Friday, June 3, 2011

Cruise

I took my first ocean cruise—from New Orleans to four Caribbean ports—from May 8-15, thanks to the generosity of my friend, Anne Bryson, who won a cruise for two from Harrah’s Casino and invited me to go with her.

I flew to New Orleans on Saturday, May 7, and arrived at the airport in late afternoon, an hour after Anne had arrived.  We met in the baggage claim area and took a shuttle to Harrah’s Hotel, a block away from the French Quarter (map).  
We had dinner that night at the buffet at Harrah’s Casino, across the street from the hotel, and I focused on seafood:  crab legs and shrimp. Then, before leaving the casino, we stopped at a slot machine where Anne put in a $20 bill and was rewarded—in less than two minutes—with a $410 win.  Then Anne said, “We should leave now,” and so we did.

Day 1 (May 8)
Jen and Anne at Café du Monde
Jennifer, my sister-in-law, walked to our hotel mid-morning and took a taxi with us to Café du Monde for beignets and café au lait.   

Next, we browsed nearby shops for hats to take on our cruise since neither Anne nor I had thought to bring one.  Then Jen wished us bon voyage, and Anne and I took a taxi to the pier to begin our 7-day cruise.

We went through security at the Erato Street Cruise Terminal and at 2 p.m. climbed the inclined ramp that brought us onto the Norwegian Cruise Lines ship, the Spirit.
Ship's reception area
staircase and elevators


We spent the rest of the day getting to know the ship, but first toasting each other with “Hurricanes” to wish ourselves a great cruise, then eating a late lunch in the Raffles Court buffet, and afterwards finding our cabin on the eighth floor of the forward part of the ship, where our luggage had already been delivered
We unpacked our clothes to drawers and closet to reduce clutter in our small cabin, which nevertheless wasn’t as small as I’d feared. 
The window side of our cabin
The door side of our cabin











The large window in our cabin gave a constant view of the land and water we traversed during the next seven days.  It let in sunlight during the day and, at night, lights from the shore—if we were near land—telling us we were passing a city or refinery or pueblo.  The direction of the sunlight from our window also oriented me to the ship’s direction.  Sometimes at night, the only light to be seen came from the stars overhead, just enough to illuminate the white froth bubbling up at the tops of waves.  A lifelong resident of the hinterland, I never ceased to be fascinated by the show of the sea.

At 5 p.m. of that first day, the ship’s engines started up with a deep, trembling growl as though a great beast were coming to life, we inside it like Jonah, feeling the thrum of life in that leviathan. 
A carved mermaid looks out to sea
Anne and I went out on the promenade to watch the ship begin its long trip down the Mississippi River, and later we watched the setting of the sun in the comfortable observation area at the bow of the ship.  
Actually, I had mistakenly thought that New Orleans sat close to the mouth of the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, but I learned otherwise that night as I looked out our cabin window at intervals to see if the lights from the land had receded.  Not until nearly dawn did I look out on nothing but water.  (Here's a map that shows New Orleans and the long stretch of the Mississippi as it meanders to the Gulf.)

The first day on board ended with an excellent dinner in La Trattoria Restaurant, where we were especially impressed by the smiling, gracious, attentive but not obtrusive service, which we would receive from the wait staff and cabin stewards throughout our cruise. 

And so to bed, rocked gently to sleep as the Spirit made its way to sea .

Day 2 (May 9)
Monday was our first full day on the ship, spent at sea with no stops at any ports.  Our first stop at a port would be at Costa Maya in the state of Yucatán, México, on the following day, Tuesday, May 10. 

The view from the aft deck outside Raffles Court buffet
Anne had risen earlier, tip-toeing out of our cabin to get herself some coffee and breakfast while I slept.  When I awoke, I showered, dressed, and went to Raffles Court for breakfast:  lox and bagels, bacon, watermelon, orange juice, and coffee.  I ate on the deck outside the restaurant and then wrote in my journal over more coffee.  [See the photo to the left.]
 

Then I checked out the library where computers and internet access were available.  Creating an internet account aboard the ship cost a reasonable one-time fee of $3.75 and then—or so I thought—75 cents an hour to access the internet.  So I checked my email and mailed a few replies and was about to read the news on Google News when I overheard a woman explain to her husband as they walked by that it would cost 75 cents per minute to get online.  I quickly reread the fee notice and discovered that, sure enough, she was right!  I logged off a few minutes later.  So much for my idea of posting to my blog each day on the cruise itself.  But it was probably for the best, giving me more incentive to do than to sit in front of a computer during this cruise.


