Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bilbo and Agnes's Marvelous Vacation: Part 6 - Odds and Ends

In an earlier comment, Mike wanted to know what it was we did for three days at sea. Actually, we spent five days at sea on this particular cruise, which is one of the reasons why we selected it. You can see in this souvenir photo that the first leg of the cruise was three days at sea from San Francisco to Acapulco; while the last was two days at sea from Cabo San Lucas back to San Francisco:

One of the nice things about a cruise vacation is that you can take part in bazillions of activities offered on board the ship and ashore, or you can sit in your cabin and do whatever you want. We did a bit of both, with the emphasis on sitting and doing not much. Each day the ship published a four-page newsletter called Princess Patter which outlined the activities occurring that day, advertised various tours and services, and gave a quick summary of weather, navigation, and other odds and ends. Here is the Princess Patter from our first day at sea, November 11th (click to see it full-size):

We reviewed the Princess Patter each day and marked the activities we thought might be interesting, as you can see. On this particular day, I went to the Fruit and Vegetable Carving Demonstration while Agnes attended the Port and Shopping Show. I think I had more fun:

I took seven books along to read on the ship, of which I only finished one (The Groucho Letters: Letters From and To Groucho Marx); Agnes took only two and had to resort to borrowing from the ship's library. I also solved a large number of crossword puzzles, wrote several letters by hand and, using Agnes's laptop, wrote our basic family Christmas letter (which is then edited for each recipient). I also continued my practice of keeping a handwritten journal during the cruise (which has been my source document for the last series of posts). By the end of the cruise, I had compiled 57 pages of notes!

Going back to the library, as a dedicated reader and writer, I was disappointed in the library on the Star Princess. Unlike other Princess ships we've cruised on, the Star Princess combined the Internet Cafe with the library, and while other ships had big, comfy armchairs in which to curl up and read, and small, intimate desks at which to write, this one had only small chairs while most of the space was dedicated to Internet stations (which, after all, generate much more revenue at their high Internet access fees). There was a fairly good selection of books, though.

Someone (I think it was Katherine) also commented on the apparent high cost of going to the bathroom in Zihuatanejo, referring to this picture I'd posted earlier:

This brought up an interesting tidbit we learned from one of our tour guides: in the United States, we generally use the letter S with two upright bars through it as the symbol for the dollar, while Mexico uses the letter S with one upright bar through it as the symbol for the peso. This led to some confusion, as we were often horrified at the cost of many things before we remembered to divide the peso figure by 12. Thus, in the picture above, the cost to go to the bathroom - 5 pesos - is actually about 42 cents...which can be a pretty good investment if you've really gotta go.

Going back to Acapulco for a moment, one of the things I forgot to mention was that our bus tour passed by (but didn't stop at) a very picturesque fishing village which is a major location for movie filming. It stood in for Africa in The African Queen (one of my favorite movies), for Devil's Island in Papillon, for Vietnam in Rambo, and for the habitat of The Creature From the Black Lagoon, among many others.

One last word about taking a cruise, for those of you who might be considering it: if you have the money, now is a very good time to take a cruise vacation. With the economy in the tank, the cruise lines are anxious to fill up their cabins, and there are a lot of deep discounts available. In addition, although the up-front cost of a cruise per person may seem high, considering that it covers your room and your food (all you can eat, 24 hours a day) for the period of the cruise, it's actually a pretty good deal. The key to keeping it manageable is to resist buying all the things that the ship tries to sell you while you're a captive audience...if you opt for an inside cabin and can steer clear of the boutiques, the duty-free shops, the offerings of the ship's photographers, the tours ashore, use of the Internet and satellite phone service, and the many bars and specialty cafes on board, you can sail relatively cheaply.

As for Agnes and I, we're now back into the routine of everyday life. I'm waiting for the bill to arrive from Princess for the overtime pay for the big, burly security folks who had to cut the chains we used to tie ourselves to our balcony railing, and for the cost of removing the black heel marks from the deck where they dragged us, kicking and screaming, off the ship.

