Although the classes were free of charge, attendance was required in order to graduate, so they came after school, before work, in-between jobs…rain, shine, or monsoon, all desiring to learn English to improve their employment prospects. These were kids whose aspirations ranged from teachers and pilots to professional chefs and charter boat captains. One 12-year old boy, dressed in neat jeans and an ironed white shirt, said his dream job was to be an “agricultural engineer” and that he planned to own a farm with a sizable field, a barn, eight cows and two horses by the time he was 20.  Given his determination, I don’t doubt that.

At the end of the 10-week program, we held a graduation ceremony at the Rosy Mar restaurant that had so graciously allowed us to use their space for the classes. Each student got up in front of the crowd of family and friends, introduced themselves, and gave a short speech in English on a topic of their choosing before being presented with a certificate and an English-Spanish dictionary. They all then sang the CCR song, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” (apropos given that it was rainy season and we had just come off of a week where we got 30+ inches) before it was time to dig into papusas and cake.

Pictured: First graduating class. Future president of El Salvador is in the first row, second from the left.

Most all of the cruisers were there, and we brought along the Deck Boss so she could meet the kids and see first-hand what we had been doing with our Wednesdays. As the festivities wound down around seven, we put her in a car to go back to Bahia del Sol and, as there was limited room in the vehicle, the Captain and I walked the mile or so to the estuary to catch the panga back to the marina. It was in the middle of the mooring field, dropping off some of the other cruisers, that the message came through on my phone saying that “Jan had fallen” accompanied by this picture:

Deck Boss Down.

By the time we got to the marina and up to the hotel lobby where they had taken her, a couple of the other cruisers had gotten her cleaned up and two others—one a nurse by trade and the other in construction (aka a trauma specialist)—were on their way to assess the sizeable gash above her forehead. Technically, she should have gone to the emergency room for stitches and to be thoroughly checked out. And had we been back in Barra or Puerto Vallarta, we totally would have. But here, the nearest clinic is in the town of Zacatacaluca—about an hour away—and, unlike the tourist towns of Mexico, the likelihood of someone speaking enough English to fill in the gaps of our meager Spanish made this course of action extremely daunting. So when Lucy, the nurse, determined that some butterfly tape and bandages should suffice until we had time to assess the damage, we went with it. In hindsight, this was a good decision.

Besides, she looks okay. Right?

Now when she fell, she fell hard. She sustained the gash on her forehead, a nasty cut on her hand, and was experiencing some pain in her right leg, which makes sense when you choose to fall on some sharp rocks and not, say, on a grassy lawn.

Pictured: The opposite of a soft landing.

The hotel lent us a wheelchair to get her down to the boat and with the help of our fellow cruisers, we got her up and onto the boat. Moving around inside was easier because if there’s one thing a boat has, it’s lots and lots of handholds. The next day, she was stiff and sore. By that evening, she was starting to experience pain in her leg. By Monday it was obvious that the pain was getting worse. On Tuesday morning, we took her to Hospital Diagnostica in San Salvador, arguably the best private hospital in the city, and awaited Dr. Pablo, who is technically a cardiologist, but is unofficially the go-to physician to the gringos. While she was being examined by the emergency room staff and having her head stitched up, Dr Pablo arranged for an orthopedist to come check out her leg.

Now pretty much from the get-go, the Captain kept saying, “She’s broken her hip.” The Deck Boss was inclined to believe him, but I kept holding out. She was getting around okay, nothing seemed to be protruding or otherwise looking weird, and the pain was to be expected given that she had fallen into a rock garden. But he kept insisting, and when I asked him why he thought this, he replied, “All old people break their hips. It’s just what they do.” And I’m thinking, “Well…that’s just a cliché. Next you’ll be telling me that all cruisers do is fix shit, stand around in swimming pools drinking two-for-one cocktails, and bitch about the heat. Oh, wait. Shit.”

And damned if he wasn’t right.

According to the x-rays, it was evident that something had cracked and/or the ball had fallen out of the socket and/or whatever it is when hips break. I don’t know; my mind was going a million miles an hour, but it came to a screeching halt when the orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Zeledon, announced, “She has to have surgery to replace the hip. I’ve scheduled her for this afternoon.” Wait. What? Next thing I know, she’s being wheeled off for blood tests, an EKG, and additional x-rays, and I’m being whisked away to sign papers and put down a deposit. And here is where healthcare south of the border differs from the US. Back in the States, the patient fills out a complete medical history, a list of medications, insurance forms, privacy statements, record release forms, etc. etc. etc.  And if the patient is really lucky, they get to go through the same rigamarole at the hospital prior to the surgery. You know what they had for the Deck Boss?  Her name, date of birth, a copy of her passport, and the Captain’s cell phone number. The 3-page form I initialed and signed was all in Spanish and to the best of my knowledge stated that I was her representative, that we gave the surgeon full authority to do what needed to be done, that we understood the inherent risks associated with surgery, and that we would pay the bill prior to her being discharged from the hospital. Aside from asking if she was allergic to any medications, no other information was asked or given. Editor’s Note: Such are the dangers of limited Spanish skills. I guess if she went in for a hip replacement and came out with an extra leg and a bionic arm, I’d have no one to blame but myself.

And at precisely three o’clock that afternoon—four hours after having arrived at the clinic—they wheeled her away for surgery. After an hour in surgery and two hours in recovery—they wheeled her into her private room where we were waiting. And about this room…it was large—200 square feet I’m thinking—and in addition to the hospital bed, was furnished with a recliner, flat screen tv, daybed, large bathroom with a walk-in shower, tons of storage, individually-controlled AC, mini-fridge, and private access to a balcony overlooking San Salvador. Seriously. The Deck Boss was, understandably, completely out of it, and unable to appreciate her surroundings, but the Captain and I were impressed. At this point, an orderly came and asked when I’d like the daybed made up with sheets and this is when we discovered another way that healthcare here differs from outside the US. Namely, a member of the family is required to stay with the patient as a caregiver. Wait. What?

