Sunday, January 13, 2008

Caribbean Capers

I had rather given up on the art of blogging, at least until life became interesting again, but I feel compelled. In other words, I’d rather write this then continue with the 40-page draft of my summa English thesis. Yes, I’ve completed my fall semester of school and have, insha’allah, one semester left. Inevitably, I see you asking the follow-up question: what next? To be honest, I haven’t the faintest clue.

But who wants to ponder the uncertainty of the future when reminiscing over the last two weeks is so much more enjoyable? I certainly don’t. Come June, I may sing a new tune, but that’s sooooo far away. Lots of travel between now and then. Because that’s what I do, I live for travel.

And, lucky for me, my family encourages the addictive habit J

Team Schlichting embarked on a 12-night tropical getaway on a bitterly cold (thanks Minnesota, I appreciate the record snow and biting temperatures this winter) and flurry-filled Saturday night, taking two vehicles to the airport because we pack too much. It’s been a year since the other three traveled, though I’ve flown more recently J Unfortunately, we were unable to locate the Larry Craig bathroom stall or receive any covert solicitations for sex in the bathrooms. Positively disappointing. We arrived at the Ft. Lauderdale airport, collected our luggage onto a cart, pulled the rest behind us, and stepped into GLORIOUS warmth. Palm trees again, balmy breezes, a hint of ocean in the air…It was heaven. We needed a van-sized taxi to transport our extra baggage to Boca Raton, leaving behind the faint rumblings of jets for the hideaway of Florida’s elite, driving, and driving, and driving. Yup, our lovely Embassy Suites was an 80 dollar cab ride away from the airport, so we stumbled bleary-eyed into the gleaming lobby at 2 am, checked in, searched the hotel for a rollaway, and finally fell asleep.

Needless to say, we missed the 7-10:30 breakfast the next morning. Instead, we slept till 11 and enlisted to services of the free Embassy shuttle to drive us to…Denny’s. Yes, I think we have set a new milestone, pulling up to the Denny’s door in our classy little shuttle. But the food was plentiful and fatty-omelets, hash browns, bacon and lots of laughter, saying good-bye to turbulent year over a toast of chocolate milk. Without a vehicle of transportation, we were relegated to the hotel’s amenities-i.e. the pool, a nap in the room, and free (free!) happy hour from 5:30-7. Dad provided the first of many fits of laughter, embarking on a valiant quest to find us Diet Coke and bottled water and returning soaked in sweat with six cans of pop stuffed in his shorts, six balanced on a broken cardboard carrier, and 18 bottles of water in his arms, having hiked 1.5 miles to the 7-11.

The following day, Dad took the train to the airport to pick up the rental car, I allowed the brilliant rays of Florida sunshine to brush my pasty skin, and the four of us headed north to Lake Okocheebee to visit some family friends. Charming hosts, they took us on a lovely pontoon ride through the waterways of the central Florida, languid canals filled with fish gators, birds, and lined with reeds, oaks, palm trees, and other greenery, a pleasant respite from the Minnesota winter. This was New Year’s Eve, and we returned to Boca by 8 pm, located the local Publix (thanks to my infallible sense of direction) purchased an 8 dollar bottle of wine, and settled in at the Embassy to ring in the New Year, give Mom a pedicure (note to future pedicurists: don’t tickle her feet, she giggles and kicks) and grimace at the abominable quality of the 8 dollar wine. The bronzed, sculpted family god-Andrew-wanted a beach, so the four of us drove a few miles to the seashore, where I plunged immediately into the water, Andrew grabbed the football, Dad played catch with him, and Mom photographed our antics from the safety of the shore. Though we were undaunted by the poisonous jellyfish floating past us, we eventually fled the beach when the heavens clouded over and drenched us with rain. Mom screeched that it was time to go, cowering under towels on the beach, Andrew and Dad were getting cold, but I was perfectly content to enjoy the ocean (see, blubber is useful!). Alas, I was outnumbered and forced to return to the hotel.

