Three to six months of each calendar year, over the past six years, we spent traveling the United States in a motorhome. My husband and I hiked most of the national parks in our great country and many of the state and county parks. Some of our favorite places or adventures happened because we chose the road less traveled. We did find, however, that not all people are as enamored of the beauty or as considerate of fellow or future travelers. Having said this, I felt it my “Travel-Deputy” duty to suggest some rules.
The sheer size of our travel vehicle requires parking in specially designated spots. When I see 6 or 7 of these special parking places at a park or restaurant filled with a single sedan parked smack dab in the middle of it, I want to pull a 45 out from under the seat to confront. If I had one, of course. (wink, wink) Now, if 2 or 3 hundred standard car spaces lie there begging for action, why must anyone hold the RV-size spots for ransom. You can tell by the rules I want enforced, car travelers kinda tee me off sometimes. Sorry about that….or not!
At this time, I’m working with the government about creating some signs to post the following rules at National Parks. It might take awhile, though. Our Senators and Representatives are on vacation or pretending to work while the rest of our country is “sequestering.”
· If you’re in a car, don’t leave it in the Bus and RV parking spots. You must not forget motorhomes are bigger than your vehicle and could push yours off a cliff. Oops!
· Keep your dog on a six-foot leash and close to you when around other people. If dogs aren’t allowed in the park, leave them at home. Don’t assume others want your dog to jump or slobber on them. Some may even think your dog is ugly. Imagine that!
· If your dog p***s in the park, pick it up and dispose of it properly. If you’re responsible about that, I promise not to empty my baby’s s****y diaper on the hood of your car that shouldn’t be parked in an RV or Bus space.
· Stay on the posted trails. You are not on an expedition with Lewis and Clark.
· Don’t gather, collect and cart off specimens of plants, rocks, flowers, etc. Once again, you are not on an expedition with Lewis and Clark.
· Parents, come on now. Pay attention. If your kids are running off the trails, climbing over fences that mark the trails, yelling and screaming like banshees making the park experience miserable for other visitors, duct tape their mouths and tie them to a pole in the parking lot until you return. (But not in the RV and Bus spots)
· When you take disposable items into the park, ie., food, water bottles, cups, paper, etc., keep them with you until you find a trash can or dumpster. The animals in the park have not finished their sanitary engineer training and won’t be available to clean up your messes until well into the next century.
· Smokers. Never light up a smoking device anywhere in the park or the trails. At the present time, there is a plan being developed for this problem. Smoky Bear is holding classes with the other bears and planning group interventions for those of you with this addiction. So if you see 2 or 3 bears approaching you on a trail, be aware they are on a mission to ensure you Never smoke again.
· Worn out from a day in the park? Stop at a Cracker Barrel restaurant for a meal. Remember not to park in the RV or Bus spaces. That same big old motorhome bully may push your car’s butt right into the restaurant’s kitchen.
When you see signs in the parks that read, “Take only photographs and leave only footprints,” respect them. Next year’s visitors want to hike the trails taking photos of trees, flowers, birds and animals without having to wade through your trash of bottles, paper, cigarettes and dog waste. Eventually, it will be too costly to clean up after you and the government will sell off the land to private owners. They’ll surround these beautiful places with fences and deny access to all, not just the slobs and rule-breakers.
Try it. Be the perfect guest when you visit our country’s treasures.
I’m anxious to share a few facts I gathered while in Guatemala, so I decided not to give you a minute-to-minute description of the places we visited and sights we viewed. Hopefully, my photos do that narrative for me with a visual tour.
The Tikal ruins in Guatemala and Copan ruins in Honduras were awesome in size and degree of restoration. We were told there are many smaller excavated sights throughout the country. The ruins that remain below ground are even more extensive than these oft-visited ruins. The largest Mayan pyramid is on the Mexican border and can be reached only via a two day hike through the jungle or by helicopter. Two sides of the pyramid are each one mile long. It was the largest Mayan city.
There are 22 Mayan languages. (not dialects)
Four of the colorful Mayan books remain. We were fortunate to view one of these interesting artifacts in the National Archaelogical museum in Guatemala City.
The number nineteen has a religious connotation for the Mayan peoples. The head-dress of one group of Mayan women was wrapped nineteen times around the head. All Mayan churches had exactly nineteen steps up to the entrance.
Guatemala has twenty political parties. There were eighteen candidates for president in the last election. Don’t you wish we were given more choices in our country’s elections? With only two or three on a final ballot, it is almost like we are being told who to select. Of course, with conventions, advertising and palms to grease, the money spent for a large number of candidates would be even more astronomical than at present. Okay, off the soapbox and back to Guatemala.
Guatemala has 42,000 square miles with nineteen climate areas. There’s that number nineteen again, did you notice? The dividing line between the North and South American continents lies here in Central America within the country of Guatemala. Since we crossed over the line to visit one of the ruins, we now have the bragging rights to claim we have visited South America.
