Friday, September 26, 2008

Land of the Rising Sun, Part 1

Monday, September 29, 2008

At last, dry, unmoving land appears out of our window. Well, it would if we had a window. But it was bright and sunny off of the rear verandah which we are claiming as ours [although we may not use it until slightly warmer weather]. The harbor at Hakodate [HAH-ko-DAH-tay] is small and quiet. Only one pier is in use and that is for us. We can see a couple of overhead cranes on the far side of the harbor and several ferryboats. It is pretty deserted where we are.

This morning was the “meet and greet” with Japanese immigration officials. We were called to the show venue by deck number, starting with the high rollers on Deck 7. Our embarrassment of a cabin is on Deck 6, so we were among the earliest to go through the line. When we arrived at the theater, we were given our passports and then sat and waited. Once the officials were ready for us we handed over our passports while the officers pretended to be busy, then had our index fingers scanned so they can identify our bodies in case we fall in the harbor. One theory is that the Japanese [and others] are making this tedious in retaliation for increased screening in the US.

We were done with this dance before 10 and told Patti and Russ that we were going to try to catch the 10:30 shuttle to town since the ship was not docked close to anything other than a wasteland. When we went to the buses at 10:15, they were already in line, so we joined up with them and rode the shuttle to town.

We had originally planned to take a field trip through the ship but the tickets we were issued when we boarded indicated that there were lots of steps involved. Another part of the tour was the “rope bridge”; the ticket indicated we might have high winds which made us a little nervous. MA was fine on the cable car over the Australian rainforest canopy two years ago, but “rope bridge” and “high winds” did not sound like a good combination. We canceled the trip as soon as we could on Day One. Roxanne and Ed took the trip we canceled and reported at dinner tonight that the “rope bridge” was actually a cable car which could hold over 100 people; Ed said that people standing in the middle of the car couldn’t even see out [of course they were Japanese and Ed is over 6 feet tall]. And there was no wind. Oh, well, the ticket refund will allow us to purchase more internet time.

We rode on the shuttle for about 20 minutes on what we thought was a circuitous route and were deposited in downtown Hakodate. Immediately in front of us was a building which had been described as a recreation center, but we didn’t go in. Our target was the Hakodate Morning Market which reportedly closed at noon. We weren’t worried since we were downtown before 11 a.m. There were gaggles of school girls, all wearing navy blue middie blouses with matching skirts. They were volunteers who were handing out maps and directions. Their English language skills varied, but, after all, they were only around 14 or 15. Our Japanese skills were confined to “ohayo” [hello]; “domo” [thank you]; “sayonara” [goodbye]; and tempura and sushi terms. We were told that we could get to the market by taking the train which turned out to be a streetcar/trolley/light rail depending who was describing it. We had difficulty understanding where to catch the trolley but finally saw a group of people waiting at a little platform in the middle of the street.

The trolley system was unique. Upon boarding, passengers take a ticket which they turn in prior to leaving the train. It appeared that there was a “reader” which would flash the fare due and that passengers would then pay the amount indicated. Naturally, we screwed it up. Only D had seen the ticket machine, so he was the only one with a ticket [which he still has]. The trolley was not crowded, so the driver/conductor was able to help us when we were ready to exit. The one-way tariff for the 4 of us was 9800JPY, a little under $10. On the return trip, we did take tickets, but it was still 9800 yen.

We were only on the train for 3 stops. Once off, we wandered around, following others from the ship who we hoped knew where they were heading. In about 5 minutes, we were at the market area. Just as the “international” market in Busan, South Korea, had been several square blocks of stores selling cheap merchandise to the locals [think way worse than Wal-Mart with dogs], the Morning Market seemed to be nothing more than several blocks of tiny sushi restaurants and fish mongers. We saw crabs, crabs and more crabs. Some resembled Dungeness, some were reminiscent of spiny lobsters, some were live and many weren’t. There were large tanks of crabs like lobster tanks in the grocery stores in the states. There were live squid, sea cucumbers and prawns. There were even a couple of good-sized sharks. King crab legs were also available. Prices seemed high to us, even with the 100 yen to one dollar exchange, but business was brisk. Many of the vendors were selling identical seafood at identical prices, but the locals obviously had their favorites. At one stand, 2 girls were steaming open what appeared to be scallop shells by using a blow torch. At another, a woman was preparing sea urchin.

