Friday, September 27, 2013

Deck Chairs

Where is everyone?
Deck chairs are one of the biggest problems on many cruise ships. Going to Alaska - not as much of a problem, but going south, passengers want to get out into the sun. To hell with the health warnings about the deadly “SUN”; by the time that February rolls around and you have shoveled several tons of snow, you want nothing more than to spend some time allowing your body to absorb some vitamin D. On some of the cruise ships, you have to get up early in the morning, take out your special “deck Chair Saving” equipment (A bag from another ship containing cheap flip-flops and a book) and put it on a good deck chair to save it for later when the sun comes out. If you do not do this the only deck chairs available are those with broken supports, and sitting in the shade. It is so bad on some ships that I have heard of fist fights ensuing when someone removed the material from an unoccupied chair and heaven forbid, actually used it. The problem has an inherent catch 22. If you do not reserve a chair, you cannot get one and because of this procedure, there are many chairs sitting unused for most of the say, just waiting for the time that the person wants to sit in the sun. During prime sunshine hours, the chairs are pretty much full, but other times most sit with cheap flip-flops and unread books gently simmering in the heat.

The ship crew do what they can to help alleviate the problem, by clearing chairs containing just a towel, and they cover as much surface area as possible with as many deck chairs as they can. It is difficult however to remove someone's bag, flip-flops and comfortably dog-eared book. Of course if they actually picked up the book and flip-flops they might notice that the day-glo pink of the unworn sandals does not really match the “Woodworking Tips for Retired Plumbers” published in 1956. Both items are “throw-aways” just in case someone is bold enough to remove them after they have sat there for four hours from 6:30 am to 10:30. Signs go up advising passengers that items will be removed from unoccupied chairs after 20 minutes, but I have yet to see any crew actually do this. Most ships have not figured out the fine line between annoying one person who reserved the chair or the 20 people searching for a chair.

Lots of chairs here
My favorite was once when I found a couple of chairs both unoccupied and in a nice quiet section of the deck. The only problem was that the good chairs were in the sun, and Regis wanted a chair in the shade, although I wanted to catch a few rays. I was able to move things around so we were comfortable with one in the shade and one on the sun, but I had to move a set of four chairs all with the usual assortment of “Chair Saving” items. Those chairs sat for two hours unused but occupied by someone's “things”. As the day progressed and the sun moved I had to move those four chairs a number of times to preserve our nice Sun/Shade combination. When the chairs “Owners” finally arrived their precious chairs were all in the shade, and I was occupying the sun such that it was really not easy for them to move them. They knew their chairs should have been in the sun, and they knew I had probably moved them, but I just sat there ignoring them through my “Gangsta” sunglasses (Regis hates these glasses, but they have their uses). They stood, fumed, looked around, stared at me with no result, discussed things among themselves, and finally picked up their “stuff” and moved on terribly annoyed that the system had failed them. Me, did I feel guilty? No, I just felt I was doing my part to free up some deck chairs, and someone came along a few minutes later and were overjoyed to find four nice shady unoccupied chairs.

Now on this Holland America ship, this is never a problem. The most popular deck chairs are the nice teak “Titanic” styled chairs down on deck three on the walk-around deck which is always in shade. There are always lots of chairs anywhere on the upper decks. If you want a chair in the sun, there are lots of them. The 80+ crowd is not as much into suntanning as the younger demographic is, and the tropical heat drives most of them into the AC equipped library or card room.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

BAJA 1000 . . . well 10 at least . . .

Lets GO!
One way that we save a bit of money on our cruise travel is to avoid taking all of the shore excursions. There are an amazing variety of things you can do at every port, but they all cost quite a lot. We have got into the habit of looking at them all, and choosing one organized tour on each cruise. People tell me that if you go ashore and bargain with some of the crowd of locals who greet you as soon as you get off the boat, you can get a better tour for a fraction of the money. We have usually stuck with the tours organized by the ship however, because if something ever happened, we know the ship would wait for us, where you are on your own if you go with the independent tours.

Tell us about the Baja 1000
On this cruise, we selected a tour out of the Mexican port of Cabo San Lucas; a mini 4 X 4 tour of the Baja region. Actually Regis found it, and thought I would like it because I would actually get to drive the vehicle. She had read the reviews and they were almost all very positive. It sounded like fun. We decided not to book early, because it was a long cruise and we doubted things would be sold out quickly. Once we were on board we put in our request, but were a bit disappointed when the original time was full, but a new tour had been added at 2:00 PM. This wasn't a serious problem, although since the ship was leaving at 6:00, and it was a 3.5 hour tour, we were cutting it a bit close. Let's hope that last tender waits for us . . . .