The Catholic religion used to be the prominent faith in this country due to the early Spanish influence. Now the largest is the Pentecostal Fundamentalist sect. In Guatemala City, there are also four mosques and three synagogues.
Guatemala is home to forty-seven volcanoes. We were fortunate to be able to observe and photograph an eruption of the volcano Fuego.
The country has twenty-two provinces. Depending on the beliefs and interest of the province chief, the province could be clean and working toward a clean environment. Not true in many of the provinces that are run-down and littered with trash. In one province, the chief’s house and property was also his sanitary landfill.
The national bird is the colorful Quetzal. We were informed these birds live in the cloud forests. Cloud forests have this name because they are located at very high altitudes. Sadly, we were unable to view or photograph this bird.
There were many food vendors along the village streets-their version of fast food and drive-up service. For the tortilla mixture, the locals boil corn and limestone together making their tortillas calcium-rich.
Maybe you knew the major difference between bananas and plantains. I just thought bananas looked better, consequently more appetizing. However, bananas can be eaten raw and plantains must be cooked. After the plantains are cooked, they taste exactly like the familiar banana.
One day, we had lunch high up on an open-air patio overlooking the beautiful Lake Atitlan. For dessert, we had plantains served with warm chocolate sauce. If they had added ice cream, we would have been enjoying a banana split. Too bad Russell didn’t enjoy this or even taste it. This same luncheon meal was served family style and as the dishes made their rounds at the table, Russell added a spoonful of guacamole to his entrée and took a generous bite to savor. When his eyes bugged out, two distinct waterfalls raced down his cheeks, and smoke exited from his ears, we suspected something was wrong. It seems the green guacamole??? was their hottest sauce. Poor baby. His lips, tongue and throat were burned and he couldn’t taste anything for a day or two. Our fellow travellers nicknamed him “hot lips” for the rest of the trip. Not too original, I thought. I’ve been calling him that for four years.
We observed many sugar cane fields on our bus tours. When we passed one field that was burned, Jorge told us the sugar cane fields are burned before they are cut and harvested. Interesting!
Jorge said it is mandatory all children will get eight grades of elementary school. Sounded like a good law, but he admitted that children rarely finish school as they are used to harvest and plant crops. No transportation is provided to go to school, making it difficult for the children to have regular attendance. It is also a problem providing language trained educators as there are so many different languages throughout the countryside.
Those fortunate children that finish the eight years in elementary education can go on to high school, but must pay for that education. One of the most interesting facts we were given inflamed me when I heard it. Evidently, the teacher’s association is very powerful and a teacher can NEVER be fired, even if he/she is found to be molesting the students.
Any travel tale of Guatemala must have stories of the interaction with the street vendors. These people work hard daily selling their goods and then go home at night to weave, sew, paint, string beads, or embroider to replenish their stock. I am sure they never earn what the quality of their fine handiwork is worth. They are happy with just enough to eat that night and buy the goods necessary to make more items. They are an extremely hard-working people.
One young lady was trying desperately to sell a handwoven bookmark to a woman on our tour.
“Hey, lady, bookmark, one dollar.”
“No, thank you.”
“Buy one for you sister”.
“No, thank you.
“Buy one for your mother”.
“No, thank you.
“Buy one for your daughter.”
“No, thank you.
“Buy one for your grand-daughter.”
“No, thank you.
“Buy one for your friend”.
“No, thank you.
“Buy one for your enemy.”
At this last suggestion, the vendor and all of us listening to the exchange began to laugh and she left with over ten dollars in her hand. We all bought bookmarks marveling over her marketing creativity and sales persistence.
The beautiful colors, fabrics, and Guatemalan smiles provided us with abundant joy. Add a visit there to your bucket list. You won’t be sorry.
I hope you have enjoyed my stories and the facts I brought home to share. I’ll close my Guatemalan epic with my hubby’s version of bargaining with the local vendors. They would be very frustrated with him at first, but ended up laughing with him when he opened his wallet.
“How much? American dollars.”
“Twenty-five American dollars.”
”I’ll give you ten”.
“You can have it for twenty dollars”.
“I’ll give you eight dollars”.
The vendor clearly was confused and frustrated at Russell’s last offer.
“Mister, you don’t understand. When I go down with my price, you are supposed to go up.”
“Well, you lowered your price so I did too.”
It generally took a minute or two of this haggling before the vendors saw the twinkle in his eye and the smile creeping across his face.
Guatemala City is a surprisingly beautiful city. The ancient aqueduct built by Pope John Paul II stands as a memorial to ancient engineering. Its graceful brick arches parallel the main street through the city reminding one of the city’s history.
