Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Baggage of Baggage

Isn’t it interesting to see how your packing a suitcase over the years has changed. It wasn’t long ago that I could travel in a little pink bag about the size of a small backpack. It is hard to remember what went into that bag, but I know I was gone for weeks at a time and, with the exception of formal attire, I always had what I needed.

There were also years when I packed a small suitcase (when you work in an international government agency a suitcase is much more seemly than a little pink bag), and filled it with clothing that was black and could be rolled. There was an occasional T-shirt included in case we had access to a fitness facility, and maybe one or two colorful (but never wrinkle-able) shirts and usually a black dress that could be dressed up or down.
Drinks at the Stars Lounge, aboard the Navigator ... "elegant casual..."
When I was traveling with my boss, Joe Duffey, the Director of the once existant USIA, I never took more than I could carry. He however packed numbers of giant suitcases and filled them with books and papers, as well as clothing. When his wife traveled with us, she packed only a large bag but the combined load was so large that when we rode the fast train from Tokyo to Kyoto, I made everyone practice getting off the train quickly so we could exit with baggage before off before the doors closed. They close in what seems like less than a minute on those fast trains. I mentioned my concerns about over-packing to Joe as we were schlepping all our luggage from a small plane in the Swiss Alps, to a large plane in France. Need I say that there were no accommodations made to transfer us from one part of the airport to a departure point easily two miles from the site of our arrival. Joe agreed that he needed to think small. So he packed the same amount but in 7 or 8 smaller bags. Never mind, we had such fun it was never an issue.

We’ve just returned from a three week cruise on the Regent Navigator. It was absolutely phenomenal – the best way to travel long distances without any stress. (Exactly 5421 miles in 20 days.) When I packed for the trip I packed more than I have ever packed for any trip –personal or business. It was unclear what ‘elegant casual’ meant, and I didn’t want to embarrass Dr. Burnett, lecturer extraordinaire. Anyway, as soon we boarded the plane to go to Ft. Lauderdale, I realized I had made a mistake. There was, much like the airport adventure from the Swiss Alps, just too much for any two people without luggage sherpas to carry. It was too late to unpack and ship everything home, so I decided I would wear everything I brought. This was easy because “elegant casual” means you can wear anything but jeans, as long as you look nice. A shirt with a collar is indispensable. A most reasonable way to accommodate those sailors who no longer want to drip with diamonds every evening. And a wonderful way for me to make use of all the rags I own. And it was fun to dress up.

Yesterday, when we unpacked from the trip (and yes, I did have to ship a box of gifts I simply couldn’t carry), I had a kabitka, (which is, literally, a small canvas-topped Russian wagon, but I use it synonymously for ‘epiphany’—don’t ask). Anyway, my kabitka was about why we seem to pack four times what we did in the past. Admittedly, I overpacked, but forget clothing – I knew what I didn’t need, just not in a timely manner. It’s the medication and the hair products. Seriously, and I’m not exaggerating, I packed a medium size suitcase (one that would ordinarily hold two weeks worth of clothing) with hair crap, technology (a phone, computer, iPod, Kindle, a mechanism to listen to my books on tape), and daily medication. It was unbelievable. It just kept coming and coming. It seemed like endless amounts of stuff I never used 10 years ago. How did that happen? I can still pack a month’s worth of black stretchy clothing in one bag. But I can not leave home without at least another bag filled with stuff that previously didn’t exist as an essential.
Oh well. I still haven’t talked specifically about our adventure, but even Burnett was able to relax. We’re just sayin’…Iris

Saturday, May 29, 2010

and Into Port...Finally

What a difference a day makes –24 little hours. Actually twelve hours – but 24 is much more musical. As I mentioned a few days ago, it was so hot, my sweat had sweat. Then, like magic, we were back in the good ole USA and it was cold. We were not in Alaska. We’re talking San Diego.

Jordan and Jack came, from L.A. to San Diego to visit us on the ship. They brought bathing suits. It was so cold there was no water in the pool. This did not deter them. They went in the hot tub and then froze when they tried to get out. While Jordan needed to be wrapped like a taco, Jack is used to the temperature in Kerry’s pool so he did alright.

