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 d├ęcor 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.