A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts

OK, this is our third island. We had done some research before leaving home, but the first couple stops just didn’t come together as hoped. It’s time to get serious about vacation.

Our research told as that Antigua was an excellent choice for a day on the beach. I’m not really a sand ‘n’ surf kind of guy, but when in Rome, right? Not wanting to repeat our earlier mistakes, we booked a beach trip through the cruise ship. A bit more expensive, but really, not much.

The research held up just fine. We wound up on the beach at Runaway Bay, with snowy white sand, turquoise water and gently rolling surf. Add to that a friendly bartender, and you’ve got yourself a pretty decent day.

Antigua

Just as it was really starting to warm up, a man came around with a wheelbarrow full of fresh coconuts. First, he’d hack the top off with a giant machete so you could drink the coconut water out. Coconut water is like nature’s Gatorade: refreshing and full of potassium. A few minutes later, when you’ve had a chance to finish the water, he’d come back around and split the coconut open, carve off a small piece of the shell to use as a spoon, and serve up the coconut jelly inside. A drink and a snack, fresh off the tree and delivered to your beach chair. Not bad.

Is the day warmed up, I headed into the cool shade of the beach bar while my wife soaked up the sun and saltwater. I enjoyed some people watching (not to mention some wife-in-a-bikini watching) with an icy cold glass of rum and fruit.

We caught our ride back into town, and it was still early in the afternoon. We went back on the boat, showered, changed, and went back ashore for some casual wandering. We finally got to sample some local cuisine, stopping first at Roti King (for roti and ginger beer) and later Mama Lolly’s (for roti and fruit smoothies). We bought another bottle of local rum and called it a day.

It should be noted at this point that we’d never really gotten a clear answer on how much booze we could bring home from the islands. While we had technically left the country, we’d never had to deal with customs or passports or anything up to this point. We knew we could buy pretty much all we wanted in Puerto Rico, as that was essentially a state, but the islands fell under different jurisdictions. We didn’t want to come up short, but neither did we want to lose anything coming home. Our best guess was two, maybe three bottles a piece. We were hitting five islands, so one bottle on each island seemed reasonable.

I haven’t written much about the boat the last few days, because there’s not too much to tell. We had settled into a bit of a routine: a light breakfast, go ashore for the day, come back to the boat, shower and change, grab the saltiest food we could find to replenish our sodium after sweating a gallon, then I’d lie down in the AC while my wife hit the pool, dinner, then a quick dip into the pool before heading to bed. There were a few shows on board that were fun, several more that weren’t as appealing. Overall, it was like a really nice hotel: nothing to complain about, but not really a feature of the trip.

We were only too aware that this particular hotel was floating. Our first few days at sea were rough: imagine if you will 137,000 tons of hotel bouncing (not gently rolling, bouncing) on the waves. I found it disorienting but bearable, unfortunately, my wife is not the hardy seafaring type. We went through a lot of Dramamine on this cruise.

We later learned that this was unusual for a cruise ship, and nearly unheard of for one this size. Several members of the crew commented that they had never noticed this boat moving before this trip, and had gone to the captain to see if there was anything to be done about it. For the waiters in the dining room, it was challenging; for the skaters in the ice show, it was almost unbearable.

Somewhere around the halfway point, the seas calmed and the boat leveled out significantly. One unexpected consequence was that we had finally started to master walking around on the rocking boat, and now we could barely walk on dry land. Frequently, I would find myself swerving to compensate for the rocking of the boat, only to realize I was still in town. Another really cool consequence was the wave pools. We whiled away a couple evenings in the bar on Deck 14 watching the pool water slosh around with the rocking of the boat, as the water was too rough to go swimming.

Next episode: Follow your nose, it always knows.

Rum & Rummer

Our first stop was in Bridgetown, Barbados. After a bit of a rough start to the morning with a couple failed attempts to gather the group, we finally made it in towards town. We had heard that Barbados was likely to be one of the least interesting stops on the cruise, but since it was also the first stop, we had nothing against which to judge it. As it turned out, there wasn’t a lot to see, and we were unprepared to make the most of the day. We bought a bottle of rum and headed back to the ship hot, sweaty and somewhat disoriented. I started to think that perhaps my visions of a tropical paradise where we sat and sipped fruity rum drinks under palm trees might have been a bit naïve. Clearly, we would need to plan a bit more.

