Sunday, April 19, 2015

The History of My 40 Jimmy Buffett Concerts

The stage in Tampa on April 18 2015 before all the craziness began.

Life on Grand Turk Island in the British West Indies was as close to normal as humanly possible until one night in January 1986 when Gerry Benny walked in the door of Frenchy’s Restaurant on Front Street in Cockburn Town. 

Gerry was a crazed and often inebriated Toronto banker who had been hired by a group of people (including Gordon Lightfoot), who owned a condo development on Grand Turk.  The terms of his employment were made very clear. He was to watch over the condos and make sure that people who came to stay there had a good time. Gerry Benny had a Ph.D in having a good time. 

He told me one day that as long as he lived on Grand Turk island the only music he would listen to was Jimmy Buffett music.  The only food he would eat was food mentioned in songs sung by Jimmy Buffett and the only entertainment he wanted to take part in was anything Buffett sang about.  Often, it seemed, his entertainment was taken directly out of a verse in a Buffett song.  Who could ever forget the night after the three female Canadian doctors arrived on the island and Gerry threw a party in their honor.  The theme of the party was from the song Gypsies in the Palace and right on cue, as required by the song, at 3 o’clock in the morning when Jimmy sang “Let’s all take our clothes off and form a conga line,” all 20 or so of us did just and then later jumped in the pool to cool off.

Several months after I moved from Grand Turk back to the mainland there came a knock on my door at 9:00 in the evening.  It was June 10, 1986, and the person knocking on my door was Gerry Benny.  He had flown, unannounced, from Grand Turk to Atlanta and then driven to Athens to find me.  Shocked to see him I asked what he was doing in Georgia.  “I’m going to the Jimmy Buffett concert tomorrow night in Atlanta and you’re coming along” he proclaimed.

Gerry didn’t have tickets to the show but that didn’t temper his enthusiasm.  After way too many beers and after my fourth phone call to Pan Am Airlines’ 800 number during which I allegedly demanded that Pan Am stop off in Athens and pick me and Gerry up and take us back to Grand Turk, Gerry called a friend in the Canadian embassy in Moscow, Russia.  He explained our dilemma to his friend who said he’d take care of it.  Several hours later my phone rang and the Canadian embassy in Moscow was calling.  Gerry’s friend instructed us to be at a certain intersection in Atlanta at 6:00 p.m. the following night and there we would meet a contact of his who had tickets for us.  At 6:00 p.m. on June 11, 1986 we drove to that location and a guy got out of his car and handed Gerry the tickets and we sped off to Chastain Park in the heavily yuppified Buckhead area of Atlanta.

I was expecting a scene like Key West Florida when we arrived however we were surrounded by yuppies in the epicenter of the yuppie community in the South and there was no way the place was going to look like Key West.  My first indication was the people sitting at tables in Chastain Park where their dinner had been catered by local yuppie catering companies.  Candelabra adorned some of the tables and table cloths hung from all of them.  Gallons of fine French wine flowed like nectar and pounds of obscenely expensive foie gras was spread across yuppified tongues.  Others had beluga caviar and the entire scene made me want to up chuck the cheeseburger and beer I’d had for dinner.  The last thing I ever expected at a Jimmy Buffett concert was this sort of pretentiousness.

After watching the yuppie parade for half an hour Jimmy Buffett finally took the stage.  Standing before us still with a full head of hair, Jimmy looked out across the audience and said “Looking at you people I’ll bet there are a lot of BMW keys in the audience.”

The yuppies all clapped their hands in unison but only after ensuring that the foie gras remained foied as they did so.

When the applause died down Jimmy replied saying “Well Fuck You!!! I drive a Ford Falcon!!!!!”

Chastain Park erupted, the music began, and 2 ½ hours later the concert ended with him playing “One Particular Harbour.”  Had there been any doubt beforehand I was hooked. 

There have been 39 more Buffett concerts after that first one in Chastain Park long ago and last night in Tampa, April 18, 2016, I enjoyed my 40th Jimmy Buffett concert.

There is nothing pretentious about the Parrotheads at a Jimmy Buffett concert in Tampa

Venues have extended from The Shell on Waikiki Beach, Honolulu east to Great Woods near Boston and south to the American Airlines Arena in the bowels of downtown Miami. Having lived 14 years in Washington DC my most frequently visited venue was Nissan Amphitheater near Bartow, about 30 miles west of DC. There were also several venues in Raleigh North Carolina that I visited more than once. 

The record for back-to-back concerts was set in Denver when I went to five concerts five nights in a row at Red Rocks Amphitheater.  The set list was the same each night and the stories were the same each night and everything was a repeat of the night before but nobody cared. It was a Jimmy Buffett concert and we were all in the presence of greatness and for 2 ½ hours we all got to play in a giant adult sandbox and pretend we were kids again.

She's growing older but not up.

Something memorable has occurred at every concert like in Fort Lauderdale in April 1992 when Jimmy held a benefit show to kick off an effort to protect the West Indian manatee.  Through some extremely good luck, and because we knew Jimmy’s business manager at the time, my friend Jon Andrew and I were given back stage passes to hang out with Jimmy before the show.  Sunshine Smith accompanied us into the concert area where we saw Jimmy on stage tuning his guitar.  Sunshine walked up and interrupted Jimmy telling him “You’re ornithologist is here.”  Jimmy put down his guitar, walked up to us (both Jon and I were dressed in appropriate Parrothead regalia), stuck out his hand and said “Hi, I’m Jimmy Buffett.”