In addition to the outdoor stalls, each in front of a tiny store, there was a “store” with a large open indoor market. Here we found produce and flours primarily as well as the only stall selling meat. It was obvious to us that seafood, especially shell fish, were dominant in the local diet. There is also a fish market which we did not go to. We did, however, find a Japanese department store. Similar to the one Russ and I saw in Osaka in 2006, each floor was devoted to a specific type of merchandise with the “departments” operated independently. The assumption is that these are “lease” departments where a percentage is paid to the building owner based on square footage and dollar volume. We decided that we were not interested in the clothing floors and settled into the basement which sold mostly sweets – cookies and other pastries [fresh or commercially boxed]; candy; wine and tchotchkes. There was also fresh ground coffee available, teas and gift sets. And we even saw Halloween candy.

When we were done, we found our way to the light rail stop, hopped on [remembering to take tickets this time] and returned to the shuttle stop. We were back on board around 12:50, just in time for lunch, trivia [we lost but didn’t want more mouse pads anyway] and a nice long nap.

After dinner [vegetarian croquets v. broiled salmon], the six of us went to play quickie trivia. We tied for first but lost the tie-breaker. Again, what would we have done with more coffee mugs?

Tomorrow we explore Aomori which was added at the last minute when Petropavlovsk was canceled. We have no specifics in mind, so it could be quite the adventure.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The morning started with a mixture of clouds, rain and then sun. By the time we were ready to go ashore, it was sunny and becoming warmer, but we were dressed for cooler temperatures and were really schvitzy by the time we returned to the ship.

While at breakfast, we could see a school of jelly fish in the water by the ship. Even at a distance [maybe especially at a distance], they were beautiful. We watched birds wheeling overhead with Aomori’s modern silhouette in the background. The highlights are a modern suspension bridge which straddles the harbor and a 14-story building whose front is in the shape of an equilateral triangle. It is quite striking. [Someday photos will appear here, but the cost of internet time is too much to try to play with it now. There have been enough problems and time spent just trying to post the text].

Once we were off the ship, we stopped at the little information kiosk set up by the gangway. A volunteer gave us a map and off we went. The main shopping district was highlighted, but we didn’t really want to shop. We started by walking over to the triangular building which was fronted by a small gravity fountain. [See the picture here in November] It coursed down a concrete sluice which had statues of seals running all the way to the bottom. The Japanese, like the Chinese, have a love affair with water as one of the balancing aspects of nature.

We went into the building itself because it and we were there. The first floor was a collection of mostly little food stalls selling products representative of Aomori. The building also had an observation deck and more stores but its main mission seemed to be in promoting Aomori.

From there, we just wandered to “Main Street.” We passed a number of hair salons and barber shops, restaurants, bakeries, even a McD’s. Still no KFC or Starbucks stores but that will change once we get to Kyoto and Osaka. We stopped in a bakery to gawk and sniff but left before we could do any damage. As we walked down this main shopping street, we found a drugstore and decided to try to find nose spray to relieve D’s congestion. Through a series of pantomimes, the druggist/clerk understood what we wanted and we left $9 poorer but hopefully healthier. It reminded us of D wandering through several small German towns trying to find something similar for MA in May.

We started back to the ship having seen nothing of real note other than a street-front Buddhist temple, but made the find of the day purely by accident. The Utou Shrine was lovely, a haven of peace and quiet in the middle of the city. We wandered through enjoying its beauty – especially another fountain and a koi pond. There were only a few others there which made it even better.

Back on shipboard, we sat on “our” verandah and read before going to lunch and then trivia [We lost]. After trivia, D discovered that we had a call from Guest Services about our request for a room change When he went to investigate, he discovered that the available cabin was on Deck 2, not nearly as convenient as the current one on Deck 6 or the originally requested one on Deck 3. We decided that it was not worth moving [and packing and unpacking] since we had already passed the one-third mark of the cruise. The Guest Services officer promised to send the e-mail address for the Seattle office and encouraged us to write about our concerns as well as to ask for some consideration on our up-coming March voyage.

We skipped the comedian’s show and MA went to bed while D updated the journal, the trivia list for Ted and the letter to HAL about our room dilemma. And so to bed.