Finally, on January 2nd, we checked out of our Embassy, drove to the airport, dropped off the rental car, and headed to the Ft. Lauderdale port. Yup. It was Cruise Time! Mommy had booked this trip adamantly, determined to vacation despite her cancer, and, after a long battle, we arrived to sunny skies and an open ocean ahead. Our gleaming ship, aptly christened the Carnival Miracle, awaited. The embarkation process wasn’t too ghastly, and we were soon crossing the gangway into the central atrium of our resort. This was Mom’s, Dad’s, and my fourth Carnival cruise (alhamdulilah!), and the ships are beginning to feel like coming home. With a few variations, every ship has the same deck plan, so we never have to re-orient ourselves to find the food. Because, let’s be honest, we really cruise for the food. Sure, there are three exotic ports, lots of entertainment, good company, etc., but it’s the food.

Based on that judgment, you can probably gather where we headed after checking into our staterooms-and you’d be wrong! Half wrong, anyways. I dragged mom to the spa, determined to get an appointment for my hair (which I succeeded at) on a formal night. And then we hit the food. Vast spreads of roasted meats, spiced potatoes, simmering Asian noodles, greasy French fries (my personal staple), crisp lettuce, fresh fruits, delectable desserts…You get the idea. It was scrumptious feast, and it took all self-restraint not to gorge myself. Never one to procrastinate, Mom herded me back to the room and attempted to unpack while I snoozed happily on my bed. When I awoke, the packing was done and Brent, our cruise director, announced it was time to muster. Mustering is rather exciting the first time and terribly aggravating from then on. It involves donning life jackets and heading down to our muster stations, located on the lower decks (our cabin was deck 7), mulling around for a protracted amount of time until the whistle blows and we are allowed to return to our cabins. Mom and I briefly hid on our balcony in an effort to thwart the cabin stewards (who actually do check every cabin to ascertain your presence at the muster), but, after much giggling, we forfeited that option and mustered below.

Our Miracle finally pulled away from the docks, we watched Ft. Lauderdale recede on the horizon, and contemplated shore excursions until dinner. Dinner! Although some people may not enjoy the formality of this meal (no shorts or tees allowed; appropriate dress required), it’s my favorite part of the cruise. We have the same table, the same wait staff, and a varied menu every evening of gourmet foods. Mmmmmm…We went down the Bacchus dining room, curious to meet our waiter and assistant waiter. We sat down and were soon greeted by an Indian man, Bernard, who introduced himself as our waiter and handed out the menus. And then Aleksander, smiling, walked over. Sigh. He was the real reason I enjoyed dinner, feasting on his tall, dark, handsome features. He was our assistant waiter from Serbia, with an adorable accent, an even cuter smile, and a laughing personality. Yum yum! After watching karaoke till one, we went to sleep soundly to the rocking of the ocean, eager for the sunny Caribbean…

Alright, so our dreams didn’t exactly manifest themselves. The next day a tepid sun briefly peaked from the clouds, soon veiled by blustery storms and cool showers. Compared with our other ships, the Miracle was smaller and narrower (2200 guests), a ‘Panamax’ ship able to squeeze through the Panama canal. And it rocked, quite severely for the first five or so days. We quite literally stumbled around the ship, up and down the stairs, through the corridors, across the top decks. Drunkenness was universal, if inebriation is determined by one’s ability to walk in a straight line. Even our captain was guilty of it.

We saw, posted in the nightly newsletter, a teddy bear workshop going on downstairs, so, curious, Mom and I, with our photographer, Dad, descended to the atrium, where we elbowed past all the little children and picked out teddy bears to stuff and love. There we sat, happily shoving stuffing into the backs of limp bears while countless individuals walked past, staring curiously at the two women engaged in such a peculiar activity. Mom’s bear was bright pink with a brilliant blue outfit. Mine was far more subdued, a calico kitty with satin pink pjs. We posed proudly with our creations and then bore them up to the cabin. Currently, one resides in our dining room, the other in my bedroom. It was a lazy day. The skies cleared, and we went for a walk on deck. We read, we napped, we ate, we talked, we relaxed. That evening, the first formal night, required extensive dress-up and deliberations-suits and tuxes for the guys, evening dresses for the gals. I, of course, loved it! Can’t say the same for Andrew or Dad, though. We took the first of many formal portraits that night and I enjoyed the attentiveness of Aleksander, who brought me warm, gluten-free bread the moment I sat down. With a wink, of course ;-) For dessert, he brought me crème brulee , which I ordered every night of the cruise. I could not decide which was sweeter, his smile or the dessert.