Around noon, Anne and I lunched together at Raffles again, and she said she was feeling a lot better.  After lunch, she went to the Star Dust Theatre to watch a magic show and then to the casino.  (Because of gambling laws in the U.S. and in the other countries we visited, the ship's casino could operate only when we weren’t stopped at a port.)  Since I’m not much into magic or gambling, I went swimming in the ship’s pool instead.  (Dang, sure wish I had a picture of me in my bathing suit to post here, but I don’t.  )  


The pool was deep—5’ 5” at the shallow end—and I’m only 5’ 1” tall, but I soon discovered that the water was so salty that I didn’t have to do anything—swim, tread water, or make any movement whatsoever—to stay afloat.  All l had to do was “stand” vertically and do nothing.  But where’s the fun in that?  So I swam and splashed around and watched the crowds of people, young and old, in bikinis and trunks, shades and hats, swim, sun themselves, and people-watch as I did.   And after a while, a band of musicians in brightly flowered shirts started playing lively reggae music from the bandstand next to the pool.  After an hour or so in the pool, I got out and lay in the sun to dry off, get some sun, listen to the tropical music and continue to observe the people around me. Here's a little bit of what I saw and heard:



When I realized that I was getting sunburned, I returned to our cabin to rinse the salt off my burnt skin and my swimsuit.  Anne wasn’t back yet, so I took my book of short stories—Close Range by Annie Proulx—to the observation area, where we’d watched the sun set the day before, to read and soak up the sight of the sea in all directions.   How comforting at intervals to lift my eyes from a page of Proulx’s vivid descriptions of a blinding Wyoming blizzard and behold  the vivid reality of tranquil, tropical waters overhung by a blue sky and bright sun.


I went back to the cabin at about 5 p.m., and Anne showed up soon after, feeling seasick.  When she’d showered in the morning, she’d taken off her seasickness-preventing wristbands and forgotten to put them back on.  I brought her a Sprite to calm her stomach and then went to dinner on my own—back to La Trattoria, the Italian restaurant I’d enjoyed so much the night beforeordering seafood fettuccine with shrimp and calamari.  Delish!

Anne was still feeling queasy and went to sleep soon after I returned to our cabin.  I read Proulx for a while, plunging into each story and better understanding the empty vastness of Wyoming for having observed the empty vastness of the sea around me earlier in the day.  Before going to sleep, I wrote in my journal, trying to chronicle the day's activities.


Shortly after midnight, I woke up to go to the loo.  When I returned to my bed, I lifted the window curtain and looked out, surprised to see lights all along the Mexican shore we’d neared while I'd been sleeping.  I watched our swift southern progress for a while before falling back to sleep.  At one point, I saw a row of bright yellow lights laid out horizontally at regular intervals, like pearls on a necklace, and in the middle of the necklace and above it, an elongated rectangle of even brighter lights, suggesting an enormous theatre or carnival marquee.  What could this place have been?  I still have no idea.  I should have asked our cabin steward the next day but didn’t think to do so.  Does anyone out there know?

Day 3 (May 10)

I woke around 8 a.m. on Tuesday, aware that I needed to shower, dress, and eat breakfast in time to go on my first excursion—biking and kayaking—when we docked at the port of Costa Maya, Quintana Roo, México, around 10:15 a.m.  Anne had risen, dressed, and left before I even woke up, as she had the day before.  I ate breakfast in one of the two main dining rooms, Windows, where as usual the food and service were excellent.


Passengers who wanted to visit Costa Maya had two choices:  (1) explore—shop, dine, walk around, people-watch, whatever—on their own, or (2) sign up for one of 20 or more organized shore excursions.  Months ago, I had signed up for a biking-and-kayaking excursion.

Shopping center at Costa Maya

We disembarked, hundreds of us, walking a short gangplank to the concrete pier and thence to a tourist area—about 10 minutes away—centered around a large swimming pool that was encircled by restaurants, cafes, bars, and shops of all kinds, from costly jewelry stores to liquor stores to souvenir shops.


In front of this tourist area, large signs—each of which listed a particular shore excursion—were posted.  Each of us lined up in front of the sign that named the excursion we’d signed up for.  About 16 people of all ages had signed up for the biking-and-kayaking excursion, and our guide, Miguel, and his assistant, Edgar, quickly gathered us up and directed us to an area behind the shops where the bikes were parked. 