Litter is rarely observed in the clean parks and street medians as there is an effort by the province leader to make this province and city a green environment. The new green electric bus system will soon replace the multitude of chicken buses. (Jorge reminded us that “soon” in Guatemala is five or more years) What are “chicken” buses and why do they have such a strange title? These vehicles were formerly the familiar yellow American school buses. When discarded in our country, they are purchased by Guatemala and other small countries. The natives buy them, paint them with bright, gaudy colors and designs and add racks on top for luggage, crates, parcels, even more passengers. One might also observe chickens or pigs on the bus being carried to or from the markets. Hence the name, “chicken bus”. Individuals own and operate their own buses for profit and there appears to be no limit for the number of passengers allowed. Instead of “the more the merrier”, it seems to be “the more the money”. It was rare to see a chicken bus that didn’t have people hanging out the doors, the windows, sitting on top or standing on the bumpers. My favorite part of the “bus culture” was the name they would paint on the front of their vehicles. They used to be named for patron saints or common Spanish names like Rosalie, Carmen, Esmerelda, etc. As US culture meandered below the borders and native Guatemalans visited or moved to the US, the names have changed. Now you see Tiffany, Brittany, Ashley, Madonna and so on. Jorge told us of his favorite bus name. A local bus owner had visited the United States and saw a sign that sounded melodic in his native tongue. It sounded like this oos’-nah-vee’. When he returned home with his new bus, he painted on the name as he had seen it, US NAVY.
The street medians in Guatemala City are miniature parks. Vendors with wheelbarrows, carts, bicycles and scooters are everywhere on the streets. Several people were dressed as clowns with faces painted, juggling or tumbling to earn their living by the tips they receive. As there is no welfare or public assistance in this country, everyone works in some capacity. During the entire ten days we spent in this country, we only witnessed two crippled, elderly women begging for a handout.
Evidently, sanitarios, (restrooms) are not readily accessible in most areas as men were observed sprinkling the trees in the parks or along the streets with their own personal watering equipment.
A similarity in the driving habits of the Guatemalans was observed at all the ALTO (STOP) signs. Just like Americans, stops were generally just rolling stops and on most occasions, it was noticed that whoever arrived at the intersection first sped through to beat the other guy.
Scooters, motorcycles and bicycles frequently split lanes. I am told this is how you describe it when these smaller vehicles drive between vehicles on a two-lane highway balancing precariously on the dividing line. As the lanes were very narrow, this was done with only inches to spare. Each moment on the road earned more respect for our bus driver.
As we drove through Guatemala City to the Ixchel Museum, we were told it was located on the grounds of the Universidad Galileo. This university was established in 1675 and was the third institute of higher learning in the new world. Hearing dates like these still sounds surreal to me and is difficult to imagine a time other than the present.
We arrived at the museum and our eyes feasted on the color inside. Samples and displays of all the Mayan costumes and head-dresses were visible. We were fascinated to learn that early Mayan women of royalty had their heads bound tightly from birth to form cone-shaped skulls. This was done so their heads could balance the heavy, elaborate royal head-dresses as they grew older. Inside the museum , we were treated to the entire collection of artist Carmen Peterson’s watercolor paintings of the Mayans. The colors in her artwork is so vibrant and the figures so realistic, they almost appear three- dimensional. The paintings are entirely of the people, their daily life and native costumes.
Learning that Cacao is the beverage of the gods for the Mayans and chocolate is their sacred food and liquid, I considered changing my religion. No wonder these people are always smiling. They have great taste. Go Mayans!
Guatemala has 14 million people and only 60,000 policemen. We observed armed guards on almost every corner and in front of most business establishments. The country hires foreign security, ie. ex-guerrillas, ex-military. Most are from Israel and we were told the crime rate has decreased profoundly since they started this practice.
I noticed that most autos had license plates with the year 2004 embedded on them and asked Jorge if they no longer issued plates in the country. His answer was hilarious. He said in 2004, five million plates were made but since the country had only 60,000 vehicles, they were still using up the same plates. He said a yearly renewal sticker is placed in the front window.
Other than housing in the wealthier areas, most housing had some look of being unfinished. Jorge explained that all houses generally appeared that way, even if the inside was plush. The reason for this was because of local laws. If your home is unfinished, you pay no real estate taxes.
After lunch back at the hotel, we boarded the bus again and headed for Lake Atitlan.
Some form of this question seemed to be the response we received from many friends and acquaintances before we left on this trip. My immediate thought was, “Why not”? I know when people see the photos and hear of our experiences, they will fully understand why we chose to visit Guatemala. To sum up the trip in one sentence would be to tell you the country and the people are beautiful and friendly. But there is so much more to tell, places and events to describe.
After Russell convinced me we had to practice the airport security pat-down procedure over and over AND over again, we weren’t even frisked at Tampa International. At Miami, we had the pat-down which was less contact than I’ve had standing in line for popcorn at a local movie theater.