The Caribbean isn’t cloudy for long, and the next day was sunny, warm, and gorgeous. After an energizing breakfast of eggs, bacon, and sausage, I laid on deck for several hours, greedily drinking in the sun alongside Andrew, listening to the reggae band and finally feeling the Minnesota chill melt from my bones. Ahhhhhh…I visited the salon that evening for some color renovations (hey, even natural blondes need a little help sometimes!), where I met my first of many Minnesotans on board. It appears that much of the state flees south. Can’t imagine why. Every night, our cabin steward left a very special present in our cabin-a towel animal! Some creative person has developed a system of folding and twisting towels into monkeys, rabbits, puppies, elephants, crabs, elephants, etc. and we found a new one awaiting us after dinner.

Panama-We were miles from South America and Columbia in the true tropics of sultry sun, sweltering humidity, and daunting jungle. Awesome! Colon, Panama, is a city of sixteen streets, no stoplights, with a duty-free zone that involves countries from every corner of the globe. Our shore excursion took us from the city to the country, passing farms and jungle, arriving in the historic town of Portobello, graced with pirate forts, historic churches, and 50 cent beer. We climbed the ruins of an 18th fort, mounted the cannons (well, I did anyway-refer to Siwa and Thailand for explanation), saw the Black Christ, played and got bit by a captive monkey, watched a native band sing, visited a customs house, and bought 50 cent beverages. I bought a pop, cuz that’s how I roll, but the rest of the bus opted for the fermented drink. Next, we headed to the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal! At the Gatun Locks, we watched several ships pass through the intricate system of waterways, watched the water level rise and fall rapidly, and marveled at the entire contraption. It was begun in 1905, and over 1/3 workers died during its construction. Now, a tariff to pass through easily runs several hundred thousand dollars, and they are beginning work on a third canal route-a wider one to accommodate larger vessels. Now, most ships have a foot between themselves and the walls of the canal. Little room for error, yet there are rarely accidents. It is an amazingly smooth operation, with electric rail cars pulling the ships from one lock to the next.

Soon, it was back to the ship, passing through the melting pot of foreigners living in Panama-there are Arabs, Asians, Americans, Canadians, etc.-some there for business, others there to retire. We shopped, briefly, in the mall by the ship, though I will proudly state I spent a total of 5 dollars on one purse. I think my knickknack collection has maxed out (until India, that is J). After lunch, a siesta, and dinner, we hit the sack to a rolling ocean, ready for Costa Rica.

I hated people like myself in Cairo. People who clambered onto an air-conditioned tour bus, were shuttled pass the poverty and drove to the sheltered destination where they obediently herded into groups to ‘experience’ the country. But that’s what I did. And I enjoyed it. I did! I prefer vacations where I have time to at least wander in the local culture, but cruises don’t allow for that. So I accept that the Costa Rica I saw is not the Costa Rica a week-long visitor experiences, much less a resident sees. But I went swinging through the rain forest on a zip line. And that is sublimely cool.