Totally awestruck I shook his hand and said “Jimmy this is the first time in my life I’ve ever been speechless.”

“Speechless,” he said.  “The way you write letters how in hell can you be speechless?” He then added, “Let’s go have a beer.”  He led us backstage where he opened a bottle of Corona for each of us (I still have my bottle) and He and Jon and I sat around for half an hour talking about environmental issues, and traveling in the West Indies and bone fishing in the Bahamas. The nicest thing about it all was that despite his fame, talking to Jimmy Buffett was like talking to anyone you’d meet in the parking lot before any concert you’ll ever attend.  He was nothing at all like the pretentious foie gras eaters at Chastain Park six years earlier.

A small segment of the 30,000 or so Parrotheads dancing to "Fins" last night at the Buffett concert in Tampa

Then there was the concert in Raleigh where I was told I couldn’t dance in the aisles because it was a safety hazard and I told the rent-a-cop, “This is a Jimmy Buffett concert and I’m going to dance.  Now either join me or get the hell out of the way!”  At another concert in Raleigh he opened the show with Fins but not before a large balloon shaped like a huge shark rose up from the floor (with the theme song to Jaws playing in the background) and when the shark was fully extended Jimmy leaped out from inside it and started to play.

Even though I was able to be backstage with him and drink a beer (actually 2 beers) with him in Fort Lauderdale, and even though he verbally attacked then House Speaker Newt Gingrich for his obscene environmental policies at the 1996 show in Washington DC, and even though a year later at the same venue a tornado roared by a mile away as Jimmy kept playing, my most memorable concert was at The Shell in Honolulu.  Part of the uniqueness of this show was the location – it was a perfect spot for a Buffett concert because 1) it was on an island, 2) in the tropics, 3) at the base of a volcano (Diamond Head), 4) on a stage fringed with palm trees from which 5) parrots and parakeets regularly flew.  It was 6) near a beach (Waikiki) and offshore there were 7) great white sharks.  That was all great but the best part of it was I went to this concert with my youngest daughter Dana.  For 2 ½ hours she got to watch her dad be a kid and not a dad, and the show ended with One Particular Harbour, and I hated seeing the entire night come to an end.

I used to keep lists of the songs he performed at each concert and did so until I discovered a database of them on where someone else summarizes the songs and I don’t have to worry about writing them down.  Suffice it to say that without fail he plays what he calls “The Big 8” at every show.  This includes Margaritaville, Changes in Latitudes, Fins, Come Monday (his first top 40 song), A Pirate Looks at 40, Volcano, Cheeseburger in Paradise, and One Particular Harbour.

Last night in Tampa was no different and we were all able to enjoy the Big 8.  But last night we also enjoyed classics (“real” Buffett music as some purists would call it) that aren’t played very often in concerts – songs like Floridays (he did the raggae version from the movie "Hoot" not the original version that you can hear here, My Head Hurts My Feet Stink and I Don’t Love Jesus, He Went to Paris, Havana Daydreamin’, Growing Older But Not Up, and Tin Cup Chalice (probably my least liked of all his songs) among several others.

Buffett is now 68 years old and you can tell he is slowing down a little bit but at 63 years old so am I! Every year he reminds us that he’s not going to quit any time soon and I hope he doesn’t.  In 2010 at the Tampa show I remember seeing an 80-something year old grandma being pushed in her wheel chair toward the entrance gates.  As she was being pushed along she was toking on a joint as she sang Margaritaville.  I watched her as she got wasted away and told myself that when I’m in my 80s that was how I wanted to act at the Buffett concerts I attend. 

If I keep going to at least one concert a year between now and then I’ll be at my 60th show by the time I am the same age as that grandma.  When I reach that goal I’ll just change it to wanting to see him 100 times. Until I reach that 100th Buffett concert I think I'll just keep living my life according to that important verse in Growing Older But Not Up that goes:

"I'm growing older but not up, my metabolic rate is pleasantly stuck. Let those winds of time blow over my head, I'd rather die while I'm living than live while I'm dead."  And I will.

Fins Left.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Living Out a Childhood Fantasy in the Yukon Territory

With trumpets blaring and horse hooves flying, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon adorned the screen of our tiny black and white television set between my fourth and seventh year.  "On, King! On, you huskies!" shouted Sergeant Preston of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police as he set out to enforce the law across the frozen Yukon at the turn of the century. His sled team was led by a malamute dog named Yukon King, who was indispensable to Preston in his patrol of the vast Canadian northwest.  In the summer months it was his horse Rex that guided the Sergeant though mountain valleys and over roaring rivers in his pursuit of justice.

The show would air every Saturday morning and without fail I was glued to the television crippled by wild anticipation of the next adventure to befall my hero Sergeant Preston.  The story line was simple and the plot even more so but when you’re only five years old all of it seemed real.  Although the outdoor scenes were largely filmed near Ashcroft, Colorado, to my budding traveler mind they were 50 miles from the nearest road in the Yukon. Seventy-eight episodes of the show were presented during its three year run between 1955 and 1958.  Without fail at the end of each show my atlas would fly open and I would search the maps trying to find Dawson Creek or Whitehorse or some microscopic village in the middle of the vast Yukon wilderness.

His stories of high adventure in the wilds of Canada started my pre-pubescent brain churning as I fantasized about living off the land in the Yukon Territory just like my idol.