The tour started at a ranch out in the country, and each couple were assigned a bright red Honda “Big Red” two person ATV. After a brief tour, safety drill, and operation instructions, I chose a shiny red machine, passing up a couple that were starting to show the fading effects of the hot Mexican sun, so were probably a bit older. There were seven couples along for the tour, and one couple were returning, having done it three years ago (A good sign for sure).

Looking out on the Pacific
Once we set out, the tour proved to be very well organized and thoughtfully designed. The route was challenging with narrow sandy trails, tight switchback turns, gullies, and steep climbs. We had a guide in front, who encouraged the faster more adventurous of us to keep up with him, while a guide followed behind to ensure that those who were not as comfortable felt included and kept on track. This has to be difficult, for a guide; to go fast enough to satisfy us Baja 1000 wanna-be's as well as keeping those slower drivers with the group. They really did an excellent job, blasting ahead on some twisty sections, leading us back and forth across the road and around the Baja vegetation and allowing the others to follow the straight but boring roadway. It really made for a fun ride. The ATV's were powerful enough to make it fun, yet seemed safe and reliable even in difficult terrain. I had fun. Bounced off a few berms, clipped a few bushes, kicked up lots of dust, and slid through a few tight sandy turns.

We stopped twice, once on a hilltop overlooking the spectacular Baja countryside, and again on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. I think the three of us asking the guide for stories about when the Baja 1000 used to run through here encouraged him to pick up the pace a bit after this stop.

We had a great afternoon, and arrived back at the port in time to catch the last tender back to the ship. We were a little tired, and very dusty and dirty, but completely thrilled with this tour. We did miss our dinner in the dining room, and had to eat at the Lido buffet though. Shorts, flip-flops, out on the aft pool deck under the warm setting Mexican sun . . . . . . life is tough!

Medical Emergency . . .

Have Walker will Cruise.
If you look at the demographics of the “Cruising Crowd” you might notice that it is an older group. Holland America historically has appealed to a more “mature” cruiser; in fact I e-mailed mom from our last Holland America cruise to tell her she would fit right in because the subtitle for the cruise could definitely have been “Cruisin' with a cane” - mom was really suffering with her knees at that time, and found the last cruise with us difficult (I was not just being mean . . . . .). It was so bad that the dining room had a parking area for the scooters, motorized chairs, and walkers. A table next to us had one passenger dependent on an oxygen tank, one with a walker and another driving a motorized scooter.

Now with an aging clientele, there are going to be health issues, and I think it is wonderful that people with these issues can actually get away for a vacation, and I admire people with health issues that make an effort to get out and around, making the best of the situation. Many of them have realized that cruising is the one vacation option that is well equipped to support them. Most modern ships are very accessible, and have medical facilities and personnel that are actually better equipped than some of the countries the ships call on.

With a lot of people who have health issues, it is very possible that these facilities are gong to be called upon when people develop complications, have accidents, or conditions worsen. The cruise lines of course would like you to believe that everything is always perfect on their ships; nothing bad happens, no one gets hurt, and certainly no one ever dies. We have been on ships where people have been seriously hurt in traffic accidents while visiting ports, and there was a trip where a passenger died while on the cruise. In these incidents we happened to be sitting at dinner with someone who was there, or who knew the person, otherwise we would not have known anything at all had happened. There is no announcement made, and if you ask the crew, they “Do not know”. It is obviously a policy on cruise ships not to worry passengers about bad things; probably a good policy in fact, since they do not want folks to worry, but if we have seen three such incidents, they have to be more common than the lines let on.

On this ship however, it became unavoidable, as they had a serious medical emergency where a passenger had to be med-vacked from the ship. A coast guard helicopter had to be sent for, and the passenger had to be lifted off the ship and taken to hospital. An operation like this is kind of hard to hide from 1200 people, so the captain had to make an announcement. Of course it was kept very general, and rumours spread; he had a heart attack, he was drunk, fell and hit his head on the piano. Again, we had sat with a man who had been there and assisted as he had some pre-med training, and he told us the gentleman just collapsed while walking into the theater to join his wife for the evening performance. It was serious, because he was not breathing for a time, and was in pretty serious distress. It could have been a heart attack, but he did not appear to be drunk, and there was no piano involved.

The ship turned around, headed back closer to land, and a helicopter was dispatched to meet us. As the helicopter circled the ship, we could feel the ship slow, and full stabilizers activated. The Crows Nest Lounge and the theater were evacuated, as these rooms are at the front of the ship, and people were warned not to use flash photography which might distract the pilots.

