Up, up, and away

February 5, 2019

What is there to do when the weather is nice?

I was having coffee with Greg to discuss upcoming motorcycle trips we were each planning. Greg is leaving for the southern United States at the end of March, and I’m planning a lap of California.

I could tell Greg was a little distracted.

“It sure is a nice day. I should go take the plane up,” said Greg looking at the blue skies with scattered puffy white clouds. It really was a nice day. A welcome break in the dreary wet weather that had been plaguing Humboldt County over the previous week or so.

“That would be fun,” I replied.

We continued our coffee and trip discussions. My trip was coming up sooner, and I had a bit of a plan after finishing our cups. We packed up and walked out to the parking lot.

“You going to take her up,” I ask?

“I think so. Wanna go?” Greg said.

Humans have been fascinated with flight ever since they first wandered out of their caves in prehistoric times. Ancient civilizations had myths about men flying like birds. Daedalus fashioned pairs of wings for himself and his son Icarus to escape imprisonment by King Minos. Leonardo da Vinci made technical drawings of flying machines in the 1400s. The Montgolfier brothers experimented with hot air balloons in the the 1700s, making several flights around Paris. And of course, we can’t forget two bicycle makers named Orville and Wilbur Wright who made the first powered heavier-than-air flight (of a whopping 120 feet) in December 1903. Humans have mastered the air, and air travel is almost as common as traveling by car. But there’s something different about flying in a small plane ….

Of course, I said yes to Greg’s invitation.

After a quick stop to pick up my camera, we headed for the airport to head up.

Our bird, a 1976 Cessna 172 Skyhawk, awaited in the hangar. The Skyhawk has been in continuous production since the 1950s and is considered the most successful aircraft in history with more than 44,000 units having been built. The cabin is roughly the size of a compact car’s passenger compartment and seats four. Greg’s Skyhawk has a 180hp engine giving it a top speed of about 140 mph.

We taxied out to the runway at Samoa Field, a small general aviation airport on the sandy peninsula separating Humboldt Bay from the Pacific Ocean. Greg went over some final checks and explained the workings of the plane and its instruments.

“Are you nervous yet? He asked.

I wasn’t. I trusted Greg knew what he was doing and would be able to fly us around safely. As we taxied to the end of the runway, Greg reminded me that all takeoffs are optional, but landings are mandatory. The phrase is a little funny, but also true. Gravity is a cruel mistress.

Then the engine sputtered to a stop.

Cold fuel was the culprit. After restarting the engine and letting it warm up a bit more, we were ready.

We lifted off and circled around the tip of the northern spit. The tide was in, and the ocean was rough from the recent weather. Waves were crashing over the jetties at the entrance to Humboldt Bay. We returned to the airport for a quick touch and go, then headed east.

The city of Eureka looked much different from the air. From 2000 feet up, the city looks like a model. Ahead of us stood the snow-covered Coast Range, and farther in the distance we could see the Trinity Alps.

Greg flew us over Kneeland Airport and its runway blanketed in a smooth layer of snow. There would be no landing by anyone here today. A solitary figure was walking around the smooth strip, the only disturbance being their footprints and a large heart created by their steps. Greg lined us up for an approach to see what a snowy landing would look like, then we continued east.

Several times I tried to pick out details that would provide clues to our location, but I was unsuccessful. In fact, I had thought we were farther north and east than we actually were. Snow had covered much of the roads that might provide further clues. As I looked toward the west, the snow-covered hills and the ocean provided a nice contrast to each other.

We tried to pick out some of the peaks of the Trinity Alps and the southern Cascade Range further to the east. Lassen Peak’s 10,463-ft summit was visible in the distance, but clouds blocked any view of Mt. Shasta.

We circled around and Greg showed me an interesting “unofficial” approach to Murray Field. We dropped down and followed the contours of a canyon east of the town of Freshwater, soon emerging over the pastures around the airfield. After another touch and go, we headed north toward Arcata.

We circled over the Arcata Plaza and Humboldt State University. Occasionally we’d hear the squawk of another pilot over the radio. With no local air traffic control, the pilots essentially controlled each other, calling out their intentions as they moved through the air. If only more people could get along like that.

We touched down at Arcata-Eureka Airport for a quick top-off of fuel. Having flown into this airport many times on commercial flights, the view from the front seat was a new experience.

After fuel and another short hop, we found ourselves back at Samoa Field where we pushed the plane back into the hangar and put it to bed.

Seeing home from the air offered a fresh perspective on a familiar face. As Amelia Earhart said: “You haven’t seen a tree until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky.” The beauty of home is best viewed from all angles.

New Year’s Cruise Days 8 & 9 – The Wrap Up

January 7, 2019 – Miami/Ft. Lauderdale

We woke up around 7:30 a.m. to prepare to disembark from the ship. We had placed a breakfast tag on the door, but there was no breakfast delivery this morning. De-boarding the ship was easy and we were off by 8:30. We located our bags and passed painlessly through US Customs without needing to fill out any forms or answer any questions.

We snuck to the front of the line and took a shuttle to Miami International Airport. At the airport we picked up a rental vehicle for the day – a very manly Dodge minivan. We packed everyone up and headed up I-95 for our hotel in Fort Lauderdale. Despite it being only around 10:00 a.m., we were actually able to check into our room.

We were getting hungry, so we set about looking for breakfast. We found the Moonlight Diner down the street. Moonlight was a kitschy 50s-style place with stainless steel outside walls and plenty of neon lights. The only thing missing was waitresses in poodle skirts. I caffeinated myself with a couple cups of Joe and ordered homemade corned beef hash with poached eggs.

After breakfast (or was it lunch?) we packed Mom’s bags into the van and I took her to the airport for her long flight home.

After a little rest, we packed up the boys and headed back to Miami to explore. We decided to visit Little Havana. As far ethnic neighborhoods go, Little Havana was nice, but not like the real thing. We walked down 8th Ave. (The famous “Calle Ocho”) looking at the art and shops. We passed by Domino Park, where old men played dominoes all day in groups of four.

We stopped at Azucar Ice Cream company for a sweet treat. Azucar is a family-owned ice cream shop that makes all their ice cream by hand in amazing flavors like dulce de leche, sweet plantain, and Coca Cola. The boys enjoyed their treat, and we enjoyed talking with the owner about his family’s ties back to Cuba.

After dessert, we found ourselves at the Esquina de la Fama (Corner of Fame) restaurant. Esquina proudly proclaims they have the best Cuban sandwiches in Miami. We ordered a round of sandwiches and listened to a lone musician play a mix of traditional Latin songs and instrumental covers of modern pop songs. The sandwiches were grilled panini-style and had ham, bacon, chorizo, cheese, and lettuce. Esquina’s take on the Cuban sandwich was good, but just didn’t feel quite the same as those we had in Havana. They cost a lot more too!

We left Little Havana for a place called Wynwood Walls. Wynwood is a former industrial neighborhood that has been revitalized into an art hub. The story goes that a warehouse owner caught a boy painting graffiti on his building. Rather than have the boy punished, the warehouse owner offered the boy payment to paint the entire wall. Soon other street artists were invited to paint walls in the neighborhood, transforming it to the art hub it is today, as well as giving street artists an outlet to practice their craft in a legal way. Some of the biggest names in street art have exhibits in the neighborhood.

As we walked around the neighborhood, we saw ESPN Deportes was doing live broadcasts celebrating both the 15th anniversary of ESPN Deportes and the College Football Playoff National Championship that was being played that night (in California).

We met a videographer, John Sierra from the Miami Medial School, who was walking around getting footage of the murals when he saw the boys. He asked if they wanted to be interviewed; of course they did. However, the normally talkative boys froze up once the camera started rolling (go figure). It was still a fun experience for them.