Twelve years ago, at a hospital in Everett, WA—back when the Deck Boss destroyed her leg for the first time—she came back from surgery, was pumped up full of morphine, then the nurses sent me on my way and told me to come back the next morning during visiting hours. That’s not the case here. Here, the nurses make their regular rounds to check vitals and administer the scheduled meds, but a family member is expected to watch over the patient and alert the staff if any additional care is needed, which, in my case, consisted of frequently contacting the nurses’ station to request more pain meds. Because there’s no morphine here to speak of, only Tramadol. And whereas Tramadol is a narcotic in the oxycontin family, it doesn’t pack the punch of what they give you in the States. On the one hand, it means that El Salvador doesn’t have the opioid epidemic like the one plaguing the States. But on the other, it’s probable that that first 24 hours after major surgery will be a little uncomfortable. Luckily, the nursing staff was very accommodating and didn’t even laugh at me when I called to tell them that the IV bag was a cow and needed to be replaced with a full one. Because did I mention that none of the nurses spoke English? Not that I expected them to, but as I had no way of knowing that morning that I would be spending the night in a hospital, I didn’t have the basic necessities like warmer clothes, my glasses, and a phone charger. The latter being the most important because of the translation app on my phone, which by midnight had gone completely dead. So, by two in the morning, I’m thoroughly exhausted, wearing the Deck Boss’ street clothes over mine to combat the chill of the hospital room, painfully squinting through calcifying contact lenses, and trying to conjure up enough Spanish to supplement the frantic pantomimes I was using to communicate. By four in the morning, I could easily have been mistaken for an escapee from the psych ward. But my discomfort was nothing compared to the Deck Boss’ as it took several hours to get the pain meds dialed in to where she could finally sleep.

But true to the doctor’s word, by the next morning she was able to put a little weight on her leg, and by mid-afternoon—roughly 24 hours after surgery—was discharged. We spent the next week with our friends, Lin and Lou, at their house up from the marina so that the Deck Boss could recuperate where the rooms weren’t so bouncy, then it was back to the boat after a positive follow-up with the doctor. A week later, the staples were removed and that was that…with one exception. Dr Zeledon explained that she shouldn’t have any problems with the new hip, provided she doesn’t fall. So, she is now the proud owner of one of those rolling walker things with the handbrakes and the seat for when you get tired. We got her one in blue (to match the boat) and were pleasantly surprised to find that the storage container below the seat will comfortably hold a six pack. All it needs now is a cup holder and she’ll be set.

Now I’d like to say that that was the end of our adventures in orthopedics, but I’d be wrong. Because when she fell, she also landed hard on her bad knee and effectively undid all the good that the stem-cell procedure two years prior had accomplished. So, it looks like she’ll be adding a new knee to her collection right after the holidays, and it looks like we’ll be extending our stay in El Salvador until next spring. Which is okay really. Because if something else goes wrong, I think she’ll qualify for a bulk discount.

Postscript:  For those keeping track at home, here’s how much it costs to get a hip replaced in El Salvador…

The surgeon: $2500
The anesthesiologist and OR nurses: $1400
All other doctors and specialists (Dr. Pablo, ER doctor, X-ray techs, etc.): $658.5
Body parts: $1012.92
Everything else (tests, labs, meds, hospital stay, nursing services): $2057.19
Grand total:  $7,628.61
I had to put down a $3,000 deposit prior to the surgery and pay the balance before her discharge. All in all, not a bad deal. Even without the third leg and bionic arm.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Day 793 to 882 of the Third Voyage: In which the inevitable has happened…Raven has sent someone to the emergency room.

Ah, the glamorous life!  Exotic ports of call, fruity drinks by the pool, exploding toilets. Seriously. Exploding toilets. Don’t ever envy our lifestyle unless you get a perverse kick out of backed up plumbing in extremely small spaces, because if you own a boat it’s inevitable that you’ll have to deal with your head and a head is not quite like a toilet. A toilet kind of implies that there are solid pipes laid out in a (somewhat) logical format, lots of water to flush through those pipes, and a reasonable expectation that what starts out in the bowl will end up deposited in a sewer or septic tank and well away from your domicile. On a boat there are hoses that wiggle waggle unseen and inaccessible throughout the dark recesses of the bilge, just enough water to maybe flush something through this roller coaster, and a reasonable expectation that at some point you’ll need to dissect the whole system to find out why nothing is getting from Point A to Point B (and hopefully before it starts to smell.)  We’ve had the displeasure of doing this several times over the past few years, and it just never gets fun. Not even in hindsight. Because no matter how many times you fix a head, it will crap out again and oftentimes in a spectacular manner. 
As you may have guessed by now, one of our heads is “acting up”, which is a more genteel way of saying, “the shitters gone south again, and it’s taken the last of our dignity along with it.” Because the engine may let you down, the generator may disappoint you, and sketchy electrical systems will bum you out, but nothing smacks of betrayal more than your poop deck blowing chunks at you.  Editor’s Note:  Just out of curiosity, I did a query of how many times I’ve mentioned the head in this blog. The answer was, “There are too many results to show here.”  If MS Word has given up, imagine how we feel.
These things always start innocently enough. The pump handle at the bowl starts to get sticky, then it gets stiff, then it gets downright impossible to move. Generally, this is caused by worn duck bills, frayed membranes, and/or “build up” in the pump unit and/or hoses.  And yes, “build up” is exactly what you think it is only in calcified form. But no matter what the problem, it’s guaranteed to be a nasty, disgusting, and every other synonym for “shitty” job. Literally. Our first foray into the world of hazardous head repair was in July 2015 in the “Port That Must Not Be Named” in the purgatory known as Canada which, in hindsight, was apropos given the circumstances of the place. The first lesson we learned? Never—under any circumstances—run out of latex gloves. We buy them in bulk now. Upon our return to Seattle, we got to work on the other head. This was followed by various tweaks to both heads during the journey down the West Coast. By the time we got to San Diego, we got smart and just started hiring it out. And that’s exactly what we did earlier this year when we hauled out in La Cruz—we hired a guy to remove, clean, and reinstall the pumps and flush out all the hoses. We should have been good for a while, and yet here we are—a mere six months later— and it’s dawning on us that he didn’t do such a bang-up job if he did in fact do anything at all. Editor’s Note:  If I could, I’d go back to La Cruz, track down this “plumber” and chuck our whole sanitation system directly at his head for the trouble he has caused us these past few weeks. Lucky for him they don’t allow hazardous materials on the airplane.
But I digress…
Our head system is a Henderson—which is a type of manual pump. In theory, you close the lid, pump the handle, and it creates a massive suction that seals the lid shut, pulls the contents from the bowl, shoves it through the pump, forces it through a long length of hose, and then deposits it into a holding tank. At the same time, it pulls seawater in through another hose to refill the bowl.  If one part of the process breaks down, it brings the whole thing to a grinding halt.
The first step to troubleshooting a head is to disconnect the hose from the pump—which in this case did not go well. To spare you from forming a visual image in your mind—and because I have exhausted my thesaurus—I have omitted the more graphic details of what transpired, but have left in the audio…