Six years after the show ended its short run on television my family traveled to Ontario on a quick fishing trip.  To get there required passing through Canadian Customs and Immigration in Fort Frances.  As we pulled up to the office I saw a police officer standing outside the building.  He was dressed in a red coat with a Smokey the Bear hat.  His pants were coal black and he wore tall leather boots.  To my now-12 year old eyes he looked exactly like Sergeant Preston did when he was on television, right down to the same cut of a moustache.  At the time I didn’t understand about cancelling television shows and for the life of me I couldn’t grasp why my most favorite Saturday morning program was no longer available even six years after its last episode.

Yet here on the banks of the Rainy River just over the border in Canada stood someone I was instantly convinced was him.  As the Customs agent interrogated my dad I leaped out of our car and walked up to this guy in the red coat.  He greeted me and I said, “Are you Sergeant Preston?”  He wasn’t.  I then asked “Do you have a dog named Yukon King?” He didn’t. Finally in desperation I asked, “Do you ride on a horse?”  He didn’t do that either.  Sensing my dejection this Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer explained to me that although he seemed real there really was no Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.  It was all just a television show and hearing this made me feel like I was being told again that Santa Claus is a sham!

The officer told me that although Sergeant Preston didn’t exist, the Yukon Territory where he was supposed to live really did exist.  It was way far north in Canada, along the border with Alaska and, as the officer said, “Maybe someday you can go there.”

Twenty-four years later I was in Alaska doing field work for an effort to determine the potential for bird mortality from a huge and totally unnecessary radar system that the US Air Force was hell bent on building.  I had flown to Fairbanks to meet a colleague and together we drove down the Alaska Highway to Delta Junction then continued on toward Tetlin where we had a late lunch.  As we each devoured a caribou burger Skip asked if I had ever been to the Yukon Territory.  “It’s just a few miles down the road if you are interested.”

Interested?  I had been obsessed with the place since I was five years old. 

Towing a huge boat behind our US Fish and Wildlife Service vehicle we sped past the US Customs and Immigration post at Alcan, Alaska and crossed over the border near Beaver Creek, Yukon Territory. Unfortunately that was all we did.  Crossed over.  And I mean just barely crossed over.  We drove to a sign that said “Welcome to Yukon - Larger Than Life” then turned around in the middle of the road and scurried back to Tetlin Junction.  Although I had technically been in the Yukon Territory I had seen nothing of it other than spruce trees that looked exactly the same as those on the Alaska side of the border.  No way could I see Sergeant Preston, his wonder dog King or his horse Rex.  I had been there but little else.  I needed to go back.

On July 31, 2015, while the Norwegian Sun cruise ship is docked in Skagway, Alaska, Cathy and I are renting a car and driving to the Yukon for the day.  This time I'm going to do more than just drive over the border and turn back. I won't be in a dog sled and I won't be on the back of his horse Rex but I will be there and maybe, just maybe, I'll meet a modern-day Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer whose real last name is Preston. 

Would that be cool or what?

Thursday, March 5, 2015

I Could Live on Roatan

As a child when I would get upset with my parents I would defiantly tell my mother "I run away!"  Then I would walk out the front door and hide under the porch until it was apparent that nobody was going to come find me and I would walk back in the house in time for dinner.  The next time I ran away from home was in June 1984.  I wasn’t so much running away from home as I was running away to home.

In the aftermath of an acrimonious and unwanted divorce I needed to change my attitude and I did so by changing my latitude.  Rather than stay in North Dakota that I thoroughly loved, I switched jobs and ran off to the Bahamas.  The first time I saw an island other than one I camped on in Voyageurs National Park on the Canadian border in June 1973,  was on June 4, 1984, as I peered out the window of a gigantic Delta Airlines L-1011 on its final approach to the Nassau airport in the Bahamas.

I went to Nassau to meet government officials before beginning a research effort on an endangered species of bird that nests in Michigan and spends its winters in the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.  The bird’s population was not increasing despite our best thought out management efforts and as was common at the time many people were convinced the key to the species survival was on its winter range.  This came at a time of heightened awareness (finally) about the plight of tropical rainforests and even though there are no rainforests in the Bahamas, pointing our biological fingers at the tropics and winter habitats was not only sexy but vogue and off I went to the Bahamas.

Our plan was to spend the winter traveling the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands looking for Kirtland’s Warbler.  Many short term efforts in the past resulted in one or two random sightings in far flung reaches of the archipelago.  We would search one island for a few days and then move on to another island and continue that process until we discovered where most of the 500 or so remaining warblers spent the winter. Then we would focus on them on that island and learn everything we needed to know about Kirtland’s Warbler in the winter and ultimately save the species from extinction.

The best laid plans of biologists aren’t always the plans that work out and after spending the first winter traveling from the northern tip of Little Abaco island to the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the north shore of Hispaniola we discovered an amazing 10 different birds and we learned a great deal about them in the fleeting observations we made of nine of those 10 birds.  As we traveled the islands I kept track of which ones I had visited and by the end of the first winter I had been on 12 of the 700 or so islands in the Bahamas and two of the seven in the Turks and Caicos Island.  I’d also visited my first Spanish-speaking county other than Mexico and came within inches of needing to learn how to parlez vous francais if I ever wanted to go to Haiti.

The travel was actually more exciting than finding 10 Kirtland’s Warblers (nine more than anyone else had ever found in a winter).  I saw many new species of birds on those islands and experienced enough adventures on those islands to help me understand that although I grew up in northern Wisconsin and lived most recently in North Dakota, it just might be that the islands of the West Indies were where my home should be. 