While waiting to board, I glanced at the gate agent and had to blink my eyes to believe I wasn’t dreaming. Leaning on the counter, a dark-haired male airline agent was staring into space while sucking his thumb. Yes, you read it right. He was sucking his thumb and stroking his left eyebrow sensuously with his other hand at the same time. I punched Russell to get confirmation that what I saw was not a hallucination. Neither of us could get our cameras out fast enough to document this activity before he removed his thumb to answer the phone.
We settled into our made-for-midgets airline seats, buckled up, taxied onto the tarmac and waited for takeoff. A sweet sounding pilot’s voice came over the speaker system and informed us that we had to wait here for a maintenance crew to arrive and take care of a very minor mechanical problem. Well, I don’t know about the rest of the passengers but I was pretty sure I would rather be back in the terminal waiting for a plane that had no “very minor mechanical problem”. One hour later with the body odor of a full plane of nervous, anxious, and scared passengers blocking our airways, we were told we had been cleared for takeoff. Now, would you be relieved or panic-stricken that you were finally going to be flying in this crippled, ready for the junkpile of an airplane that has totally disintegrated into rubble in your mind during the lengthy wait? In spite of all the “crash” scenerios that were playing out vividly in my mind, we landed in Guatemala City mid-afternoon. The beautiful airport within this city was surrounded by mountains and volcanoes making this view our first photograph when we left the plane. Getting through customs and security went without a hitch and our ride from the airport to the hotel was waiting at the front door. A young airport limo driver with a beautiful smile and a “Caravan Tours” sign held high was the perfect first impression of what we were to encounter the entire trip.
We arrived at the Grand Tikal Futura Hotel in Guatemala City and GRAND it was. After a short briefing by our tour director, we were led to our 9th floor room by the porter. I felt there must be a mistake when we opened the door. We were to occupy a four room suite. It was like a fantasy and we spent several minutes taking photos from every angle just to lock in the realization that we had, indeed, been brought to the right room. The hotel was built like a cruise ship with the rooms and floors built around the twelve story central lobby. Glass enclosed elevators shared the views of the lobby upon ascent and descent.
After a short rest, we went to the dining room for a wonderful dinner. We learned there was a three story underground mall beneath the hotel and went there to walk a bit before calling it a night.
Following breakfast the next morning, we had a briefing from our tour director regarding a few changes to our itinerary due to some washed out roads. Our delightfully charming, brilliant (in the true sense of the word), detail-oriented tour director was named Jorge Fuentes. He informed us we could call him George if we couldn’t pronounce or remember Jorge. In Spanish, his name is pronounced Hor Gay. The comedian to whom I am married loves to reverse and switch words for a laugh. After whispering to me that he needed to ask Gay Hor a question, I begged him to use George so his tacky version wouldn’t slip out by accident. And I thought my child rearing days were over. Sheesh!
Jorge briefed us on the overall itinerary and changes made necessary by recent flooding, mudslides and washed out roads. He assured us Caravan Tours always had a Plan B for just such occurrences. This is when we were introduced to our first “Jorge-ism”.
He explained, “Every problem has a solution and if there is a solution, it was never a problem.”
The menu choices for the day were announced each morning and we noted our choices on Jorge’s clipboard. On this particular day, the evening menu was to include steak as an option.
“If you choose the steak and it’s tough, don’t worry. Just let me know and I will get you a sharper knife.”
A fellow traveler stated that she really wasn’t used to eating dessert after each meal.
“I know”, he responded with a huge grin, “but you have to eat everything because it’s included.”
Before boarding the bus, we were indoctrinated regarding the small yellow post-it notes placed on the window next to each couple’s seats. The papers contained the names of the two people that were to sit in those seats. Jorge said these were his sacred papers and were not to be moved for any reason. To be fair on seating, these papers were moved and passengers rotated two rows in a clockwise manner daily. If a full day was spent on the bus, we rotated twice. By the end of the tour, Russell and I had been seated in every section of the bus. We felt especially lucky to have had the front seat on the day we drove past the erupting volcano on our drive to Lake Atitlan. We were able to take many wonderful photographs unseen by the others in the bus.
Our driver for the ten days was named Jose. He did not speak English but was always there with a huge smile to assist us in stepping off or on the bus, making sure all luggage was on board, keeping the bus immaculate and executing award-winning driving in areas and conditions that would make some Nascar drivers skittish.
While we traveled, Jorge, or Jorgepedia as I came to think of him, educated us on the politics, history, economics, culture, agriculture, imports, exports, social programs and idiosyncrasies of his country. His extensive knowledge seemed endless. He was educated at the University of Guatemala and is a lawyer by education and license but grew tired of the “unjustices” of the justice system and trained to be a tour director. What a treasure for the Caravan Tours employment roster to have this man to share the country with the country’s visitors.