We braved Miami traffic back to the hotel and settled in, preparing for the flight home in the morning.

January 8, 2019 – Ft. Lauderdale to San Francisco

We awoke at 5:45 a.m. to head to the airport. We forced our full suitcases closed and headed out. We were worried about crowds at the airport, but we breezed through check-in and security, giving us well over an hour to spare.

We were sitting by the gate enjoying a breakfast of muffins and coffee when I was a guy walk by who looked oddly familiar. He bore a striking resemblance to someone famous, but I couldn’t quite put a name to the face at the time. I didn’t think much of it.

Our cross-country flight on JetBlue was much better than the one on United. For a “low cost” airline, they sure pull out all the stops. The seats had more room, the entertainment options were better, and they offer better snacks. They even have a pantry with snacks and drinks that they open to customers during the flight. The six-hour flight went very quickly.

After landing at San Francisco we headed to the baggage claim to get our bags. While in the baggage claim I saw famous-looking guy again and got to thinking. I pulled out my phone and did a quick Google search to confirm my suspicions. I then asked Alicia if she agreed with my theory about famous-looking guy. So what did Alicia do? She walked right up to him and asked. My suspicions were correct. Famous-looking guy was none other than 2012 World Series MVP, one of only four people to hit 3 home runs in a World Series game, San Francisco Giants hero, the Kung Fu Panda, Pablo Sandoval!

I have to admit, I fanboyed a bit at the experience of meeting one of my favorite baseball players. He was kind enough to pose for a picture with me, and one with the kids. Pablo even signed an autograph for Ryan.

Pablo was so gracious despite having spent six hours on a plane. He didn’t have to talk to anyone, and he didn’t have to pick up his own bags. Nor did he have to pose for pictures with random people in the airport, but he did. This was definitely not one of those moments they talk about when they say “don’t meet your heroes.”

We managed to make it out of the city without too much delay and found ourselves back home in the early evening. Despite the exciting journey, coming home was a relief, and as always, it’s nice to get back to your own bed.

New Year’s Cruise Day 7 – Havana, Part II

January 6, 2019

We had an 8:30 a.m. excursion scheduled via the cruise line, but we decided that getting up at 7:00 was not something we wanted to do, so we skipped it. We took our time getting up and about and got off the ship around 10:00.

The excursion was supposed to visit the old Spanish fort and the statue of Christ overlooking the harbor. While we wanted to see them, we also wanted to do some more exploring of the city. We figured we’d hire a cab and visit what we wanted without having to deal with a group.

We stepped out of the cruise terminal and quickly found a cab – a convertible pink 1949 Pontiac (with its original engine!) At the wheel was Yudiel, accompanied by his girlfriend “Day,” who acted as a translator. We managed to pack the four of us inside the car with Yudiel and Day. $40 would get us a one-hour tour of the city.

Our first stop was the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro – the Spanish fortress overlooking the entrance to Havana Bay. The fortress was built in 1589 and was named for the three biblical magi. The morro had been one of the planned stops on the original tour. We stood on the edge of the promontory where the fortress had been built and were greeted with panoramic views of the entrance to the harbor and of old Havana. The boys wanted to explore inside the fortress, so I took them in. The fortress was similar to Castillo San Cristobal in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The boys got a big kick out of exploring the fortress’s rooms and climbing the ramps leading to the upper levels, calling it “The Great Wall of China” (what?)

Yudiel took a few pictures of us seated in his car, and even pretended to steal my camera. We were finding Yudiel and Day to be more personable than Ragith the night before. We loaded back up and headed for our next stop.

We passed through a Cuban military training facility and by an exhibit on the “October Crisis,” known as the Cuban Missile Crisis to Americans. Day mentioned the piece of an airplane that “Fidel shot down.” I would have liked to stop at the exhibit, but the guard would not allow Yudiel to park his cab there. I think seeing the Cuban perspective would have been interesting, since American schools only tell the details from our point of view.

We reached the top of a hill directly across from a house that formerly belonged to Che Guevara. On the hill was the 80-foot-tall statue of Christ. The 320-ton statue was made from marble from Italy that had been blessed by Pope Pius XII. From its spot on La Cabaña hill, the statue can be seen from all over Havana. The Havana Christ’s eyes are even sculpted empty so as to give the illusion that the statue is looking at the viewer from wherever they are.

While looking at the statue, Yudiel asked me if knew the difference between the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro and the Cuban statue. Yudiel said Rio’s Christ looks over the city with his arms outstretched, welcoming the world to Brazil. Yudiel then pointed out that Cuba’s Christ has his right hand holding two fingers up by his chin, and his left hand in front of his chest, depicting Christ holding a Cuban cigar in his right hand and a mojito in his left.

We hopped back in the car and started driving back toward Old Havana. Alicia told Yudiel that we wanted to see the “real” Cuba. One of the things we love to do when traveling is to get off the typical tourist path and see the places where only the locals go. Yudiel was happy to oblige. We turned away from the city and into a residential area. We entered an housing complex consisting of several multi-story buildings that would have looked more at home in Moscow than in the Caribbean. We stopped at a lunch counter called “La Orquidea” – The Orchid. For the equivalent of $16 US we got two pizzas and four Cuban sandwiches. These “real” Cuban sandwiches were made on round rolls and topped with ham, bacon, cheese, and ketchup. I washed it down with a can of Cristal beer, Cuba’s national beer. The boys enjoyed their sandwiches and the pizza, and even shared their lunch with some of the local cats who had come to watch us eat.

After lunch, we headed back toward the port to conclude our tour. This is when things took an interesting turn. Alicia asked where we could buy some cigars. Day got excited and asked, “You want cigars?” Of course we did. How could we go to Cuba and not acquire some Cuban cigars? Day told Alicia to wait a minute because she “knows a guy.” Day made a quick phone call. Yudiel made a turn over some railroad tracks and entered a part of Havana that looked like tourists did not go to. The streets were narrow and rough; they were lined with multi-story apartments built in the early 20th Century in neo-Classical styles. We passed groups of children playing in the streets, and old men sitting on stoops followed our car with their eyes as we passed. You could tell that bright pink Pontiacs were not a common sight in these parts.

Yudiel made several turns through the streets until we stopped in front of a building with “106” above the door. Yudiel told us we were there and to hop out.

I began thinking this is how people buy drugs back home. I continued thinking and thought, this is how American tourists get kidnapped in Cuba.

As we stepped out of the car, the front door of the building opened. An older American couple stepped out. I heard the man, who was wearing dark sunglasses and a large Panama hat, tell his wife, “I guess this is where everyone comes for cigars.”

I stepped through the door, which was so narrow that the brim of my hat scraped the edges. Day told us to go to the second floor and go through the open door. We climbed the narrow stairs and found an open door, where a man motioned for us to come in. We stepped inside to find … a living room?! This is definitely not on the normal cruise ship tour. A bald man with a gold tooth, who bore a striking resemblance to Pitbull, pointed at the couch and told me to sit down. If we were going to be murdered, this is when it would happen. The boys didn’t care about what was happening, they saw a Christmas tree with toys under it. On the far end of the living room, I saw a small table with a pile of cigar boxes perched on top.

Why did this man have a large stash of cigars in his living room? Day told us that people who work in cigar factories are given a box each week to take home. Often, additional cigars are “acquired” from the factory with or without permission. The workers then sell the cigars to make ends meet after their government rations run out. Pitbull was one of these workers; we didn’t ask where they came from and he didn’t tell. We made a selection and worked a deal; the kids tried to work Pitbull’s children’s new scooter into the deal.

