Monday, July 1, 2019

Hot! Hot! Hot!

We know it is going to be hot in the Caribbean and dress for hot weather.  We know that if we go to the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic beaches, it is hot.  We know it is hot in Egypt and Israel.  I grew up in Louisiana and went to school at LSU, so I know what Louisiana feels like in the summer.  But nothing beats the hot temperatures that we encountered in Bangkok, Thailand.

We took a overnight shore excursion in Bangkok because we were interested in learning about the city and what it had to offer.  And we weren't disappointed.  We saw the reclining Buddha, the jade Buddha, and many others that are too numerous to mention.  When we went into the temples, our tour guide had to watch our shoes for us because we couldn't wear them in, but there is a serious shoe theft problem in the tourist sites.

After we checked into our hotel, several of us visited a jewelry store where we could get jewelry at reasonable prices.  Since I still had a lot of baht that I would need to spend before we left Thailand, I bought an elephant with beautiful gemstones.  No, even thought I live in Alabama and am not an Alabama fan, Thailand is known for its wild elephants so I wanted a necklace that reminded me of the country.

We had a dinner cruise on a boat on the river.  Because of stomach issues and spicy food, I soon because ill and couldn't wait for the cruise to be over.  Maybe it was because I ate the salad and no telling what kind of water it was washed in but I wanted to take a tub-tuk back to the hotel and not wait for the bus.  My husband said to wait for the bus so we walked around the night market.  I was glad when it was time to leave.

The next morning we had a trip planned to the Grand Palace.  No shorts were allowed in the Grand Palace, so everyone had to wear a long skirt or pants.  I had bought a black skirt on the ship as I knew pants would be too hot.  If anyone didn't have the proper clothing, he or she had to rent printed cotton pants that looked like pajama pants.  After our tour through the Grand Palace where we saw the Jade Buddha, we got back on the bus.  I had brought a pair of knee-length shorts which I put on under my skirt and then took off the skirt, while sitting in my seat on the bus.  I also bought cold bottled water and a folding fan.

In corresponding with a former classmate who lives in northern Thailand, he said that we picked the worst season to visit because March and April were the hottest months there.  We had passed some slums and I really feel for the people who live in those rickety metal buildings with no air conditioning.  After lunch in a nice hotel, we went back to our cruise ship so we could shower and feel clean again.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Repetition

We hardly ever repeat cruises that sail to ports that we have already visited but we have sailed on the same ship more than once.  We have been on the Celebrity Millennium three times:  the first time we were on our Hong Kong to Singapore cruise, the second time we were in Alaska (our 2nd time in Alaska), and the third time was a cruise from Yokohama, Japan, to Vancouver, British Columbia, crossing the northern part of the Pacific Ocean and the International Date Line.  We had three additional stops in Japan and one in Siberia, which was very interesting.  During our voyage we had snow.  Our crew members from Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines were very happy since they had never seen snow before.

We not only sailed on the Millennium three times but we stayed in the same cabin each time.

Another ship that we sailed on more than once was the Vision of the Seas with Royal Caribbean.  We had sailed on that ship in 2001 on our second ever cruise and then again in 2014 to see Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao.  This ship also stopped in Key West and Grand Cayman.  On our 2014 cruise, we had a really cool captain who used to play in a band and played rock music for the passengers in the evenings.  We hoped he was our captain again when we sailed from Dubai to Venice on the same ship in 2017, but he was on vacation.  We did not get a balcony cabin on any of these cruises because the ship is a small one and the balcony cabins were quite a bit more expensive than the ocean view.

We have sailed on the Crown Princess twice.  For some reason I didn't like that ship we first sailed on it and less the second time but we have booked two more cruises on it, including an Atlantic crossing.  I think the first time was because I got sick and was confined to our cabin and then after being cleared, I still had to go to the medical center and get clearance before going ashore in Malta, almost missing our tour.  On our California Coastal cruise in 2015, the ship was getting ready to go into dry dock and there was a shortage of towels, washcloths, etc.  Our cabin attendant had been with the cruise line many years and I don't think he was as much service-oriented as some of the ones who were trying to make a good impression.  Our other future cruise on that ship is visiting some Caribbean islands that we haven't been to yet.

As you can probably tell, we choose destinations instead of cruise lines when we make a decision to cruise.  Some cruise lines have better voyages to where we want to go than others.

Lasting Friends

Of all the trips we have taken and of all the tour guides we have come in contact with, there are a few who made lasting impressions on me.  Although it has been several years since we came into contact with them, I feel that their services are worth mentioning.

In 2005, people living in Birmingham were asked not go visit Aruba because a girl on her high school trip went missing there.  We had already booked our cruise to the Southern Caribbean and could not back out and we took a tour of the island while we were there just to know about the locations on the island that had been mentioned in the news.  As we sat on the bus at one of our stops waiting for the other passengers to get back, the tour guide, a young girl from Chile who was working during the cruise season, asked us where we were from.  When we reluctantly told her that we were from Birmingham, she knew that we had already heard what had happened several months earlier and told us this incident was an isolated case and there was very little crime on the island.  As we left the bus, she gave us a postcard inviting us to come back to "One Happy Island".  It was about ten years before we returned on another cruise, but never forgot that sympathetic young woman.