When we started on our journey to Venice, Italy and embarkation for the Greek Island cruise, we didn’t expect some “woes” along with the “wows”. Super Shuttle picked us up as scheduled and we were delighted to finally be on our way. Like two kids waiting for Santa, our bags had been on the porch for an hour and we had our noses pressed to the window in anticipation of the shuttle’s arrival. Safely secured inside the van, we met a travel agent and her spouse who were also headed for a Mediterranean cruise departing from Barcelona. We conversed about luggage going astray and learned that this couple packed their bags with clothing for each in case one bag got lost and arrived in Timbuktu instead of their desired destination. While I thought this was an ingenious idea to avoid the disaster of one member being without clothing, I found it hysterical to picture a customs inspector going through luggage wondering if the person was a cross-dresser going on a “gay” cruise.
Upon arriving at Dulles we dashed to our gate with little time to spare. Aboard the jumbo 747 jet, Russell was in the window seat while I drew the infamous middle spot. We had just buckled up when our aisle seat buddy arrived. Okay-the “woe” stories are about to begin. “Miss Aisle 2007” was obviously in need of the wider first class chairs but we were the lucky recipients of her company. Unable to sit down gently, she dropped down into her seat making my left hip a painful part of her seating arrangement. Catching her breath, she began to dig around for her blanket, large purse, two small rectangular pillows, horseshoe shaped neck pillow, bottled water, reading material and assorted snacks. I still have no idea where she stowed all these accoutrements to her comfort but I highly suspect it cost me a large portion of my seating and storage capacity. After much organizing and reorganizing, we introduced ourselves and she informed me that she had a problem with restless legs syndrome and would be taking meds for the seven hour flight that made her very drowsy. Now that creates a dilemma all by itself! Would she be kicking me all night? Would it be impossible to waken her for a necessary trip to the bathroom? We were painfully aware that our pre-planned decision to stand up and stretch hourly for proper circulation was now in the pile of scrapped plans.
Two passes from the attendants with drinks and pretzels were well underway when dinner was finally served on this seven hour flight. I must admit I was fooled initially with the small pile of lettuce described as a salad because the Asian sesame ginger dressing was quite tasty. Along with this trick menu item was a miniature plastic container holding some form of mystery meat covered with a greasy gravy accompanied by two demitasse size bites of mashed potatoes and four or five coin-sized carrot slices. These were accurately described as carrot coins since they were as hard as any coin in my piggy bank. In retrospect, I do believe you were provided the two bites of potatoes to eat first in order to coat your stomach and protect the lining from being destroyed from the greasy gravy and meat that would follow.
Upon landing in Frankfurt, Germany, we were unaware that many of the “woes” of our journey were awaiting us. We exited the plane down a steep stairwell with immediate boarding to a tram. The ride took us to a building labeled “Gates B”. Our tickets stated we were to depart in less than thirty minutes from gate A21. The tram driver was adamant that we were to go into this facility. We finally exited the tram and followed his instructions. Once inside we found signs stating “Gates AB1-19”. Where was A21? Oh fiddle, now what do we do? True to his gender, my husband was wandering around mumbling about the poor signage. While he wandered aimlessly, I decided to ask directions. That’s a gender thing, too. We got headed in the right direction and learned that the sign “AB1-19” meant all “A” gates and “B “gates 1-19. All were located down the hall and to the left. Running for the gate, we made the left turn and found we were faced with another line for a passport check. Thankfully, the line moved swiftly and we took off running again for the gate. After a short dash, a short elevator ride and a long ride on a moving walkway, we were astonished to meet up with another lengthy line for a security check of baggage and body combined. As we entered the line and prepared our attitude for the real possibility of a missed flight, an angel dressed like a female security officer grabbed me from the line and opened a new line with me as the number one passenger to be searched. Breathlessly, I explained that I wasn’t traveling alone and pointed out Russell to her assistant. He retrieved him from the other, obviously mile-long line, and quickly scanned his body and luggage. We were off on a run again and grateful for time spent at the gym lately since oxygen consumption was in short supply by this time. Gate A21 appeared just as we had given up hope of catching this flight and boarding was still in progress. Heaven intervened once more and a ladies’ restroom appeared right next to the gate. The restroom was out of towels to dry my hands but I was able to board the plane to Venice, Italy with wet hands instead of wet underwear.
We were eager, exhausted and fully awake as we settled down in our seats for the almost three hour flight to Venice from Frankfurt, Germany. Moments after the doors were closed, the loudspeaker came on for the pilot to announce that four passengers had decided not to continue on with this flight and were exiting the plane. As a security measure, all the baggage on the plane would need to be removed so their luggage could be retrieved. Consequently, we would be delayed for a short while. We were told our patience would be rewarded by a snack that was being delivered momentarily by the flight attendants. Here she comes—What delicacy will it be for all of the trapped passengers? It is now 8:30 am EST and I am anticipating another breakfast menu. Here’s a “Wow”! She handed each of us a large milk chocolate candy bar. Oh well, lovers of the brown candy everywhere know that chocolate makes up for any delay or disturbance. Danke schon!!!