Land Ho!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Although today will be a day much like all of the other so far, it may be significant elsewhere. As this is written, it is 10:20 Saturday morning on the ship but it is still Friday in the States. The first of the McCain-Obama debates is scheduled to begin in less than 45 minutes according to CNN. This is perhaps as good a time as any to talk about politics on the Amsterdam.

Like the weather, everyone talks about it but no one is really doing anything. We have heard no real political discourse, just the occasional whisper. Roxanne and Ed are Obama supporters and have found a few more Friends of B.OB, as Roxanne phrases it; we think Russ and Patti are split. For the most part, there appears to be interest but no really overt partisanship expressed although we suspect the majority of the passengers are McCain supporters. Many will not even vote because they could not get absentee ballots before sailing; others are having them mailed to Hong Kong and hoping the ship’s shore agent delivers them. As for returning them, we have been spreading the word [learned on Cruise Critic] that ballots can be sent from Singapore in the diplomatic pouch. Of course, we will be home in time to pretend that our vote will count in Palm Beach County.

The day started out gloomy and a bit bumpy but has become sunny and clear. Even so, tonight’s formal night has been declared “optional” because the staff doesn’t want women to wear high heels. As it turned out, most people came to dinner dressed in formal attire; most of the women wore black and white since this was supposed to be the Black and White Ball. The wait staff was duded up and the dining room and lobbies were swathed with black and white drapes. There was so much material, in fact, that it was almost impossible to reach the Purel dispensers by the dining room doors; large flower arrangements made the task even more awkward.

Our dinner discussion was lively and included lots of early television memorabilia/trivia – Winky Dink, Marcus Welby, westerns, sci-fi shows and more. The six of us got on famously which bodes well for our impending shore adventures.

Menu Flash! For those of you keeping track, MA had meatloaf, not the vegetarian entrée, for dinner; D had lamb chops. After dinner we went to the casino and played the pennies again with moderate success, then returned to the room to read before bed. Seas have been calmer than predicted, but no one is complaining.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Calm seas and clear skies! It doesn’t feel like a Sunday, but then all of the days have blended together. We know it’s Sunday because [1] the elevator rugs say so and [2] it is time to refill the pill container. Because we crossed the Date Line, we are using Wednesday’s pills today.

We ate in the dining room again this morning. While the choices are more limited than they are at the Lido buffet, it is a little more formal and almost elegant. We shared the table with four others this morning and talked about our assorted home states, current states and the debacle that is the Palm Beach County Board of Election Supervisors. We still don’t know the outcome of the August 26 judge’s race but are not interested enough to look it up on line.

Our daily routine may end after today. We arrive in Hakodate, Japan, tomorrow and have to “walk the line” to get our passports approved. Everyone must go through this procedure, but passengers on HAL Shore Excursions will go first so they can board their buses with enough time to complete their tours without delaying departure. We have no plans but may go ashore if the town is within walking distance or HAL operates a shuttle. As for today, it will be trivia [where we are 4 for 8 so far], lunch, nap, drinks with the captain [us and 400 other people], dinner, casino, bed. What’s not to like?

Later -- We won at trivia again, making us 5 for 9 so far. D has begun collecting the questions and answers for Ted so he can study for his trip in November. Patti didn’t come to dinner tonight, a disappointment. We hurried out to play Name That Tune [with Russ, Ed and Roxanne]. We were second by 1 point but had a good time pretending to sing. MA and D went to hear the flute player after that, then returned to the room. MA read and then went to sleep while D went to the computer center to try to get the blog posted since it was recalcitrant this morning.

Time Marches On

Thursday, September 25, 2008

We won again in trivia today. We now have 4 coffee mugs and 4 mouse pads. We are grateful that we didn’t win key chains or luggage tags. We do have our standards.

The seas finally got a little chop to them tonight, just enough to remind us that we were on board a ship. Dinner was a bit quiet tonight as it was just the 4 of us; Ceta and John have switched to the early seating. We asked them if their decision was final before asking Patti and Russ if we could invite Ed and Roxanne to join us. They were fine with the idea, so we told our dining room captain; they told theirs; and it was done. They even got a card delivered to their cabin the next day confirming the change.

After dinner [veggie for her, red meat and shrimp for him], MA went to the room to read. She is determined to finish her book soon so D can have it. If he finishes it before Cambodia, we will gift it to Briton along with some others which we schlepped with us. The more stuff we can palm off, the more space we have when we pack all of the HAL goodies for the long trip home. D visited the casino for too long before coming to the room for the night.