We had a great time, though, and have already started saving up to take our next cruise to ... well ... wherever we decide to go.

And you can come along. Virtually, of course.

Have a good day. We're back to the usual random thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cartoon Saturday

Islamic terrorists (imagine that) murdered at least 195 people in cold blood and wounded another 300 in Mumbai; a Wal-Mart worker in New York was trampled to death by crowds anxious to enter the store for "Black Friday" savings; two men shot each other to death in a toy store in California; and paragon of brotherly love and understanding Ayman al Zawahiri crawled out from under his rock in Pakistan long enough to call President-elect Obama and other blacks serving in U.S. government positions "house negroes."

Fear not! Cartoon Saturday has returned to help you regain your perspective in a crazy world.

Some of the best cartoons put a goofy twist on the things we're used to. This one is a pretty good "what if"...

Spending time in the company of a 15-month old toddler brings back memories of how life changes. Call my son and daughter for confirmation...

Yep, the economy's still in the toilet. Now we get to see if President-elect Obama and the democrats can screw it up any worse than the outgoing administration. How are you coping...?

I just finished writing the annual Christmas letters to our closest friends, including the letter to a friend I haven't seen in almost 30 years. We met in 1979 across the baggage carousel at the Montgomery, Alabama airport as we were arriving to attend the Air Force's Squadron Officers' School, and last saw each other in 1981 or so at her wedding. I wonder if we'd still recognize each other...?

You have to admire people who are good at nonverbal communication. Sometimes, anyway. If you liked the classic cartoon, "Still mad?" from many Cartoon Saturdays ago, this one should appeal to you...

And finally, it can be really hard to cope with all the bad news about the tanking economy, terrorism, crime, and other stuff that fills up 2/3 of your daily newspaper. But don't do anything rash...

Have a good day. Tomorrow, the last report on Bilbo and Agnes's Marvelous Vacation, in which we answer important questions like:

* What do you do during three days at sea?;

* Does it really cost five dollars to go to the bathroom in Zihuatanejo?; and,

* How many burly security people did it take to drag Bilbo off the ship at the end of the cruise?

See you tomorrow.


Friday, November 28, 2008

Bilbo and Agnes's Marvelous Vacation - Part 5: Cabo San Lucas

The last place on we visited on our cruise to the "Mexican Riviera" was Cabo San Lucas, located at the southern tip of Baja California. This is a beautiful place, with the marvelous views beginning with the rock formations at the entrance to the bay...

As at Zihuatanejo, our ship was unable to anchor at the pier, and so we rode into the port on the ship's tenders. This was the view we had of the Star Princess as we sailed for the shore...

Once at the dock, we quickly discovered that Cabo San Lucas was more like Acapulco than like Zihuatanejo or Puerto Vallarta. This was because we had to run the gauntlet of hyper-aggressive taxi drivers, tour offerers, and street vendors...and that was just to get to the regular stores and restaurants. I was a little disappointed because Mike had assured me that even a geeky tourist like myself could pick up a cute girl with a nice tail...unfortunately, he wasn't specific enough...

Not to be outdone, Agnes wanted to prove she could go home with a handsome Mexican guy on her mind...

Agnes wanted to take the opportunity to do her last gift (and jewelry) shopping of the trip, and so we fought our way through the street vendors (and four cruise-ship-loads of tourists) in search of the stores she wanted to visit...

We marched resolutely through the town from store to store, trying to ensure that our luggage would meet the airline weight restrictions on the way home by getting rid of the last of our heavy excess cash. Eventually we ended up at lunchtime at the one place in town I'd wanted to visit: El Squid Roe.

If you've ever visited Jimmy Buffett's original Margaritaville Cafe in Key West, Florida, this is very much like it - extraordinarily, grandly, and supremely tacky, but with much better food. The picture is supposed to capture the tackiness of the restaurant, not the tourist...