The cruise line offered packaged excursions on every island: guided tours, organized beach trips, kayaking… you name it. We had held off on booking any of these for two reasons: I had no idea how my back would hold up each day, making the more physical activities difficult to plan in advance, and we assumed we could just step off the boat and walk or catch a cab anywhere we wanted to be.

But, we’d only made one stop so far, and we had already heard that Barbados wasn’t all that exciting. Our next stop in Castries, St. Lucia would certainly be much improved. It was a smaller island, more natural beauty… should be great.

But first, there was the Midnight Buffet. A legend among frequent cruisers, the Midnight Buffet is when the kitchen pulls out all the stops. While many cruise ships had a nightly midnight buffet (no caps), they proved to be too wasteful. That’s saying something on a cruise ship.

The Midnight Buffet was as much a visual feast as a literal one. Ice sculptures graced a couple tables, and food sculptures graced the rest. The Royal Caribbean logo was rendered in bread four feet high. There were mermaids of cheese, fruit octopi, even a cactus made of kabobs. The food was wonderful, but not noticeably better than any of the other food.

This would also turn out to be our only chance to get drinks served in hollowed-out pineapples. Not knowing this at the time, we passed because the lines were so long. Sadly, that opportunity would not knock again.

But, enough of this food… it’s time for bed, because we’re going after St. Lucia with gusto first thing in the morning!

Well, sort of. We had another  series of false starts and difficulty mustering a group. We were assaulted by tour guides offering to show us around for $90. No, $10. Well, not $10, but maybe $40. OK, really, how much to join one of your groups and get a tour of the area? $30? Each? OK, we can do that.

We weren’t carrying much cash. I had expected all larger purchases to go on the credit card, and the constant threat of pickpockets made it wise to limit the cash on hand. We had more cash on the boat, but had parceled out a smaller amount for each day. We had enough to pay for the tour, but probably not a lot more. Unbeknownst to me, my wife had another $100 on her. This comes into the story later.

So, we finally got on a three hour tour (…a three hour tooour…) and headed out to take in the wonder and beauty of St. Lucia. It was wonderful, and it was beautiful. It was also raining off and on, which is bad for sightseeing, but good if it’s a day you’re already stuck in a van for a while.

One mildly distressing fact we learned on our tour: 70% of the mangoes grown on St. Lucia go unharvested. The locals have all they could ever want to eat, and it’s not cost effective to ship them out. As a result, the ground is littered with mangoes. I couldn’t help but think of paying $2 a piece for the sad, bruised little mangoes at home.

A couple hours into the tour, we stopped at a scenic overlook with a decent-sized concession stand. The stand had a strong banana theme—banana shakes, banana wine, banana ketchup, banana cakes—and I’m a guy who really likes bananas. I started with a banana shake while ogling the other banana delicacies. I was attempting to be frugal, knowing that we barely had enough cash to pay the driver at the end. It took everything I had not to buy one of everything.

They were also selling their own spiced rum, a generic gold rum with whole spices floating in the bottle. Samples were only a buck, so I got one. It was delicious, and I immediately inquired about a bottle. I was willing to forgo the remaining banana treats to get a bottle of this stuff, particularly after learning the bottle could last years simply by adding more rum and letting it steep. The bottles were $20, pretty reasonable, but I was only too aware that we were short on cash. The van was ready to leave, so we shrugged and left.

On St. Lucia

Later in the day, my wife was lamenting that we had passed on the rum, hoping that a similar opportunity may present itself. I agreed, but reminded her that we simply weren’t prepared, cash-wise, for how the day was playing out.

We finished up the tour, then both went to pay the driver. It was then that we realized that we each had enough to cover the tour, thinking the other did not. Cue synchronized forehead slap. We wandered a few shops unenthusiastically, bought a bottle of rum (not the spiced variety, but with a credit card). While we were both mildly annoyed that information was hard to come by on the ship, we agreed that we should make an effort not to withhold it from each other.

All in all, it was still a pretty darn good day. We finished on a high note, enjoying a couple of the iciest (and cheapest) beers in history before heading back to the boat.