The Grand Voyages on HAL have a feel all their own. Because the trips are longer, the passengers tend to be more well-travelled and, as mentioned earlier older. As a thank you for spending 30-plus days with them, HAL showers travelers with “stuff.” In the first week alone, we have found a travel diary, travel purse and tote bag, slippers and sweat shirts on the bed at night. All except the slippers are personalized with the HAL logo and the name of this trip, making them one-of-a-kind items.

Friday, September 26, 2008

It was a dark and stormy night. The promised turbulence made itself know all night as the ship rocked and rolled. We kept hearing the hanging clothing sliding back and forth in closet. As if the ocean’s motion was not enough, we seemed to hit an occasional pothole in the water; the whole ship seemed to stop amidst a tremendous racket followed by dead silence. Then we would start all over again. At breakfast this morning, someone commented that the eggs were coming out of their shells already scrambled.
It is another quiet day. We read; D checked the e-mail for responses from Vietnam and China about adding the Waynes to some tours; and we got killed in trivia. Still, we are 4 for 7 so far. One of our opponents commented that he was glad to see a different team win each day; we did not talk about his powers of observation, at least not to his face. MA finally finished Ken Follett’s The Way of the World and started a new book after lunch while D caught things up.
Roxanne and Ed will join us for dinner tonight even though Ceta told us this morning that she and John were having second thoughts. If they want to return to late dinner, they can always go to Roxanne and Ed’s old table. The addition of the Pettuses is especially appropriate since we will be taking all of our tours with them. Both of our TA’s had tried to get us together without luck, but now it is a fait accompli.

We have been warned of the possibility of a bumpy ride and Force 7 winds for the remainder of our sail to Hakodate, Japan, where we dock Monday. We’ll just have to wait to see.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

If it's Tuesday we must still be at sea

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 [LATER]

We spent a quiet day again. That’s what we like about sea days, and we will have plenty more before we reach our first port in Japan on the 29th. Even with losing a day to the International Date Line, it will be a lengthy sea voyage just crossing from Seattle. After a late breakfast, we settled in at the Ocean Bar. D found a table by the windows near an electrical outlet and plugged in the computer so he could update the journal and philosophize [see above]. We stayed at the table until Trivia Time and settled in with Russ, Patti, Anne and Chet for the competition. Although we thought we should have done a little better, we were still good enough to win more HAL initial mugs. So far, there have been 5 trivia games; we have won 3 and been second once. It’s a good start. Most of all, though, we are having fun cheering as each answer is read, regardless of whether we actually had it correct. It’s starting to unnerve some of the other teams.

We had lunch in the dining room, shared our money with slot machines and then read until nap time. We had received an e-mail from Keiko our Goodwill Guide in Kyoto earlier in the day. She offered 5 possible sites to visit when we are there October 3 and wanted to know which 4 we would prefer to see. We arranged to have a drink with Roxanne and Ed before dinner where we discussed the choices. Roxanne had brought a guide book to Japan, so Ed read descriptions aloud. We voted informally to eliminate the Kiomizu Temple from our tour on the basis of its having a lot of steps and a steep hill. Our collective knees would have been most unhappy with that as a stop.

MA has caught her “I’m on vacation far from home” cold, so after dinner [stuffed pepper for MA, chicken for D] she went to bed after self-medicating and D took the computer to do the journal. He also submitted Japan’s entry/exit form to the Front Desk and played a few hands of blackjack [but not few enough!]. Before turning in, he e-mailed Keiko with our choices. Tomorrow promises to be interesting weather-wise, but we’ll have to wait and see. Oh, yes, we turned the clocks back again so that there will be an 8 hour difference in the morning.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Well, we slept away a whole day. Actually, we crossed the International Date Line last night and woke to find the elevator rugs say that today is Thursday. Yesterday, they said it was Tuesday. It is very confusing, especially since the pills we took this morning came from the compartment labeled Wednesday. For those passengers who are staying aboard until San Diego, there will be one day that repeats itself [Can you say Groundhog Day?], but we will not enjoy the return to “normalcy” at leisure; we will face “the longest day” again when we fly home from Singapore. We have more than a month to go, so it’s too early to worry. Actually, we will meet Jon et al. one month from today in the Singapore airport.