“Oh God, no! Put it back, put it back, put it back!”
“It won’t go back! Towels! Towels! Towels!”
“Get a bung, get a bucket, get anything!”
“Plug it! Plug it! Plug it!”
“Holy shit. What just happened?”
“I don’t know. It just…I just…oh Lord that was awful.”
“Uh oh, don’t look down. Don’t look down!”
(Quietly) “It’s on me, isn’t it?”
“I told you not to look down. Don’t move, don’t move. Gah! I said don’t move!”
“Where’s the Purell? I need Purell!”
“You’re beyond that. You need bleach. Now take those off. Careful!! Put them in this bag. Careful!”
“Otter! No!” 

I wish I could say that was the worst part of it, but the stench said otherwise. 

At this point, the Captain was able to remove the pump—with some difficulty I might add, because it was obviously “the more screws, the merrier” day at the manufacturer’s and “how much room should we put between the pump and the wall? Half an inch? Don’t you think that’s a bit too generous?” day at the builder’s. I then took the pump out onto the dock and proceeded to spend the next two hours soaking, scrubbing, scraping, beating, cajoling, and every other manner of “ing” in an effort to remove the “build up” from inside the pump. The Captain, meanwhile, tried his best to clear out the hose which went up, down, around, backwards, and forwards all within the confines of a one-foot by two-foot cabinet and which absolutely refused to budge more than three inches in any direction. Over the course of the next couple hours, he poured in baking soda, vinegar, boiling water, and—finally—copious amounts of Drano, to loosen the offal inside then utilized a plumber’s snake, a steel rod, a clothes hanger, and a fish hook on a stick in an attempt to dislodge the “build up” before finally giving up and hitting it with a hammer and blasting it with air from a compressor. Now here’s the kicker…with each dislodging attempt, some newly liquified “build up” would begrudgingly sludge its way up and out of the hose like Hell’s own Play-Doh Fun Factory resulting in yet another round of the audio transcribed above. Editor’s Note: If the Captain survives this ordeal without a severe case of PTSD and a raging case of hepatitis, it will be a blooming miracle. But finally, the sludge abated, and water seemed to be going through. The newly-cleaned pump was put back on, the hose reattached, and….it not only didn’t work, but it now leaked like a sieve. And what water it did retain, backed up into the bowl and proceeded to stink up the place even worse than when we started. It became obvious that there was still “build up” in sections of the hose that we couldn’t get to and we decided it would probably behoove us to just replace the whole thing. We contacted Willy, our mechanic, because we knew he’d be able to procure us some new hose. Two weeks later*, he arrived with the hose and—to our pleasant surprise—a team of workers ready to install it. Did it go well? No. It did not.

*Yes, it took over two weeks to procure the right hose. Two weeks of three people sharing one head aka Exhibit A at Family Court.

Now had they been able to extract the existing hose from its confines, all would have been peachy. But it would not budge. Best we can tell, there is approximately 10 feet of hose that traverses from the pump in the bathroom to the y-valve underneath the floorboards in the hallway--about four feet away. Three feet of this hose is stuffed into the cabinet under the sink; two feet is visible at the y-valve. The extra five feet is crammed lower intestine-style underneath the shower and is—short of taking a jigsaw to the floor—not accessible. We also suspect it had been zip-tied in several points along its journey, rendering it virtually immovable. Simply put, removing and replacing the existing hose was not an option at this time. It would have to be cleaned out.

With that, Jose disconnected the hose from the pump while Jorge disconnected the other end from the y-valve. They positioned two buckets at either end of the exposed hose and readied a garden hose that they had attached to the dock spigot outside and snaked through the boat into our cabin. They then filled the hose with muriatic acid, waited a few minutes, turned the water on full force, and blasted it through one end and out the other. The first go-round yielded sludge, small rocks, full-grown mussels, and what may or may not have been a corncob. On the second round, the hose pooped out another hose which I thought was weird until I realized it had finally dislodged the “build up” that had been coating the walls. At this point, water was running freely along the length of the hose and we were going to call it good until someone uttered that fateful phrase, “we should do it one more time…for good measure.”

At this point, I’d like to go on the record as saying that neither the Captain nor myself advocated this “good measure” idea. We were ecstatic that the hose was finally clean and eager to get on to the next phase of the project aka fully functioning head (and hopefully before the pervasive odor necessitated burning the drapes.) But the guys were gung ho and, emboldened by their previous success, proceeded to fill up the hose with muriatic acid, plug up both ends this time, shake it around a bit, and before anyone could say “Basic Chemistry 101” the acid became gaseous, quickly pressurized, and exploded out both ends sending the plugs flying and acid spewing out all over the cabin and—horrifyingly—right into Jorge’s face. What happened next was a blur of activity. The sink in the bathroom was too small and we couldn’t get his head under the faucet, so we got him outside and under the dock water spigot. Unfortunately, the dock water has a high salt content, which only seemed to make things worse so while Willy took him up to the resort to stick his head into the swimming pool, the Captain and I went back to the boat to help Jose who was desperately hosing down the entire cabin before the acid ate away the varnish, burned holes in the upholstery, and melted any man-made fabrics. Half hour later and Jorge is on his way to the emergency room, Jose is mopping up water, the Captain is triaging items that were blasted by acid, and I’m trying to salvage the laundry which took a direct hit. The whole cabin smells like chlorine, salt, and open sewer because on top of this small disaster, we still have exposed plumbing. Once everything was cleaned up, we reinstalled the pump, reattached the hose and….it didn’t work. This is when we discovered that the pump itself had developed a small crack at the back and was no longer operational. The silver lining to this shitcloud is that Jorge did not suffer any serious or lasting injury. The doctor further rinsed his eyes with a special solution, gave him some balm, and told him to take it easy for three days. The only permanent damage done is that to his psyche. In the meantime, we got to take it not so easy and wait about three weeks* for a new head pump to show up.