In our next installment, we visit St. John’s on the lovely island of Antigua. We finally start to catch the groove of this cruising thing. Unfortunately, the boat has also really caught a groove.

Next episode: A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts. 

Aww, look at the cute little cruise ship

We’re finally on the boat, and we’re finally relaxing a little. As tempting as it as to sit in the pub all afternoon, my wife and I are both anxious to take a look around and see what this cruise thing is all about. While this isn’t really our style of vacation, it’s hard not to get carried away by the sheer insanity of the whole thing.

Through trial and error, we start to learn a few things about the boat.  For starters, port, starboard, fore and aft are not really marked. Each elevator bank has a basic “You are here” sort of directory to at least give you some bearing on your position, but otherwise, there are surprisingly few signs. The starboard elevator bank does not cover as many decks as the port bank. We locate the main pool area, which is already showing signs of being complete mayhem. A few minutes later, we locate the adults only pool area, which is fairly secluded. Have to remember that one.

We also located the climbing wall near the back of the boat. This was a major selling point to get my wife more excited about the cruise; she had even brought her own climbing shoes. We learned that the top of the wall would place a climber 200 feet about the water.  I would not be joining her for that portion of things.

Before long, it’s time to gather for the muster drill, a required event in which we all stand around in our life jackets while ignoring what to do in case of emergency. I once again find myself sweating profusely, longing for some air conditioning and a meal. It occurs to me that while traveling, I frequently find myself in close proximity to an abundance of excellent food but still going so long between meals that I start getting shaky.  Far too often, I’ll then grab some junk to get through to a meal I can enjoy properly.

Tangent: A couple years ago, I swore off airport and airline food. My wife and I were en route to Paris via Keflavík, flying cattle class on Iceland Air. I was served the most disgusting meal of my life, some sort of rubberized chicken with vegetable medley. It’s amazing how many different textures a 3-ounce piece of chicken can include, none of them desirable. I realized that no matter how hungry I got while traveling, I wasn’t likely to actually starve to death, and the reward of a meal in Paris would easily make up for the long flight without food. The moral of the story is that as a guy who could stand to skip a few meals, I should really just go ahead and skip a few meals.

Wow, that kinda meandered pointlessly. Onward…

Time does not fly when you’re wearing eleven cubic feet of styrofoam around your neck in a tropical environment. In reality, the entire muster drill was maybe 30 minutes, but it felt much, much longer. It was finally over and time for dinner.

I was excited about dinner, because as I mentioned, I was hungry. It would also be the first time all twelve of us would get together. In some ways, it already felt like we’d been away from home for a while, but in reality, we were just getting underway. Thirty-six hours ago, we were lugging our bags to the train station.

Upon entering the dining room, I was again struck by the size of this boat. The dining room was a little bigger than the largest restaurant that comes to mind. There were two other nearly identical dining rooms above us. Dinner was split into two seatings each night to accommodate all the passengers. There was also an Italian “restaurant” on board and the buffet for those who wanted a little more variety. Or you could just stay in your cabin and order room service. The logistics of feeding everyone on board were impressive to say the least. Heck, the logistics of feeding everyone reasonably were impressive; there would be nothing reasonable about the meals on board.

It turned out our group was split into two tables, so we wouldn’t really get to mix it up as much as I’d hoped. My wife and I ended up at a table with my oldest sister’s group, who were the only four we hadn’t really seen yet, so that worked out OK. I spoke to the head waiter after dinner, and we had one large table every night thereafter.

Long story short, dinner was amazing. Those who know me know of my ongoing love affair with food. (Click the link for Andy Recommends, below.) I am a particularly  harsh critic of fine dining. With so many fantastic options for casual, budget-minded food out there, I hold the fancy places to a higher standard. While we weren’t actually paying for dinner each night, I still viewed this as a nice restaurant, and judged it accordingly.

The menu each night covered an impressively wide variety of options: a couple salads, a couple soups, a couple appetizers, a half-dozen entrees and a few desserts. There were always a couple vegetarian items, and at least one “healthy” choice in each category. The picky meat-and-potatoes crowd always had a couple choices and the more adventurous eaters had at least something to try. There was also one Indian entree each night, which was a slightly puzzling choice. (We later learned that the head chef was Indian, and we all immediately kicked ourselves for not trying any of it. Unfortunately, we learned that immediately AFTER dinner the last night.) Every night, the menu also included one chilled fruit soup, which invariably turned out to be one of the best things on the table.