Our biking/kayaking guides
Miguel (far right) and Edgar

Miguel began by wishing those of us who were mothers a Happy Mother’s Day because, as he explained, May 10 is Mother’s Day in México, and it’s an important day in that country.  Then, he introduced himself and his assistant and gave us an overview of our excursion.  Then he said we should choose a bike for ourselves. 

Happily, the bikes were the comfortable touring kind:  high handlebars, thickly padded seats, and no gears to shift.  In short, they were the kind of bike that anyone who’d ever ridden a bike could ride.

Me and my bike
Before taking off, we stowed our stuff—water bottles, tote bags, cameras, hats, etc.—in the back of Miguel’s red pickup, and he drove behind us bikers to a place on the beach about three miles away where kayaks awaited us.  Edgar, on the other hand, rode ahead of us on his bike, leading us through the small town behind the tourist area, into the countryside, and then to a small town, Mahahual,  whose beach was lined with more shops and street vendors.  It took us perhaps a half hour, just enough time to work up a light sweat in the mid-morning heat but nothing too taxing.

MIguel briefed us about our kayaking
excursion here in the Luna de Plata Hotel
Arriving at our destination, we parked our bikes and were guided into the upper room of a thatched-roofed building (known as a palapa in Spanish, according to Miguel) whose sign announced it to be the “Luna de Plata [Silver Moon] Hotel.”  There, each of us was given a bottle of water and a document to sign, releasing our guide from legal responsibility should we come to harm during the kayaking excursion.  After we all signed the document, Miguel said, “Now that I have you in my power…!”  We had to laugh, of course. Obviously, our guide Miguel knows how estadounidenses [people from the USA] operate. 


In México, people aren’t as litigious as we are here.  I commented one day, while I was living in Xalapa, Veracruz, México, during the 2007-2008 academic year, to Margarita, my dear friend and helper—and sister of Isabel Macías González, my Fulbright Exchange partner—that in the USA, a person who suffers injury in a store or on public property would likely hire a lawyer and sue the store owner or the government for damages.  “Does this happen in México?” I asked, stepping carefully around a hole in the sidewalk that we were walking. 


“No,” Margarita said.  “Here, store owners and the government can always afford to hire a better lawyer than a private citizen can, so it’s a waste of a person’s time and money.”  And while it's true here in the U.S. too that money buys the best lawyers, in many cases poor people's suits bring restitution for harms suffered due to a company's or government's negligence.


I learned a lot about Mexican society—and the contrast between it and that of the USA—from Margarita that day.  And so, I understood Miguel’s precaution in requiring us estadounidenses to sign release forms before he took us kayaking. 

Our kayaks were lined up on this beach, and we
paddled one-quarter mile toward our ship,
seen in the background

After signing our lives away, as Miguel had joked, we were directed to the kayaks lined up on the beach across from the hotel.  Miguel taught those of us who had never kayaked before how to do it before we took off.  Everyone except a young woman from Germany and me was part of a couple or a family so, kindly, Miguel said I should go in his kayak and the young German woman should go in Edgar’s.


We kayaked about a quarter mile through beautifully blue-green water to a place where we could swim.  At times, we could see the pasto marino (sea grass) below us and at other times only pure white sand.


At a certain point, Miguel stopped our kayak and the others’ so that we could get out and swim for 30 minutes in the cool water, which was shallow enough in most spots so that we could stand on the sea bottom.  During that time, I enjoyed talking with Miguel and the others and soaking up the sun and the sights of the tropical shore.

Miguel, our excellent
guide, and me

Then we kayaked back to our starting point, the Luna de Plata Hotel.  There we spent another 30 minutes or so, relaxing on the beach, taking pictures, and shopping.  I ended up buying a coral necklace for $30 (down from $78).  I don’t know if I got a good deal, but I do like the necklace. 


After we biked back to our starting point, we were free to shop some more, swim in the pool, or whatever.  I window-shopped a bit and then stopped in an open-air restaurant, covered by a huge palapa roof, and ordered chips and salsa and a chelada:  a Tecate Lite (but any beer would do) served in a beer glass with a salted rim, over ice into which about a third cup of fresh lime juice had been squeezed.  I’m not a beer drinker, but I do love a Mexican chelada.  (Here’s a chelada recipe that seems very authentic.