Agnes had been longing for chips with salsa and guacamole, both of which were prepared in big stone bowls at our table by our waiters...

Agnes, reading the fine print in the ship's shopping guide for Cabo San Lucas, asked our waiter about the daily shrimp special. He looked at her blankly, went to consult with his boss, then came back and recommended the "Tarzan Shrimp." Agnes checked it out on the menu and immediately ordered it when she saw the part about the dish being prepared and flambeed at tableside. They weren't kidding...

This was how it finally looked...and how my delicious beef something-or-other looked, too...

After lunch we waddled out of the restaurant and killed time wandering up and down the beachfront shopping area before returning to the ship. As I noted above, the street vendors here were impossibly tenacious and hawking silver bracelets would follow us for blocks, fastening bracelets on Agnes's wrists and insisting on the excellence of their prices. If you bought from one guy, six others would smell the touristy chum in the water and descend on us for a piece of the financial action. I quickly learned that my all-purpose survival Spanish expression, "No, gracias!" actually translated as an invitation to crank up the sales pressure. If we ever go back, my vocabulary will include more useful expressions like, "Back off, you $#%@! or I'll tear your head off and shove it up your &*#!" The vendors all expected you to haggle with them, were very adept at peering into your wallet or purse to see how much money you really had, and were masters of the exasperated "you're killing me, and my children will starve" lines that usually preceeded accepting your offered price. On the other hand, the shops lining the cruise ship tender arrival piers were almost uniformly unwilling to haggle, probably because there were four cruise ships in the harbor, yielding lots of pigeons ready to be plucked.

Here's one last picture of the harbor area...

One of the most fascinating parts of the stop in Cabo San Lucas was the actual departure from the harbor. The sunset was one of the most glorious we'd seen so far, and the intricate ballet of four enormous cruise ships maneuvering around each other as they left for various destinations was a most interesting sight. Here are a few pictures of the sunset and the Great Departure...

That was our brief, action-packed visit to Cabo San Lucas. As the Star Princess headed northwest for two days at sea enroute back to San Francisco, we thought about the four towns we'd visited on the "Mexican Riviera," and decided we'd enjoyed Puerto Vallarta and Zijuatanejo the most - the people were friendlier and the scenery more interesting. We didn't especially care for Acapulco or Cabo San Lucas, mostly because of the hyper-aggressiveness of the street vendors.

Tomorrow, Cartoon Saturday returns, and Sunday will be the last post on our trip, featuring answers to buring questions like "what do you do during three days at sea?" and "did it really cost five dollars to go to the bathroom in Zijuatanejo?" Stay tuned.

Have a good post-Thanksgiving day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Bilbo and Agnes's Marvelous Vacation - Part 4: Puerto Vallarta

We were up early on the morning of November 16th as the Star Princess glided into the harbor of Puerto Vallarta. We had booked a fun-sounding tour titled, "Mexican Fiesta and Tour," and wanted to get to the meeting point on the dock in time to get good seats on the bus. As it turned out, just about everyone on the ship had signed up for this tour, and we had about four busloads of eager tourists ready to party. The guide on our bus was a pleasant and very knowledgeable lady named Gina who began the experience by giving us each a paper bracelet that was our lunch and tequila tasting (woo-hoo!) ticket, and a bright orange sticker with her name on it to help her herd her busload of cats.

Once the bus was full and we'd all been properly stickered and braceleted, we pulled out for the drive to the tequila distillery that was the site of our tour and fiesta. I noted that the bus was equipped with an interesting alarm (warning of excessive speed, as if any bus in Mexico could go too fast, except downhill with a tailwind):

It didn't take long for the bus to travel from the modern, upscale city of Puerto Vallarta to the poor, rundown was as if someone had thrown a switch, and the paved roads and modern buildings were replaced with rutted dirt roads and shabby houses. We passed, among other things, the Jalisco state prison (which looked pretty much like any other grim, dusty prison you've ever seen), and endless agricultural fields which take advantage of the mineral rich soil and favorable climate to grow huge crops of tropical fruits and, of course, the blue agave plant from which tequila is made. We also learned that Jalisco is the home of the famous Mexican mariachi music. According to Gina, mariachi music was originally (and is still traditionally) played for weddings (the word mariachi is derived from the French word for marriage); however, the popularity of and demand for professional mariachi bands has priced them out of the reach of much of the population.