The service was less impressive than the food: omnipresent, and a bit heavy-handed. In addition to the head waiter, we had a waiter, assistant waiter and bar waiter. They were all extremely friendly and eager to please, but there was rarely a moment when there wasn’t someone serving something, clearing something, offering something, adding silverware, removing silverware or SOMEthing. The bar waiter was the only one who remained discreet, to the point that I had two drinks with dinner the entire week. Total. Both times, I had to flag down someone else to find the bar waiter. Overall, I just felt the service wasn’t necessarily bad, it simply didn’t fit the feel of the room.

After dinner, we made our way up the top of the ship for departure. I assumed that getting a boat this size in and out of the harbor would be a fairly intensive process. I’m sure the crew was working hard during this period, but it was a little anticlimactic: we simply pulled away from the dock and sailed out of the harbor.

We passed a Carnival cruise  ship on the way out. It was probably an impressive boat in its own right, but we completely dwarfed it as we passed. From the twelfth deck, I could easily look down on the Carnival ship and could have gone two decks higher.

Next episode: Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.

Port? Starboard? Who cares, where’s the pub?

Just a short one today; I have to leave for an appointment soon.

So, we’re finally on board, and we really want to drop our bags, so we head off to find our room. Er, cabin. It’s a boat. We’re on the eighth floor. Er, deck. It’s a boat. We get on the elevator, er… is there another name for an elevator when you’re on a boat? I think I’m having trouble accepting this thing as a boat, since it’s like a Vegas hotel in here: glass, brass and polished wood gleams and twinkles under thousands of tiny lights.

The glass elevator takes us to deck eight, and we can see huge sculptures hanging from the ceiling over a recreation of storefronts on a city street. The elevator drops us off at the Internet café, and to my surprise, there are already a few people logged on at 75¢ a minute. Oh well, that’ll keep ’em out of my way. We locate our cabin on the Starboard side, roughly midship. I believe this to be useful information, as I should always be able to find the room that way. Surely it should be easy to figure out fore, aft, port and starboard from anywhere on the boat, and from there get back to the cabin.

Our cabin was a pleasant surprise. I had heard some horror stories about the tiny, claustrophobic cabins on cruise ships, but ours was not bad at all. The bed was awfully close to the opposite wall, making for a narrow walkway, the bathroom was certainly snug, but really, it was quite nice. In addition to the bed, we had a couple seats built into the walls, a desk, chair and coffee table. Even a mini fridge with… hello, what’s this? A free bottle of wine from the travel agent? Nice.

There was a knock at the door, and I assumed it was another member of our group stopping by to say hello. No, it was our Cabin Attendant, stopping by to introduce herself. She was very friendly, pleasantly soft-spoken, and simply taking a moment to tell us about clean towels, fresh ice, and the most convenient times for her to swing by and spruce up the room. Nice.

At this point, enough was enough. We were on vacation and we wanted some beer. My wife and I are both beer snobs, so we immediately went in search of the pub, where it was rumored the best beer on the boat would be served. Let’s see, pub… deck five… promenade… if we’re on the starboard side, then… hell, I don’t know, let’s just go wandering. We’ll get there eventually.

The promenade is starting to get crowded with passengers exploring the boat and trying to get their bearings, just like us. There’s a duty-free jewelry store, a duty-free liquor store…. what is this, an airport? Hey, there’s the pub! Is it open? No one’s going in. Well, let’s find out. Yeah, they’re open, there’s just no one else bothering to go in. Nice.

Let’s see, what do they have on tap? Heineken and, uh… really? Just Heineken? OK, what do they have in bottles? Hmm, OK, there’s Boddington’s in a can. Guess I’ll go with that. This is not looking like a beer lover’s vacation. The barkeep is friendly, and he chats with us for a while about cruising, India, his upcoming wedding and silly bar tricks.  Nice.