I must begin this travelogue with a disclaimer. Those of you who know me would agree, hopefully, that I am not a whiner, complainer, or intolerant of people or surroundings. It is my nature to be a Pollyanna and accept “what is” or “go with the flow”. There is a “however” to this intro and here begins the “however” part of the story.
Our adventure began on the Carnival Liberty after a five hour drive to the port in Ft. Lauderdale, Fl. Having cruised different ships on other occasions, my expectations were definitely more grandiose than what awaited us. Our senses of sight, hearing, smell, and taste were offended and taunted continually throughout the trip. I hope to record a few of the offensive items and events in this short essay, but will attempt to condense the shipboard experience into a short report in preference to a trilogy of epic proportions.
First impressions have always molded one’s acceptance of new surroundings or acquaintances. This journey’s experiences would be no exception to the rule.
As we exited the gangway and entered the ship, we were standing in the atrium of the ship’s main lobby. On most ships, this is the area with the “WOW” factor. Well, it wowed us alright. Our mouths gaped open and continued to attract flies from the moment we entered the ship until the day of departure. The combination of colors, décor, artwork, fabrics, on and on ad nauseum, reminded us of our worst nightmares. Russell thought the interior was decorated with items from the salvage sale of an early, tacky, Vegas cathouse and was constantly looking for the current madam in residence. I suppressed my curiosity and refrained from questioning how he knew what those places looked like. He must have deciphered my thoughts from my raised eyebrow and offered a weak explanation of having observed these places in old western movies. I choose to believe him. Of course I do!
Not only was the entire décor abhorrent, but it was carried out in identical fashion throughout the ship except in the Golden Olympian dining room. This dining area is used exclusively for formal seating each evening. The décor in this establishment was acceptable, if not elegant, making the consumption of your evening meal tolerable, thankfully.
As we explored the ship, we found the main outdoor deck and noticed an attractive bronze sculpture of a sea lion alongside one of the pools. Feeling that there might be some redemption for the ship’s decorators, we wandered around the deck pools. Uh-oh! I was too hasty with my forgiveness. Standing life-size and framing the mid-ship pool were two bronze sculptures of a deer and a stag. Now what in the heavens do large forest creatures have to do with an ocean adventure? Why not a dolphin, marlin or anything maritime? Once again, we felt salvage items had been the decorator’s choice to adorn this cruise ship.
Russell found a ship’s survey card on a patio table and suggested the following. “Gut the ship-paint everything white and start over.”
I have also been accused, frequently, in my life as always looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. Well, I wore those glasses throughout the ship and absolutely NOTHING turned pink!
As on past sea voyages on other cruise lines, we were anxious to begin a taste testing of the variety of eating establishments onboard. We soon learned that all of the casual restaurant opportunities were located in one large, noisy area mid-ship. The volume of the music? skipped loud volume and went straight to louder or loudest. Consequently, the congestion of people, noise, and un-bussed tables was not pleasant. Children were running amok, noisy and unsupervised, while handling buffet items that would soon be consumed by unsuspecting passengers.
This ship seemed to have attracted the nation’s largest passengers who constantly paraded from steam tables to dining tables with multiple plates on their trays rivaling overloaded grocery carts. I feel sure that the “whale watching excursion” often offered by cruise ships is, in fact, just a seat in the dining room opposite one of these diners. Interestingly, it appeared that the apparel of these large passengers is chosen for its bright colors and overly large prints. Blending into the crowd is definitely not a possibility for these people.
And why do the heaviest men feel they must wander the ship without shirts revealing acres of hairy flab lying in rolls under a gigantic set of male boobies?
Smoke filled bars filled every nook and cranny of the ship. The ship’s activities seem to be geared solely for alcoholic, noisy, overweight, overeating, smoky, coughing gamblers wearing their favorite dirty swim trunks along with a tattered “words of wisdom” t-shirt. These t-shirt displays ranged from a football team logo to a low class statement like “Screw your mother-in-law—leave the kids with her”.
My memories of prior cruises, with frequent trips to the frozen yogurt machine, were helping to soothe my distress over the aforementioned gripes. We headed for the machine and found that both flavors were empty. No problem-the dining staff officer directed me to two more machines on the aft deck. Oh (censored)! All the yogurt machines were empty. I’ll wager those unruly kids running through the ship had each consumed over twenty cones apiece that afternoon. After mentioning (complaining) to the same ship’s officer, he apologized and promised to bring us the requested frozen yogurt in a “few” minutes. Twenty minutes later, he arrived with two dishes containing no more than a couple tablespoons of the item and seemed extremely pleased with himself, explaining that he had been able to squeeze the last little bit out of the machine just for us.