*Yes, it took almost three weeks for the pump to arrive. That’s more than a month of three people sharing one head aka the arraignments are next week.

That’s the pump peeking out from behind the head. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with its placement…until you install the toilet. I guess it could be less accessible. It could be outside.

The offending hose runs from the head on the right, underneath the floorboards, to the y-valve under the sole to the left of the door. Ten fricking feet of hose. Because of course you want your poop to take the scenic route.

The new hose. Someday it will go in. Or else we’ll just build a new boat around it. That’s obviously what they did before.

This might be a good time to talk about shipping…and world politics. I always used to think that first world and third world monikers were indicative of a country’s quality of life—GDP and indoor plumbing and all that. Come to find out, the term “First World” refers to those countries that aligned with the US during the Cold War while everyone who backed Russia were classified as “Second World”. The “Third World” was simply all those countries that could really care less. But now we have the new global marketplace and the criteria is more shipping-based…the First World is everyone with Amazon Prime, the Second World can generally expect delivery within a week, and the Third World could really care less if you get your package or not, so long as someone pays the duty on it.

The Captain and I had some bikes shipped to El Salvador a few months ago. We would have bought local, but the average Salvadoran is a good foot shorter than the Captain and we couldn’t find a frame that didn’t make him look like a chimp on a low rider trike. We found a great deal on some bikes in Germany, made the purchase, and then diligently tracked our shipment every thirty minutes (aka the online equivalent of repeatedly pressing the elevator button in the hopes that it will arrive faster.) The bikes were picked up by DHL at the vendor’s facility in Germany, loaded onto a flight in Frankfurt, changed planes in Miami, arrived in El Salvador the next day, admitted into customs, generated some paperwork, and then promptly got lost in the system.

Why? Because even though DHL advertises door-to-door delivery, what they actually do is bring the package into the country, hand it off to the locals, and then hope for the best. In this instance, DHL delivered our bikes to the Salvadoran Postal Service who promptly assigned them new tracking numbers, which sounds efficient but only if all the other parties are brought into the loop. Which they weren’t. DHL didn’t have the new tracking numbers. We certainly didn’t. And the Salvadorans couldn’t find the packages without them. Luckily, some friends here know one of the local postmasters who after considerable effort procured the tracking numbers and discovered that the bikes were being held in customs (Aduana) at the main post office in San Salvador, pending payment of duties. And thus began the battle for the bikes. Because you can’t just go into customs, present your paperwork, pay your duty, and assume you will take possession of your package. Oh no. Get ready. Because here are the top five reasons why you won’t get your package today…

It’s not here. The Aduana agent proclaimed this while eyeballing a room not exactly crammed with packages when, in fact, we could clearly see a large box against a back wall in the office that says, “Bicycles” and “Product of Germany” on it. To get around this, we asked him to check the tracking numbers on his computer. He does, he frowns, he looks around, he spots the box, he takes a wand over to it, scans the paperwork, returns to his computer and says, “Hey! There it is!”

The name on the package does not 100% match the name on your ID. “Sorry, *looks at Passport* Neil Aaron Armand, but the label clearly states this is for someone named Neil A. Armand.” I can’t release the package to you. To get around this, we had to fill out a form verifying that he was the same person, go to one of the makeshift kiosks behind the post office to make photocopies of the form, and submit two copies along with a 150%-sized copy of the Captain’s passport.

You don’t have a copy of the packing slip currently on the box. We tried to explain that this was an internet order from the other side of the world and that it just wasn’t feasible to have the green portion of a three-part carbon copy manifest. To get around this, we had to go to one of the makeshift kiosks to access a computer and print out a page from the bike manufacturer’s website showing their name and address at the top and our name and address at the bottom and submit two copies along with a 150%-sized copy of the Captain’s passport.

You do not have the invoice currently attached to the package. Yes, you read that right. We had a bill of sale from the company in Germany showing the order number, product description, color, quantity, cost, and price paid but could not verify that it matched the invoice attached to the box because they would not open the shipping pouch to look at it. Why? Because we couldn’t provide an invoice to prove the package was ours, even though we had just established that the packing slip was valid. This is when we learned that in Aduana-land, a bill of sale is not an invoice, especially when you don’t know what the invoice looks like. To get around this, we had to fill out a form verifying that we were certain that our bill of sale would match the invoice, go to one of the makeshift kiosks behind the post office to make photocopies of the form and submit two copies along with a 150%-sized copy of the Captain’s passport.

The value of the shipment is over $500 and therefore requires the services of a customs broker. This is where things get hazy because common sense would say that the value should be of the item itself--and the bikes were valued at $425—but the customs agent insisted that the $60 we paid in shipping was part of the value, as was the Salvadoran sales tax he was going to levy on it, putting us at a grand total of $517. Luckily, there is a thriving community of customs brokers operating out of makeshift kiosks behind the post office. Unfortunately, we’d spent so much time getting to this point that the Aduana office was closing for the day.

Day two did not go much better. The Captain returned to Aduana with our friend, Ernesto, acting as interpreter to ascertain why we needed to hire a broker when the value was technically under $500, but that we would be happy to pay the duty on the sales tax if it would mean getting our package. The agent seemed receptive until the supervisor got involved. Needless to say, a broker was engaged. And needless to say, the broker was made to jump through the exact same hoops as we were in regard to recipient names, packing slips, invoices, and paperwork. Although the broker did get one step closer. He almost got to pay the duty. Of course, by the time he had the payment form in his hand to take to the bank, everything was closed. End of the day…still no bikes. Just frustration.