So far, the day has been quite quiet. Despite the dire predictions of the captain, the sky is clear, the seas are calm and we even saw sea gulls at breakfast, a sure sign that we are near land. Today will be another in the sequence of relaxing sea days – breakfast, read, trivia, lunch, read, nap. It’s as if our schedule were created by Garfield; all we need now is lasagna.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sailing, Sailing

Monday, September 22, 2008,

The skies are overcast today; temps are cool; and we have been warned about windy conditions on deck. It’s a good thing we had no intentions of going out and about. Breakfast in the Lido with folks from Northern California, both former teachers [and apparently other things as well]. We went to the Ocean Bar after breakfast where MA read and D wrote a polite letter of complaint to HAL about our stateroom. He e-mailed the letter to Seattle with a copy to Ted, checked the e-mail, then did the journal and read until it was time for trivia. We again tied for first but barely lost the tie-breaker and were unable to capture the HAL luggage tags. Darn!

We read in the Explorers’ Lounge until around 1:30 and then made our way to the Lido for lunch. We made poor choices [pad thai and stir fry], so we were forced to eat dessert. It’s tough being us. We read more after lunch, played a little in the casino and then went “home” for a nap. Tonight was called informal which now means coat-and-tie; we used to call it semi-formal. Ceta and John, our tablemates, went to the Pinnacle Grille for a “special” dinner, so Roxanne and Ed sat with us. When we go to the Pinnacle with Russ and Patti, Ceta and John will invite friends to take our places, so it all balances out. We rushed out of the dining room so as to be at evening trivia in the Crow’s Nest by 9:30. It is 4 decks up and at the other end of the ship, but we made it. Roxanne and Ed didn’t come, so it was just the 4 of us. Again with the ties! This time there were 3 teams tied and we were able to capture more cheap ship stuff, specifically mouse pads.

Russ and Patti returned to their room and we went to the casino where MA played penny slots while D played blackjack. He broke even tonight [but is down$10 at the tables so far] before he joined her in giving money to HAL. He lost $4 all told while MA was down just one. On the way to the cabin, there was stop at the Ocean Bar for a Bailey’s. D left MA to read before going to sleep; he went to the Port Lecturer’s desk, where there was an electrical outlet, to catch up the journal. As he was finishing, Russ came past on his way to bed. We set the clocks back another hour tonight. Pretty soon, we’re going to wake up yesterday.

Trivia count: 2 firsts, 1 second, 1 also-ran. But who counts?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

It’s a gray, rainy day today. For the first time since we left Friday evening, there is a little rocking to the Good Ship Lollipop. Indeed, Anne [GG] on the trivia team has decided she will be more secure on her walker today rather than her cane. The weather is of little consequence to us since we have no intention of going out on the wind-swept deck. Today’s weather is more like what we anticipated in the north Pacific. We hope that the weather is better by the time we reach Osaka and Kyoto. Even lousy weather in Hakodate, Miyaka and Aomori will not present a problem since we have no shore excursions planned.

As usual, we think [hope?] that we lower the average age of passengers on this HAL cruise. When we were younger, we used to refer to the atmosphere on board as “sedate.” While Carnival ships are the “fun” ships aimed at 20- and 30-somethings and Crystal is for the really upper classes, HAL targets the 60-plus crowd. As someone said the other day, the average age is death plus two weeks. It may not be that bad, but it is reminiscent of the elephant graveyard. There are so many walkers, wheelchairs and canes aboard that it looks like a pit stop on the Lourdes 500. Someone will get rich operating the parking concession for the motorized scooters. It’s no wonder they leave lots of room in the ship’s freezers.
Okay, it may not be as bad as all that, but it is a more sedate group than many other cruise lines encourage. HAL hasn’t started serving Metamucil on the juice bar yet, but it is generally an older, more financially empowered population. Add to that the fact that we are part of a 65-day voyage and you can see that these are people who have time and money at their disposal. One good thing about a cruise of this length is that there are no children aboard; this is not the trip that grandchildren are taken on.

The fact that they are older does not mean that they are inactive [although it is a little sad to see some of them dancing]. There is always something going on aboard the ship. This cruise is featuring a culinary theme with guest chefs, cooking demonstrations, flower arranging and other aspects of entertaining. Add to that the usual mix of low effort athletics, trivia, duplicate bridge, port talks, shopping and the casino and there is always something to do if one wants to. Or there is nothing to do if that’s one’s choice. As noted before, sometimes the highlight of the day is perusing the dinner menu at 10 a.m. [which we did today].