Determined to start the first excursion day with a fresh outlook and attitude, we proceeded to the debarkation area and found ourselves amidst a large crowd in an unformed line of loud, foul smelling, pushy and pushing passengers who must think that a “line” is simply a direction. After much waiting and annoyance, the mob started to move forward and we eventually saw the light of the ship’s exit in front of us.
Outside, the fresh air was most welcome in spite of the high winds whipping along the pier. We boarded the boat to ferry us on a one hour trip to the mainland. It was extremely rough; tossing us frequently from side to side on the hard wooden slatted benches. While we waited for boarding stragglers, several green-looking passengers decided to forgo the trip and left the boat. As we pulled away from the mooring, the boat attendants began to pass out purple plastic “barf” bags and we knew an interesting crossing could be expected. To avoid seasickness, I plastered my eyes on the neckband of the woman immediately in front of me so I would remain focused on a fixed object. Thankfully, this worked and I was able to pocket my “barf” bag for another day.
Upon arrival at the mainland, we were met by Manuel who led our five minute walk to the tour buses. The air conditioned buses with comfortable cushioned seats were especially welcome to our “onboard sick” tourists. After a forty-five minute bus ride, we made a twenty-five minute stop at a local tourist trap. Some of our fellow passengers rushed to grab any souvenir and headed for the cashier racing to return on time prior to the bus’s departure.
From there, off we went to visit the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum. When we arrived at the site, it was necessary to pass many local vendors hawking their wares.
We trekked six-tenths of a mile to the ruins and finally found a reason to remove our cameras from their cases.
The ancient Mayan city had been well planned and was remarkably well preserved. Iguanas of all sizes and colors crawled over the area and posed agreeably for our cameras.
As we climbed higher in the ruins, we arrived atop the cliffs overlooking the magnificent aquamarine waters. This was our first true Kodak moment of the trip! Our digital cameras stayed quite busy for a couple hours and will grace the pages of this journal shortly.
We completed the afternoon with a coke and a “local” quesadilla, discovering that we both preferred our neighborhood café, Rudy’s, and their version of a Mexican quesadilla at a third of the price.
The return ferry trip was not as rough and was entertaining with the antics of the vendors onboard trying desperately to get our last dollars by selling us blankets, jewelry, vanilla extract or marionettes. Prices began at eighty-five dollars at the trip’s start and were sold for a mere five dollars as we docked. Vive haggling!
A refreshing shower, short nap and a pleasant, sit-down dining experience in the Golden Olympian Restaurant completed the day.
Extremelyrough waters as we headed out to sea, encouraged us to turn in early. As always, I was asleep within minutes.
This was the highly anticipated day of our trip. It began with an early breakfast and a discussion of the activities awaiting us. We exited the ship in the same manner as our last excursion day—smelly, pushy mob and no organization.
We found our “High There” tour sign and boarded the fifteen passenger air-conditioned van. Good, this was to be a small group.
Ivan was our handsome, young, tour guide. He was extremely knowledgeable and filled us with facts and figures about his country of Costa Rica. While enroute to the rain forest, he explained thoroughly how the country’s major exports of bananas, pineapples, and coffee beans were grown and cultivated. He provided us with a history of his country’s development, geological makeup, schooling requirements, governmental style, and even brought along samples of the flowers and fruits his country currently exports. He informed us of the varied species of animals, reptiles, and birds in the country and names of United States and European manufacturers or companies currently operating in Costa Rica. By the end of the day, I felt I had read an entire Costa Rican fact book and completed a semester course in the country’s cultural and current affairs.
We arrived in the rain forest and I began to exhibit the nervous anxiety I was hoping to disguise. Ivan gave us the different scenarios we might encounter on the zip lines and what to do in the event we were faced with any problems. I was fearful I might forget the instructions. Russell appeared composed and calm but told me later he had been nervous, also.
Each participant was harnessed up including gloves and helmet by the zip line crew.
We climbed a hill nearly straight up one hundred or more steps. I stopped a couple times to catch my breath. The group was moving fast and nervousness caused my respirations to come in short, shallow breaths. Russell was up on the platform first (always in great condition) so he waited for me.
As they hooked me up, I kept repeating an interior mantra. “Relax, you can do this-enjoy!” I stepped off the platform without hesitation and was actually enjoying the ride down the wire when I saw a crew member waiting on the next platform give me the crossed arms signal denoting I was flying in too rapidly. Somehow I managed to remember that, in order to decelerate, I needed to remove my right hand from over the pulley and place it on the top wire behind the pulley and press gently. I reacted to this quickly, pushed a little too hard with the excitement and almost didn’t get to the platform. The crew member grabbed my arm and pulled me up onto the platform.
