Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Caribbean Cruise: Labadee and Return to Orlando

We returned to the ship and began our overnight sail to Labade.  We dressed for dinner and then afterwards headed to the Opal Theater when we had seen a full production of Cats our first night.  We were there to see "Come Fly With Me," a theatrical presentation of song, dance, acrobatics, and especially air borne acrobatics.  We were told that video recording was not permitted and so I only took photos which you can see by clicking here.

However, a certain Thai Anh Nuyen back in 2010 didn't pay any attention to this or maybe there was no such restriction back then.  He did record several segments and posted them on YouTube.  So I have embedded one of his videos that shows the most dramatic performance of the evening.  I am not sure that these are the same performers but the act is the same.


The next morning we pulled into Labadee, Haiti.  Labadee "a port located on the northern coast of Haiti....It is a private resort leased to Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. until 2050.  Royal Caribbean has contributed the largest proportion of tourist revenue to Haiti since 1986, employing 300 locals, allowing another 200 to sell their wares on the premises for a fee and paying the Haitian government $12 USD per tourist."  (Wikipedia)

Frankly it was a bit disconcerting to learn that was billed as a private island is actually a peninsula about seven miles from Cap-Haitian, Haiti's second largest city.  It is fenced off from the mainland and guarded.  Only Haitians employed by Royal Caribbean or licensed to sell goods are allowed into Labadee.  This was not something that attracted us.  If we had not found a cultural excursion, we might well have just stayed on board and enjoyed the extra space around the pools and much better food that was available on shore (even though all the food came from the ship.)  So when we saw an opportunity to experience something of Haiti, we signed up for an excursion:  A Paradise Cove Escape and Haitian Village Experience 

La Belle Kreyol
While the majority of the 6,000 passengers spent the day on the beaches enjoying the beach and other entertaining activities (zip line, roller coaster, seadoo riding, snorkeling, SCUBA, etc.) a small group of us boarded La Belle Kreyol for our trip to Paradise Cove.  Royal Caribbean does not allow its tour operators to take passengers to an actual Haitian village or town but apparently going to the next cove is acceptable even if it is outside the "secure" confines of Labadee.  

We began with an orientation about Haiti and its history from Rosie, one of the guides.  I later learned that she lives in Cap-Haitian and travels the seven miles on a motor bike.  It used to 45 minutes before the road was paved.  Now it is down to about 15 minutes.  I won the
Rosie telling us about the history and present of Haiti
contest to guess the population of Haiti with 10 million, about half of whom live in Port au Prince and Cap-Hatian.  The most intriguing thing I learned was that Haiti is very fertile.  Hispaniola was formed by volcano(es) and there rich volcanic soil.  In paradise Cove we could easily see the volcanic rock that formed the hillsides.  Yet, Haiti has to import food because so many farmers have migrated to the cities and larger towns that there are not enough farmers to grow the food that the country needs.  This is just one of the many factors that complicate economic development in this poorest of countries.  Oh, yes, my correct answer (guess) got me a second shot of rum (ronm in kreyol.)

Once we walked the fifty paces or so to the beach, Rosie divided us into two groups.  One began the cultural tour and the rest of us lounged on the beach or swam in the crystal clear waters.

There was plenty of shade and abundant sunshine, of course.  I try to head for the shade and use long pants and shirts and a funky hat to keep protected from the sun so I don't  have to lather up with sun screen.  Except for my face, of course.  We enjoyed the peaceful quiet instead of the frenetic activity that awaited us back at Labadee.  After an hour or so, it was our turn and one of the young male guides took us up the hillside to visit various sites that had been created to reflect what Haitian village life was like.  We knew this was created for us but nonetheless it gave us information about rural life in Haiti and the opportunity to buy some goods.  We saw how peanut butter, coffee, cassava root flatbread were made and had some samples.  The cassav was particularly intriguing and apparently can be made here in the U.S. with cassava root flour.  We got to see the whole process including the shredding of the root.  Marilyn spent time with some of the craftspeople and ended up buying some candy which she didn't want from a young girl whom she wanted to adopt as a grand daughter, if only for the hour.