See what I mean about a battle? Of course, when dealing with Salvadoran Aduana, it’s more of a war of attrition. Because it would take Ernesto and the broker THREE MORE TRIPS to customs to finally get our bikes (at this point, we had gone to Miami to extend our visas where, ironically, we found out upon our return that could bring in a LOT more stuff on our person through the airport—including a welder! —without anyone in customs even batting an eye.) We were told after the fact that had each bike been packaged separately—bringing the value of each way below the $500 threshold—that we wouldn’t have had any problems. But I’m not so sure. Because we had some minor welder parts shipped to us under warranty—value was shipping only—and we still spent over three hours shuffling back and forth between DHL, the various service kiosks, and the customs warehouse only to reach the “inspecting the merchandise” stage before finally giving up and walking away. Why? Because when the agent told us he would retape the box, complete the paperwork, and get us on our way “as soon as he returned from his lunch break” we basically told him he could stick that package where the sun don’t shine. And by we, I mean Ernesto. Because why else would you bring an interpreter to customs if not to convey what you’re really thinking?

So back to our head. We had the new pumps shipped via Aeroposte which is truly door-to-door. It costs a lot more, but the price includes shipping, all import duties, and the guy they hire to fight with Aduana for six days. But it was well worth it, because at least we didn’t have to spend our entire summer sitting in customs. But I guess it wasn’t all bad…at least their toilet worked.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Day 783 to 793 of the Third Voyage: In which we decide to try the “other cruising” and let someone else do the driving for a change.

Prior to becoming cruisers (as in people who live on boats with dreams of seeing the world, but instead spend most of their time fixing things so they can make it another twenty miles before breaking down again), we were cruisers (as in people who vacation on cruise ships where the likelihood of breaking down is infinitely smaller but if you do, it’s someone else’s problem.)

The first cruise the Deck Boss and I went on was back in 1977—the same year that the Love Boat debuted. Back then, the ships were much smaller—maybe 450-500 passengers—and they still looked “shiply” as opposed to today’s megamonsters that resemble skyscrapers that were tipped over on their side and barged out to sea. Today’s ships carry so many passengers, that you rarely see the same person twice (unless he struts around with his own theme music, in which case you see him every day.) But back in the early days, it was more of an intimate experience where you got to know people and it was not uncommon to hobnob with officers of the ship up to and including the captain, although he tended to be more grizzled Norwegian mariner and less Murray from the Mary Tyler Moore Show.  The cabins were tiny—smaller than our aft cabin on Raven—and there were no balconies, settees, and minifridges. There was one main dining room, a couple of bars, a big lounge, and a shop that sold toiletries and souvenirs sporting the ship’s logo. In lieu of the Broadway-caliber shows they have now, entertainment consisted of lounge singers, second-string comedians, and whatever talent the crew possessed. On the final day at sea, passengers were given access to artsy/craftsy items and invited to participate in a costume contest for the amusement of everyone else. And when my dad rolled up his pant legs, donned a construction paper tutu and wings, walked out on stage as a bargain-basement tooth fairy, and proclaimed in his best Groucho Marx voice, “For these rates, you were expecting George Burns?”, he instantly became my hero for life. (He won the contest, in case you were wondering.)

Nowadays, it’s all about volume. How many people/restaurants/bars/shops/activities you can fit on one ship. And if you need more of those things to one-up your competitors, just build a bigger ship. If your competitor’s ship carries 3600 passengers, you’d better up the ante by at least 10% (20% if you’re a real player.) If they put in a water park, build a bigger one and add a ropes course. They’ll then see your water park and ropes course and raise you a boardwalk, shark tank, and roller coaster.  Editor’s Note: One ship currently plying the seas has a skating rink, so you just know there’s a ship designer somewhere trying to figure out where to incorporate a small ski hill and a Yeti encounter. But that’s not to say the new cruise ships don’t have their place in the world. Sure, they may be huge and loud and full of humanity, but you still get to sample exotic ports of call, eat yourself silly, and (hopefully) relax. Because no matter how big a ship is, it’s still possible to find your own quiet corner of a bar to read, play cards, or just stare out at the endless expanse of sea (mainly because the other 3,960 passengers are jockeying for a spot by the pool.) By consensus, we all still prefer the smaller ships, but as far as vacations go, it’s still a great way to travel. And since it was a cruise ship that got us into our current situation (reference the blog entry titled, “The Eve of the 2nd Voyage”), we thought it might be fun to see what kind of mischief a second one would lead to.

Of course, one can handle only so much mischief at a time.

But, as someone once said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So, at this point, I’d like to send a shout out to our new least favorite airline, American, for making sure that first step started out on the wrong foot. So, here’s the scenario…I booked our tickets a good month in advance. They knew we were coming. They knew we were travelling together. So why do we get on board and find a woman with a small child sitting in the Captain’s aisle seat? Because American booked a family of six—a mother, a grandmother, two school-age kids, one baby and one toddler—into four seats and then insisted that the family “must stay together” and that the Captain would have to move so that the grandmother/toddler could sit across from the others. Like they couldn’t figure this out during the reservation/seat assignment stage? What about our family? Do we not rate? Now maybe this seems petty to you, but here’s the kicker…the Captain received free drinks during the flight for the “inconvenience” of having to move. Excuse me? Who was inconvenienced? The Deck Boss and I were the ones that had to sit next to a screaming, squirming toddler for three hours. Where was our free booze? They didn’t even offer a replacement when the wine we paid for was kicked off the tray table by the kid after she had a meltdown when her video stalled. At the very least, where were our complimentary headphones to muffle out the soul-sickening sounds of Elmo en Espanol? Petty? Maybe. But given the cost of a ticket and the expectation of a journey that doesn’t look, sound, and smell like Romper Room on a hot afternoon, I think we’re entitled to be a bit perturbed.