OK, I have to run. There probably won’t be another installment for a couple days, so you’ll just have to find some other way to waste time at work. Next episode: Awww, look at the cute little cruise ship.

Freakin’ HUGE

Sorry for the unexpected intermission there, folks, but I had a few other things to attend to around the house. You know how it is.

So, the story of the boat ride will now finally include a boat. Royal Caribbean’s “Adventure of the Seas”: 1020 feet long, 138,000 tons, capable of carrying over 5,000 people. A couple members of our group grew up in towns with a smaller population than this boat. When it entered service just under seven years ago, it was the largest cruise ship in the world. These are impressive numbers, but they are relatively meaningless until you actually see it. It’s like a shopping mall that floats.

The Boat

Now we just had to board the boat and begin our vacation. If you’ve ever taken a road trip out West, you may have some idea of what it’s like to board a boat like this. You drive west for a while, and eventually, you get a glimpse of the mountains ahead. A couple hours later, the mountains really begin to take shape, and you think to yourself, “We’re almost there.” Hours upon hours pass, and you’re still looking at a mountain range somewhere off in the distance.

We piled out of the cab with our bags and took stock of the situation: hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people standing around, not completely sure if they’re in a line or even should be in a line. A few ropes mark out where a queue might start, or perhaps end. There are no signs, no arrows, nothing to indicate what should be happening. There wasn’t even a single person in a Royal Caribbean shirt to give the impression that this was indeed a place to board a Royal Caribbean boat. Gradually, some clues as to a possible order were revealed, and we stepped into line.

The line began to move forward, which was promising. Rather quickly, we made it up to what appeared to be the front, where a group of young men were checking baggage. They each had a fistful of dollars, the universal sign for “You Should Tip Me.” I don’t mean to be a tightwad, but I’ve never tipped the check-in people at the airport, and I wasn’t about to tip these guys. They were doing nothing more than grabbing bags and setting them down five feet away. A separate group was doing all the actual work, and they did not have their hands full of dollars.

So, we hand off our bags and start to join the next line, when Mr. Angrybags yells at us to go to the other line. “Where?” I ask. Angry grunts and waves seem to indicate a different line, marked off with some ropes. We follow those down to a dead end. We go back to the front of the line, where Mr. Angrybags yells at us again. I take a deep breath and try to explain that those ropes lead to a dead end, and could he please be more specific about where we need to go. Meanwhile, others in line (presumably, those who tip) are proceeding to the next stage in boarding. Finally, Mr. Angrybags huffs and stomps to the end of the line, unhooks the ropes, flails his arms in the direction of yet another line, and looks at me like I’m some kind of moron for not knowing this instinctively.

Side note: these angry young men were not part of Royal Caribbean’s staff, but apparently some sort of subcontractors (CSA? CFA? Something like that.) in charge of getting the baggage onto the boat and upsetting passengers.

Fortunately, at least one other person working there seemed to think we were in the correct line, and she gave us small slips of paper to fill out with our departure information. Were these to get our bags to our cabin? Perhaps to get our bags back to the airport at the end? Or possibly just to keep us occupied as we stood in line waiting to board, still not feeling to confident we were heading the right direction.

Finally, we got to the doors of the building, showed our tickets and passports, and stepped into a lightly air-conditioned hangar we hoped was the right place to be. Suddenly, everything seemed to take a turn for the better.

Polite, friendly, RC-uniformed staff directed us towards the metal detector to have our carry-on baggage scanned. Security showed some concern over my Swiss Army knife, but quickly concluded that I wasn’t likely to overpower 1,100 crew members with a corkscrew and tweezers. We were then directed to yet another line, this time to truly check in. After the disarray outside, it was a little disconcerting to suddenly receive so much direction and assistance. Still, my hopes for a pleasant vacation were quickly returning.

With so many different queues for so many different steps, my wife and I kept getting separated from my parents. (The four of us were long since separated from my sister’s group, who had tipped Mr. Angrybags.) Eventually, we quit trying to stay together, knowing we’d end up just down the hall from each other anyway. This turned out to be wise.