We were fortunate on our tour in Denali in Alaska to have a young man tour guide that really knew his information.  Although he was there only for the summer and living with his parents in Prescott, AZ, he and a group of friends previously had spent a year in a primitive cabin in Alaska that he pointed out to us as we traveled to Denali.  He was very knowledgeable and gave us information about living in Alaska that we might not have heard otherwise.  The bus driver had driven a bus in the summer season for many years and lived in New Mexico.  He said that his wife, who was a CPA, would ask him every March if he had heard from the tour company about driving a bus in Alaska.

On our tour in DaNang, Vietnam, the tour guide told us that he had received his college degree in business from Troy State University in Troy, AL.  Troy State University actually has a campus in Vietnam but students must be able to speak and write English in order to enroll.  As many people in Vietnam use motorbikes instead of cars for transportation he says his dream is to be able to own a car one day.  When his wife was in labor with their children, he would take her to the hospital on his motorbike and bring her home with the babies the same way.

The most memorable tour guide that we had led our tour in Dalian, China, and we have been corresponding since 2006.  He was just starting out when we first met him and ours was his 5th tour.  He had a great personality and got along with everyone on the tour.  I took a picture of him with the dancer on the ship and he gave me his email address to send him the picture when I got home.  We corresponded by email and in 2012, he led his first tour from China to New York City.  I was in New York City at the same time and we got to spend a few hours together.

In March, 2013, Bill and I went on a cruise from Hong Kong to Singapore.  Knowing that Hong Kong was across a narrow body of water from Shenzhen, where this young man was living now, we arranged to stay in Hong Kong three extra days before our cruise started.  He met us at our hotel in Hong Kong, made it much easier to go through Hong Kong immigration and then Chinese immigration, took us out to eat at an authentic Chinese restaurant, showed us the Shenzhen Civic Center with its beautiful architecture and stayed with us at the bus station until our bus left to go back to Hong Kong.  The following day after we boarded the ship, we met him and went to the Avenue of Stars, crossed over the water to a ferry, and went to Victoria Peak, where we had dinner at a Chinese restaurant.  He want back to Shenzhen and we took the metro back to Kowloon, where we took a bus to our ship.  The picture on the right shows Oliver and me next to his new car.  He had received his driver's license only a few months before and bought a new Hyundai Elantra.

Since then my friend has become an expert in tours from China to the United States and also has done tours to South America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Africa, and Cuba.  We have invited him to visit us in the southeastern part of the United States because the majority of his US tours go to the same large cities on the east and west coasts.  Since 2013, we are using a texting program which gives faster communication and instant responses instead of email.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Pirate Drills

On our cruise from Dubai to Venice, we passed through the Straits of Hormuz on our way out of the Persian Gulf into the Arabian Sea.  In order to get to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba where the ship would make a stop in Jordan, we had to go across the Gulf of Adan, passing between the countries of Yemen and Somalia.

The first night of the cruise, the captain told us that we would be participating in pirate drills as we left Oman to begin this part of our journey.  If he broadcast the message in all cabins, (used usually only in the event of an emergency) saying "Safe Haven" three times, this meant that we had to go somewhere on the ship that had no way of seeing outside, such as a hall, theater, etc.  In addition, the outside decks would be closed with no lighting, and armed guards would patrol continuously for the days that we were between these two countries.  The captain assured us that the pirates usually went after cargo ships since cruise ships were faster and could outrun any danger.  But he warned us if we felt the ship changing directions back and forth very quickly that there might be pirates in the vicinity.

The daily bulletin announced the time that the pirate drill was to be held.  I went to our cabin and stayed in the hall during the drill.  My husband was in the gym and all of the people in the gym and spa and at the pools were sent to the theater.

The next day we had booked an "All Access" tour to see where many of the tasks such as laundry, crew cafeteria, food storage, engine room, and bridge took place.  As we were in the environmental room learning about how waste solids and liquids were handled on the ship, the crew got a pirate drill signal and the heavy doors leading from the environmental area to the outside hall automatically shut.  We continued learning about wastes but it did get very hot in there before the drill was over and we were released.  We have told everyone that we were locked in the garbage room.  There was no smell as the garbage was actually treated on the deck below.  It is amazing that there are several decks under the lowest passenger deck where many of the ship's operations take place.

We traveled through the Gulf of Adan without incident and our first stop there was in the country of Jordan, where we took a tour to see Petra.  You can see the slide show of Petra on the contact page of my website.

More about Rental Cars

Why are rental cars so expensive? The price doesn't sound too bad when you rent it, but after airport facility fees and six or seven types of taxes are added, the prices for a compact car without power windows and door locks is horrendous! We have decided to drive our own car on our next vacation within the US - even paying two or three nights in a hotel room is much cheaper than renting a car at an airport. And we are not bound by airline reservations, so if we want to come home early, we can do so without paying the airlines a change fee. And the best reasons to drive yet -- no damaged luggage and no weight restrictions.

A Close Encounter with Hurricane Tomas.