We did not see the actual operation as our cabin is towards the back of the ship, and I figured there would be too many people up aft rubber-necking, trying to get a look at the emergency, but people who did see it claimed it was pretty amazing. As the ship steamed ahead at about 12 knots, the helicopter hovered overhead as if attached to the ship, and over a twenty minute period, the helicopter lowered emergency medical personnel who stabilized the patient, and airlifted him into the copter.

It was then back to business as usual. No announcements were made updating his condition, and the gentleman who had assisted him initially could not even get information from the crew. This sort of thing does not happen on cruise ships. . . . . it's not good for business. Go back to having fun, eat more food, order another “drink of the day”.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Details

Valve to where?
Bright Sunny Ocean View
We are on this cruise to see the full transit of the Panama Canal, but for the cruise line everyone on-board is a bonus, because they are moving the ship from a summer taking vacationers up to Alaska to a winter of cruising the warm aquamarine waters of the Caribbean. Called a repositioning cruise, it does not stop at the regular 'Cruise Ports', perhaps trying out some newer locations for future cruises. There are also more “sea days” or days where we steam all day without stopping. Some people avoid these cruises, finding them boring with all the days at sea with nothing to do (Even though the cruise directors always load on varied 'fun' activities). Having seen, done, or actively avoided these 'fun' activities, I will often take one of the sea days to really explore the ship with my camera, taking pictures of the many details that the rest of the passengers rush by on their way to the Spa for a special deal on some miraculous treatment, the daily bridge tournament, Rhumba classes, the 75% off sales on Alaska merchandise, or just to get those choice seats for the show.

Sweet Music of the Ocean
Lots of deck chairs
I look for the interesting shots, the water beading on the polished woodwork, the utilitarian hardware necessary to keep the ship running blending into the tourist glitz and glamor, the sun gleaming across the newly painted surfaces, or just the interesting shapes and patterns. You miss all these when you are rushing here and there, and taking a day just to look for them is a worthwhile endeavor. It is always easier to take your camera, as it help you focus on looking for the worthwhile photo, and the cruise ship is designed to focus your attention on the latest “Drink-of-the-day”, the latest not to miss activity, or the “too good to pass up” sale in the shops. They don't actually hide these interesting details, they just distract you from them to towards ways for you to hand someone your all purpose “cruise card” allowing you to spend some more money.

Ready for Dinner?
Patterns in the Teak
It is also interesting to watch people watch me taking pictures of interesting things. More times I have seen people look at me crouched down focusing a picture, and go back when I move on to see what I was taking a picture of. On one ship I found a wonderful picture of the setting sun glistening on a newly varnished deck chair, and as I left I saw a number of people look and then take a similar shot to be added to their vacation album. I know that one fellow never did understand why I was taking a picture of a pipe and control valve. I don't think he saw the same interesting contrast between the brilliant newly painted white wall on the green tint of the copper pipe and yellow rubber handle.
Morning Rain

Take time on you next vacation to try this. It works anywhere; just go for a walk looking for the details you do not have time to see when you are busy. It is one of the great things about retirement; you have time to spend a day on the details.

Monday, September 16, 2013


Not our boat . . . . .

Why would I want to spend a week on a boat? What would you do for a week with nothing to do but watch the ocean go by? Going on a cruise was never a vacation option I considered. It just made no sense to me a all. Lots of other things I was willing to try, but I was not interested in cruising. I then discovered how “easy” it was. Yup, it was the “Big Easy” that finally got me onto a cruise ship. A friend took a cruise that sailed from New Orleans, and her descriptions of all the fun she had got me interested. It was the couple of days in New Orleans that sold me on the trip not the cruise. I have always wanted to visit New Orleans to visit the French Quarter and hear some of that famous New Orleans Jazz and Blues, and try some of the delicious spicy Cajun & Creole food the city is famous for. The cruise was a compromise to get me to New Orleans. We booked a trip to Louisiana that culminated in a seven day cruise departing from New Orleans.

At the end of three days exploring the city, we wandered down to the Riverfront to see where we would catch the ship. To our surprise the ship was already there, sitting gently tied to the wharf. We were amazed at the size of the ship. I had seen cruise ships, but never up close, and I had no idea how big they were. This was before 911, and security was not so intense, so we could get pretty close to the ship, walking down the dock, staring up at the bulk of this massive thing. Seeing it close up, I was much more interested in finding out more about it.