We asked Day why we went to Pitbull for cigars. She said they and Pitbull have an arrangement. When people need a taxi, Pitbull calls Yudiel. When one of Yudiel’s fares wants cigars, they go to Pitbull.

Our one-hour trip had turned into a four-hour trip thanks to Yudiel and Day. We had a lot of fun, so we hooked them up with a generous tip. They were especially grateful since they would only see a small portion of the $40 fare due to not owning the car. Anything over the original fare was theirs to keep. Alicia and Day even became Facebook friends so we could recommend them to anyone going to Havana.

Yudiel and Day dropped us off at the San Jose market where I got to see my “friends” again. We picked up some last-minute souvenirs before heading back to the ship.

We rode back to the ship on “CoCos.” CoCos are little taxis that look like a motor scooter and golf cart hooked up at a drunken party. In reality, they’re 100 percent Cuban creativity, and totally safe. CoCos have three wheels, they’re top heavy, and passengers sit on top of the gas tank. What could go wrong? Alex loved the ride in the CoCo. It was his request, after all. Ryan, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to get out. We survived the half-mile ride back to the ship and got on board.

We took the boys for a quick swim and gelato. Then we stood on deck and watched Havana pass as we said goodbye to Cuba. As we sailed out of the bay, we could hear people shouting ¡Cuba Libre! – “Free Cuba!” – a toast to the island that originated during the Cuban War of Independence. Either they really liked their visit or they were thirsty for a rum and Coke.

As we steamed toward Miami, we spent the night packing our suitcases for home. Our journey was coming to an end.

In the media Communist countries always seem to be portrayed as these places where the people trudge about without emotion, passing a gray landscape of ugly cities where the concept of fun is nonexistent. Cuba was in no way like that. I’m not going to comment on political philosophies, but what I saw in our two days in Havana was a vibrant city with a population full of life. The people have taken cultural ideas from their past and from around the world and made it their own. They possess a can-do spirit that lets them overcome political and economic limitations to make things just work. The people we met look forward to the future when they can share their home with the world with no limitations, yet are proud of what they are now. I can’t wait to visit again.

¡Cuba libre!

New Year’s Cruise Day 6 – Havana Part I

January 5, 2019 – Havana, Cuba

Today was the main event, so to speak, of the cruise. Day one of two in Havana. Previous guest meetings on the ship had prepared us for the day, which would start off with a trip through Cuban Immigration and Customs. Typically when a ship calls in a port, you just get off the ship and start walking around, no worrying about passports or visa stamps or anything like that.

Cuba was a different beast. The cruise director had talked to us about filling out our Cuban visas, and the need to have them done perfectly. And at $75 per person, if you make a mistake you have to buy another one.

As a requirement from the US government, we were required to participate in a “people to people” shore excursion in order to legally visit Cuba. For a long time Cuba was off limits to American visitors, but in recent years the restrictions have loosened. Americans are now able to visit Cuba for purposes of interacting with Cuban people and culture. Because of this restriction, if you weren’t on an excursion you could not get off the ship if you were an American citizen. Fortunately, two excursions (one for each day) were included with the cruise.

We met in the ship’s theater to gather into our groups for our excursions. As soon as Cuban officials cleared us to get off the ship we were herded like cattle to the gangway and the line for immigration. While in line, many people tried to push forward as if it was somehow going to get them into Cuba sooner. In actuality, it just slowed the line down.

Surprisingly the line to get through immigration was not very long. I was expecting a Kafkaesque queue with many superfluous hoops to jump through for what would eventually be a simple task. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised that all we needed to do to satisfy immigration was present our visas, smile for a picture, and get our passports stamped. After getting our passports back from the immigration officer, we headed for the customs line where we passed through a metal detector and put our bags through an x-ray machine.

Unfortunately, the US-led embargo has resulted in a bit of tit-for-tat. If the US does not want people spending their American money in Cuba, Cuba has decided that they don’t want it. In order to buy anything in Cuba, we had to exchange our US dollars for Cuban Convertible Pesos – “CUCs.” As ordered by the Cuban government, CUCs are exchanged at 1 to 1 for US dollars, British pounds, Canadian dollars, and Euros. But in another act of revenge for the US embargo, exchanges on US dollars are subject to a 13 percent fee. So in actually you get 0.87 CUCs to one dollar. Mom took Alicia’s advice and bought Canadian dollars from her bank before leaving. We, on the other hand, didn’t have time to get an order from our bank.

Oh, and once you exchange your dollars you don’t get them back. Spend your CUCs or be stuck with them forever.

We got on our bus for the tour. As we waited we could see old American cars, something Cuba is famous for, passing by on the street outside the cruise terminal. We were greeted by our tour guide Yakarta (named after a city in Asia) and we headed into town.

Our bus drove through streets full of opposites. We passed decrepit buildings from the early 20th Century in neo-classical and art deco styles. Occasionally we would see one of these buildings in renovated condition. Interspersed with these old styles, we also saw buildings that were were obviously inspired by the Soviets. Small motorcycles zipped around us, and traffic was filled with old Ladas, newer Hyundais, and the ubiquitous 1950s-era American cars (which I’ll touch on later).

We stopped in the Murelando neighborhood, home to a community art center called “The Tanque.” The Tanque was at one time a large concrete water tank, but has been turned into a space for local artists to work. We watched one artist make posters with handmade ink stamps, one guy was making jewelry out of coconut shells, others were doing more traditional things like painting. We sat and enjoyed a drink while listening to a band that played music that was a fusion of Latin sounds and rock, but distinctly Cuban.

We left Murelando and headed for the Legendario rum factory. While on the way, Yakarta talked about Cuba being the birthplace of rum and praised Cuban rums as the best in the world. In actuality, a rum-like drink was distilled in Cyprus in the 1300s, and the first rum made fro molasses was made in Barbados in the 1600s. In addition to praise of rum, Yakarta talked about the greatness of Cuba. Yakarta said Cuba has very crime, very little poverty, and no violence. Yakarta also made the claim that Cuban doctors (who she said make less than auto mechanics) have developed cures for cancer and diabetes, but cannot share their discoveries with the world because of the US embargo. While I don’t know the truth of those statements, she came off as a mouthpiece for the government, and was likely only telling us things they wanted us to hear.

Yakarta told us about the history of rum in Cuba while at the factory. I would love to tell you more, but I didn’t listen. I was distracted by coffee and cigars. I watched the barista in the rum factory make a flaming Cuban coffee. Flaming coffee is made by adding chocolate liqueur to espresso. The liqueur is then set alight in a small pot. The entire flaming concoction is then poured into a coffee mug from the height of about two feet, making a wonderful display of a flame being poured into a cup.

As I exited the rum factory, I was accosted by several guys (more “friends”) trying to sell me cigars for half the price of the store inside the factory. They told me to check the “other” shop through a door on the bottom floor of the factory. I went toward the door, but only saw an alley. Not today. Not today. I got back on the bus and found out the “cigars” the guys were peddling were likely stolen. Alicia told me an employee from inside the factory confronted the men about stealing cigars from the store. The men fled, but not before tossing their cigars to another person standing by.

The bus carried us on to the Plaza de la Revolución, site of many of Fidel Castro’s speeches to the Cuban people and even masses celebrated by the Pope. One one side of the plaza were two government buildings with steel sculptures of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos with quotes from each. “Hasta la victoria siempre” – “To victory, always” from Che, and “Vas bien, Fidel” – “You’re doing fine, Fidel” from Cienfuegos. Towering over the opposite side of the plaza was the 358-foot-tall José Martí Memorial. Martí is Cuba’s national hero and there are references to him all over Havana.