Something else that seems anomalous is the profusion of laptop computers among the passengers. Indeed, between the laptops and the dozen PCs available in the Explorations Café/Library, it seems that everyone is on line. “Tune in, turn on” has taken on a new meaning for the 60’s generation. People are checking e-mail, reading their hometown newspapers, paying bills and blogging. It is amazing and amusing to see so many people crowding the web manager’s desk for help. They are staying connected in ways most of these seniors never imagined when they were young.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Cruising to Cambodia

Thursday, September 18, 2008

We left home this morning around 8:40 for the trip to the airport. After checking the luggage, we went to the Delta lounge where we were told that only international passengers could use the lounge. We were disappointed because access to the lounge was one reason we were flying in the front of the plane. The staff let us stay, however, so we relaxed with coffee, tea and snacks until just before 10 a.m. when we went to the gate for our flight to Atlanta.

The flight was uneventful and we were a little early, so we had more time to kill in the airport while we waited for our 2:55 flight to Seattle. We wandered the “A” section of Hartsfield looking for someplace for lunch. Our first choice had no vacant tables because many were occupied by egocentric people working on their laptops but not eating or drinking. We ended up in a glorified bar and had mediocre sandwiches. We left as soon as we were finished so as not to hog the table. At the gate, we waited and read until it was time to board.

This leg of our journey was also quiet. We were served lunch [a choice of a spicy jalapeno pasta or pot-roasty beef short rib] and arrived in Seattle around 5 p.m. local time. We took our time walking to the baggage claim area, knowing that we would arrive there before the bags. Sure enough, it took Delta a long time to get the bags unloaded. As we approached Baggage Claim, we saw our friend Richard checking the Arrivals list to see if we had landed yet. We sneaked up on him and then did the “long-lost friend” stuff. He and his fiancée Donna had volunteered not only to pick us up at Sea-Tac but also to take us to dinner. Getting the luggage into Richard’s car was a challenge, but we persevered. Traffic out of the airport was horrendous – rush hour complicated by construction compounded by an accident. With Donna navigating, we traveled against traffic to downtown Seattle, passing both the baseball [Safeco] and football [Invesco]stadiums as we approached the city.
Richard and Donna dropped us and the Vanderbilt’s luggage at the hotel, parked and went for a drink while we checked in. We were to call when we had settled in and were ready for dinner. The hotel looked better on the internet than it did in person and our concerns increased when the elevator didn’t work properly. Once it became operational, D suggested strongly to the clerk that an adjustment to the bill would be appropriate; when the bill showed up the next morning, the room rate had dropped $20.

Diner was at Palisade, a beautiful venue across Elliott Bay [?] from Seattle. We could see the skyline and the Space Needle from our table as we at a wonderful meal. MA had scallops stuffed with king crab and D had a curry soup loaded with scallops, shrimp, clams, firm white fish and a king crab leg that was at least 8 inched long. It was all yummy. By the time we finished, it was past 8:30 which meant 11:30 to our weary bodies. A quicker trip to the hotel and right to bed by 10; we were exhausted.

Friday, September 19, 2008

We were in no rush to get up this morning but ventured out around 9 to find a Starbucks. We had to walk about 3 blocks! Imagine! MA had a cinnamon scone and a vanilla latte and D had oatmeal and a cup of decaf; we had a coupon for the oatmeal so we had a good and cheap breakfast. Back at the hotel, we finished repacking and had the desk call a cab when we got downstairs around 11:10. We were at the HAL dock by 11:40 after a pleasant drive through downtown Seattle. Our cabbie was a refuge from Somalia and we talked sports mostly, especially pro football. After 14 years in Seattle, he was a Philadelphia Eagles fan; go figure.

The driver horsed the bags out of the cab and stayed to make sure a baggage handler had loaded our bags before driving off. Check-in was a breeze and we were through the minimal paperwork and on board by noon. We schlepped the carry-on with the computer to the Lido deck and had a relaxed lunch. Cabins were available around 1:15, so we wandered to our stateroom on Deck 6. Right near our inside cabin is an almost private deck at the rear of the ship; we hope to take advantage of it in warmer weather. Our room itself was disappointing. Although HAL had upgraded us to an allegedly better stateroom [higher deck, near this rear deck], the room itself was cramped because it was sideways relative to the hallway. Instead of entering at the end of the room, the door was in the middle; there was very little clearance between the bed and the dresser and closets, and it seemed to have less storage space than normal. We were able to stow everything but may have to make a map to find it all gain.

