Thursday, March 29, 2007

Grand Cayman

My first land "excursion" was in Grand Cayman. Since my friend had "been there, done that," I was pretty much on my own for all of the land excursions. I didn't book anything through the cruise line in advance because they're kind of expensive (and I'm not exactly Mr. Moneybags). I figured there would be local bus tours available for cheapskates like me and, in this case, I was right. After being tendered in, I quickly found a bus tour at a very modest price.

The first stop was Hell. When I saw the road signs for Hell I figured I had landed on an island inhabited by smart alecks. I was intrigued until we got there and found out that very well may be the case. It turns out Hell is little more than an inland coral reef with the occasional iguana hanging out, catching some sun (Dante would have been underwhelmed). According to legend, it got its name when some Brit shot at a bird, missed, and yelled, "Bloody Hell!" Of course, this not particularly impressive attraction came with it's own souvenir shop ("The Devil's Hangout") which we were encouraged to explore. The souvenirs consisted mainly of t-shirts and hats emblazoned with every imaginable pun involving the word "Hell." Of course, I had to have the "I've Been to Hell and Back" hat for my father and the "Here Comes Trouble, Hell, Grand Cayman" t-shirts with little devils on them for my niece and nephew. The guy who rang me up was an elderly man with unusual facial hair, horns, and a cape: Satan himself. Again, Dante would have been disappointed, but secretly I wished I had a job as simple as his. Coincidentally, I experienced my own "hell on Earth" in the men's room shortly before leaving and almost missed the bus.

Our next stop was... another souvenir shop (I was getting the impression there wasn't a whole lot to be seen on Grand Cayman). This one mainly sold Tortuga rum and rum cakes. Samples for both were pretty good, but I was hardly in the market. Afterwards, we drove by the Turtle Farm. This and the Seven Mile Beach were the main attractions (aside from the tax shelters that make banking the island's biggest industry). From where we parked alongside the road, we could see the flippers of countless turtles flipping away in their large pools. Our bus unanimously decided to pass on the somewhat pricey Turtle Farm tour. Instead we drove around some more, our informed guide pointing out Bill Gate's place, where the Queen of England had stayed, and the leftover devastation from Hurricane Ivan. We were also informed that the movie, The Firm, had been filmed there (a movie I remember mostly for being about photocopying and Tom Cruise's face).

After we dropped off a couple people at Seven Mile Beach, we headed back to George Town; the tour was over. I had a couple hours before being due back on the ship, so I wandered around a bit, called my Mom to wish her a happy birthday, and then headed over to Coconut Joe's to get something for lunch (I had a very good fish sandwich and drank a few pints of a local beer). While I was eating, I eavesdropped on some locals who were complaining about all the development going on. Is there any place on the planet where this conversation doesn't take place? It was comforting to me, that even in paradise, people will find something to bitch about.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Part 6

It's no secret that food is one of the big selling points of a cruise (except on Carnival which I heard is little more than a floating frat house). I ate like a pig even though I had planned on watching myself. Sure, I could have skipped a couple courses of the 5 course dinners served every night, but why deprive yourself while you're on vacation? That wouldn't make any sense. There would be plenty of time for deprivation once I got back to Jersey.

The food was ridiculous. Everything was good and it's available all the time. The lunch buffet was hardly what you would call "light." You could go a little crazy with all that food and it wasn't unusual to see people piling two plates high at breakfast or lunch. I stuck to one plate, but sometimes I would end up with odd combinations. I've never had fried shrimp with pizza before, but when it's there, just staring you in the face, it's hard to resist. Breakfast was a particular treat since my normal breakfast consists of a bowl of cereal. Pancakes, waffles, scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage (links and patties); I had them all during the cruise.

I also made my first acquaintance with the bizarre Baked Alaska ritual. On the penultimate night of the cruise, lobster tail is generally served for dinner with Baked Alaska for dessert. Before dessert is served, the restaurant staff is introduced and then, with much fanfare, the Baked Alaska is brought out, held aloft by the waiters with a lit candle in the middle, and paraded around the dining room while diners are encouraged to go nuts and wave their napkins in salute to what, by all appearances, is the King of Desserts.

Believe it or not, I've never had Baked Alaska before, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Imagine my surprise when it turns out that the Baked Alaska is nothing more than a glorified ice cream cake. Sorry, but this emperor has no clothes. Seriously, I've had better from Carvel (I would take a French Bordeaux-laden Cookie Puss over the Baked Alaska's meager meringue covering any day).

The other major food spectacle was the Grand Buffet. Have you ever seen a goose in mid-flight made out of cold cuts and olives? Well, neither had I until I viewed the various food sculptures on display during the Grand Buffet. I only went to the "viewing" because I had just finished my dinner (how people were able to continue gorging themselves after they just ate dinner is beyond me). Plus, I don't think I would have had the heart to make a sandwich out of that goose's head.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Part 5

The upper deck was like an open-air morgue with the soon-to-be-corpses dressed in bathing suits, greased and glistening under the oppressive Caribbean sun.