After a few minutes at the plaza, we re-boarded the bus and rode toward the Malecón, the 5-mile-long sea wall along the north side of Havana. The Malecón was lined with many old and new hotels, and buildings yet to be repaired after Hurricane Irma in 2017. We passed the US Embassy, surrounded by its wrought iron fence, and directly across from a plaza containing the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform and the “Wall of Flags.” As we passed, Yakarta conveniently left out the word “Anti-Imperialist” when referring to the plaza. She also didn’t say anything about the reason for the Wall of Flags. I will though.

The plaza, which was built in 2000 directly across from the US Embassy, has been the site of many protests against the US government. The first protest was over the custody of Elián González, the 6-year-old boy who was taken from Cuba by his mother and whose family in the US refused to return to his father in Cuba. Since then, the plaza has been used for other protests and the stage that has been used for concerts. The Wall of Flags was placed in the plaza in 2006 as a sign of protest against an electronic message board that had been built on top of the US embassy. The group of 138 now-rusting flag poles and black flags with white stars (which were not flying today) were put up a month after the message board was installed and are just high enough to block the public’s view of the board when standing in front of the stage.

As we passed the far end of the plaza, Yakarta pointed out a statue of Martí which depicted him shielding a child with his body and arms while pointing in the direction of the US embassy. Yakarta told us Martí was protecting the child from invading “imperialists.”

We continued into downtown Havana and passed the former capitol building. The capitol was built between 1926 and 1929 and formerly housed Cuba’s congress until the revolution in 1959. The capitol has a similar appearance to the US capitol, but was not built as a replica despite being built by an American construction company. After the revolution, Cuba’s congress was disbanded and the building fell into disrepair before being turned into a museum. The building is currently being restored to be used again by the Cuban National Assembly.

A block away from the capitol, the bus stopped in Havana’s Central Park for a break. We wandered around and found a shop just off the park that sold Cuban sandwiches. We grabbed a couple for the road (and to satisfy two hungry boys) and realized we were late for the bus. We ran back and made it just in time.

The bus then took us to the San Jose Artisans’ Market, another of our people-to-people and Cuban culture stops. The market was filled with kiosks with artists selling items ranging from paintings, to t-shirts, to handmade wooden cigar boxes. Once again I met many “friends” who wanted to find me exactly what I was looking for (especially cigars).

We returned to the cruise terminal and made our way back onto the ship. We grabbed a quick dinner, dropped the kids off at the kids’ club, and headed back out to explore the city some more.

Just outside the terminal we picked up our taxi for the night, a bright pink 1952 Chevrolet convertible (powered by a Hyundai diesel engine) driven by Ragith (pronounced “Rah-heeth”). Ragith was in his 20s, had spiky hair, and stylish clothing; he would have looked just as at home in Miami as he was in Havana. Ragith drove us around the city to some of the places we had seen during our bus tour. The only difference was we could spend more time at them, and choose where we got to go.

We stopped at the Plaza de la Revolución where the sculptures of Guevara and Cienfuegos were aglow with back-lighting. Floodlights illuminated the Martí memorial, while soldiers stood guard at its base. I used a pedestrian under-crossing below the Avenida Paseo to get a closer look at the memorial. As I walked past the guard shack, I got some curious glances from the soldiers watching over the entrance.

Ragith then took us through some of the neighborhoods where tourists don’t often go. We passed the enormous gate of the Colón cemetery, Havana’s largest cemetery, covering more than 122 acres and holding about 800,000 graves.

We headed down the Malecón, where waves were crashing over the top of the sea wall and onto the sidewalk. We passed a plaza below the Hotel Nacional (which was mentioned in “The Godfather II”) where there looked to be a large party going on. Hundreds of young Cubans gathered with loud music for what was likely a typical Saturday night.

We ended our nocturnal tour at St. Francis of Assisi Plaza across from the cruise terminal. What a great time, and there was still another day to explore!

New Year’s Cruise Day 5 – Cozumel, Mexico

January 4, 2019 – Cozumel, Mexico

I started to feel like I was coming down with something. I had a lot of mucus in my throat, and it’s led to a cough. Ingesting large amounts of Vitamin C didn’t help. I hit the invaders with another 1000-mg dose of C and had a glass of orange juice before heading out.

The pier in Cozumel was shared with a ship from Norwegian Cruise Lines – Norwegian Getaway. For some reason the good people of Cozumel weren’t content with just releasing cruise ship passengers to the street. After the mile-long walk down the pier (OK, it was actually only about 1500 ft), we had to go up an escalator, over a footbridge across the main road along the waterfront, down a set of stairs and into a shopping mall – all to get to the street.

We passed shops selling the typical $8 tourist t-shirts (“Build a wall around Cozumel and make the Bahamas pay for it”), vanilla, prescription drugs, and “Mexican silver.” If getting your drink on is your thing, there’s also a plethora of bars within stumbling distance of the ship.

Cozumel Island is off the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, about 12 miles off shore. The main economy of the island is tourism, and it is well known for its beach resorts, scuba diving, and snorkeling. Much of the island is covered in mangrove forests, and most of the development is on the west side of the island in the town of San Miguel.

We grabbed a taxi and headed for our hangout for the day, the Nachi Cocum beach resort. Alicia had visited the resort on a previous trip and enjoyed it. The cab ride was only $25 for five of us. We squeezed our group into a Nissan Versa and headed through town where seat belt laws and common sense were nowhere to be found.

Our view through town was of more touristy shops – more t-shirts, serapes, and silver. We passed another cruise terminal where three more ships were releasing their passengers unto the town. Soon we left San Miguel and entered the less-populated resort area. The ride to Nachi Cocum was on what appeared to be Cozumel’s only highway – Quintana Roo Highway C-1. On the right side, we passed the occasional entrance to beach resorts. On the left was a wall of trees separating the highway from the island’s interior. I noticed there was little regard for traffic safety as cars and trucks shared lanes, passed on the right, and drove at speeds the seemed very unsafe. Traveling by car in Mexico is always an adventure in itself.

We arrived safely at Nachi Cocum with the driver advising us to give plenty of time for the return trip to San Miguel due to traffic. We got out and checked in at the resort. Nachi Cocum is a mostly all-inclusive club that limits itself to less than 200 guests per day in order to keep the experience intimate. Drinks were free (¡Uno cerveza por favor!), and so was the food. There was pool and hot tub with a swim-up bar, and of course plenty of sandy beach to play on.

I downed a decongestant and a Zicam given to me by my mother. Then had a cold beer. I could feel the cough disappearing.

I looked out a the ocean and saw it was a little rough. The water closer to the beach was a bit cloudy from the sandy bottom being churned by the waves. The boys didn’t care much. They played in the pool, where they “snorkeled” and swam with their fins. Ryan swam up to the bar and ordered a piña colada on his own (“Without alcohol, please.”) I relaxed in a beach chair watching birds and the waves, all the while any feeling of my cold started to disappear.

I later went into the water to try snorkeling. I found my action camera’s battery was dead, so I wouldn’t be able to take any pictures or video. It would not have mattered anyway because of the water’s cloudiness. I swam out nearly to the rope separating the swimming area from the boating channel, but the water never got any clearer. At least it was a good swim.

I returned to my beach chair and ordered a lunch of nachos and fried chicken tacos. My compliments to the chef. Both dishes were ¡muy delicioso! I finished off my lunch and ordered a bowl of coconut ice cream for dessert. I received my ice cream and Alex eagerly volunteered to assist me with eating it until I ordered him one of his own.