We wandered around for a while orienting ourselves to the ship. D inquired about a cabin change but was told that nothing was available for the 32 days we’ll be on board. We certainly did not want to change cabins every time we came to a new port, so we declined the offer. We scoped out the casino but were disappointed in the slots selection; that by no means is to suggest that we won’t be in there every day, just that we didn’t see any familiar machines. Eventually we returned to the room and unpacked with about the normal amount of bickering over what to put where.
Dinner is at 8 p.m. each night. The alternative is 5:30 which is waaaay too early and smacks of early bird specials. We’re not ready for that yet. While we were unpacking, we received a phone call from Roxanne Pettus with whom we had struck up a friendship on the chat room devoted to this specific cruise and arranged to meet before dinner for a drink. Our Travel Agent[TA], Ted, had requested we be assigned to a table with Roxanne and Ed and they had also asked their TA to make the same request. During our conversation with them, we discovered that we had been assigned to separate tables. Apparently, HAL didn’t want to mix 65-day passengers with the riff-raff like us who were taking a shorter segment.

We had explored the dining room on our walk-through earlier in the day, so when we arrived at the dining room, we knew where to go without being escorted. We were the first to arrive at the table and we waited and waited for someone else to show up. While D had his glasses off so he could read the menu, he saw people approach the table. He couldn’t see clearly and he and MA were astonished and ecstatic when Russ and Patti Wayne came over and sat down. We had met Russ and Patti 2 years ago on a cruise, had dined with them for the last 2 weeks of the trip and have stayed friends. They have visited us several times on their way to cruises from Ft. Lauderdale and traveled with us on a river boat cruise in May. At that time, when we inveighed them to take this trip, they begged off because of pregnant grand-daughters and financial constraints. It turns out that they have been planning to surprise us for months! Even Ted knew they were coming, but he never even hinted at it. When Ted and their TA tried to get a joint table assignment, they were again rebuffed, but Russ prevailed when he told HAL that the only reason they were taking this cruise was to be with [and to astonish] us. They had spent the entire day avoiding us, staying mostly in their cabin so they wouldn’t spoil the surprise.

There are supposed to be 6 at the table, but the last didn’t show up. If they are absent for another day or two, we are going to try to get Roxanne and Ed reassigned, especially since they said later that their dinner companions were boring.
Dinner was fun, naturally, and it was nice to have the usual HAL service. As has become her custom, MA chose the vegetarian selection and D ate tandoori chicken. Eating healthy isn’t too hard to do on a ship if you are determined. On the other hand, it’s just day one. After dinner, we visited the casino for a while and then went “home” because we were exhausted.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

We were up too early this morning after a restless night. We had to set the clocks and watches back an hour as we sailed westward into a new time zone. We went to the main dining room for breakfast but discovered that we were 15 minutes too early; they wouldn’t open until 8 o’clock, so we went to the Lido Deck for cafeteria, not sit-down, breakfast. We shared a table with a couple who live at sea – they schedule back to back cruises and only go “home” to South Florida once or twice a year. They have no house or condo but stay in hotels while they see doctors and attend to things which can’t otherwise be done from a ship. It’s a fascinating concept for people who aren’t too attached to their “stuff.”

After breakfast and the morning pills, we ventured to the Crow’s Nest on the top of the ship. The Cruise Critic group, organized by “Wowzo”, a West Palm neighbor, was scheduled for a “meet and greet” so we could attach faces to on-line names. In most cases, only one member of a group had been on line, so it was even more interesting for the spouses to meet people they had never even heard of. We ended up sitting with Ed and Roxanne and “met and gret” a number of people with whom D had exchanged messages and information. We also discovered that Roxanne had found a third couple to join us in daily, cut-throat trivia, but we had to demur because we now plan on playing with Russ and Patti. Altogether, there were now 8 people and teams were limited to six. There will be enough folks who hadn’t planned so far ahead that we’ll all have full teams.