We then headed back to Labadee where a second group was ready to visit Paradise Cove.  Once back at the port we grabbed some lunch at the buffet that had come from the ship.  It was not remarkable in any way and certainly didn't reflect Haitian cuisine but we felt we had at least gotten a taste of Haiti from our time at Paradise Cove.  Back in Labadee we encountered our 6,000 new best friends indulging in all sorts of beach activities.  Everyone seemed to have a great time, especially the kids.  Eventually Marilyn found her favorite piece of beach equipment and I spent a hour investigating some lesser trafficked areas to get some photos from a different perspective as they say.  Click here to view more photos of our day in Labadee.

We spent the next day cruising back to Orlando.  We were able to leave the ship in the earliest group and arrived at our hotel were given an early check in.  It felt good to change our clothes and get ready to enjoy a bit of Orlando.  We decided to stay away from the theme parks.  This was Easter Sunday after all and they would be jammed.  Just for the record, we went to Easter Mass on Saturday.  Father Jose officiated in Dazzles, one of the nightclubs on board.  We decided to visit the Harry P. Leu Gardens in or at least near Winter Park.  It was not crowded and so we walked around for a couple of hours.  There was no yet a lot in bloom.  The landscapes were mostly green and a bit flat.  However i was able to get a few interesting images.  Never underestimate what is possible with a few clouds in the sky and some handy water.  Click here to see a few more photos from the Leu gardens including one of Phil Dirt, the Executive Director.  Of course his real name is not Phil Dirt but that's what his name badge said.  Turns out he has a set of "funny names" that he wears out on the property.  By the way, Leu Gardens is owned and operated by the City of Orlando. Click here to see a few more photos of harry P. Leu Gardens.

The next morning, before driving to Savannah for our next adventure, we had a lovely family time with Joe Lawson and his daughter Megan.  Joe is Marilyn's cousin once removed and they haven't seen each for almost 40 years.  We had a great and hearty breakfast at the End of the Trail Restaurant in the Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort.  It was great hearing the two of them get caught up and remembering stories from their youth.  It was delightful getting to meet Megan who will be married this fall.

Next stop is Savannah GA.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Caribbean Cruise: San Juan PR

The sun was rising behind Castillo San Felipe del Morro as we entered San Juan Bay.
I made reservations for the cruise before Hurricanes Irma and Maria.  We saw some of the devastation caused by Irma on St. Maarten.  Now we were headed to Puerto Rico where Maria had caused massive problems including catastrophic power outages.  We knew that 25 percent of our fellow citizens in PR were still without power, six months after Maria hit.  Most of this outage was in the countryside.  We found very little evidence of the storm in Old San Juan where we spent only six hours before we had to leave.  As I was looking over shore excursions, I found one that featured community service to the La Perla community.  I never took the time to find out what that meant exactly or what La Perla was.  It turned out to an interesting and meaningful experience.

San Cristobal in the background from Plaza de Colon
While we waited for the excursion to get organized, we walked a couple of blocks to Plaza de Colon, close to Castillo de San Cristobal.  These two massive fortifications (San Cristobal and El Morro) along with a massive wall were built in the 16th century by the Spanish to protect San Juan from invasion and capture.

The day was mostly sunny with some high clouds which added some nice depth to photos.  We wandered around the plaza:  I was taking photos and Marilyn was chatting up several of the vendors.  When she mentioned that we were from a cruise ship and were going on a service excursion to La Perla, she got looks of surprise mixed with a bit of apprehension.  La Perla was variously described as dangerous, dogs running wild, filled with drug dealers, a world apart where police didn't go, and finally "They take care of their own and don't like outsiders."  One vendor did say that it wasn't that bad any more but clearly this was a place with a reputation.



The multi-colored buildings stacked on hillside is Le Perla. 
You can see the city wall in the middle of the photo
We walked back to the port and gathered with other 45 people who had signed up for this excursion.  It was interesting that Royal Caribbean had offered this excursion.  This was not the typical shopping and trip venture but something with a larger social purpose.  Click here to read what Royal Caribbean says about this excursion.  We learned that La Perla is a unique community that began in the late 19th century.  It exists in the space between the Atlantic Ocean and the Old San Juan city wall and is situation between the two forts:  Cristobol and El Morro.  It is literally outside the walls and that was intentional.  " Initially, the area was the site of a slaughterhouse because the law required them and homes of former slaves and homeless non-white servants – as well as cemeteries – to be established away from the main community center; in this case, outside the city walls. Sometime after, some of the farmers and workers started living around the slaughterhouse and shortly established their houses there."  This continues to be an area of outsiders and it is fiercely proud of its independence.