We eventually arrived at the Hacienda Dona Engracia and spilled out of the bus for an initial bathroom break before beginning the tour.

The tour was conducted by a fellow named Jacob who demonstrated both the old/traditional and new methods of cooking the agave and crushing it to squeeze out the juice, which is then fermented, filtered, and aged to produce the various grades of tequila we enjoy.

After the tour, we were offered the opportunity to sample each of five different tequilas produced at the distillery: blanco, reposado, anejo (each progressively longer aged, smoother, and more pleasant), and two flavored tequilas - peach and almond - which were wonderful. Sadly (or, perhaps, fortunately), we only received a tiny thimbleful of each.

After the tour, we were herded to a gaily decorated area for our "Mexican fiesta" lunch and show.

The food was served buffet style and was good, if not spectacular. We did enjoy the show, which featured two couples dancing several different Mexican folk dances in colorful costumes:

The show also featured a Mexican cowboy (vaquero) who performed some interesting tricks with his lariat, and another who performed on a dancing horse. We were less than impressed by the rider, since we have extensive experience with dressage and Western riding and horsemanship, and were put off by his excessive use of spurs to make the horse perform.

But then, of course, came the inevitable audience participation part of the show. Ham that I am, I volunteered for the tequila shot contest. This involved three volunteers and the show emcee ("Pancho El Rancho") who decked each of us in turn with a huge sombrero and a serape, poured large shots of tequila, hammered the glasses three times on the table ("UNO... DOS... TRES!!"), then handed them to us to chug...after which we had to scream out "Mexican" yells. You can see how that came out...

The crowd then voted with applause for the best performance and - wouldn't you know? - the emcee decreed a tie between yours truly and one of the other fellows...which, of course, necessitated doing the whole thing again. In the end, as a result of my shameless mugging for the crowd and a hysterical yell fueled by the tequila, I was declared the winner, for which I received a beautiful hand-made leather belt. Now, I just need to lose enough weight to wear the belt.

There was a tortilla-pressing contest for the ladies which was sort of stupid, and then a final performance by the dancers. At the end of their performance, the four dancers came into the audience and picked unwitting partners to dance with them. Agnes and I were picked out by one couple (I ended up with the girl in the first of the dance pictures above, who was absolutely gorgeous), and we did our best to keep up with the music, my partner helpfully whispering vuelto! each time I was supposed to do a tequila-fueled turn. We survived, and Agnes's partner even said to her, "You're a dancer, aren't you!" My partner was just happy that I'd managed to miss her feet.

This ended the show, and we boarded the buses again for the drive back to Puerto Vallarta. The trip was uneventful except for a traffic obstacle of the sort we don't usually encounter in Washington...

The final portion of the tour was a brief walking tour of the beachfront area of town and a visit to the local cathedral - Our Lady of Guadalupe. The cathedral (church, actually, since it doesn't have a resident bishop) had a tower which at one time had a concrete crown at its top. The crown was damaged in a recent earthquake, and was under repair.

The bus picked us up again near the church and delivered us back to the ship, tired, full, and (in my case) slightly buzzed.

We found Puerto Vallarta to be a beautiful city...however, as with Acapulco and Zihuatanejo, it grew less attractive and more seedy the farther away one went from the tourist areas. It had the inevitable street vendors; however, like in Zihuatanejo, they were much less aggressive and annoying than in Acapulco.

Come back tomorrow to hear about our last stop, at Cabo San Lucas.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving. More thoughts tomorrow.