Of course, we were a little agitated even before we set foot on the plane having spent an hour going through the various stages of security in the San Salvador airport aka the “just doing my job-athon”.  Now I get why security is tight and I understand why they must take precautions, so when the security officer asked where my “encendedor” was, I shouldn’t have been surprised except for the fact that I don’t own a lighter. But he had seen it on the scanner, so it must be there. He then proceeded to rummage through my tray, inspect all the contents of my purse and “liquids baggy”, open a bottle of contact lens solution (?), and turn my iPad over and over looking for the offending lighter. He finally gave up, grabbed the Deck Boss’ carry on (?) and herded us over to the inspection table. Everything came out. No lighter. But what’s this? Cuticle nippers? No es permiso. And this? A nail file? No es permiso. And into the trash they went. We repacked and headed for the gate where we got to go through the second security checkpoint. Here, they searched my purse again, pulled out my boat key and we played 21 questions: “What is this? What does it open? What else does it open? Are you sure this is a key? What did you say it opened? Where is the thing that this opens?” And on and on. Finally satisfied with my answers, they turned to the Deck Boss’ purse, pulled out her boat key (identical to mine), asked the same questions, hemmed and hawed, and then sent us on our way. The Captain, meanwhile, had his lighter confiscated. So, to recap…back at the main circus tent, they tossed the Deck Boss’ bag searching for an item they think they saw in my tray for something that went through in the Captain’s backpack. That’s efficiency Salvadoran style! But, in their defense, they did get the job done which is more than TSA can say. Editor’s Note: In case you were wondering, yes…disposable lighters are allowed on airplanes now, although we have found that they still get confiscated about 25% of the time. In other words, we’re pretty sure security approval is revoked when it’s time to go on a smoke break. But whatever. It’s the modern age of security where every old lady with a manicure kit is really a terrorist and Linda the “air hostess” is really Tom Cruise in a latex mask. He’s been instructed to “stop this plane at any cost” up to and including a hard landing on the Vegas Strip because simply snatching an octogenarian off the street would attract too much attention.
Your cuticles or your life!

Pictured:  Boat Key. To be fair…as far as keys go, it is pretty impressive. Besides Raven, it will also unlock the door to any airplane cockpit, the White House, Ft Knox, and Tom Cruise’s summer home. The floatie-fob converts into a mini-sub. 

But I digress….Having finally arrived in Miami, we then had to endure almost two hours at immigration and customs and another 45 minutes huffing car fumes waiting for the shuttle before finally arriving at the hotel… thoroughly irritated, light-headed, and snapping at each other. You know, exactly how you want to start a vacation. Luckily, we had set aside all of Saturday to hang with some good friends and see some sights, so we were in a much better frame of mind come cruise time.
On Sunday, we went to meet our ship, NCL’s Getaway. I’d show you a picture, but I neglected to take one. Mainly because it’s fugly. Seriously. If you don’t feel like Googling it, just picture a low-slung, neo-modern apartment block, stick a stubby bow on it, and slap some “art” on the side and you’ve pretty much got it. But since you don’t have to look at it when you’re on it, it doesn’t really matter what it looks like. The inside décor was quite nice and with 21 restaurants, a dozen bars, swimming pools, ropes course, lounges, theaters, arcades, casino, etc. etc. there was plenty to do and see. Passenger count: 3,963 not including crew. 
At this point, I won’t bore you with our day-to-day activities, especially since most of the time was spent decompressing in the various watering holes and stuffing our faces, so please enjoy these craptacular camera-phone photos…

We had been on board all of ten minutes, but as our cabins weren’t ready, the Mixx Bar one floor up seemed the logical place to wait it out. Over the course of the trip, this became our go-to bar in the evenings and we got to be chummy with the bartenders, which was fortuitous when, after a spectacular night of drinking, they had to help me get the Captain upright after he did a Dick Van Dyke and tripped over the furniture slamming into a glass-topped table. He was too far gone to pull off the customary, “Who put that there?” look, but as it was the last night of the cruise, he had nothing to live down. 
Editor’s Note: Since we’ve been on the NCL cruise line numerous times before, we were eligible for certain perks, one of which was an unlimited drinks package which, had they taken a minute to check the bar tabs on our previous cruises, they would have realized was a colossal mistake on their part. They might have broken even on me and the Deck Boss. But with the Captain, they definitely lost money. In fact, I’m pretty sure they had to run into Cozumel and get more rum.
Lifeboat drills:  On smaller ships, your muster station is on deck next to your appointed lifeboat. With 3,963 passengers on board, mustering stations are throughout the public rooms of the ship with the understanding that crew members will lead you to where you need to go in the event of a disaster. Our mustering station was at the Atrium Bar. Because if you’re going to go down, you may as well go down with a nice buzz...
In case of emergency, bring glass.

Meanwhile, back at the cabin…
A staple of all cruise lines, the room stewards like to place a towel animal on your bed in the evenings. Our guy was an awesome dude, but a novice in the art of the towel animal. Either that or he was working on the next generation of Rorschach test. 

This is either an elephant with its head on backwards or the back end of a cat.

And this is either a bunny with mumps, two people discussing geothermal politics, or the back end of a cat.

First port of call…Roatan, Honduras.  When you don’t book a tour and opt to take your chances at a kiosk on the dock, you get this guy…Shelford Dilbert. Don’t let the spit-shine on the twenty-year-old minivan fool you, it was a total POS. The undercarriage was rusted, the upholstery had holes, and when the Captain slid the door closed, half the insulation fell out. But the A/C worked, and Shelford was an excellent guide. We had a blast! He drove us all over the southern half of the island, showed us places only the locals went, took us to an animal sanctuary, bought us local beer, drove us up to the best viewpoint on the island (which happened to be at the rum distillery), and hooked the Deck Boss up with some local noni juice which is supposed to be good for the joints and may just put a little giddy-up in her go. 
At the animal sanctuary. A touching moment between two of the slowest beings on earth.
If you’re going to pull off a monkey suit, do it with confidence.

Sue’s Noni Juice: the cure for whichever of the “300 diseases of the body” ails you.