Unfortunately a typical sight in La Perla
This is also an area that badly hit by Maria.  We saw evidence of damaged homes and neighborhoods.  While there was some repair work underway, it was clear that much more needed to be done.  While some of the homes might be considered middle class, there was compelling evidence of poverty.  A Mercedes sedan stood out among the other, often damaged autos.  It is said that there are drugs and drug dealers living here and I honestly don't know the truth of that but it was manifest that this was a community on the margins of mainstream society.  La Perla has a tradition in performance, recording and broadcasting music.  Despacito, an international hit in 2017, was recorded at a publicly available studio in La Perla.  Click here to see the YouTube video.

One of the leading food and shopping excursion services led our venture.  Get Shopped was founded in 2008 by Michele Llamas and has developed excellent tours for people to experience this Island Paradise.  After the hurricane, Michele decided to begin offering voluntours, especially to assist with the recovery and community development in La Perla.  She has told me that it has become a major part of her business.  We boarded a large tour bus to travel the short distance to the middle entrance to La Perla.  We walked up a fairly steep street to see the sign and we begin our adventure.
Unfortunately the community center was destroyed by the storm and it will take considerable work and resources to put back in use.

Moira  Melendez right and Zayda Gorco right.
We met in a crowded room where we heard from Moira Melendez who leads many different tours for GetShopped and Zayda Gorco who is the coordinator for the tours and work in La Perla.  They explained much about the community.  The people are not used to groups of strangers coming into their neighborhoods but appreciate the work that we will be doing.  However it important to be quite and respectful since the houses are quite close together, really everyone is right on top of everyone else.

We walked through La Perla parallel to the beach and then onto the Cemetery, which is starkly beautiful.  From there we walked along the massive city wall to a spot where people are developing a garden and tree nursery.  A high
Marilyn working on cleaning up the little park.
percentage of the trees on the island was destroyed and a group is working to grow native trees for reforestation.  A group stayed to work there while the rest of us climbed higher to a neighborhood park where we worked weeding and cleaning up.  One of the residents brought out cool water for us as a sign of his gratitude.  We cleaned up the area and then met up with the group working on the garden for a short walk out of La Perla for lunch at Sen Se Mariqueria Bar de Tapas.

Marilyn did a little more shopping as we walked back to the port and re-boarded our home away from home.  As we headed out to sea, I able to capture some nice images.  One I am particularly proud of is an eight panel panorama that shows the shore line from El Morro to the cemetery, La Perla and finally Castillo San Cristobal.  It shown below at full size.

Click here to view the many more photos of this day in Old San Juan.



Friday, April 13, 2018

Caribbean Cruise: Sint Maarten

Great Bay, Philipsburg, Sint Maarten
The first thing to know about St. Martin is that it is not a single country. The island is divided into St. Martin (the French side) which is part of France and not an independent country. The other side of the island is Sint Maarten and is an independent country and part of the Dutch kingdom. Along with Saba, Sint Eustacius, Aruba, and Curacao, Sint Maarten is part of what used to be called the Dutch West Indies but is now known as the Netherlands Antilles. When you cross the border from the Dutch to the French side, you enter the European Union with its euro as the currency. The Dutch side uses the Netherlands Antilles Guilder. However, both sides easily accept American dollars. On the Dutch side there is a set exchange rate to facilitate trade.

The day dawned sunny and warm.  Some clouds began to filter in later and we got the typical brief shower.  We decided to spend the day exploring both sides of the island and its cuisine.  We joined a group of 14 others and were shepherded around the island by Randy, our guide, and Julio, our driver. 
Our driver, Julio
Randy is from Holland and relocated to Sint Maarten about 10 years ago.  Julio is from the Dominican and has been navigating St. Martin traffic for more than twenty years.  The island is 37 square miles.  While home to only 80,000 people,  the traffic is awful under the best of circumstances which these were not.  Hurricane Irma had inflicted heavy damage on the island, much of which was still visible especially on the French side.  Their priority is to replace roofs on structures and to put all power lines underground.  It is this last which causing much of the traffic congestion in Philipsburg, the capital and port city.