Now this was actually a relatively small ship as modern cruise ships go, and it was retired soon after, but to me it was huge. The next day when we actually boarded the ship and explored it from stem to stern, I was suddenly interested in this cruising thing. And the rest, as they say is history.

We have since sailed on over 13 cruises, on 6 different cruise lines, traveling to four continents, and through many different oceans. I've decided that I like cruising. We managed for years to take one cruise every year. Initially it was an ideal way to take a much needed break from work for a week during the worst part of the winter season. It was a great way to relax. There was good food, comfortable rooms, and you sailed through beautiful warm Caribbean waters while snow was flying back home, and winter was doing it's best to keep Spring at bay.

Once we retired we continued to cruise, but now we could take longer more interesting trips, and found other ways to travel. We did a canal boat through England, and a house boat down the St. John River, as well as discovering how convenient it is to rent apartments in foreign locations, and learn about how other people live. This year it had been two years since we actually took a real cruise and we were starting to experience “Cruise Withdrawal”. This trip to Calgary, and then to Vancouver provided an opportunity to take another cruise, and we booked this 18 day cruise down the west coast and through the Panama canal.

Wandering down to the Vancouver waterfront, we explored Canada Place where the cruise ships depart. There was a cruise ship in port, and strolling down Canada Walk, I was able to see down onto the ship's decks and up to the balconies with people sitting relaxing, watching me, watching them. I was instantly back in “Cruise Mode” and wanted nothing more than to be on board, feeling the vibration of the engines, seeing the waves crashing along the sides, and smelling the salt air.

Ahh, back to cruising.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

West Coast Autumn

Sunny, HOT, Vancouver

This trip was a difficult one to pack for. We had to pack 'wedding appropriate' clothes for Calgary, and anyone I spoke to with 'Calgary' experience, said the temperature could be anywhere from 10 to 20 degrees, and that range could happen all on the same day. We therefore had to plan for some cool weather, but we were then working our way to Vancouver, and ultimately to the hot steaming tropics in Panama. And I have no idea what to expect for Kansas City in October?

As it happened, autumn didn't happen. We arrived in Calgary to sunshine and 27 degrees, and stayed reasonably warm. We then flew to Vancouver. The temperatures were 30. It looks like shorts and t-shirts will be the dress code for a while.

We had an absolutely beautiful day to explore Pitt Meadows B.C. The friends we were staying with here both had to work the day after we arrived (I guess someone has to keep the Canadian economy going to support us retired folk), so we were on our own. They did however suggest a walk along the Fraser River. This proved to be a wonderful walk, although we did have to check the signs as we were worried that dog ownership was a requirement on these trails. I think everyone we met had at least one dog (one girl had seven - dog walker I hope). The city maintains over 20 km of trails along the river and through town. In the 30 degree heat, we particularly enjoyed the walk along the river through the forested riverside, the large cedars providing shade and cooling the trails off nicely. We did however have to return to their house along a path through a field where the cloudless sky and brilliant sun made us more than ready for a cold drink when we got back.

It looks like we should be OK not having many cool weather clothes.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Eleven Women Facing War

Calgary Military Museum

Although not particularly enamored by war itself, I always enjoy war museums. I enjoyed the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, and spent a wonderful day a few years ago exploring a now closed storage facility full of old military vehicles. I noticed that Calgary had a large Military Museum during a drive, and I asked Gordon if he would take me there.

Unfortunately, this museum was not that good. It started out well, with a happy gentleman at the desk greeting us with good humour and jokes, but closed halls, displays without signage, and many displays under repair or renovation meant I was generally disappointed in the museum. There were many good interesting displays, but the missing bits definitely detracted from the overall visit to the museum.

There was however an amazing exhibition in the Art Gallery. I was expecting painting of planes, ships and perhaps famous battles. That was not what I found. The Gallery was featuring a special exhibition entitled Eleven Women Facing War. This was an incredible display. I spent more time here than I did examining tanks and airplanes.

Eleven Women Facing War
In 2001, Nick Danziger created eleven portraits of women and girls affected by conflicts in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Colombia, Israel Palestine and Sierra Leone. From 2008 to 2011 he worked to reconnect with these women again and document how their lives had changed. The photos from 2001 are in Black & White and the later photos are in colour. The stories are really worth viewing. In one he interviews and photographs a woman from Sierra Leone who had both her hands cut off when she was caught in the combat zone. She faced many hardships and was negative and down about her prospects, but Nick located her in Toronto Canada and she is doing extremely well, and has published a book about her experiences. Unfortunately all the stories do not end this happy, and the opposite extreme was on one wall which did not have any coloured pictures. It was about a 10 year old Afghanistan girl who's mother had died in childbirth, and when her dad went to find food, he never returned. She was left to care for and provide for her two younger brothers, Her's was a sad story in the black and white photos, but when Nick tried to find her for the later photos, he could not locate her, and the rumour was that she had died soon after he had originally taken her pictures.