It was a great day, spent mostly eating and drinking and scouting around the ship (there are a lot of decks to cover.) They arrived at 1:30 so we had burgers on deck. Then they relaxed with drinks on the pool deck. Next stop, cocktails in the Seven Seas, and then dinner at the Sevens. Yes, we waddled out about 10:30 and they had to leave the ship because otherwise it was leaving with them. They met all the cruise friends, and the Captain and I think had a good time—even though it was with parents.
Jack, Jordan, DB and assorted stogies
We arrived in San Francisco, passing under the Golden Gate at about 5am, and were invited to watch the arrival on the Bridge with the Captain. It was actually thrilling, but so foggy we couldn’t see the bridge save for a hint of a pylon, wrapped in fudge thick fog, but we did see Alcatraz, the coast, the seaport and the Bay Bridge. Hard to believe so much time has passed so quickly.

the Bay Bridge... at bay
So as not to suffer an enormous and immediate shocking withdrawal, from friends and food, we had lunch with Jon and Anne at Pier 39 on the Embarqadero, which by the way, gave us two hours of free parking. We think it could be the first time ever that someone actually USED one of those Tourist booklets, the coupon good for parking for two hours. (Hey, $14 is $14) Had a great lunch of lots of crab and assorted seafood, (we hadn’t eaten in at least a half hour), bid them a teary goodbye (not really because we’ll see them next week) and made our way to Palo Alto, to visit with David’s mom.

It's almost Golden
If you are going to age, I would suggest you do it at an independent living apartment complex like this one. Sure there are the usual activities, (bingo, fitness, cards, etc.), but these folks also make their own fun by having a daily morning coffee klatch, where they bring a bit of breakfast and the Hyatt provides all the coffee they can drink. Their discussions are not about health or aging. They discuss contemporary topics in a most cogent manner. There are a wide range of opinions and ages. Some very Democrat. Some very Republican. Some couples, some singles – all lucid and involved. In addition, Mom has a once a week cocktail party with her neighbors, where everyone brings a bit of food and their own wine, or drink of preference. Once again, it is time for exchange of information about friends and current topics. Yes, they are fortunate to be lucid and healthy, but I think this kind of mental exercise and interest is one reason they are not just waiting to die – as is the case in so many places where the elderly live. These folks have found a way to live independently with companionship and have fun … get me to the nearest Hyatt.
Nothing gets by these folks...
We did hear about an alternative – which we are considering. It cost the same to take a cabin on a cruise ship that it does to live in an assisted living facility. Three meals or more meals a day, with entertainment. It’s nothing to sneeze about. Again, this kind of life, is not a bad option. We’re just sayin’… Iris

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Last Cruise Ship

It seems everywhere we have been on this trip, the first thing we have heard from the local populace is, “You are on the last cruise ship.” It has been like arriving in the “Twilight Zone” without knowing whether you were coming or going.

Who knew, but this is the end of cruising in Central America until next October. Or it may be that the two-for-one offers on cruising -- common amongst even the top level ships -- are precisely because the tropics ‘season’ is over. It has been incredibly hot everywhere we have been. And we’re told that the rainy season is imminent. Unless you are actually traveling on this luxury vehicle, you might think that being about to arrive or leave the “Twilight Zone,” as well as not having any idea what time or day it is, might be a bit ominous. And that is true, but not for very long because you can, at any time, pick up the trusty phone and ask a well-informed telephonist “what time is it, and where are we?” They always know.

And speaking of ominous, when we started the cruise and heard the orchestra play the theme song from the “Titanic”, we were just a bit concerned. Then we realized the entire group was Eastern European, and probably were unaware of the significance of the music. [Editor’s note: We DO believe “the heart does go on…”] Anyway, we haven’t heard it since the first day so someone must have brought it to the cruise director’s attention. It is impossible to believe that two weeks have passed since we came on board. We have enjoyed ourselves much beyond what we thought possible. And we came to the conclusion that shore-based adventures (actually called ‘excursions’) were not a necessary part of the program. Most of our time off ship has been spent finding a driver, seeing pretty or interesting scenery and then finding a great place for lunch. We keep reminding one another (and yes we are still speaking and quite affectionately), that we have traveled before, and don’t need to see every touro-highlight out there, though a few bear taking note of. In other words, we have our own definition of adventure and of late, it includes no heavy lifting. Although the pool was quite rough today and I felt like I was using the Endless Wave machine where you only swim two feet but you do it against the current. The second time I got tossed against the side of the pool I simply gave up on any idea of exercise today.