Randy in green and Etienne in black
However, Julio got us through these delays and on to our first stop:  .  This is a family owned and operated store.  Etienne, one of the sons, provided us a lesson on Dutch gouda cheeses.  Yes, that is plural.  It turns out there are an unlimited number of gouda cheeses but only the authentic Dutch ones will be called Dutch Gouda with a mark of “NL” in a circle on the package.  We began the lesson with a glass of wine, just to wake up our palates, of course.  We learned about and tasted young gouda, aged gouda, garlic gouda, and then the best of the best, Amsterdam Gouda.  He then combined all these along with bow-tie pasta and made us some mac and cheese which was scrumptious.  We ended up buying some of that Amsterdam Gouda and some dark chocolate.  Marilyn also found some cool tulip sculptures that will soon grace our table.  I later learned that she also bought five packages of Stroop waffles.  These are not a rare as we thought when she saw them advertised at Target and I recalled that United uses them for an in flight treat. 

Storm damage in Grand Case
StoAfter that, we drove around the island and entered France.  We could notice the more extensive damage there.  There has not been as much progress in repairing the damage as on the Dutch side.  Both Holland and France are helping finance the work but France bureaucracy has slowed progress there.  People were very aware that the next hurricane season starts June 1.  They were also very happy to see us.  Tourism is the only economic enterprise on the island.  Everything starts and ends with tourists.  While the number is down, the ships are coming back and that is helping.  The damage to the resorts is going to take longer to repair and recover.

Barbecue grilling at Sky's the Limit, Grand Case
We stopped for lunch in Grand Case which was becoming the culinary center of the Caribbean until Irma arrived.  We drove down the street that had been lined with high quality international restaurants.  This street was right on the beach and the fury of the storm showed no mercy.  While few if any of these high-end restaurants are back in operation, several of the “lolos” are.  A Lolo is a beach-oriented barbecue joint typically with picnic tables under canopies or in the open.  The cooking done right there out in the open and the smell is wonderful.  They are where locals eat, and we enjoyed a typical local lunch of barbecue chicken, ribs, potato salad, Cole slaw, and johnny cakes.  Only one of the lolos is fully
back although a couple were cooking and serving a few people.  We ate at Sky's the Limit.  The owners and their extended family cook and serve.  Randy told us that they had the restaurant up and running within a week of Irma and were providing food to rescue workers and local people at no cost.

Morano glass chandelier in Carousel Gelateria
We then drove through Marigot, the main city on the French side, and saw more of the devastation that will take a long time to set right.  After we returned to the Dutch side, we spent an hour at the Carousel Gelateria, located on Simpson Bay Lagoon.  The owner, Carlos, had been a somnelier on St. Bart’s where he and his wife, a chef, owned a restaurant.  They decided to just focus on one thing and gelato seemed to be that right thing.  In a beautifully appointed store with a carousel out back right on the bay, he makes and sells gelato.  We received a lesson in how that is done and witnessed the making of Oreo gelato that ended with a sample of the product right out of the gelato maker.  That was followed by a dish of gelato and a ride on the carousel.

Marilyn with Randy
Randy set his objectives at the beginning of the tour.  He wanted us to have satisfyingly full bellies—not stuffed—and to learn some things about his home, Sint Maarten/St. Martin.  He accomplished both objectives.  Here is a new fact I learned.  Christopher Columbus discovered St. Martin in 1493 on his second voyage.  However, he never set foot on the island but stood off shore and claimed it for the Spanish King.  Turns out he did the same thing to Puerto Rico.  But that was something we learned the next day.

Click here to see more photos of St. Maarten/St. Martin.

That evening after we stuffed ourselves at the buffet—Randy would not have approved—we enjoyed a show in the comedy club lounge.  There were two standup comics and we laughed continuously.  The ship has been moving around a lot since the swells—whatever they are—have been high.  In fact, the captain has cancelled the diving show twice in two days because of the excessive movement and the sloshing of the water in the dive pool.  They have rescheduled the show for three performances on Saturday when the seas are supposed to be calmer.  While the movement has been very noticeable, neither of us have experienced any discomfort.  Luckily we are on a big ship—just about the biggest—and the motion is much less than would have been the case on a smaller, though still pretty big one.