Team trivia was scheduled for noon, so we killed time in the Explorations Café where the computers are located. Even though our laptop will work wirelessly, the desktop PCs may be a little faster and definitely have bigger screens. Around 11:45 we headed for the Ocean Bar where we plan to spend a lot of quality time, not all of it playing trivia. While we waited for Russ and Patti to show up, another CC couple asked if they could join us. TravelingGG and her husband Chet were delightful. We will be a team, we hope, for at least the next 32 days; after that, it’s not our problem.

We razzed Roxanne before the game and said they would regret not having MA’s Shakespeare knowledge to help them. As luck would have it, there was a Shakespeare question, but her team answered it correctly. This year’s quizzes will consist of only 15 questions as compared to the 20 we are used to. Nonetheless, we prevailed, tying for first and then winning a tie-breaker to take more of those Dam mugs, these with an A” for Amsterdam. We now have enough HAL mugs to host a third-party political convention.

After trivia, and more friendly condescension, MA, D and Patti went to the dining room for lunch where we shared the table with another couple. The conversation hinted at politics but stayed non-partisan and we enjoyed meeting more new people. If we meet 4 new people a day, we will have met 10% of the passengers by the time we disembark. We won’t remember them but we will have met them. Some more money lost in the slots brought us to afternoon reading. We watched as a Canadian government helicopter circled the ship to ferry off a passenger who may have had a stroke. The delay caused by waiting for the chopper will not affect our current itinerary since we can take a more southerly route now that Russia has been taken out of play. Everyone was fortunate that the seas are as smooth as glass today which made the rescue much easier. We returned to the cabin around 4 for MA’s pre-dinner nap while D caught up the journal. Maybe the mystery couple will appear tonight. We’ve already scoped out the menu and know what we are ordering - the highlight of our decadent day is often previewing the dinner menu at lunchtime. Busy, busy, busy.

The mystery couple did appear tonight. They were too tired yesterday to venture far from their room having just come from Houston and the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. They have had electricity for over a week and were franticly making arrangements and contingency plans for its return. As it turns out, they were also part of the CC message board and were known as 2Cruisers. After dinner, MA went to bed and D went first to the casino where he recouped some of our earlier losses and then to the library to finish the journal before going to bed. We will lose another hour tonight. My, how time flies when you have jet lag.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Take one step back, then one step forward

It was bound to happen: Apparently relations between the US and Russia are delicate enough that our scheduled stop in Petropavlovsk, Russia, has been canceled. As you can see on the map below, Petro is on the Kamchatkas Peninsula, best known for its inclusion in the board game Risk.

In its place, Holland America Line [HAL from here on]is substituting Aomori, Japan. Past cruisers who have been to both seem to agree that Aomori is the better port-of-call anyway -- warmer people and warmer climate. While we are disappointed, we are still excited.

Skipping Russia means two things: First, we will have to remove a pin from the wall map which shows all of the places we've seen. Second, it puts us a little farther from becoming members of the Century Club, those travelers who have visited at least 100 countries; we still have a long way to go.

Here's the map of our planned cruise. Let's hope there are no more changes especially considering the political situation in Bangkok.

We leave in a week and haven't packed yet. Guess what we are doing this weekend!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Getting Ready

September and hurricanes have come to South Florida, so we are preparing to escape in a little over 2 weeks. We will leave WPB on Sept 18 and fly to Seattle, then set sail on the MS Amsterdam the next day. We are heading to some of the most beautiful places in the world. Alas, several are also world trouble spots.

We don't know what kind of reception we'll receive in Petropavlovsk, Russia. Will the current tensions over the Republic of Georgia affect our ability to tour this section of the Kamchatka Peninsula? Will we even be able to dock? Just how much of a hassle will the Russians give us?

And then there is the unrest in Bangkok. We are due to spend 2 days there in Mid-October but, again, don't know what the political situation will be in 6 weeks. We are looking forward to spending the night in Bangkok and even taking a dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya river.

Other ports include Osaka/Kyoto Japan, Saigon, DaNang, Hong Kong and Singapore. We will meet Jon and his family there, then fly to Cambodia for a week with stops in Siem Reap [Ankor Wat] and Pnom Penh.

In the meantime, we're starting to accumulate things prior to packing: batteries, cameras, MP3s, passports, etc. All of the paraphernalia of modern travel.

We'll try to keep folks up-to-date via this blog if the technology is available on the ship, so check in after Sept 19 to find out what we're doing [or not].