Saturday we were in Puerto Chiapas, in the southern end of Mexico. It is a fairly new cruise ship port but there is already a Walmart, a Home Depot and a Sam’s Club. Go figure. There is also an extensive marketplace where they sell everything from clothing to food to electrical appliances to mangoes. No one loves a market more than I, but this was a bit depressing because a great many people from Guatemala come to Chiapas to look for work. But they come as families so you can see the poverty by looking at the mothers and children. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but enough real world, and, as my friend Phoebe Galgiani would have said “if only they would tidy up a bit.” Moving on, before anyone is disappointed by my foolish attempt at lack of concern, no one on the ship seemed happy with the stop. Even my new pal John, an anthropology buff was disappointed by what he called, ‘newly built’ ruins (only a few centuries old, not a full millenium.) (What locals don’t do for tourists!) Day before yesterday we were in Hualtulco – where we did limited shopping and had the best seafood tacos ever assembled.

And yesterday we were in Acapulco where a shop owner plied us with the best tequila (from the largest vessel ever noted) we have ever had, and (as he had hoped), we shopped in his store.

Last night we were in Port until almost midnight and the entertainment was Mexican folklorique music, dancing, incredible amounts of food and yes, margaritas. We have met and bonded with absolutely the nicest people (young and old) you can imagine. And because it is a twenty day cruise and a small ship, we have talked to just about everyone –well David has talked to everyone but I’ve been my usual shy self. It’s been a delight just getting up, eating, exercising, finding a seat in the shade, eating, reading, playing trivia, going to tea, eating, and then having dinner, drinks and a show. I better get off soon because I’m beginning to believe I could live like this. But I might be a one person Ship of Fool. We’re just sayin’…. Iris

Saturday, May 15, 2010


This morning David called the concierge to ask what time and what day it was. We had no idea if it was Friday, Saturday, or Sunday – it hardly matters. We seafaring folks mark our time by days we are at sea, and days we are in port.

The last port city was, I forget… kidding. It was Puerto Limon. It is not only the largest port in Costa Rica, it is the manicure/pedicure capital of the world. It occurs to me that this is not something about which most countries would brag – but let’s be honest. It is better than being the shooting or knifing capital. The popularity of this skill is obvious when you step off the ship and are immediately confronted by 15 or 16 little stalls (each a separate business), of women offering the nail and foot services. To be quite honest, and although I did have a pedi before I left New York, I was a bit grossed out by the enthusiasm one mani/pedi-curist had for the idea of playing with David’s toes. Needless to say, we did not participate in this activity.

The hardest thing to do is pass a stand that has native crafts – especially for children. I want to buy something for all the kids at every stop. But alas, the prices are too high and I’ve seen most of it in Chinatown. Moving on. First we decided we were not going to do any tours. We were simply going to hang around at the port towns. But there was so little to see, that we changed our minds. We hadn’t, however signed up for any tours offered by the ship – which we later found out was a pretty good idea, so we started to talk to an American who had been in Puerto Limon for 11 years and offered to take us to a few interesting places. We stopped to look at monkeys and sloths (no, not a Congressional staff person, an actual sloth!) in the rain forest – but not too far in. Then we went to the Del Monte banana factory – I eat a banana everyday so I thought it was a way to say ‘thanks.’ Then we went to the river, but did not get on a launch – for which we would have paid the native price (Daryl’s tour did not include river tours) and then we went to lunch at a terrific little restaurant that catered to locals, and a few hundred tourists that showed up. The food was tasty, but the entertainment was what the locals thought the tourists would enjoy – a rousing rendition of “Day-oh” without the benefit of Harry Belafonte’s voice or personality. Most of the luncher/tourists really got into it. There was a great deal of dancing and drinking – or maybe it would make more sense if it was drinking and dancing.

By the end of lunch we were a bit weary of the heat. We had cut a deal with him for $20 Canadian and $40 American. But when we reached the pier, it was clear that the driver (who we then realized was not actually a part of Daryl’s business), was not happy about taking the Canadian currency. Further, it was clear that they expected more of a tip, or for us to buy something illegal – about which neither was of much interest. It’s been a bit of a jolt going from springy NY weather to full blown tropical sweatiness. But that’s why we’re the tough travelers we are. Other than one night a few days ago (again… lost in time) when the ship was be-bopping through some stormy seas, its been a pleasure. David tried the patch behind the ear treatment, but its been more psychosomatic than really necessary. Like Linus’ blanket, as long as it’s there, there’s no real need for anything further.

The most enjoyable thing about the cruise, other than it’s timelessness, is/are the other passengers. The other speakers are very friendly and knowledgable and the guests are great fun – OK not everyone, but out of 500 guests and 300 crew, I bet 600 are fine. The staff is delightful as well as helpful. The food is good, as well as plentiful. And the idea of everything being included—food, drink, entertainment, and education (that’s us) should be applauded.