We managed to get a van on the way back to port, so we all fit comfortably. We passed by more of the same shops, but then I saw a coffee shop with a multitude of motor scooters parked in front. Could this be a Mexican Starbucks?

We arrived back at the mall at port and got a (real) Starbucks, where the prices were slightly better than home. 180 pesos, or $10 US got us two blended drinks that were very refreshing. I walked around a bit and got hounded by street vendors who all seemed to be my friend – “My friend! Farmacia?”; “What do you need, my friend?”; “My friend. Come look at this!” I just wanted to go get my free tanzanite earrings from Tanzanite International. Speaking of which, the free “tanzanite” earrings were tiny studs with the tiniest bit of tanzanite (perhaps tanzanite dust) you could possibly have. Just about what I expected for free.

Once back on the ship, we all hit the showers for a rinse to cool off and a short rest before dinner. Alex got mad because he got sunburned and we had to put aloe on him – “What do you mean sunblock wears off?”

Alicia and Mom had gotten reservations at the on-board steakhouse for free, compliments of the casino. We started off with wonderful crab cakes and seafood chowder. Ryan, of course, ordered a cheeseburger. My filet and lobster tail were perfect. Mom got the staff to sing “Happy Birthday” to Ryan for his upcoming birthday, complete with an LED candle next to his cake. Ryan and the rest of us enjoyed our red velvet cakes.

The day was nice and relaxing. Tomorrow we arrive in Cuba.

New Year’s Cruise Day 4 – George Town, Cayman Islands

January 3, 2019 – George Town, Cayman Islands

George Town was an early day for us because the ship would only be there until the early afternoon. We got up and around around 8 a.m. Alicia and I had gone to bed late, and I felt like I hadn’t really slept. My morning coffee helped a bit, but not much. Perhaps the morning sun would wake me up.

The port at George Town does not have a pier for large cruise ships, so we had to take a tender to shore. We had booked a snorkeling excursion through MSC, but they had canceled it for unknown reason. We decided we would do what we often do in ports where we had no excursion; we would hire a taxi to show us around.

We met up with a taxi driver at the port and arranged for a tour of the island. George Town is the capital city of the Cayman Islands, and is home to much of the country’s financial industry (The Cayman Islands are home to more than 600 banks).

We drove north through town past numerous resorts that lined the coast. Our taxi driver was kind enough to point each one out as we passed.

Our driver stopped in front of a nondescript home. In front was a sign calling it “Old Homestead.” The driver explained the home was built in 1912 and has been owned by the Bothwell family since its construction. It is claimed the Old Homestead is the oldest house on the island. Pink and white, with a sandy yard and a corrugated metal roof, you would not think this house was anything special. The house’s frame is built from ironwood. The home has withstood countless tropical storms and hurricanes over the years. Driver man said the home’s resistance to the elements is because of its ironwood construction. Ironwood is very dense and resistance to water rot and insects.

Our next stop was the area of Grand Cayman Island known as Hell. Hell is home to an outcropping of black limestone formations roughly the size of a football field. There are various stories about how Hell got its name. Settlers reportedly, upon first seeing the limestone outcrop, said, “This is what Hell must look like.” Other stories say that if one was to throw a rock into the outcrop, the rock makes a sound that echoes through the formation and sounds like the rock is falling “all the way to Hell.” The outcropping looked like a hellish moonscape, and the limestone formations looked razor-sharp. Certainly one would have a hell of a time if they tried to hike through. The outcropping was guarded by a small wooden statue of a devil.

Hell is home to a post office where you can send your friends a postcard from Hell, and a kitschy little gift shop called The Devil’s Hangout. We walked in and the shop’s owner, Ivan, greeted us with a hearty, “How the Hell are you?” You could buy any number of Hell-themed items in the shop from t-shirts, to shot glasses, to postcards from hell.

I learned from Ivan’s daughter, who was working the counter with him, that Ivan had been a merchant mariner and was very supportive of veterans and law enforcement. The back wall of the shop was filled with patches from various law enforcement agencies that had been left behind by officers on vacation. Since I always carry patches with me when I travel, I pinned one of my own Humboldt Sheriff patches to the wall.

I tried to get the driver to stop at the Hell post office, but my request fell on deaf ears. The driver was in a bit of a hurry to get us to the Tortuga rum shop, as if he was on a schedule. I was starting to get the feeling that he was not much interested in driving us around.

We stopped at the rum shop, which was right on the beach. There was not much to it other than shelves with bottles of rum, and more Cayman Islands souvenirs. Outside was a woman weaving straw baskets. We must have picked a bad time to stop because they did not have any rum or rum cake samples for us to try.

I grabbed a “meat patty” from the snack counter. Meat patties are fairly popular in the Caribbean. Think of a patty as a beef-filled hot pocket. The beef had a nice kick to it, and the crust had a hint of butter flavor. I thought it was quite good.

The driver then started to take us to the Dolphin Discovery Center. Alicia asked if we could go to the Cayman Turtle Center instead. The driver told us he doesn’t go to the turtle center, despite the placard on his window specifying the turtle center as a stop. We had mentioned at the start of the tour that we wanted to go to the turtle center, but the driver told us he “forgot.”

We went to the turtle center and got to see their adult turtle swimming about in a man-made lagoon. The center had recently had a group of baby turtles hatch, so they weren’t quite ready for display. We walked around checking out the turtle exhibits and even got to hold some of their beautiful juvenile turtles.

After our time at the turtle center the driver insisted we visit the Dolphin Discovery Center across the street. He seemed very insistent we at least walk in the door of the place. We walked in, saw the pools, but barely saw any dolphins, then left. The driver’s insistence on a visit to the dolphin center was very suspect. Perhaps he, like other tour guides at other stops, was receiving kickbacks from the places we visited.

We headed back into town and the driver pointed out several other obvious points of interest along the way: a golf course, a bank, a resort. I’m not quite sure why he felt he needed to point out the obvious. Then he let it slip … The driver had a pre-scheduled pickup at the airport in less than an hour. I had thought the tour felt a little rushed. We made a quick lap through the central part of the city where we saw the parliament building, main courthouse, government administration building, and police headquarters.

Though the tour was good overall, I think the driver should have kept his mind on his current customers instead of the future ones.

We killed a bit of time checking out some of the souvenir shops on the waterfront. Some of the shops were built over old buildings from the early colonial period on the island. One shop even had a plexiglass floor where you could see the old limestone steps leading down to a basement well.

We headed back to the ship for lunch and a nap. While I rested, Alicia and the boys hit the pool to cool off.

Later on, Ryan learned a valuable lesson about the ship’s arcade. We had let him go back to his cabin on his own so he could read instead of going to the kid’s club. I went to the cabin to get him for dinner and discovered he was not there. I had not gotten any messages from him about leaving the room. I went to the arcade and found Ryan there playing the skill crane game. Ryan happily showed me the stuffed Snoopy he had won. All I could ask was, “What did you do?” I didn’t know how many times he had played the game, and neither did he.

It turns out Snoopy was a very expensive toy. Ryan had spent nearly $200 playing the claw machine, not knowing that each time he swiped his room key it billed our account. Ryan was devastated because he knew he had made a big mistake.

We complained to guest services about them allowing children to charge expenses on their cards, despite telling them we did not want to allow it. In the end, they didn’t refund everything, but did refund part of Ryan’s charges (and turned off his ability to charge in the future).

New Year’s Cruise Day 3 – Montego Bay

January 2, 2019 – Montego Bay, Jamaica

We shared the port today with Carnival Vista. As such, we had to get a shuttle from the dock to the main part of the cruise terminal where we’d catch our tour. Alicia had arranged a tour of the city with a local tour company prior to our trip.