My view from the restaurant; the beach is a
stone's throw away
When the salsa arrived, however, I thought better of eating it.  I figured my gringa gut had lost its immunity to the indigenous bacteria in Mexican food during the years I’d been living back in the U.S., so as tempting as it looked and smelled, I left it alone, eating only the chips.  My friend Margarita had long ago taught me the wisdom of going slow in introducing new foods to my stomach.


Palapa interior view
While I was drinking my chelada, a woman I’d met while resting in a hammock on the beach after kayaking--Sandy, from Texas—appeared in the restaurant with her husband, Lon.  I invited them to sit at my table.  Lon wanted to take a photo of the palapa of palm leaves or pasto rojo, but his camera battery had died.  I said I’d mail him the picture I’d already taken, and I said I’d take of photo of the two of them since they were celebrating their fortieth wedding anniversary—but then I got caught up in talking with them and forgot, darn it.


From the restaurant, I walked back to the ship.  Anne was already back from her excursion—I forget which one she went on—but said that the heat had been brutal and she’d decided to cancel her excursion to the Tulum pyramid on Friday. 

Anne in the Windows Main
Dining Room on the Spirit

Anne then went to swim in the pool, and I showered, dressed, and went to eat in Raffles Court.  Afterwards, I wrote in my journal and then took a rest in our cabin.  At 7:15, Anne and I met up again in the Windows Main Dining Room for dinner.  I began with a “Mediterranean sampler” as an appetizer (hummus, roasted red pepper salsa, and lamb sausage wrapped in a grape leaf) followed by an entrée of salmon fillet with broad noodles.  I also had two glasses of Hangtime Pinot Noir—yum!  And I was too full for dessert.


After dinner, I went back to the cabin and got ready for bed.  I had gotten quite sunburnt on my face, arms and especially my legs while kayaking, so I took some aspirin and rubbed lotion on my reddened skin.  Anne went to an acrobatic show in the Star Dust Theatre and then to the casino.





Day 4 (May 11)


The ship captain had advised over the loud speaker the previous night to set back our watches by one hour because we would be crossing into a new time zone.  Unfortunately, I trusted my iPhone to do this automatically, but that didn’t happen.  Also, unfortunately for Anne, she relied on my iPhone alarm to wake her at 7:00 p.m. but discovered after dressing, eating, and meeting on board at the appointed spot for her Roatán, Honduras, excursion that she’d gotten up an hour earlier than she’d intended.  (Roatán is a Honduran island located 30 miles north of the country itself.) 


The excursion I'd signed up for—to go kayaking, hiking, and snorkeling—didn’t begin until after 11 a.m., so after a room-service breakfast, I got back into bed to write in my journal and read.  As I noted, “I’m loving the short stories in Proulx’s Close Range.  And I love lying here with nothing better to do than write and read.”


I almost missed my excursion because I had trouble finding the location where my group was to meet on ship before disembarking.  And then when I found the place, I had to make a dash back to my cabin to get my photo ID, a requirement for getting off and back on board.  Luckily, I was able to wave down one of the two buses, packed with people, that were already leaving the parking area for Luna Beach.  All the other seats were taken, so I sat up front between the driver and a guide.


After the short, jouncing ride to Luna Bay, we got out of the buses and were assigned to two groups, each led by a guide and two helpers.  At a restaurant close to the beach, our guide  instructed us in how to kayak, and then we stowed our stuff—cameras, totes, etc.—in a locked closet before trooping across the street to the beach where the kayaks awaited.  Alfredo, the guide for my group, took me under his wing (as had Miguel during my previous excursion) since I was there on my own while most of the other tourists were parts of couples or family units.


We kayaked for 20-25 minutes to another spot on the beach where we cooled off with a short swim and then set off on a 30-minute hike into hilly terrain above the beach.  As we walked, Alfredo and his helpers pointed out some of the fruits that grow abundantly on Roatán:  bananas, pineapples, mangos, papaya, and noni fruit.


After the hike, we kayaked back to the beach where we’d started and returned to the same restaurant, where we were served quesadillas, chips and salsa, fresh fruit, and iced tea or lemonade before being issued snorkels and fins for the next part of our excursion.


Our group was divided into three smaller groups so that each of us could get more individualized snorkeling instruction and help from our guides.  Alfredo was in charge of the more experienced group, people who had snorkeled before, but he included me as well (I suspect he was tasked with helping the aged and infirm).  The plan was for us to swim out to the coral reef where the most beautiful fish and coral formations are found. 