We returned a second winter and I focused my attention on Grand Turk island where the year before we found four Kirtland’s warblers in an area near the airport that has now been set aside as a National Park (because of the birds).  During that second winter I started fantasizing about other islands in the islands and there certainly were many of them.   My home on Grand Turk was a house on Governor’s Beach that was very close to an abandoned US Air Force base known locally as “South Base.”  On South Base the Federal Aviation Administration maintained a navigational beacon to assist pilots flying to San Juan and beyond in the Caribbean.  The signal from that beacon was so strong that by simply turning on my radio I could sit in my home and listen to air traffic controllers in Miami directing Pan Am flights from Miami to Barbados as they sped through the giant air routes overhead.

I heard them say “Pan Am 386, turn right on heading 160 and switch to frequency 28 for San Juan control.  San Juan will guide you to Barbados” every day about noon. Somewhere up there 35,000 feet over my head, a Pan American Airways 727 was streaking along at 500 miles an hour bound for Bridgetown, Barbados.  I fantasized about what Barbados looked like.  At the time about the only thing I knew about Barbados was contained in Jimmy Buffett’s song “Presents to Send You” where he sings “Yeah I thought I might sail down to Bridgetown. Spend some time in the Barbados sun. But my plans took a skid when I smoked a whole lid. Wound up where I began.” 

Another Pan Am flight would pass over Grand Turk on its way to Fort-de-France, Martinique.  Mention of Martinique reminded me of another Buffett song called “Migration” that contains a verse that quickly became my life’s goal.  It goes, “Now if I ever live to be an old man I’m going to sail down to Martinique. Gonna buy me a sweat stained Bogart suit and an African parakeet. Well then I’ll stick him on my shoulder and open up my crusty old mind. I’m gonna teach him how to cuss and teach him how to fuss and pull the cork out of a bottle of wine.”

A Caribbean travel book I bought in the Miami airport once told me that Barbados was flat as a pancake but that Martinique was rather mountainous.  Both had a reef that surrounded the island and the people on Martinique spoke French. There was one species of bird that lived nowhere else on earth but Martinique and Barbados was as far away from my pain as I could possibly have hoped for in those days.

Tropical forests such as this one on Roatan typically drip with birds and especially in winter when millions of North American nesting songbirds funnel south to escape the relentless cold.

Along with the birds I was seeing I made it a goal to personally view every bird species in the West Indies that occurs on a single island or in a single nation.  To do so would require me to travel from San Andres off the coast of Nicaragua to Barbuda to Grenada, the island of spices just north of the coast of South America.  I needed to travel to at least 16 islands in 15 nations if I wanted to see them all and in doing so I would see more islands than I ever dreamed possible.

First there was a trip to the Dominican Republic and then one to Haiti and after it I went to Puerto Rico.  A stroke of luck in the Klamath Falls, Oregon, airport just before Thanksgiving one year resulted with me receiving a voucher for $700 off a future trip on American Airlines and with that voucher I called the airline and asked how much it would cost to fly to Guadeloupe and then Dominica and to return home from Martinique.  American said the total cost would be $699 and a month later I was on a plane to those islands with a dollar left over from American’s good will.  Later some strings were pulled and some politics played and soon I had permission from the US Department of the Treasury to travel legally to Cuba and after that I went to the Cayman Islands on a day trip and then to Jamaica and soon to Barbados and St. Lucia and St. Vincent and Grenada.  It wasn’t long before my goal of seeing all of those endemic birds was close to being realized.

As I closed in on my goal I also realized that I was absolutely enthralled with the islands of the islands and as of today I am one species shy of having seen them all.  The missing culprit still lives (hopefully at least) in one wetland in central Cuba and as soon as I get back to the island I want to search for it again.

Jimmy Buffett says in another classic song “Through all of the islands and all of the highlands, if we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.”  At one point after my divorce I was convinced that I would go insane but then I learned how to laugh and it all went away.  All of that laughing occurred through all of the islands and all of their highlands and lowlands and as of before my trip to Roatan I had visited 75 islands in the islands.  Much of the exploration was for birds and much was for self-improvement and unknown to me at the time much of it also was directed at finding the perfect island.  It would be the place where I could hang out a shingle saying “Gone coconut hunting” and never look back.

Through all of those islands I definitely had my favorites.  Dominica with its volcanic black sand beaches was right near the top and so was Tobago with its snow-white beaches.  The tourism board for Anguilla in the Windward Islands markets the island as “tranquility wrapped in blue” and once you have been there you realize that there is no finer marketing motto for the country than the one they have chosen.  Cayman Brac in the Cayman Islands also ranked right up there among the favorites for many reasons most importantly its isolation and that fact that condominium developers have for some unexplainable reason not found and defiled Cayman Brac.

I wish I was there right now

I was convinced after 31 years of island-hopping that anyone of those four island could easily be “the one” if I ever had to pick among them for the ultimate escape.  Then one day the Carnival Pride slipped into Mahogany Bay harbour on Roatan, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, and my entire outlook on what island was best had to be completely re-examined.

From the moment I first saw it off the starboard rail on deck 5 I loved Roatan.  Even before touching its soil I could tell it was for me. Long and sinuous like Anguilla but with tropical rainforest that dripped with birds and wallowed in uniqueness and just begged me to explore it.  Then there was the impeccably clean roads, the lack of rampant deforestation, the almost total lack of condo commandos raping the countryside for personal gain and then there were the reefs.  My partner is a diver and she has convinced me to learn how to SCUBA which is next on my list of priority actions I need to take to keep my partner happy with me.  She returned from her dives on the north shore of the island and said that among the 80 dives she had made in her life the two best were the first and second dives she made that day off Roatan.