Tomorrow we will spent only about five hours in San Juan but we are looking forward to a very interesting adventure to learn and do some good. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Orlando and our first days cruising


Winter stayed in Rochester late this year:  cold and snow.  In late March the East Coast experienced four northeasters in as many weeks.  While mostly the moisture didn’t reach inland as far as Rochester, it was cold.  It was a winter cold made all the harder to take given that it was spring!  Fortunately, we had a trip to Florida scheduled since last Fall and we glad to get away and leave our “spring” weather behind.

It wasn't exactly spring weather in Charlotte either.
Note ball in stick
Originally we had planned on driving to Florida together but the situation changed when Marilyn’s 100 year old Mom was hospitalized with pneumonia in late December.  She came home after a week and is doing extremely well but continues to need oxygen pretty much all the time.  With aides, Marilyn, her sister and brother have been providing 24/7 presence to make sure everything goes well.  It turned out that Marilyn needed to stay through Friday March 23.  Bill decided to drive down leaving on the original date of March 22, stopping in Charlotte overnight with Liam and his family, and then pick up Marilyn on Friday at the Charlotte airport.  That all worked great and Bill got a chance to see grandson, Liam Jacob, play a high school lacrosse game.  He is a captain and looking forward to playing for the United States Merchant MarineAcademy.  We are very proud of his decision to attend one of our service academies.  He received both senatorial and congressional nominations and has received his formal appointment.

It was my first lacrosse game and I have a lot to learn about it before I can begin to get some shots that show how well he played.  However, I think this one isn’t bad; at least I got the ball in his stick!  He plays as a middie with an emphasis on defense although I did get a little confused since players come in and go out constantly.  Click here to view more photos of his lacrosse game.

Ishrat and Musheer Hussain
After I picked up Marilyn at the Orlando airport, we joined some friends from Rochester who moved to Orlando a couple of years ago, Ishrat and Musheer Hussain.  Marilyn became quite close friends with Ishrat when they worked together at Boces 2.  Musheer practiced as a general surgeon in Brockport.  We spent two nights with them.  Their hospitality was so warm and gracious that we felt we had already boarded a cruise ship!  We enjoyed several delicious meals including a lunch with some other friends, Craig and Susan Larson, who bi-locate seasonally.  Ishrat and Musheer have an extensively decorated home which radiates a calmness and peacefulness that accords with their personalities and warm styles.

After going to Palm Sunday Mass at the National Shrine of Mary Queen of the Universe and another delicious meal, we left for
Dressing for dinner!
Port Canaveral to board our cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas.  We spent the afternoon settling in and then had a delicious dinner.  As you can see, this year we decided to step up our game and try to follow the dress code. 
The next two days were spent cruising to our first stop:  St. Martin.  We enjoyed a full performance of Cats as well as an outstanding show that combined swimming, diving and acrobatics.  A comedy show topped off the two days.  The next day we will begin our shore excursions.

One of things we like most about a cruise is the chance to meet and interact with the staff, typically those serving us food.  Since our first two days were at sea without any ports of call, we were able to meet several:  Denzil from India, Harry from Indonesia, Chrisarah and Rod from the Phillipines, and Danilo from Montenegro.  Each of them were engaging and were happy to share their stories with us.  We were particularly taken with Chrisarah. 
Chrisarah Dorado
She has an eight-year-old son back in the Philippines with her parents.  As a single parent she is focused on providing the best possible future for her son.  She was in the first months of the standard eight-month contract and was clearly struggling with homesickness.  She had never flown before she boarded a plan in Manilla transferred in Abudabi to flight to New York and then to Orlando.  And then on a ship with more than 5,000 passengers and an international crew of 1,500.  Rod, also from the Philippines, had a similar story with a five-year-old son back in the Philippines.

I will profile some more as we proceed with the story of the trip.

Click here to see some more photos of our first days in the Oasis of the Seas.

If you need an enticement to view those photos, here is one of the sunrise photos I captured.

Don't worry.  Those people in the photo are NOT Marilyn who was snuggled in our stateroom for each sunrise.

Caribbean Cruise: Labadee and Return to Orlando

We returned to the ship and began our overnight sail to Labade.  We dressed for dinner and then afterwards headed to the Opal Theater when...