I'm only kidding (I got carried away by Yakimba's Lord Jim comment). Hanging out on the Sun Deck during the "at sea" days was one of the highlights of the cruise. It really is relaxing. And we had great weather the entire time. If I was a "sun worshipper," I probably would have enjoyed it even more. But because I am a pale face and a "sun scoffer" ("Fuck you, Sun!"), I would apply my sunscreen and scurry about the deck with my book or ipod seeking shadows (after I got scorched in New Orleans years ago and ended up looking like the Elephant Man, I've been a little more careful about getting burned). I was successful for the most part, but one day shade was hard to come by and I ended up with red knees and shins. No big deal. They would return to their regular luminescent white soon enough.

The one mistake I made was bringing a book I hadn't even started yet. In this case it was Richard Ford's Independence Day. I had read and enjoyed a couple of his books years ago (especially his short story collection Rock Springs). I had picked up a remaindered copy of Independence Day at B & N a while back and finally decided to read it when I recently saw it included on the NY Times Best American Novels of the last 25 Years list.

Ever read a book where you find yourself saying, "No, No, No, No?" No, people don't speak this way. No, people don't behave this way. Every thing in this book just feels unbelievable and wrong to me. And the first 100 pages in which the annoying main character Frank Bascombe, a real estate agent from NJ, tries to sell a house to an equally annoying couple of grumps from Vermont, may be the most tedious and frustrating 100 pages I have ever read. And the crazy thing is I'm determined to finish this book (I still have about a 100 pages to go) just so I can claim to have disliked it from beginning to end (and, no, I won't be jumping into the sequel any time soon).

But even with a crummy book, hanging out on a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean Sea is a pretty good thing.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Part four

On the first night of the cruise there was a "Singles Only" event in one of the bars on the ship. After surveying the crowd, I joked with my friend at dinner that we would be the only ones there. I wasn't that far off. Aside from us, there was some guy I had already crossed paths with at another bar before dinner. He was traveling alone. Wherever I go, it seems, I can't shake these lonely guys. I wonder if they feel the same about me? Probably. We're everywhere! His name was Bud or Mac or something--I've already forgotten. He was a smoker and had grubby smoker's hands. Right off the bat he let it be known that he was on his second consecutive cruise (he was about my age and claimed that he was "semi-retired"--I had no interest in pursuing this topic further, so I never found out how he made all his money). When he found out I worked in publishing, he also claimed that he read "a book a day" (he liked history and science fiction). It sounded like bullshit to me, but who am I to judge? Maybe he really was some grubby rich genius. And if he was deluding himself? So what. Where would we be without our illusions? It was only when he started calling us "Yankees" because we were from NJ (he was from FL) that he became annoying (what's with these Southern guys who never got over the Civil War? Is that some sort of regional mental disease?). Strangely, I never ran into Southern Man during the rest of the cruise (he was probably in his "stateroom" reading).

The only other "singles" present were a woman from Queens who turned out to be the sister of the ship's chaplain (sad to say, I never made it to any of his services) and some creepy married guy who was also traveling alone for some reason (and possibly looking for a little action on the side--man, was he shit out of luck!). When the piano man working hard to "entertain" us carefree singles began to irritate, my friend and I made a hasty retreat ("if a cruise ship piano man plays and there is no one there to hear him...").

Monday, March 19, 2007

The pros and cons of cruising, part three

For a preview of the myriad mortifications of the flesh, you can hardly beat a cruise. Or, more specifically, you could hardly beat my cruise (my friend, a veteran cruiser, suggested that the reason our ship had become "a floating nursing home" was because we had left out of western Florida, a known magnet for the elderly and the retired). Not only had my shuttle bus trip foretold what I was in store for, but a wait at the pier before boarding allowed me a long, hard look at my fellow passengers.

I had positioned myself beneath an escalator leading to the ship so that I would be able to meet my friend before boarding. Because I refuse to join the cell phone craze, I still rely on "old fashioned" plans which, in this case, blew up in my face when my friend somehow walked right past me and boarded the ship without me (my friend had obviously forgotten "the plan"). This left me waiting for a good hour and a half before I learned what had happened. During this time I watched my fellow passengers as they hobbled with walkers, were rolled in wheelchairs, or, in one instance, led by a seeing eye dog up the gangway (I meant the escalator--"gangway" just sounds more Conradian). Their mental faculties didn't seem too keen either. There was a huge sign and arrow clearly pointing to the escalator on a pair of closed automatic doors, but over and over again, like the flesheaters in Night of the Living Dead, they would attempt to pry the doors open and enter only to elicit the quick response of a Bobby "The Brain" Heenan-lookalike within who would shoo them, like cattle, to the escalator. If I didn't have to get on the ship myself, I think I could have watched that all day.