The Schlichtings split up. Andrew and I went adventuring, Mom and Dad went touring. After a two hour bus ride, along which we saw sloths in the trees, we piled off the bus at an eco-tourism site, encountering about 4 other mega buses in the parking lot. So much for wild, untamed wilderness. But we hiked down into the rainforest, our nature walk punctuated by the occasional tractor chugging up the road bearing weary adventurers. At the bottom, we paused before a beautiful river and were outfitted with highly attractive harnesses and then directed to follow the path. Dubious, we marched across a rope bridge and followed a few ill-marked signs to a platform on a ridge above the forest. The sound of zipping sifted softly through the trees, and I saw a person flying, literally, overhead. Ahhhhh! That looks…kinda high. But fun! We waited in line and watched each person step off the ledge and fly over the forest canopy, landing safely on the next platform. I went before Andrew (chicken), trembled as the guide connected my rope, and gasped as he pushed me off the ledge and into the air. I tucked my knees up and whizzed through the air, watching the scenery flash beneath me. What a rush! We swung over 7 ropes of various lengths, passing over rivers, trees, animals, and small canyons. It was spectacular, and finished far too soon. We trooped back to the visitors center, rode the tractor up the path, and took the bus back to the pier. With half an hour left before the ship needed us back on board, I splashed through the rain (hey, it is a rain forest), braved the market, bargained for a necklace, and caused needless worry for Dad, who gets concerned if we’re not on board 2 hours before the ship leaves. Dinner was welcome that evening, and Aleksander and I traded winks as he bought me bread, and later danced as the dining room safe serenaded us with the Macarena. He had the most adorable smile as we twirled to the music…

Another fun day at sea, another chance to deepen my tan, eat lunch with Mom on the balcony and watch the world sail past. In the morning, we went On Deck for the Cure, a program Carnival started in October and has continued because of its popularity. With an entrance fee, the event raises money for breast cancer research. We were unsure of how many would participate, but a large number showed up, and we all lapped the ship three times on Deck 3, enjoying pink lemonade and the chance to celebrate a battle won at the end.

That evening, I visited the salon again, greeted my Filipino hair stylist enthusiastically, and watched as he gave my hair its first updo! It was gorgeous, swept back in golden curls with a few locks framing my face...but Andrew keeps me humble. When he opened the door, he said I looked dumb. Brothers. We took more photos that night, paraded around the ship, admired the Gala buffet replete with ice carvings, pineapple palm trees, and other culinary masterpieces, and finally tucked in.

Belize was an early morning; we climbed onto the catamaran at 7:45 and were snorkeling by 8:30. Belize boasts the 2nd largest coral reef in the world, and it was an impressive sight, but the Red Sea still contains the best coral we’ve ever seen. Anyway, we saw lots of coral and sea fans, spotted eagle rays, a few barracuda, lots of fish, etc. Being an ‘expert’ snorkeler, I somewhat successfully evaded the guides who attempted to corral us into a small area of less superior coral. Frequent dives below the surface and innocent “Oh, you were whistling and yelling at me?” worked well.

After snorkeling, the real fun began J JK, mother, but then the ride turned into a bit of a booze cruise, with free rum punch to go around, wisely not distributed until after the snorkeling. We spent some time on a private, white sand barrier island ringed with the brilliant blue Caribbean, boarded the catamaran, and slowly cruised back the Miracle. Happiness abounds when you drink before noon. After a bathroom break on ship, we took a tender into port and shopped briefly, but were inexplicitly drawn to the Wet Lizard, and bar and restaurant, where Dad treated us to drinks and nachos. My beverage of choice was called a Panty Rippa. It was odd, but we continued to run into our snorkel cruise friends throughout the day, and we shouted out raucous greetings to each other like old friends. I suppose free rum punch in Belize does that to a person. If you think Mom is suspiciously absent from this narrative, you are correct. She neither snorkels nor beaches, so she took a tender into port and shopped in the morning. We returned before the Miracle chugged out of port, napped, and eventually went to dinner, where I drank in as much of Aleksander as I could. Afterward, unable to let the evening end, we went to karaoke and watched Dad perform an inspiring version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Awimoweh awimoweh…In the jungle, the mighty jungle…

Our last fun day at sea was perfect, of course, sunny, warm and filled with an urgency to drink in the heat and loll in the decadence of a cruise. Our 8 days of escape was nearing an end, and we turned on the news for the first time, watching the election news with resigned interest. At dinner, we enjoyed the services of Bernard and Aleksander, lingering over dessert with nostalgia. We took photos with them, gave them hugs, and Aleksander called me a princess. The perfect ending to a perfect vacation.