Now we were checked in and armed with SeaPass cards, which would become our primary for of identification and payment for the next seven days. We were directed to another line, up an escalator, up a ramp, down a ramp, to a gangway. Wait! Why don’t you two just step over here for a quick photo before you board? Oh, yes, please, let’s commemorate this moment of us tired, hot, sweaty, confused and somewhat disgruntled. After several attempts to decline, I finally decided it would actually be quicker to get the damn photo taken then argue about not wanting the photo.

OK, now we can cross the gangway and we are finally actually standing on the boat. I think. It’s hard to say, because nothing’s moving and there’s still a line. The staff is still very friendly, but really, can we just get on the boat now, please? We are handed a couple of baby wipes with which to refresh ourselves while we wait. The guy behind us in line jokes that these are to sterilize our hands for the pre-boarding blood tests, and I take heart that it’s not just me being overwhelmed by the boarding process. Well, I take heart after a brief instant of panic that he’s not joking.

Finally, we step through the doors into what is clearly the interior of the ship. The air conditioning is like a breeze from heaven, and within a couple minutes, I can feel the salt crusting on my skin. We send our carry-on bags through another metal detector, I get another raised eyebrow for my knife, our SeaPasses are scanned, and we are ON THE BOAT.

I was completely unprepared for the massive scale of the boat, and equally unprepared for the interior of it.

Next episode: Port? Starboard? Who cares, where’s the pub?

Parallels, Powdered Sugar & Pork in Puerto Rico

I’m starting to realize why my book is continually delayed: I’ve already written so much in my head, I just can’t be bothered to actually type it out. I’m having the same trouble with this story, too. Psychologically, I’m already done, and my motivation is waning. I wonder if that will improve now that I’ve identified it?

It’s our first morning in Puerto Rico, and the debate is on: how do we wrangle eight people and their luggage from the hotel to the boat while site-seeing around Old San Juan? Check-out time at the hotel is 10:00. Royal Caribbean doesn’t want us at the pier before 2:00 (which is a little odd considering they’re serving lunch at 11:30). The sites to see are in OSJ, which is on the opposite side of the city from where we’re at. The hotel will hold our bags for the day, but that would involve an additional, and potentially expensive, cab ride. In the end, we decide to bite the bullet and pony up for the cab fare when the time comes. This will involve a fair bit of retracing our own path to reclaim our luggage and get back to the boat, but it beats trying to carry our luggage around all day.

An even better solution would be to drop our luggage at the pier, leaving it, perhaps, in some secure area or locker-type facility until time to board. Unfortunately, no such facility exists, but it should, and if anyone who works in the industry reads this, please, go ahead and suggest it. Really.

This luggage debate closely parallels an incident in Tanzania, in which we were separated from our bags for six days without a clear understanding of if, when or how we’d ever be reunited with them. For a full account, read my book, due out sometime in the next decade.

Luggage wrangling aside, I’ve now had one meal in well over 24 hours. While I’m keenly aware that there will be much over-eating in the days to come, I’m currently really freakin’ hungry. Lonely Planet and several other guides and websites have indicated that La Bombonera is the place for breakfast in OSJ, so off we go.

Upon arrival, one might believe that La Bombonera is the ONLY place for breakfast in OSJ, as the line is poking out the door. Still, we’ve got nothing better to do, so we queue up and wait, drooling over the display case packed with big, fluffy things buried in powdered sugar. The powdered sugar is actually forming drifts in the case, and I think I saw a fly carrying some skis. The line moves pretty quickly, and we’re seated much sooner than I would have expected.

The biggest, fluffiest things in the case turned out to be mallorcas, which just happen to be LB’s signature breakfast item. Sliced in half, stuffed with some combination of egg, cheese, bacon and jamón, then grilled to soft, greasy, salty, sweet perfection, they are the breakfast sandwiches served in heaven. Knowing the amount of food facing me in the coming week, it takes all of my willpower not to order a second one.

Having used up my willpower resisting a second mallorca, I instead overindulged on the café con leche, which is strong and delicious (with free refills). I should mention at this point that I’ve been drinking decaf exclusively for several weeks, part of an ongoing effort to deal with hypertension. With that in mind, you can imagine what a couple cups of extra-strength Puerto Rican coffee might do to a guy.