Although Alfredo tried to prepare me for the swim to the reef and the snorkeling when we got there, I decided not to go with the rest.  The snorkeling wasn't hard to do, but I couldn't get the hang of righting myself from a swimming position while wearing fins.  I feared I might forget to only breathe through my mouth and end up instinctively breathing through my nose, inhaling water, if I were struggling to right myself in deeper water.   

So I told Alfredo and the others to go on and I would practice snorkeling in the shallow waters near shore. A young woman of 22, who like me wasn’t a strong swimmer, stayed behind as well.  For the next 40-45 minutes, I snorkeled without fins.  The sights were less than stellar:  stretches of white sandy bottom interrupted by large patches of sea grass; tiny nearly transparent fishes darting and disappearing within it; and one slightly larger fish gulping down a smaller one.  Yet I felt elated at having mastered the use of a snorkel and told myself I’d master fins another time.


Bingo in the Galaxy of the Stars Lounge
Our excursion took a little longer than was planned, but we made it back to our ship by the deadline, 4:30 p.m.  (Whew!  Can you imagine our relief?  What if we'd had to stay on that tropical island for more than a few hours?) Anne’s excursion had ended before mine, and she had gone after that to the Galaxy of the Stars Lounge to play bingo, which is where I found her after I’d shower and dressed again.   

View of the Garden Room, one of two main dining rooms
I was too late to buy my own bingo cards, so I helped Anne keep track of the four she’d bought.  I brought her an extra pair of eyes but not any good luck.  Having lost at bingo, Anne decided to go to the casino. She’s already eaten dinner, so I suited myself by going to the Garden Room, where I had cheese tortellini.  It was good but not as good as the spaghetti carbonara I’d had at La Trattoria.


After dinner, I went back to the cabin to read awhile but fell asleep early, tired from the day’s fun.





Day 5 (May 12)


On Thursday morning, our ship anchored outside of Belize City.  None of the excursions there had appealed to me so I hadn’t signed up for any , but I planned to go ashore to look around.  Anne and I had breakfast in the Windows Main Dining Room, and then I returned to our cabin to stretch out on my comfy bed to read a bit.  I was enjoying Annie Proulx’s short stories more and more.  Eventually, though, languor overtook me, and I napped until lunch time.


After lunch in the Raffles Court buffet, I went back to the cabin to read and nap some more.  I had decided not to go ashore in Belize, a decision I regret now because when will I get back there to see this country?  When I was a graduate student at New Mexico State University in 1990-1992, I had met and become friends with Isabel, a woman from Belize, but as I was preparing to take this cruise, I couldn’t for the life of me remember her last name.  I had wanted to contact her and perhaps meet with her when I was in her country, but all I could remember was her first name, so I had no way of contacting her. 


An aside:  Wouldn’t you know:  two weeks ago when I was going through old papers, I found an index card with Isabel Tun’s name on it!  How great it would have been to see her again and find out what’s going on in her life.  I was able to google her name and find a short biography and list of her publications as a professor at the University of Belize on this website:  http://www.mybelize.net/main/index.php?section=23  But I haven’t been able to find an email address for her yet.


"A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou"--or rather, a Nook for a book,
a margarita, and Reggae playing in the background--and "wilderness
[or in this case, the vast sea] is paradise enow.*"
Later that afternoon, Anne and I went to the card room and played a couple games of Scrabble.  From there, we adjourned to a table on a covered deck near the pool to read our books, listen to the Reggae music, and sip margaritas.  Ah, what a life!



Dessert at Le Bistro--I think Anne
had mousse, and I had profiteroles
For dinner that night, we went to Le Bistro, a French restaurant that charged a $15 cover charge per person.  Not only that; two entrees on the menu came with additional charges (all other entrees were free), and I had to have the lobster bathed in an alfredo sauce to the tune of $10—and worth it.  Add to that a glass of wine ($7 or $8), and the meal cost $32 or $33.  Although that's a modest amount for a good meal at a French restaurant, it drove home to me the realization that a cruise is definitely not the all-expenses-paid proposition it would appear at first.


Anne and I ended the day in the Star Dust Theatre watching a show, “Second City.”  Or rather, I tried to watch it but started feeling a little seasick as we sat in swivel chairs in a balcony.  I moved to a stationary seat, but my stomach still felt unsettled—and perhaps it was because of too much food and wine.  At any rate, I left Anne there and returned to the cabin—and so to sleep.


Day 6 (May 13)

Day 7 (May 14)

Day 8 (May 15)

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