My first Honduran sunrise in 20 years was this one on the coast of Roatan on February 26, 2015.  Given that I don't have 20 more years left I need to return there sooner rather than later.  Tomorrow wouldn't be soon enough.

I spent a day walking around Roatan talking to the locals and getting a feel for the place.  One particular annoying tout refused to take the hint and leave me alone as I explained to him that I wasn’t interested in a ferry ride to La Ceiba, and I didn’t want to go parasailing, and the last thing I was interested in was paying him $100 for an hour of sex with his sixteen year old sister who, miraculously, was apparently still a virgin.  What I wanted to do was be alone and soak in his island.  Eventually he took my increasingly loud and forceful hints and apologized saying “I’m sorry for the harassment but this is how we have to make a living here.”  A sad reality of the islands.

Roatan, the largest of the Bay Islands, lies just a stones throw off the coast of Honduras.  Jimmy Buffett once said that his fictional Margaritaville was "anywhere you want it to be."  On my first trip to Honduras I thought I found mine about a mile down the coast from Tela.  Now I wonder if I wasn't about 50 miles too far south.

Honduras is one of the poorest of several very poor countries in Central America. It’s annual per capita income in 2013 was slightly more than $4,848 which is considerably less than I make after taxes in one month from my retirement account.  Not far away from Honduras in resource rich Costa Rica the per capita income is about $8,923 annually or almost twice that of Honduras.  Despite the abysmal economic picture in Honduras the country and especially the Bay Islands have become Mecca for retired Americans, Canadians, and Europeans seeking a cheap place to extend the benefits of their annuities.  A look at Roatan real estate shows that houses in the $250,000 range are common and some sell for as much as $1 million.  A one-quarter million dollar house owned by some gringo represents the sum of the per capita income of 60 Hondurans.  Clearly the economic divide here is abundantly obvious.  Yet you can’t tell that by talking to Hondurans.

Those I met that day except for the sister-selling tout were very proud of their Honduran heritage, fiercely protective of their island, and oh-so-happy to not be living on the mainland.

Humberto, a server in a beachside bar where I stopped for lunch and a bottle of Salva Vida, explained why he lived on Roatan.  “I come from Tegucigalpa originally.  My family comes to Rotan for a one week vacation and then extended it to two weeks and then three weeks and here we are 12 years later still extending our vacation one year at a time.”

My previous experiences with Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras, were reinforced by what Humberto said next.

“Here in Roatan it is safer, cleaner, more things to do and the women are hotter.  As far as I’m concerned there is no reason to ever go back to the mainland.”

Humberto was surprised that I had been to Honduras four times earlier, each trip to the mainland, but he understood more clearly when I talked about birds and about Jimmy Buffett.

I asked why Honduras and especially San Pedro Sula had become so dangerous it took him less than a nanosecond to say “drug dealers.” 

It’s a very sad reality that many law enforcement authorities now rank San Pedro Sula as the most dangerous city in the world.  Its murder rate of 40 per 100,000 residents exceeds any other city in Central and South America and the level of drug-related violence is almost impossible to quantify.  No longer are perennial favorites like Sa’ana, Yemen or Kabul Afghanistan or Karachi Pakistan or even Kingston Jamaica the most dangerous places on earth. Now that honor goes to formerly laid back San Pedro Sula, Honduras and it’s all because of drugs.

Sometimes I wonder if the answer to all of this craziness is just to give up and give in and call the failed “War on Drugs” the failure that it is and start over.  The United States alone has spent hundreds of billions of dollars fighting a “war” on drugs that has been won from the start and continues to be won today by the people we are at war with.  If drugs were legalized and they were sold and taxed by governments there would no longer be a need to spend billions on the DEA and no longer a reason for families to be torn apart by drug violence.  And very likely there would no longer be a reason for San Pedro Sula to be the most dangerous city in the world.  However I’m not president and I never will be and legalizing drugs no matter how smart it is would never fly with the religious fanatics who control the media and control the message.

Mahogany Bay on Roatan is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in the West Indies. Who wouldn't want to be there right now?

As we boarded the ship to leave Roatan it was firmly planted in my brain that the 76th island I have visited in the islands is number 1 in my mind.   There are so many things about it that putting them all down on paper would be time consuming and probably cost at least two trees their lives.  Suffice it to say that I could very easily live there for any number of reasons and I could live there tomorrow if I could.  Now I’m going to run down to the local 7-11 and buy five lottery tickets and if I win I’m on the next plane headed south and I’m only buying a one-way ticket.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What Will Become of the Mayans?

Cruisers stepping off the Carnival Pride in Costa Maya are greeted by "authentic" Mayan dancers like these folks.  Unfortunately about the only authentic thing is the Ocellated Turkey feathers they dress themselves in.

Arrival at a cruise port, no matter if it’s the first time you have been there or the fifteenth, is always met with anticipation and excitement.  Usually those of us in balcony rooms are seated in our deck chairs with a cup of coffee as we watch the destination slowly become larger on the horizon.  Those not fortunate enough to have chosen a balcony are usually down on the Promenade Deck hanging over the rail, watching wherever it is grow larger in their eyes.  Travelers who have been there before pontificate on what to see and what to avoid, while first timers nod in agreement, say “uh huh” a lot, and act like there are the seasoned traveler with whom they are agreeing.