We met up with Howard, our tour guide, outside the terminal. It was hot in Montego Bay, often called “MoBay,” about 90 degrees. It felt odd to be so warm in the middle of winter. In addition to the heat, it was also pretty humid. Fortunately for us, Howard’s van had air conditioning. We loaded up and headed into town.

Montego Bay is one of only two incorporated cities in Jamaica, the other being Kingston. MoBay is home to more than 110,000 people and is the main point of entry for tourists to the island. MoBay is also the setting for many of the scenes in the 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die.

As is common in many of the ports I’ve visited, there was a lot of traffic and the rules of the road were not even so much as a guideline. Howard told us people pretty much do what they want when driving. Little did I know we’d see it firsthand later.

Our first stop was Sam Sharpe Square. The square is the center of the city, and is home of the city’s first courthouse and jail. It’s named for Samuel Sharpe, Jamaica’s national hero. Sharpe was a slave who led the Baptist Rebellion in 1832, which ultimately led to the abolition of slavery in Jamaica in 1832.

In the center of the square was a 50-foot-tall Christmas tree. Around the periphery, vendors sell items ranging from fruits and vegetables, to jewelry, to clothing. The smell of freshly cooked sausages filled the air from one vendor near where Howard parked our van.

Howard introduced us to a friend, who told us the history of the square. He told us the story of Sharpe’s rebellion from in front of the Sam Sharpe memorial. The memorial depicts Sharpe, holding a Bible, preaching to slaves. The memorial sits in front of MoBay’s first jail, known as “The Cage.” The cage was the place where captured slaves were brought to return them to their owners, or where they were held prior to execution during the rebellion. The cage also was where vagrants, drunks, and runaways were held.

Today the cage is a souvenir shop.

We thanked Howard’s friend and tipped him and headed back into the narrow streets of MoBay. Our next destination was Richmond Hill Estate. The estate sits on a hill overlooking Montego Bay. Dating back to the 1700s, the property was once owned by Dewars, the family known for its Scottish whisky. Now it’s a hotel and wedding venue.

The boys and Alicia took the opportunity to cool off in the hotel’s pool with a panoramic view of Montego Bay. I relaxed and enjoyed a Red Stripe – Jamaica’s national beer. When in Rome, they say. I also got myself a bottle of Ting, a grapefruit-flavored soda that is popular in the Caribbean. I discovered it when I was in St. Kitt’s on a previous cruise. I liked it so much that Alicia once ordered me a case of it over the Internet.

Alicia and the boys dried off and we loaded back up for our next stop. We weaved our way through more narrow roads and dodged more crazy drivers, ending up at a bar and gift shop overlooking the airport. We went to the roof and watched a few planes take off. We took the opportunity to pick up a bag of delicious Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.

We headed down the hill from the shop overlooking the airport to a shopping center called Whitter Village. The shopping center had no historical or cultural significance, but there was a souvenir shop (and the driver probably got a kickback for taking us there). There was also a KFC, and the scent of fried chicken smelled really, really good for some reason. We picked up a few things at the shop and started to walk around. In the courtyard of the shopping center there was a fountain with a few local kids playing in it. We were then approached by another taxi driver asking if one of us was Alex. It turns out Alex had dropped his ship card in the parking lot. Losing the card would have been a bad thing, as it is what allows you to get on and off the ship. Who knows what would have happened if he had lost it, and we would not have wanted to find out.

By now we were starting to get short on time and it would be time to head back to the ship. Howard took us to a beach by the airport, but they wanted $5 per person as an entry fee. We had already paid a tip to Howard’s friend at Sam Sharpe Square, and about $20 at Richmond Hill for entry. Why did nearly each stop cost money? We were not about to pay $25 for the five of us to go to a beach when there were public beaches we could have visited. Additionally, looking out on the water, it was really choppy and we could see a strong current. We passed on the beach, and Howard begrudgingly took us away from there.

Instead, we decided to seek out some jerk chicken. We couldn’t visit Jamaica and leave without it! We checked one restaurant down the street from the beach club, but they didn’t have any. Alicia had heard about a restaurant called Scotchies that was well-known for its chicken. Luckily, it was near by, so we asked Howard to take us there.

When we arrived, we could see the kitchen was open for all to see. Logs of pimento wood rested over a fire. The chicken was cooked on top of the logs, and sheets of corrugated metal were placed over the chicken to trap the heat. It looked questionable, but someone with a lot more culinary sense than me came up with this stuff, so I didn’t question it.

We ordered a pound of chicken, a half pound of chicken sausage, and drinks. All of the food was very good. The jerk chicken was full of flavor, with just enough of a kick. The sausage was very spicy, but not spicy simply for the sake of being spicy. The boys enjoyed some chicken and (non-alcoholic) strawberry daiquiris. We all left happy, and surprised that food for five and drinks was only about $40.

When we left Scotchies, we noticed we had about an hour before we had to be back on board the ship, so we started our way back. We figured an hour should be plenty of time.

Plenty of time …

Not long after leaving Scotchies we rand into heavy traffic. Apparently everyone on Montego Bay decided they were going to head the same direction as us at the same time. OK Howard, time to work some magic and earn your pay!

Howard turned off the main road for a possible shortcut, but that too was met with a long line of traffic. Didn’t I say to work some magic?! Howard made a cringe-worthy move, driving into the empty oncoming lane and making his way toward the front of our long line of cars, forcing his way back in line only when met with oncoming traffic. It still wasn’t enough, and Alicia was starting to worry as the deadline got closer and closer. Soon, we only had 30 minutes to get back, with no end in sight to the gridlock.

On the bright side, we did get to see a beautiful sunset and a dancing pot leaf.

Howard took more liberties to keep us moving, skipping the line a few more times, and maybe even running some traffic lights. I kept assuring Alicia that we would be OK, and even offered up that if we were stuck in traffic, so too might official excursions from the ship. The ship wasn’t going to leave without them.

I soon recognized where we were, and realized we were only a couple miles from the ship with about 20 minutes to go. Howard made some more daring moves, and I could finally see the traffic breaking. I knew we were going to make it. Howard got us to the terminal and we got onto the shuttle to the ship with about 15 minutes to spare. We were going to make it.

All in all, the tour of Montego Bay was good, if not slightly adventurous thanks to Howard’s navigation of the traffic.

We cleaned up and enjoyed formal night at the dining room, and even took a few family pictures.

The shower was still a challenge, and I often ended up with the shower curtain trying to wrap itself around me when I would turn around, but I figured out a system. It wasn’t a pretty system, but I found that rinsing, then turning the water off and opening the curtain allowed me to move around and soap up without getting trapped.

I will not let the shower defeat me.

New Year’s Cruise – Day 2, At Sea

January 1, 2019

Due to the previous night’s festivities, we slept in, waking to room service at the door. Breakfast wasn’t much, just a Continental breakfast of coffee and pastries, but it was enough to satisfy our hunger and we didn’t expect them to deliver Denny’s Grand Slams to our door. Besides, it it was almost lunch time.

I dropped the kids off at the kid’s club so they could play for a while. They seemed to enjoy the selection of video games, Lego kits, and art activities. Ryan won a Lego-building contest by making an “Illuminati” – a triangle with an eye in it … very creative. Where do they pick these things up? Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture, but this gives you an idea.

After a cheeseburger and hot dog lunch, we went to the pool so the kids could play. The pool area was very windy, but that tends to happen when the ship is creating its own wind by moving forward at 25 mph. The boys managed to get themselves lost on the way to the pool. I went to look for them, but they found their way before I was able to locate them. The kids’ splash park was closed so the various fountains would not be hosing down the deck. Despite the wind, the boys enjoyed playing in the water as they always do. Every so often, we’d see someone’s towel fly across the deck. The boys decided to turn their towels into capes to fly in the wind. We cut the pool play a little short because of the wind, but grabbed some gelato from the poolside stand before heading back to the room to change.