This is an exhibition that is well worth seeing. You cannot help but be affected by these stories. Luckily you do not have to travel to Calgary to see it; it was a traveling show, and the Canadian War Museum has the show on their website from when it was featured in our nation's capital. I encourage you to check it out. If the following link does not work, just search for the title.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Beer with the Brats

OK, now right off the bat, they are not really brats, it just made a cooler title.

Beer & Pizza at Beer Revolution
When we knew we were coming to Calgary, we discovered that we knew a fair number of people in this city. Alisha's friend Josh lives there now, my brother's son Andrew and his girlfriend has just moved there for Law School, My friend Jim's daughter and her boyfriend are both teachers in Calgary and Ryan's friend Andrew now lives there. Of course that does not include Natalie & Frank who's wedding we were coming to celebrate, or my friend Gordon (Who I lived with in China) & his family. We were staying with Gordon and using one of his vehicles, and we were attending two official wedding functions with Natalie & Frank, so we had these folk pretty well covered, but we sort of wanted to attempt to see the others somehow during our limited time in Calgary.

The problem was that we were only spending five days in Calgary, and two of those days were booked with wedding functions planned, and I knew that Gordon would want to show me some of his home town, so there wasn't that much time to visit the other people.

Josh doing a "Tasting"
We finally figured that we had a little time on Sunday that we could try to fit some “non-wedding” visits in. That didn't give us much time, and it was hard to decide who to visit and who to leave out. Recalling a very pleasant visit to Craft restaurant & beer pub with Natalie & Frank during our last visit to Calgary we decided to find a pleasant purveyor of brew & food and tell all our friends that we would be there at a particular time on Sunday and see who showed up. We enlisted Josh's help as I consider him a bit of an expert on anything beer related and asked him to scout out the Calgary beer scene to find us a good location for this event. He had picked a wonderful spot in Vancouver during another trip so we trusted his advice completely, and he quickly came back with a couple of choices. We looked into his ideas, and chose a place called Beer Revolution, which not only seemed to have a wonderful selection of beer but also provide a good food menu. The internet reviews were good, and the location was nice and central, so we decided.
Really good Pizza

We put no pressure on anyone, (but we did have a suitcase full of 'stuff' from home for Andrew, so we figured he might show up at least to get his suitcase), but we knew we'd have a good lunch anyway. As it worked out, we had three of the young folk show up, and Gordon came along as a guide to make sure the GPS got us to Beer Revolution without problem, so we had a wonderful time. Good conversation, catching up on what everyone was doing, their plans, our travels, and discussing Calgary and all it has to offer.

Oh, the beer was excellent and they serve absolutely amazing pizza!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Guess What?

Lunch in warm sunny Calgary
I am back on the road again. As you likely know, I have this wonderful travel adviser who does an awesome job of organizing trips. We had a chance to attend a family wedding in Calgary, and I had a friend from China who lived in Calgary, so I was quite happy to attend the wedding and catch up with my friend. We booked a five day trip to Calgary.

My travel adviser (You do know this is Regis, right?) discovered that she could get a very inexpensive trip to Vancouver where we have some other friends. She said that there was no sense coming all this way to Calgary without continuing to the west coast. I agreed that extending the trip for another five days sounded like a good idea. I have been to Vancouver a number of times and it is a city I enjoy.

You will never guess what she found next? I have always wanted to do a full transit of the Panama Canal. We did the locks into the lake on the Caribbean end, on an earlier cruise, but had not done the full trip. After I had agreed to the trip to Vancouver she discovered that five days after we arrived there, an 18 day cruise left Vancouver for Ft. Lauderdale including a full transit of the canal. By this time I was beginning to think I may have been set up, but it has been a couple of years since we did a cruise, and this was a cruise I did really want to do.

You know where this is going right?

A few days after I agreed to the cruise, she discovered that there was a NASCAR race in Kansas City that I had said I wanted to go to 'some time'. We could fly to Kansas City the day the boat arrived in Ft. Lauderdale and we would arrive there just in time for the race.

And . . . . all those flights added together cost less than the return fare to Calgary.

That is how a five day trip to Calgary turned into a month long vacation.