As the destination gets closer the decks come alive with activity as ship’s crew prepares to secure the ship to the port.  Hatches are opened, flags are dropped, and lines are shot ashore as the Captain or one of his minions slowly eases the gigantic ship sideways barely touching the pier as it arrives.  As many times as I have watched an arrival I remain awestruck by how those people in charge of the ship are able to take something weighing 18 million pounds before people entered it, and ease it to the edge of a pier as if it weighed only ounces.

Safely secured to the pier the “Local Officials” we always hear about in pre-arrival announcements come onboard and do whatever local officials do on a ship.  Once their formalities are complete, an announcement is made that it’s safe to go ashore and everyone who has been sitting in a balcony chair or hanging over the rail of the Promenade Deck, races for the gangway and their first step on the pier.

A gigantic Mexican flag and lines of cruisers bound for shore excursions are two of the most prominent sights when you first step onto the cruise terminal at Costa Maya, Mexico

After making their way past the flocks of cruise staffers assigned to photograph everyone who even considers walking off the ship, and perhaps after standing behind a few people who want to pose next to an “authentic” pirate from Newark, cruisers move like cattle over the pier and into the cruise terminal. There the throngs of cruisers seem to break into three distinct groups.  One group immediately queue’s up in front of signs announcing that this is the spot to be to partake in any of a dozen or more shore excursions sold to them by the cruise line.  Onshore opportunities range from swimming with sting rays to visiting ruins to “pirate” encounters to a party boat with a party lunch on a nearby party island.

The second group of cruisers can feel the plastic of their credit cards burning a hole in the side of their wallet and they take off in search of a place to cool down their overheated cards.  Throughout the cruise terminal their senses are overloaded with almost every conceivable way to spend your money.  I sometimes wonder if Diamonds International and the company that sells Tanzanite ever makes any money because there one of their stores is in every port you visit.  You’d think that only one store for these companies would be needed on any cruise itinerary but most definitely they are there, with their credit card scanners ready to go to work, in every port along the way.  Some time I would be interesting to find out how much money is spent in the first Diamonds International store on an itinerary and how much is sold in the last port if any.

Loud bars with names like “The Thirsty Pirate” and “Fat Tuesday” and “The Bearded Clam” vie for customers with the likes of mega chain restaurants like Senor Frog’s, Carlos ‘n Charlie’s and my favorite, Margaritaville.  All of these restaurants in cruise ports are another enigma to me.  After several days at sea eating almost nonstop for 24 hours each day, you would think the last thing on a traveler’s mind would be sitting down somewhere to have another meal.  This is especially true early in the day when the main breakfast buffet’s open early to accommodate those anticipating an early departure from the ship. However it makes no difference because even before cruisers dive into the orgasm of more shopping that awaits them onshore invariably they find an excuse to sit in a local pub and eat even more.

T-shirt shops abound in cruise terminals and so do tacky tourist shops where tacky cruisers can purchase tacky unnecessary pieces of tacky nonsense they will throw away a few days after they return home. I have been traveling to and in Mexico since 1978 and in nearly 40 years there I have yet to see a single Mexican wearing the stereotypical broad brimmed black sombrero.  In fact the only people I ever see wearing one are lily white American’s on their return flight to the States from Cancun or Puerto Vallarta.  Yet no matter which Mexican (and sometimes merely Spanish speaking) cruise port you find yourself in, there will be at least two different shops selling “authentic” Mexican sombreros. 

A third and much smaller group of cruisers isn’t really a group so much as an aggregation.  They (including me) are the independent travelers who aren’t awed by the pre-packaged packages sold by the cruise line and could care less about international diamonds or Mexican sombreros.  We are the small, almost miniscule, minority who take off on our own to explore.  We are the people who aren’t subdued by the politically correct warnings about imminent danger certain to befall anyone who passes beyond the cruise terminal gates without being on an approved cruise.  We are the ones who stop at the office of “Last Minute Tours” and take off with a taxi driver for a four hour hidden exploration of what everyone else just paid twice as much to see from the comfort of an ice-cold air conditioned bus.  Those of us in the third group are also the ones who do not conform but instead come away from the day’s adventures actually learning something about where we just visited.

A huge swath of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and a smidgen of Honduras was once the domain of the Mayans. Today, not so much.

One of the cruises offered for our stop in Costa Maya was one that cost $77.00 per person called “Taste of Costa Maya and Beach Combo.”  For $77.000 some contractor would take the willing sheep on a four hour tour of an “authentic” Mayan village and then cap off the adventure with time on the beach.  Specifically the tour description, as downloaded from the Carnival website, reads like this:

In the last frontier of the Mayan civilization lie the colorful fishing village of Costa Maya and an endless stretch of virgin beach awaiting your discovery. Climb aboard our comfortable A/C Motor Coach and take an adventure through time amid the beautiful and exotic terrain of Costa Maya. 
          You’ll journey through the jungle on off-road trails and along the Caribbean shore.  Keep your eyes open for tropical birds and resident iguanas as we travel to our out-of-the-way beach.  Take a step back and admire the white-sand beach and beautiful blue-green waters. Relax! You can lie in the sun, go for a swim, enjoy a volleyball game, or drift further from realty in one of our complimentary ocean kayaks. After an hour, hop into the bus and start your way back to civilization along local roads and an abandoned highway.
             Stop in downtown Costa Maya for an hour of free time and shopping. You’ll find plenty of stores with traditional Mexican arts & crafts items, jewelry, clothing, house wares, leather goods and more.  Discover the colorful culture of an ancient people in this old Mayan fishing village and witness how it meets with the realities of a modern world. Just meet back up at the bus at the designated time and we’ll return you to the pier or you may choose to continue your day downtown and return to the ship by taxi at your own expense.