I took the afternoon to explore the ship, since there was not much else to do during the day if you don’t like the casino. I noticed the décor was classier than that on previous cruises I’ve been on. The furnishings and decorations were fancy without resorting to cheesiness.

Soon it was time for dinner – it’s always time to eat on a cruise ship – I chose a double entree of chicken breast and biryani. Biryani is a mixed rice dish popular in the Middle East and India consisting of rice, spices, and vegetables. Commonly it is served with meat mixed in, but tonight it was a vegetarian option (hence the chicken breast). I had biryani a lot when I was deployed to Iraq. Often we would go to towns around the base to meet with the local sheikhs. The sheikhs always made sure to provide their guests with a large meal. I hadn’t had biryani since then, mostly because I could never find anyplace that sold it (and I was too lazy to make my own). The ship’s take on biryani was good, but nowhere close to the “homemade” stuff I had so many years ago. The boys, meanwhile, discovered piña coladas (non-alcoholic, of course).

After dinner I walked around the ship some more. I joined Alicia and my mother in the casino, but the machines were not very friendly to me. I quickly lost the money I allowed myself to spend. The house always wins (against me).

Tomorrow we arrive in Jamaica.

New Year’s Cruise – Post 1

December 30, 2018

We had been planning a New Year’s cruise for several months. Alicia had gotten a free cruise from Royal Caribbean during her last trip. She got in touch with a company called URComped and they matched her free Royal Caribbean cruise for one on MSC. MSC has not been sailing out of the United States for long, but have been around the Mediterranean for some time. What drew us to this cruise was that one of the port calls was two days in Havana, Cuba.

Something about Cuba drew us to the cruise. Maybe it’s because for so long Cuba was off-limits for Americans to visit because of the US embargo. Over the past few years, relations have been softening and the opportunity to visit was presented with some limitations.

Plus the trip was free – the best price.

The excitement was building as we got closer to departure day. We were looking forward to the trip, especially Cuba. We had made plans to see all Havana had to offer, and really looked forward to touring the city in a classic convertible car.

We spent the day of the 29th in the city. We skated at Union Square. Every Holiday season they set up an ice rink at Union Square. Though the boys don’t know how to skate, they had fun on the ice. Alex “acquired” an abandoned penguin-shaped skate helper. We met up with Christelle and Armando, and their children for the skating adventure. Christelle is an old friend of Alicia’s and it’s always fun to get together with them.

After skating, we had a fun dinner at Boudin in the basement at Macy’s. The boys had a delicious-looking cheese pizza from the Wolfgang Puck pizzeria. As we headed out of Macy’s, I noticed a suspicious-looking character behind us on the escalator. He was calmly going up with a purse tucked under his arm. I heard a voice from the bottom of the escalator shouting, “Sir! Sir! You can’t take that off the floor without paying.” I looked back and could see the character had no intention of paying attention to the employee. So I did what came naturally. I knew if I stopped at the top of the escalator, he had nowhere to go; so I did. I turned around and told him, “Sir. She said you can’t take that off the floor without paying.” No response from character … OK then. I reached out and grabbed the purse from him. He resisted a little, but let go of it and I handed it back to the employee, who was very thankful. The character had grabbed my wrist, but a stern stare at him made him let go and walk away without his ill-acquired prize. After he walked away I realized that certain things have become second nature to me from 10+ years in law enforcement. I instinctively turned my right side (my weapon side) away from the suspect, and I continually watched his hands (the hands will hurt you). That little bit of excitement had me feeling good for a good while as the night went on. Alex even quipped, “See? That’s why you don’t steal. Because someone will tell someone who’s bigger and you’ll get in trouble.” Words of wisdom beyond his years.

We left Union Square and headed further into the city to explore a bit. We took the kids down Lombard St. – “The Crookedest Street in the World” – and got a view of Coit Tower. Soon it was getting a little late, and we had an early flight. We did our best to get through the city traffic with ease (though that’s easier said than done).

The next morning we got up at 5 a.m. to take the shuttle from the hotel to the airport. The shuttle driver showed up about 15 minutes late and drove the bus like he stole it to try and make up for lost time. Nobody expected a thrill ride from the hotel to the airport!

I woke myself with a Peet’s coffee and a bacon/egg croissant. The boys got muffins and it looked like half of the muffins made it to the floor in the form of mountains of muffin crumbs.

On a side note, this is also about the time I found out my phone’s camera could no longer focus to infinity.

The boys occupied themselves through the flight with books, games, and in-flight movies. Despite a cramped seat, I managed to make it most of the way through Neil Peart’s book Ghost Rider.

We met up with my mother at the hotel and had dinner. The boys wore themselves out by playing basketball in the hotel’s courtyard, which also happened to be under the approach path for Miami International Airport.

December 31, 2018

Today was boarding day but not before a little cross-country business. Embarkation day was also the day of a promotional interview at work. Fortunately, the interview panel was nice enough to do the interview by phone. That’s the first time I’ve done an interview in a pair of shorts and t-shirt. With that out of the way, it was time to go.

Our home for the next week would be the MSC Armonia. Armonia was originally built in 2001 for Festival Cruises as MS European Vision. She was purchased by MSC in 2003 and re-christened. Originally 824 feet long, she was lengthened in 2014 to 902 feet. During the 2014 renovation, Armonia was cut in half and an 80-foot pre-built section was inserted in the gap. She carries nearly 2700 passengers and more than 700 crew.

Having only cruised with Carnival before, I expected the embarkation process to be about the same: a long line with the 3000 other guests, reams of paperwork, wrangling children, waiting in line to board, the whole deal. Our process with MSC was really quick. There was no line, and MSC had a large amount of agents to deal with completing the registration process. Within a few minutes, we were walking up the gangway to the ship.

I stopped on the way to the gangway at a table with dispensers of “natural water.” What exactly is “natural water?” I was not aware that “artificial water” was available as a consumer product. As it turns out, their “natural water” was just water with slices of lemon in it.

With about five hours to go before we sail, we had some time to kill. We were told cabins would not be ready for about an hour, so we did what any cruise guest would do – eat! We headed up to the buffet and circled around looking for a table for five, eventually finding one after a group got up. The chicken wrap was not too bad. The boys chowed down on the traditional pre-cruise cheeseburger.

Sitting at the table, enjoying my lunch I did what comes natural, I people watched. Looking around, I noticed something that was much different from other cruises I’ve been on, even those out of Miami. Most of the guests were not speaking English. This will be interesting.

After lunch we got changed into swimsuits and hung out by the pool. The pool area was surprisingly not that crowded. The kids enjoyed playing in the splash park, while Alicia and I soaked in the pool. I have never seen so many tiny bathing suits in one place. Guests of all ages, genders, and body types were walking around in itsy-bitsy teeny-weenie bikinis and speedos. From leathery old Latin and South American ladies to middle-aged guys with hairy chests and beer bellies. Even a few young children were sporting the tiny swimsuits. I didn’t get the memo and left mine at home.

Because of the wide variety of nationalities on the ship, all announcements were done in several languages – usually English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. The emergency drill was no exception. As we stood around being given information about the ship’s emergency procedures, I look around and what do I see? People taking selfies while in their life vests, completely ignoring all the instructions (which included no cell phones or personal belongings at the drill).

More room in the lifeboat for me, I guess.