When I finally boarded alone a photographer was ready to document this momentous occasion on the real gangway to the ship. I guess they weren't accustomed to solo passengers, so to help me feel less alone, one of the shipmates leaned in at the last second and smiled broadly (I was later given the opportunity to purchase this very odd photo onboard--me wearing my usual "condemned to death" expression and this complete stranger smiling like an idiot beside me--I declined). "Welcome to the Ship of the Damned," said a pretty young steward as she offered me a glass of champagne upon boarding. Or, at least, that's what I thought she said. I declined the champagne as well. If I was going to endure this cruise, I thought, I would need a clear head.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The pros and cons of cruising, part two

As I made my way down the escalator to baggage claims in Tampa International airport, I saw a couple elderly ladies waving Celebrity cruise line signs. There was a bus shuttle service to the ship and I quickly made arrangements to take it (at $18 it was a bargain compared to the $36 cab ride from Bayonne to Newark--I guess part of the deal of living in the NYC area is that you are routinely getting ripped off).

As I waited, I couldn't help but notice a developing trend: most of the people boarding the bus appeared to be in their 60s or 70s. This wasn't a big surprise. Retirees generally have more time and money to travel, I thought. I even smiled to myself when an old time dude decked out in pastel shorts and t-shirt and a fanny pack boarded the bus with a hearty, "Who's got the rum?!" Well, I thought, they may be older, but at least they're lively. Then a dozen or so elderly ladies boarded the bus en masse and began gabbing about their various ordeals in arriving in Tampa. They sounded like a group of extras from the movie Fargo (actually, they were from Milwaukee, but that's close enough). My heart began to sink. Holy fuck, I thought, what have I gotten myself into this time?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The pros and cons of cruising, part one

I've never been very good at making vacation plans. The main reason for this is because I'm not particularly interested in traveling alone. Traveling alone just strikes me as an even lonelier experience than my ordinary day to day life. And who wants to go away only to feel worse about yourself? In the past I've tagged along with friends when they suggested a trip, but more often than not, I end up taking a week off in the summer and using the remainder of my vacation time around the holidays at the end of the year ("use it or lose it").

So, when a friend in Florida proposed a cruise out of Tampa, I couldn't refuse (although I did hesitate for a moment because of a flashback to a disastrous one-day cruise to Freeport, Bahamas I took many years ago, my only other cruising experience). Ten days also seemed kind of long to me, but with five days devoted to stops in Grand Cayman, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, and Mexico (none of which I had ever been to before), I figured I wouldn't feel too claustrophobic being on the boat for the five "at sea" days. Since I had no other plans on the horizon and didn't want to burn my vacation time like I did last year, I booked it.

The first leg of my journey was a flight out of Newark to Tampa. I gave myself the usual hour and a half before my departure, but I didn't count on a dirty old European hippie pitching a fit because he was too late to check his bag for his flight. This caused a logjam at the check-in counter and I came within minutes of being too late to check my own bag. By the time I got scanned for shoe bombs (I wonder if that dipshit shoebomber sits in his cell with a smile on his face, proud of the mass stupidity he has wrought at all the world's airports?) and reached my gate, they were already calling my row for boarding.

The flight was uneventful for the most part until I became preoccupied with the reading material of one of my fellow passengers. I'm always checking out what people are reading on the bus, train, plane etc. I like to know what people are interested in. Actually, I find it comforting that people still read. The guy next to me was reading a Dan Brown book (not the one that made him the new Stephen King, the other one). But the woman sitting diagonally across from me (a mother in her early 30s) was reading one of those celebrity gossip magazines (I never saw which one it was--does it matter?). I wondered how long it would take her to go through it. What with Anna Nicole Smith croaking and Britney Spears doing what she does best (drawing the media's attention), there was certainly plenty to ruminate on. When an hour passed and she was still reading, I became fixated and put aside my own book (Richard Ford's generally disappointing "Independence Day"--at this time I was still unaware that I may have been reading the most boring first 100 pages of any book I have ever read). Amazingly, this woman spent the entire flight (over 2 hours) poring over the pages of that magazine. Not only did she appear to analyze every photo and caption (do they even have text to go along with the photos anymore? It was hard to tell), but she even returned for a reread of the Anna and Britney stories. Was this woman an idiot? She didn't look like an idiot. She looked like a Soccer Mom. What's going on here?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Back from the Caribbean

I'm back from my 10-day, first-ever cruise of the Caribbean (more on that later) and things are already back to normal (read: "have already deteriorated badly"). Of course, I left my hairbrush behind in my "stateroom" (so much grander than "cabin," no?) and my comb had disappeared down a black hole in my apartment before I left, so, after a frantic search for anything to amass my overdue-for-a-haircut head of hair into something that didn't resemble a swirlie or attract the attention of the police on the lookout for escaped mental patients, I did something I suspect very few grown men have ever done: after a thorough scouring with hot water, I combed my hair with the toilet brush. I'm back, baby!

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