After unhooking my two pulleys, he directed me to the other side of the platform where I was hooked up for the next ride. Determined not to accelerate too fast on this slide, I used the deceleration maneuver too much and came to a halt six to eight feet from the next platform. I hung, suspended and immobile, high above the rain forest. Luckily, I remembered the instruction for this problem, also. I turned myself around on the pulley and pulled myself hand over hand on the wire until I got close enough to a crew member who assisted me up to the platform. Wow, two platforms and I had already used up all the problem maneuvers they had suggested we might need.
By the time we completed the seven zip lines, I felt like an old pro and wished I could have done many more. The last line went over a beautiful river and was a very long ride. A photographer took each rider’s photo on the ride down and I could hardly wait to see the snapshot. I should have known that my sweet Russell got the best shot as he was waiting there for me to complete my adventure.
After the harnesses were removed, we boarded the bus for the short ride to the aerial tram. This consisted of a seventy minute ride in a basket holding six people and one guide riding slowly on a wire high above the rain forest. We saw one sloth and several birds and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the lush vegetation while experiencing the silent beauty of the rain forest.
We left for the ship happy and satisfied with ourselves.
We anticipated another great excursion just as we experienced in Cozumel, Mexico and Port Limon, Costa Rica.
We were wrong-miserably wrong!
Same scenario-smelly, pushy mob all trying to leave the ship at the exact same moment. After finding our bus, we started out on a two hour ride to the ferry that would take us on the Panama Canal. The trip took us along a route of filth, trash, and extreme poverty. We found nothing attractive about Panama.
At the ferry, we had a lengthy wait aboard the bus before being allowed to board. We did find front row bench seats facing aft with a good open view. Sadly, however, the visual part of traversing the canal is quite unattractive. It is truly an engineering marvel and gives us bragging rights of having traversed it. We passed through three locks. Even though this was interesting, the whole trip was “waiting”. As it got warmer during the day, the “waiting” became more of an uncomfortable annoyance.
The air-conditioned bus at the end of the tour was most welcome. Since we remembered that the two hour ride to the ferry took us by ugly, depressing scenery, we opted to sleep on the return trip.
We were glad to have gone through the Panama Canal but didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. On the ride back to the ship, the guide was remarking that many European and Americans were moving to Panama because of the low cost of living.
Russell turned to me and inquired casually, “Do you want to move to Panama with me”?
Looking out the window at that poor, depressing, filthy countryside, I answered.
Visualize the Florida Everglades. A child might describe a tropical jungle with painted Seminole Indians and trees laden with poisonous snakes waiting to drop on unsuspecting guests. But this national treasure is none of that. At first glance, the vast ‘river of grass’, as the Glades are known, looks desolate and lifeless. When you ride the sightseeing tram, unexpected awe filters into your perception of this magnificent place.
Listen to the tour guide describe different habitats within this natural wonder.
Miniature islands of hardwood trees and assorted vegetation sit on high ground, surrounded by miles of golden swamp grass. These hardwood hammocks provide a home for the deer, bobcats, otters, squirrels and other small Glades critters.
In days past, Army Engineers dug man-made lakes here called borrow pits. These form a home for the variety of birds that live and breed in these areas. Cormorants entertain with their spear fishing talents. Bright pink flamingos add bold color to the blue and green of the water.
Mangrove thickets camouflage watery shelters for the reptilian communities of snakes, lizards and frogs.
Numerous small circular areas surrounded by willow trees within the massive grassy sea appear as miniature oases. These appealing locations originate and flourish yearly because of drought periods. Alligators scratch and dig through the limestone when the grassy areas dry up. This exposes water necessary for their survival. These areas form deep pools and irrigate the surrounding vegetation. Willow trees thrive in this setting. Their graceful branches provide shade to prevent rapid evaporation of the pools below. When you spot one of these enticing oases, hesitate indefinitely before approaching. Generically named alligator holes, these small ponds could be crowded. The current conservative population estimate of alligators in the Everglades is sixty thousand. There might not be room for your beach chair at these watering holes.
While creeping along a narrow pathway onboard the tram, observe an amazing number of alligators. These reptiles bask in the sun close to the road, soaking up heat through the ridges on their backs. You might see what appears to be a ferocious gator along the way with his mouth wide open exposing a vicious set of teeth. This is another method they use to absorb the sun’s heat. Small vehicles passing by each hour do not frighten them. They seldom retreat from their sunbathing to the grassy sea. Camera enthusiasts have ample time to point and shoot. Every size gator can be spotted, including eight inch babies yellow-ringed at birth, two to three foot juveniles, and maybe even a mama and papa making a new baby. Female alligators lay approximately twenty eggs a year. Two to four of the young survive to maturity. These young gators are a primary source of food for birds and bull alligators.
After this informative ride, the Everglades no longer appears desolate or lifeless. It whispers for you to return. Listen. Hear it breathe?