On Saturday, October 30, as we were preparing to go ashore at Martinique on our southern Caribbean cruise on the Sea Princess, our captain came over the intercom in the cabins. We knew it was serious as the cabin intercoms were never used unless there was an emergency or something vital that the passengers needed to know. He told us that the stop at Martinique had been canceled because a hurricane had developed and was already threatening the eastern side of the island. The captain explained that he did not want the ship to be stationery during a threat of a hurricane. Instead, he headed the ship north as fast as it would go to escape potential high winds, heavy rains, and rough seas. The photo on the left shows the wake left as the ship headed north and we could see by the water that the ship was really traveling fast.
From our balcony on the back of the ship (we were upgraded to a suite two days before we left home) we could see the threatening skies and rain clouds behind us. The captain indicated that we might be able to stop at the island of Dominica, north of Martinique, but the port was closed. He continued north past the island of Guadeloupe where it was safe. The water had been quite rough near Martinique and Dominica but got smoother as the ship sailed north. Bill and I sat on our balcony and watched the water and the clouds.
That night the captain again spoke to us through our room intercoms. He told us about the damage in St. Lucia and let us know that we would not make our scheduled stop there on Sunday, October 31st. Instead, he would try to make a stop at Dominica and even had the shore excursion office schedule tours for Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, as the ship approached Dominica, there was such a swell that the port was not letting the pilot boats guide the Sea Princess into the port. The harbormaster said that the ship could try to dock without a pilot boat at the northern pier, but the captain decided that with the swells, he did not want to take a chance of damaging either the ship or the pier. He had even asked about going ahead to Barbados and getting there early so we could spent an afternoon there, but both the Princess home office and the Barbados authorities didn't think that was a good idea, so we spent another day at sea.

Saturday morning , I had removed my seasickness patch because the heat and the sweat had irritated the skin. Unfortunately on Saturday night, I had a horrible case of seasickness and ended up going to the ship's store to get Dramamine. I decided that I would rather have irritated skin than seasickness. At one point Saturday evening, the water was so rough that the flowers fell off the table in the living room of the suite. Fortunately they landed right side up.

We spent most of Sunday circling from the north to the south of the sea near Dominica. We were not even sure at that point that we would be able to sail to Barbados where we would leave the ship and fly back to Miami. Finally around 1:00 p.m., we started south and were able to continue and docked at Barbados early on Monday, November 1st. 

Upon arriving at the Barbados airport, we discovered that, because of the storm, the American Airlines computers were down. They finally came back up, but we stood in line for almost two hours before we could get checked in. Unfortunately, the ticket counters in the Barbados airport are not in an air-conditioned area but rather in a big, open-air, shed-type facility, and it was extremely hot. We did make our flight to Miami, but I'm not sure that all of the people in the very long line got checked in in time to make the flight. The van driver who took us to the airport said that there was roof damage and power outages in Barbados, but St. Lucia got the worst of the damage.
When we booked this cruise over a year ago, we did not even think about hurricanes happening the last week of October. Of course this has been a very crazy weather year. We do appreciate the captain's watching out for the safety of his passengers.

Nickels and Dimes

It seems as if the common carriers (airlines and cruise ships) want to nickel, dime, and dollar you to death. Take, for example, our last cruise. We thought it was all paid for. However, when we got our final bill, it was a shock. Sure, I like shopping on the ship, but $11.00 a night or more per person to tip all of the people who supposedly helped you? To me, this is just a way for the ship company to make extra money to pay the salaries of the crew. When we first went on cruises, we had envelopes given to us so we could give the cabin attendant and dining room staff tips. Now we can't even get good service in the dining room because the staff already knows they will be tipped, no matter how good or bad the service is. We always gave our cabin attendant extra because every one that we have had on the many cruises that we have taken has done a superior job. No wonder cruise ship jobs are so lucrative to people who are not US natives!

Shore excursions are another very expensive added expense. Why do you have to have a gourmet meal during a shore excursion? The restaurants on the shore excursions try to make the meal as ethnic as possible - then passengers get ill and are confined to their cabins for stomach problems caused by eating unfamiliar food. No wonder nobody would eat the chicken feet in China! And why do we get taken to very expensive shopping venues to purchase items that must be shipped home instead of going into the local marketplaces?

Up to now, we have not paid for luggage to fly either domestically or internationally. Now we are told by our airline that for our October trip overseas, we must pay $50.00 for a second checked bag. That defeats my purpose of taking the 22-inch carry-on onboard, putting a backpack in my large suitcase, checking the carry-on full of items we have purchased on the way home, and using the backpack as my carry-on. I just hope we can really squash Hard Rock bears in the one suitcase along with clothes, shoes, everything else we've bought, etc. Or we'll just have to shop less.

And you would think that you would get a gourmet meal on the plane for the price you have to pay for a turkey sandwich and can of Pringles. Think again!

We just need to remember that there are a lot of hidden costs in travel. And although we do pay a fee and a higher exchange rate, it is still good to get foreign money in the US - beats standing in line at airports to exchange money at even higher exchange rates than you originally paid in the US. You'll have your train or taxi fare in hand when you need it