There are lecturers who have spent anywhere from 10 to 20 years sailing on different ships to different parts of the world – which we are probably not going to do. But it is easy to see that it could become something you could do a few times a year. And, most importantly, we haven’t killed one another, despite the enclosed living space (which is pretty vast. Our cabin would make a GREAT studio apt. in the city. In fact, we are enjoying the time together. But then what’s not to enjoy—we are totally unstressed about almost everything. Hell, we don’t even know what day it is. Oh, yes, we did show the “Gefilte Fish Chronicles” yesterday, but everyone seemed to like it – so even that worked out.

Yesterday we went through the Panama Canal—but we will regale you with those tales and pictures tomorrow. We’re just sayin’… Iris

As Promised, With Minor Maritime Delay

As promised, yet with minor delays.

We arrived at the ship before noon on Thursday and spent some time finding our way to the right place. The Navigator is an elegant all suites ship, with nearly as many service personnel as there are guests. Which means, of course, that not a moment goes by without someone making sure there is nothing you need—or nothing you might want. Everything from a decaf espresso/latte/ machine, to a juicer that does any kind of vegetable you may want liquefied. It is David’s job to give five lectures and our job to be as social as possible with as many guests as we can corral, at a meal, drinks, or activities.

This, as you can imagine, is no heavy lifting for the Burnetts. It is often said that we are nothing if not social. Or maybe it is said that we are nothing but social – either way this is a perfect way to spend some time. The first day was a day at sea – with the waters calm and the sun shining, David gave his first presentation. OK so it was not easy with the sun shining through every window in the venue he was assigned, but he made it work. The audience loved his stories and his humor and asked a great many questions, including “Can you show me how to work my camera.” Because he is generous with his time and talent, I believe he agreed to not only help with cameras but make sure there was scenery to shoot. If you know how David shoots (non-stop) anything he sees can be a picture. As he says, “the best camera to use is the one you have with you.”
When we throw a "block party," we throw a Block Party!
One of the big surprises for us was the number of WWII vets that are on board. Some people would think of this particular group as a little elderly, but because of David’s heroes from the passion for anything WWII, he sees it as an opportunity to get to know these warriors from another time. Cruising is something most of these passengers do on a regular basis. They like this smaller more intimate ship even though the pool is small, the fitness facilities include only a few critical machines, and the casino is limited. But nothing ever seems crowded – so we think it must be a lot better than having to deal with monster facilities on a monster ship, and 8000 people. Also, 130 of the passengers are from Great Britain. It’s a mighty interesting group of experienced travelers. Oh, and there is a 12 year old, who being the only child on the ship, seems to wander around looking for some kind of youthful entertainment. But the staff is kind and attentive, and short of manufacturing another child, they seem to do the best they can.

Activities (other than the casino, eating and drinking) range from fitness classes to lecturers to bingo. And alas, there is plenty of time alone together. We have never spent this much time together in a confined space. We did go to Italy for a month but had, Doug and Joyce and Jordan with us. So this is a whole new kind of adventure. If we make it past the Panama Canal and dock in Costa Rica without having killed each other, we figure we’ll be just fine.

In the meantime, it’s another one of those holidays (Mother’s Day) invented to sell greeting cards. Someone in Kansas City must have known someone on Capital Hill because Hallmark does just fine the three or ten times a year when we celebrate some holiday that marks an occasion in which everyone must participate. My mother always said, “every day is mother’s day”. I couldn’t imagine why but if she thought so – we went with it. No, that’s not exactly true, I get why. If you try to be a good mother and are rewarded with happy children, it is something to celebrate every day.

Back to sailing the seven seas. Yesterday we went snorkeling in Grand Cayman. It was fine. Not like I remember it from 30 years ago, when the coral was as colorful as the parrot fish, but there were nice fish and an adorable ship wreck. David didn’t take any spectacular underwater pictures because he forgot his underwater camera and admits he was too cheap to buy another. Tomorrow we dock in Costa Rica. The big decision was whether to go on a tour or try and find our own way. We decided to go it alone. If we get kidnapped make sure they offer the villains a great deal of money so we finally assess our worth. David is doing another lecture and book signing on Tuesday and there is a good possibility that we will be able to share the “Gefilte Fish Chronicles” with the other guests.

David wants all potential robbers to know, 1. we have nothing of value and 2. the house and apartment are being looked after by people with guns. Hopefully, you will enjoy the pictures and David will share his thoughts as well. Tonight we host a block party in the hallway of our suite…. A woman’s work is never done. We’re just sayin’… Iris