After the formalities were out of the way, it was time to set sail for our first port. Shortly after setting sail it was time for dinner. Cruise ship dining rooms are typically a place where you can get fancy food any night. I think I’ll have the filet mignon (bacon-wrapped) and lobster tail. But where’s my drawn butter? The food was good anyway. The filet was perfectly good and the lobster was nice and tender. For dessert was berry cobbler with vanilla ice cream; also very delicious.

Seeing as it was New Year’s Eve and it was only about 7 p.m., I was starting to get tired after the day’s activities. The boys and I took a nap so we’d be able to celebrate the arrival of the new year. The ship was looking to be one large party in the minutes leading up to midnight. The nap was just what we needed, though Alex had a little difficulty getting up.

We headed up onto the pool deck for the party. There was a stage with a band, and a large group of revelers. Champagne was ready, but only being sold by the bottle (what?) at $50 a pop. So there I was, celebrating with a can of Angry Orchard, and Alicia with a rum drink of some sort. The ship’s captain came up on stage to start the countdown from one minute. There we were, about 1000 guests, the captain, and a band under the skies of the western Atlantic for New Year’s at sea. 10, 9, 8 … the crowd started to get louder … 7, 6, 5 … the captain told everyone to count with him … 4, 3, 2 … oh wait, is the clock off by a minute? Who cares … 1 … HAPPY NEW YEAR! The crowd cheered, couples toasted and kissed, and the ship’s horn sounded several times.

We capped off the night with fresh pizza from the ship’s pizzeria. Welcome to 2019.

We headed back to the cabin to call it a night, though there was nowhere to be tomorrow since we’d be at sea all day.

Because of limited space, some liberties have to be taken when planning staterooms. Some things are made smaller than others. You need to have room for multiple beds, so you can’t take a lot of space from the living area. You have to be able to hold a week’s worth of clothes for up to four people, so you have to have a good-sized closet. So where do you reduce space? In the bathroom. In the case of Armonia, it appeared they chose to downsize the shower. Clark Kent would not even have room to change into Superman inside! In any event, I’m up for a challenge when it’s time to clean.

Motorcycle Relief Project – Day 5

Day 5: October 5, 2018

Route: Florissant, Guanella Pass, Littleton

It’s the final day of our MRP tour of Colorado – well, part of it. We packed up our belongings and loaded them in the support trailer for the ride back to Littleton.

We headed out of town on US Highway 24 through Ute Pass and back to Woodland Park. It was slightly breezy, but nothing like the previous day. We turned north on Colorado Highway 67 and headed into the Rampart Range toward Deckers.

From Deckers we followed the South Platte River on County Road 126 as it wound west then north through multiple canyons carved by various creeks. As was typical, the road was lined by dark green evergreens, yellow aspens, and brown grasses. The road followed the canyon, then climbed up and over a ridge, coming out at Pine Junction.

From Pine Junction we went west on US Highway 285 toward Bailey. We dropped down into Bailey, where the highway hugged the South Platte River through its canyon. Along the way, the steep mountains bordering the canyon leveled out into a strip of farmland along the river’s banks.

When we reached Grant, we turned north onto Guanella Pass Road to make the climb up. The pavement was very smooth and traffic was light as the road climbed the pass following Geneva Creek. We passed through several yellow tunnels of aspens on our way up.

Once the road started making it final climb to the summit, I slipped back from the pack as we wound up the tight switchbacks. A cold drizzle started to fall as we went up. We passed through the tree line near the pass’s summit and we were greeted with a vast valley of brown rocks with sparse specks of green trees that managed to survive at the altitude. Several peaks were visible from the summit. To the east, Geneva Mountain, Mount Bierstadt, and Mount Evans. To the west were Squaretop Mountain, Mount Wilcox, and Decatur Mountain. As I rolled across the summit (elevation 11,669 ft), I still did not see the rest of the group. I didn’t think I was going that slow as to let them get so far ahead.

We didn’t stop at the summit because we thought the group was already on their way down. As we descended, more rain started to fall. The air temperature gauge on the GS was showing it was in the low 40s. Soon, the drizzle turned into gently floating snowflakes. It was not thick enough to stick, but I guess I can mark “riding in snow” off my list.

As I was riding down the pass, I saw a bighorn sheep along the side of the road near the Silver Dollar Lake trail head. He must have been shy because he bounded down the hill before I could stop for a picture or turn on my video camera.

The road straightened out a bit near Cabin Creek Reservoir, but I still saw no sign of the rest of the group. They must have been booking it! I arrived in Georgetown with one other rider and the support truck and stopped at the city park where we were supposed to have lunch – the group was nowhere to be found. It turns out they had stopped at the summit and had been in a parking lot that was not visible from the road.

Georgetown was a neat little town. It is the only municipality in Colorado that still operates under a charter granted by the Territory of Colorado prior to statehood; its mayor is called the Police Judge and the town council is the Board of Selectmen. At one time, Georgetown was the center or Colorado’s silver mining industry, earning the nickname the “Silver Queen of Colorado.”

The rest of the group caught up and we ate lunch in the park in the shadows of the towering mountains adjoining the Clear Creek valley. A quick stop for gas and a warming cup of coffee, and we were off on Interstate 70.

We got off the Interstate at Idaho Springs and climbed Colorado Highway 103 toward Mount Evans. The gentle curves of the highway gave way to twisty switchbacks as we climbed from 7,500 feet at Idaho Springs to 10,650 feet at the base of the Mount Evans Road. A sign at Echo Lake, the start of Mount Evans Road proclaimed the road as the “Highest Auto Road in North America,” topping out at 14,264 feet – probably the easiest way to summit a fourteener. Unfortunately for us, an early snowfall had closed the road for the season, otherwise Evans is a usual stop for the MRP.

From Echo Lake, the faster riders were given free reign to continue on and “play” on Highway 103 as it went through Squaw Pass and down into Bergen Park. I remained back to ride my own ride. The strange thing though was that even though I thought I was going really slow through some of the twists and turns of these mountain roads, when I looked down at the speedometer I was actually going faster than I though. I’m not sure if that was a product of the GS, or just me getting more comfortable on it.

As we descended down from Squaw Pass, depending on the curve of the road, panoramic glimpses of the Denver area and the western Great Plains were visible. I guess this was pretty close to being on top of the world.

We met up with the group just south of Bergen Park and turned south on Colorado Highway 74. As we rolled into Evergreen, we started to pick up afternoon commute traffic. Just south of Evergreen, we turned onto Turkey Creek Road for the final crossing of the Rampart Range before arriving at Littleton. Turkey Creek Road followed a narrow canyon with many tight curves and trees lining the road’s edge.

We hopped onto US Highway 285 for the final stretch through the Turkey Creek Canyon. As I got on the highway, a strong gust of wind hit me and blew me into the breakdown lane just as it was ending. I narrowly avoided hitting the guard rail. We emerged from the canyon near Morrison and made the final turn to MRP headquarters in Littleton.

We parked our bikes and partook in celebratory adult beverages as we unpacked the gear and put the bikes away to await the next group of veterans. The evening was capped off with a dinner with the group, MRP staff, and supporters. The evening was spent sharing our memories of the trip and joking around like old friends.

Mileage: 161, Total: 742

The MRP has a good thing going. They don’t purport to be therapy, and they aren’t trying to cure anyone, but they do give their participants tools to use to continue the healing process. It’s only one step, but I watched some of the guys go from quiet, stoic, and withdrawn to actively joking around and socializing with other members. Guys who had little success with inpatient PTSD treatment programs said they got more out of a week riding around Colorado and participating in the MRP workshops than they ever did on the inpatient programs.

If you know a veteran or first responder who might benefit from the MRP, tell them to check it out.