All of this for a mere $77.00. Who in their right mind could pass up such a deal? 

I could.

During my seven hours in Costa Maya I immediately broke away from the thundering crowds of excursion goers and took off to explore this supposed “last frontier of the Mayan civilization” on my own.  I saw plenty and it didn’t cost me $77.00 to ultimately get a better sun tan than those in the air conditioned bus.

Not far from the security gate of the terminal I found a restaurant with no name that was plunked down on the side of the road.  Its exterior was an abandoned school bus and its three tables were plastic with sun umbrella’s that said “Coca-Cola” on them.  Any strong wind gust that came along instantly wiped out the umbrella’s.  Only one of the three tables (they each were surrounded by four chairs) had any guests when I arrived.  The waitress, Isabella, was nonetheless breathless when she finally found time to take my order.

Whether you are on Big Coppitt Key or Costa Maya, Mexico, roadside dives with little ambiance and no health standards but tons of character invariably produce the best food.  This one near the Costa Maya cruise terminal was no different

“No mi gusta esta parte del dia,” Isabella said as she finally wound her way to my table.  There being only three other guests sitting out in the blazing sun I couldn’t understand why she didn’t like this part of the day.

“Estamos muy ocupados,” she said, telling me that they were extremely busy.  Three people makes it extremely busy? “Necesito un Descanso, pronto!”  If three customers made her so busy she needed to immediately take a rest, I started to worry about what my presence, as the fourth guest, would do to her.  Ten years earlier on the Lesser Antillean island of Barbuda, Mark Oberle and I stopped in the only restaurant in town seeking lunch.  This restaurant was inside a building and it had four tables.  The waitress looked haggard as she served the two customers who were already seated for lunch.  Just as Isabella was out of breath in Costa Maya, that waitress in Barbuda said to me “I hate it when we get so busy like this.”  It must be a function of latitude.

I ordered fish tacos and a bottle of beer.  This seemingly easy order took nearly an hour to fill.  It wasn’t because of a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the cook or the owner or on Isabella.  It was the simple fact that once the fish and the veggies were cooked, the cook discovered that they had run out of tacos.  I concluded that there must have been a huge rush on fish tacos before I arrived and they simply forgot to replenish the stores.  Undaunted and determined to make sure that their fourth customer was as satisfied as the other three, the cook dropped everything he was doing (which wasn’t much) and jumped on his motorcycle.  Soon in a billowing cloud of dust, the cook was racing across the yard of my roadside dive and onto the Caraterra Principal bound for the one grocery store in the village of Mahahual where he would secure the much needed tacos. 

His triumphant return was greeted with excitement from his co-workers as the cook dismounted his motorcycle and proudly carried a package of tacos into the restaurant.  During his 20 minute absence, a pair of Americans, also on my ship, but off exploring in a dune buggy, arrived at the side of the road looking for lunch.  Isabella took their order of chicken tacos, chips and salsa, and told this pair that it would take “just a few minutes” for their order to be filled.  Normally I guess it would have taken just a few minutes however today, on his return with my tacos, the cook discovered that they were also out of chips. Turning the cooking responsibilities over to his boss the cook leaped on his motorcycle and in a similar billowing cloud of dust roared back to the grocery to get the now-crucial chips.  As he started his motorcycle I heard Isabella yell at him in Spanish “Don’t forget the chips!!! We need chips also!!”

Wrapped in authentic Mexican-made corn tacos, my fish tacos were among the best I have ever tasted anywhere and especially from any number of “authentic” Mexican restaurants in the United States. Three giant fish tacos and two bottles of authentic Mexican beer served under an authentic and blazing Mexican sun cost me $5.00 US.  Finishing this gargantuan meal I paid my bill and left a $5.00 tip for Isabella and continued my exploration.

The hot and dry vegetation here was absolutely dripping with birds, most of them species that nest in North America and then migrate several thousand miles to hang out on the Mexican Caribbean. Who could blame them?  As I stumbled around on trails and side roads I couldn’t help noticing that although the population of this area was miniscule in comparison to many other parts of Mexico, the number and frequency of roads and plots for houses and pipes being laid for water and sewer spoke volumes about how this area of “authentic” Mayan people would look in a few more years.

Walking along the main road I was constantly hounded by more “authentic” Mayan people hawking their own tours to nearby areas.  A common refrain was “I’ll take you to authentic Mayan ruins, amigo!” Clearly it seemed that the parts of Costa Maya that had already been developed were much the same as the areas inside the cruise terminal. At least out here there were no Diamonds International stores however in the tropics that could change in an instant.

The website provides a treasure trove of information about early Mayan culture and some sad facts about its inevitable decline:

Excavations of Maya sites have unearthed plazas, palaces, temples and pyramids, as well as courts for playing the ball games that were ritually and politically significant to Maya culture. Maya cities were surrounded and supported by a large population of farmers. Though the Maya practiced a primitive type of “slash-and-burn” agriculture, they also displayed evidence of more advanced farming methods, such as irrigation and terracing.

Incredibly accurate even by modern standards, the Mayan calendar wasn't quite accurate enough to predict the end of the world in December 2012, but that wasn't because of a lack of hyping the possibility that it could.