Second port of call…Harvest Cay, Belize.  Unfortunately, this is not the real Belize, this is a private island that NCL owns and whereas it’s quite nice, it is rather fabricated. There’s a nice beach, a huge swimming pool, t-shirt shops, and restaurants. We checked it out for all of an hour before deciding to head back to the ship and take advantage of the fact that the 3,960 people who are normally jockeying for a place by the pool were now on Harvest Cay jockeying for a spot around that pool. With the ship somewhat deserted, the Captain and I tackled the ropes course. 
If you’re unfamiliar with a ropes course, it’s basically a series of rope bridges, rope walls, thin beams, and all other manner of catwalks that require balance and coordination to successfully cross. Oh…and the course is about 20 feet up in the air, on the 16th deck of the ship, so basically in the stratosphere. Here’s a promo pic from NCL.
In about fifteen seconds, a passing seagull is going to wipe that grin right off his face. 

As you can see from the picture, they insert you into a harness with a long strap up the front, the top of which glides (securely?) along in a track above you, presumably so that if you lose your balance and fall, you’ll hang there like a salami until one the employees can come rescue you. Once on the course, you’re expected to successfully traverse a series of unsteady obstacles despite a stiff wind, a long drop, and an impatient teenager behind you, all the while maintaining some sense of composure. It’s a bit harder than it looks—it takes a lot more muscle strength than expected and it’s amazing how thin and wobbly a rope suddenly gets when it becomes your only conveyance to the next platform. As far as ropes courses go, this certainly isn’t Navy Seals caliber. It probably doesn’t even count toward a merit badge at a scout camp. But when you find yourself inching over a narrow length of rope that’s swaying uneasily underneath you, it’s hard not to feel like a Ninja Warrior. But not the American kind where it’s all about elite fitness. The Japanese version where the legit athletes compete alongside anime cosplayers, C-list celebrities, and some dude dressed as a gummy bear.

The “highlight” of the course is “the plank” as in “walking the plank” as in an eight-foot long by six-inch wide board sticking straight out over the side of the ship. I made it about half way, looked down, gauged the distance between me and the surface of the water, calculated the velocity at which I would ricochet off the top of one the lifeboats, wondered if there’d be anything left to bury, asked myself, “Who the hell am I trying to impress?” and promptly backed up till I reached the safety of the platform.  The Captain, who suffers greatly from acrophobia, walked all the way out to the end, turned around, and walked back. I’m not sure how he managed to pull that off, but I suspect the three rum and cokes he had prior to getting on the course helped. 

Now what they failed to mention at the beginning of the course (looking back, they failed to mention a lot of stuff aside from “keep the strap in front of you” and “try not to fall off”) is that the final obstacle was a zip line from one side of the ship over a three-story chasm behind the smoke stack to a tiny platform on the other side. Now I’ve never done a zip line—careening through space a hundred feet above the ground has never held any appeal. I mean, if the good Lord had meant for us to comfortably fly, he wouldn’t have given us American Airlines. But here I was, and the employee says to me, “Just run off the side.” “I’m sorry, what?” “Just run off the side. But go fast so you don’t get stuck halfway across.” “Oh, F--- that. Can I go back the way I came?” “No. C’mon it’s easy. Just run off the side.” Now I’ve been told to take a flying leap before, but never literally. My mind couldn’t wrap my head around it and my body wasn’t about to go it alone, but there was no other way off the course, and a slew of impatient teenagers had started lining up behind me. So, I did as I was told and ran off the side and screamed my way to the finish line. I don’t think I need to do that again. 

Here's another promo pic from NCL...
Imagine this but with more screaming, swearing, and hyperventilating. I think I was also the first person to do the zip line in a fetal position.

Post ropes course victory round at the Sunset Bar. This was our go-to bar in the late afternoons and where we would inevitably run into “Eastern European Guy”. 

Preface:  In the evenings, they would slip a bulletin under the door with a list of the next day’s activities and other announcements. At the bottom of the front page, in bold letters, it would invariably state, “Please remember that smoking is only permitted in certain areas and to please refrain from audibly playing personal music devices.” … which sounded oddly specific. On our second day, we were enjoying some quite time at the Sunset. The Captain was teaching me cribbage (aka mathsticks) and the Deck Boss was engrossed in her book. Suddenly, in the distance, we heard a guttural rumbling noise and as it neared it got louder and angrier and grittier and then we saw him…six feet of bare chested, gold medallion wearing, Speedo sporting, oily coiffed machismo swaggering through the bar with a small boom box blaring the most obnoxious Polish death metal this side of Warsaw. He looked kind of like a cross between Vladimir Putin and the Southern Comfort Guy. And not in a good way. Despite the daily entreaties on the part of the cruise staff, we saw him loudly parading around. Every. Single. Day. Because surely the bulletin must have been referring to that OTHER guy with the audibly obnoxious soundtrack. To his credit though, out of all the other 3,960 passengers, he’s the only one I remember. So well played, sir.

Third port of call…Costa Maya, Mexico.  We had planned a glass bottom boat/snorkeling tour, but it got cancelled so after a quick perusal of the obviously fabricated Mexican village (albeit in a charming way) at the port, the Captain and I boarded a bus to the nearest town hoping to find a pharmacia.  We had become rather spoiled in Mexico because medications there are cheap. In El Salvador? Not so much. We were hoping to stock up, but alas it was not meant to be. The closest town catered to the tourist trade so the only “pharmacies” were the holes-in-the-wall that sold Viagra, steroids, and Xanax and there wasn’t enough time to get to a proper city. So, we stopped in at a beach bar for a beer but kept the visit short as it was low tide, the exposed kelp was baking in the sun, and the stench was tremendous—like raw sewage with a hint of hot broccoli and cabbage. Not the return to Mexico we were hoping for, but we are still in awe of Mexican ingenuity when it comes to creating revenue streams… 

The proprietress asked if she could take our photo for the bar’s Facebook page. Later, we were presented with this shot glass. We had to buy it to keep it off the “your photo here” display.

Final port of call…Cozumel, Mexico.  We didn’t see much of the port as we had booked an all-day tour exploring the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum.  But first…
The 45-minute ferry ride to the mainland was made enjoyable by the availability of Indio, our favorite Mexican beer. Yes, it was nine in the morning. We were on vacation. Don’t judge us!