Filled and fueled, we stepped back out into the heat to kill a few hours in OSJ. Fortunately, LB is located almost exactly in the center of the walled city, so we are already right in the heart of things. With no particular plan, we simply wandered the streets. OSJ is a pretty cool place, and it reminds me of Tarifa in Spain, another walled city on the coast. I find myself wondering if walled, coastal cities all share a similar vibe. Someday I’ll have to circle the Mediterranean and find out. Anybody want to finance that project?

A fountain in Old San Juan  

The rest of the day is a slow, lazy walk through OSJ, in and out of a few gloriously air-conditioned shops, pausing by a fountain, moseying along the coast. I can never fully relax in these situations, knowing that we still have to reclaim our luggage and get on the boat, but I came pretty darn close, which says a lot about the attitude of the city. As it turned out, my worrying was all for nothing: we found a cab (which just happened to be a full-size van) and the driver took us all back to the hotel, waited while we grabbed our bags, and drove us all to the pier for a whopping $27. In retrospect, this was the best deal on a cab we’d see for the rest of the week.

Tune in for our next installment, in which the author actually talks about the damn boat on which this story takes place. Working title: Holy Mother of God That Thing Is Freakin’ HUGE.

She Sells Taco Shells By The Sea Shore

OK, I’ll admit, today’s title is a bit of a stretch, but I wasn’t really sure what I was going to write when I came up with it yesterday. That’s the danger of teasing the next installment, but I can never pass on really horrible wordplay.

So, we’re in Puerto Rico, and I’ve just decided that we’re still in the States. The heat is already starting to get to me, but the van has AC, as does the hotel. In fact, when we get to our room, it’s slightly colder than our refrigerator at home. (Gotta replace that one of these days… the refrigerator, not the hotel.)

My sister’s group is staying across the hall. I’ve never met her boyfriend before, but he greets me with an ice-cold Medalla Light. Sure, it’s a light beer, but it’s cold and it’s local, so he’s already under the “good guy” column in my book. We drop our bags, knock down a couple beers, and head off into the night in search of dinner.

Oh yeah, it’s freakin’ hot outside. Almost forgot about that in the five minutes I was indoors. How do people live in this? My wife seems to like it… I don’t understand.

We end up at a little restaurant right on the shore, Hacienda Don José. It seems to be a Puerto Rican place that has heavy leanings towards Mexican for the tourist crowd. It’s pretty darn good and we can see waves crashing on the rocks out the window, so who can complain? We order hearty and kill the next hour or two eating, drinking and chatting… in short, we start our vacation in earnest. Life is good (if warm).

Unbeknownst to us at the time (but now beknownst), Hacienda Don José is one of the restaurants recommended in the Lonely Planet Caribbean Islands guide. I brought the LP guide along for some insight into each island on the cruise, but hadn’t bothered to check it this evening. As it turned out, the LP guide proved immensely valuable, particularly in terms of food. I’ll never leave the country without the appropriate LP guide, and I’d recommend you don’t, either.

OK, I’ve now left this entry and come back a couple times, and my train of thought is thoroughly derailed. The extra-condensed version: got to San Juan, met family, had dinner, took a swim at the hotel, went to sleep. I was thinking two or three blog entries would wrap up this story, but I haven’t even gotten to the boat yet.

Next time, I’ll start with a story that has strong parallels to an incident in Tanzania. You won’t get that, because you haven’t read my book about our trip to Tanzania, mostly because I haven’t yet written it. Trust me, though, they are parallel. Aren’t you intrigued now?

Next episode: Parallels, Powdered Sugar & Pork in Puerto Rico (Sorry, no puns today, just alliteration.)

One Night With Hancock

Early Saturday morning, my wife and I grabbed our bags to head for the airport. We live less then a mile from the train station, so we decided to walk there. Up to this point, it had been a very cool summer.

It was no longer a cool summer.

Normally, we pack very light. This trip, however, was eleven days, included formal wear, and we knew that laundry would be expensive and limited. We ended up with four bags: two rolling, one hanging and a backpack. Not too shabby, all things considered.

Unfortunately, about one block from the house, the wheels went out on one rolling bag. No matter; we’re not going far. About two blocks from the house, the sweat began to drip from my forehead, sludging up my glasses. No matter; we’re not going far. By the time we arrived at the train station (which seemed to be about four hours later), I was completely drenched. Nothing more fun than getting cleaned up, dressed, and soaked in sweat again in less than an hour… except maybe climbing on a plane for eight hours afterwards.