As far as ancient ruins go, it may not have the remarkable size and scope of Teotihuacan, but it sure is picturesque. Imagine hiking along a jungle path thick with mango trees and palms, when suddenly you come upon a high stone wall hidden behind the vines with a very narrow opening—wide enough for only one person. You pass through to the other side and find yourself in a vast green field, ancient temples and other ruins dotting the landscape, stones bleached white in the sun, and the bright blue of the Caribbean Sea just beyond.  Or you can just look at these pictures…

Mayan City!

Mayan Temple!

Mayan Fancy Building!
Mayan Privacy Fence! 

Mayan Raccoon Thing!

Like I said…picturesque.  Unfortunately, the 16,000 other people there that day also found it picturesque.  We spent half our time at the ruins stuck in pedestrian traffic jams at the primary points of interest and the other half running the gauntlet of selfie sticks. But this isn’t to say we didn’t thoroughly enjoy ourselves, and if you find yourself on the Yucatan Peninsula, it’s 100% worth the trip. Just go early in the morning to avoid the big crowds. Or start your day with some Indio, and then you just won’t care.
On our last night of the cruise, we went to the Svedka Ice Bar where they give you a neon poncho and send you into a freezer. Literally. Because aside from the TV (?) and the cocktail dispensers, most everything is made of ice: the bar, the art, the fixtures, even the glasses. Patrons are given 45 minutes to experience the coolth, but most don’t make it more than 20. The Captain lasted about 35 minutes before conceding that perhaps flip-flops were not the wisest of footwear choices, but the Deck Boss and I went the distance. Mainly because we got to talking to the bartender, but also because it takes longer to finish a cocktail when it’s in slush form. And if you were ever wondering at what temperature alcohol freezes, the answer is negative 10.
It’d been a long time since I was this cold. Or this fashionable.
We disembarked in Miami the next morning where we had to endure an hour at immigration and customs and another two hours huffing car fumes waiting for the shuttle that never did come before finally grabbing a taxi and arriving back at our hotel…thoroughly irritated, light-headed, and snapping at each other. You know, exactly how you want to end a vacation. But after some decent Chinese food and a drive around Miami to take in some of the sights, we felt much better.
Because nothing brings a family together like sniggering at the fashion fails of a complete stranger. Best laugh we had all week. And the longest. It took us 45 minutes to traverse four blocks in South Beach, which is approximately how long it took this guy as well. But then it’s hard to make good time when you’re wearing “hobble pants”.  
At this point, I’d like to send another shout out to American Airlines who chose to make up for the less-than-stellar flight to Miami by being complete jerks on the way home. How, you ask? Well, have you ever heard of a box ban? No? Neither had we. So, here’s the scenario… we don’t travel light. At least not on the way home. There are just too many things that we need for the boat (and for ourselves) that you just can’t find in Central America. So, we may have arrived in Miami with three carry-ons and two suitcases, but we returned to El Salvador with three carry-ons, two large “purses” (because you are allowed one carry-on and one personal item), a laptop, four large roller bags, and a welder. Yes, we are “those people”. We got to the airport two and a half hours before our flight; blew through the first hour of that waiting in the check-in line; then spent another 45 minutes at the counter trying to get the luggage sorted out. Because it was here that the airline rep took one look at the welder—snuggly packaged in a sturdy, square box—and informed us that “certain countries” are subject to a “box ban” during “select times of the year” and that they couldn’t accept our box. She claimed it was due to “weight distribution” but wouldn’t elaborate, so we were kind of left wondering what it is about late July in El Salvador that throws airplanes off balance, but in the end, it didn’t matter because there is no recourse when you’re already there and the flight leaves in a half hour. But luckily, the Captain had noticed a packaging kiosk right across from the ticket counter and dragged the welder over there. He purchased a square-shaped duffle bag for $40, removed the welder from the box, placed it in the bag, refitted the packing foam around it, and had the whole thing shrink wrapped. We now had a perfectly square bag the same size and shape as the original, but without the offending “box” portion. Good to go. Now while he is taking care of this, the airline rep is having me remove items from one roller bag to put into another so that all four are roughly the same weight. And this has nothing to do with one being grossly overweight while another is markedly underweight. This is just busy-work. Because even though I offered to step aside so she could help another customer while we were getting the welder repackaged, that’s not how American rolls. Because why inconvenience one person when you can inconvenience everyone? Besides, it’s a good way to shift blame away from American if everyone thinks you’re the a-hole holding up the line. All I can say is that it’s a good thing the Captain came back with the welder when he did because I think the rep was about to have the Deck Boss and I start swapping clothes so we would weigh about the same. Editor’s Note: In case you think I’m exaggerating, the woman at the counter next to us was trying to get her dog on an international flight without prior notification and without a health certificate. Instead of helping the next person in line while she got her shit together, the rep waited for her to call her vet, her husband, another vet, American Airlines customer support (?), another vet, her husband again, etc. She was at the counter when we first got in line and was still there when we left—almost two hours. I highly doubt that she made her flight. Which is probably a good thing, because I’m guessing Costa Rica doesn’t want someone that stupid traipsing about their country.
But our customer service experience didn’t end there! When we finally got to the gate, the airline reps stopped the Deck Boss and started grilling her about her carry-on bag (aka the TSA-approved one they had no trouble with on the previous week’s flight.) First, they said it was too big, but when they placed it in the metal “tester” stand, it fit perfectly—and it continued to fit perfectly even after they tried it sideways, face down, upside down, and on top. They then said there was no room on the plane, yet they didn’t say anything to me or the Captain about our carry-ons. Finally, they resorted to the old “the airline rules and regulations state blah blah blah” while wresting the carry-on out of her hands. That we saw it again on the luggage carousel in San Salvador is a miracle in and of itself. But you know what else we saw on the carousel? Boxes. Lots and lots of boxes. Box ban my butt.
On a positive note though, given our past experiences with El Salvador Aduana (customs), we were a little nervous about bringing so much stuff into the country but, as it turned out, we just breezed through the airport with all our luggage. Because apparently there’s nothing suspicious about three gringos coming into the country with three carry-ons, two large “purses”, a laptop, four large roller bags, and a welder.
As long as there are no cuticle nippers, it’s all good.