Still, we were early and our flight was on time, so, what the heck… we were on vacation.

One thing I enjoy about foreign travel is the immediate sense that I am definitely not at home. In Paris, I stepped off the plane and was immediately assaulted by the crowds and noise typical of any large airport. It only took a moment for me to realize, however, that it was not, say, Chicago. An indefinable melange of language, mannerisms, attitudes and a thousand other details combined to let me know I was now “somewhere else.” In Tanzania, as soon as I set foot on the tarmac I was instantly aware that the air was somehow alien. One simply knows when one is in a foreign country.

I knew going in that Puerto Rico was practically the 51st state. I knew this was not exactly the most exotic destination available. Still, it was somewhere new to me, and it is not technically a state. I was still counting it as “foreign.”

My wife and I got off the plane and had no trouble finding our way to baggage claim, as all the signs were in English. Oh, sure, they were in Spanish, too… but so are the signs all over our neighborhood. We were greeted by my parents, whose flight had arrived only an hour earlier. Don’t get me wrong, it was great to see them, but their presence didn’t add to the illusion of being “somewhere else.”

As we waited for our bags to come down the carousel, we were greeted by the official Puerto Rico Board of Tourism Dancers. A half dozen men singing and a half dozen women dancing, all in brightly-colored costumes. A little cheesy, perhaps, but they were quite good and it passed the time while our bags made the journey from plane to terminal. I tried to pretend it was all very authentic and re-establish my perception of being in a new country.

Bags in hand (they all arrived!) we went for a taxi. The four of us piled into a minivan and headed for the hotel where my middle sister’s group would be waiting. The sun had just gone down, so I couldn’t see too well, but I could still take in a little of the landscape. It reminded me a lot of LA, right down to the American highway signage, heavy on the Spanish names.

A couple miles from the airport, we passed an enormous billboard with Will Smith lounging on the word “Hancock” in big block letters. The movie hadn’t even opened at home yet, and here it was being promoted just as heavily in Puerto Rico. More than anything, this finally shattered the illusion for me: I was still in the States.

Next episode: She Sells Taco Shells By The Sea Shore

Tropical Ointment

So, we’re back from the Caribbean, lightly tanned, thoroughly cooked and basted in rum. Being bored with the themes in my blog from the last few months, I’m going to review and relate the cruise experience here. This will likely be broken up into several installments. I’m also hopeful that this will get me back into travel writing mode so I can get back to work on my book, which has been set aside for other projects for far too long.

So, without further ado…

Andy’s Adventure of the Seas

The plans for this cruise started out as a high school graduation gift from my sister to her son. It quickly grew into a small family reunion, including both of my sisters with their families and my parents. In all, 12 of us would be taking a trip south for eight days and seven nights of laziness and overeating. I was quite enthusiastic, as it had been a while since my last truly relaxing vacation. The closest I’ve come was two years ago, lounging poolside at my parent’s house… a wonderful trip, but I was attached to my cell phone the whole time, as we were in the process of buying a house.

I figured a Caribbean cruise wouldn’t involve anything more complex than choosing which combination of rum and fruit to try next. My only real concern was the weather; I don’t much care for the heat. With three swimming pools and countless blenders, I’d have to find a way to struggle through.

Most of the group would be arriving in Puerto Rico the day before the cruise, just to allow for unexpected weather delays, airline mergers or Communist plots. The last four, my oldest sister’s family, were arriving the day of the cruise, but still a good five hours before departure.

Now, I love my family. I consider myself very fortunate to have relatives through both blood and marriage who I not only get along with, but also enjoy travel. That said, enjoying a bit of time out of the country with just my wife has some appeal, too. We booked an extra two nights in Puerto Rico after the cruise, just the two of us. As if fate (and the incomprehensible airline rate tables) considered it a good idea, by flying out two days later, our airfare dropped enough to offset the cost of the hotel room.

So, to summarize the setup: 8 people, 1 night in PR, 12 people, 7 night cruise, 2 people, 2 nights in PR.

Next episode: One Night With Hancock.