The Classic Maya built many of their temples and palaces in a stepped pyramid shape, decorating them with elaborate reliefs and inscriptions. These structures have earned the Maya their reputation as the great artists of Mesoamerica. Guided by their religious ritual, the Maya also made significant advances in mathematics and astronomy, including the use of the zero and the development of a complex calendar system based on 365 days. Though early researchers concluded that the Maya were a peaceful society of priests and scribes, later evidence–including a thorough examination of the artwork and inscriptions on their temple walls–showed the less peaceful side of Maya culture, including the war between rival Mayan city-states and the importance of torture and human sacrifice to their religious ritual.

One of the many intriguing things about the Maya was their ability to build a great civilization in a tropical rainforest climate. Traditionally, ancient peoples had flourished in drier climates, where the centralized management of water resources (through irrigation and other techniques) formed the basis of society. (This was the case for the Teotihuacan of highland Mexico, contemporaries of the Classic Maya.) In the southern Maya lowlands, however, there were few navigable rivers for trade and transport, as well as no obvious need for an irrigation system.

From the late eighth through the end of the ninth century, something unknown happened to shake the Maya civilization to its foundations. One by one, the Classic cities in the southern lowlands were abandoned, and by A.D. 900, Maya civilization in that region had collapsed. The reason for this mysterious decline is unknown, though scholars have developed several competing theories.

Some believe that by the ninth century the Maya had exhausted the environment around them to the point that it could no longer sustain a very large population. Other Maya scholars argue that constant warfare among competing city-states led the complicated military, family (by marriage) and trade alliances between them to break down, along with the traditional system of dynastic power. As the stature of the holy lords diminished, their complex traditions of rituals and ceremonies dissolved into chaos. Finally, some catastrophic environmental change–like an extremely long, intense period of drought–may have wiped out the Classic Maya civilization. Drought would have hit cities like Tikal–where rainwater was necessary for drinking as well as for crop irrigation–especially hard.

All three of these factors–overpopulation and overuse of the land, endemic warfare and drought–may have played a part in the downfall of the Maya in the southern lowlands. In the highlands of the Yucatan, a few Maya cities–such as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and Mayapán–continued to flourish in the Post-Classic Period (A.D. 900-1500). By the time the Spanish invaders arrived, however, most Maya were living in agricultural villages, their great cities buried under a layer of rainforest green.

The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, is one of the most spectacular Mayan temples ever found.  Just remember if you visit here that fer-de-lance like to chill out in pastures near the ruins and they generally aren't too understanding when you disturb them.

Anyone who has visited the ruins at Palenque, Bonampak, Tikal, Uxmal and Chichen Itza, knows that the Maya were masters at ancient architecture and like the Egyptians before them they were master builders using little more than brute force.  The early Maya were great mathematicians who devised their own calendar, a calendar that just a few years ago had many convinced that the world was going to end in December 2012.  The ancient Maya were also farmers who lived in harmony with the landscape and were able to live a full life in the rainforests of Central America.  Now their descendants stand on street corners calling people “amigo” and offering to take them to temples made generations ago simply so they can make a few dollars to keep the motorcycle running.  Modern day Mayans are trying to stay afloat by exploiting the environment they live in and ecotourism seems to be an avenue they are using to make that happen.  I only hope they don’t kill the goose that is laying the small golden eggs for them.

Seven cruise lines now make regular (if not seasonal) stops at Costa Maya and each of those ships disgorges more than 2,000 passengers.  Some went on the canned shore excursions, and some sat in Carlos ‘n Charlie’s getting drunk and some like me and the people who ordered chips and salsa at the roadside dive, took off to explore on our own. 

If we assume that each person from the two ships spent a minimum of $50 in the area whether on excursions, in a shop or even in taxi rides, then cruising exerts a huge influence on the local economy.  Assuming further that one ship a day comes to this port throughout the year (a conservative estimate) that means at least $100,000 each and every day is being pumped into the economy.  Further assuming one ship a day each day of the year, $36,500,000 is being funneled into the hands and pockets of these Mayan descendants.  It seems to me that there is considerable money to be made by the Mayans on the coast of Maya by exploiting their ancestral past whether it’s selling “authentic” sombreros made in Indonesia, or hawking tours of authentic Mayan ruins to ever “amigo” who walks down the street, than there is in selling off vast expanses of untrammeled Mexican rain forest and turning it into winter homes for fat old ladies from Poughkeepsie. 

The Costa Maya coast looks like this today just north of the cruise terminal.  With luck it will look like this 50 years from now when my grandson Garrett is cruising these waters with his grandson.  Ecotourism and sustainable development are the keys to making that happen - raping the land and turning everything into another Cancun or Playa del Carmen is not.

Mayan’s have been around for thousands of years and even though they no longer build huge temples and play basketball on courts in front of their leaders each of whom is dressed in an outfit made of quetzal feathers, the Maya will probably be around for several thousand more years. They will survive because they have been able to adapt to rapid changes in their environment through all of those thousands of years.  In fact I give Mayan’s a better chance of survival than I do all of those fat old ladies from Poughkeepsie who waddle off cruise ships to take an authentic tour to learn about authentic Mayan culture.  I make that prediction because unlike American’s the Mayan’s on the Costa Maya are not enamored with the latest nonsense about the Kardashians and they could care less if Lindsay Lohan is again in lockup and the last thing on their minds is if an android takes clearer pictures than does the iPhone. 

Mayan’s are and always have been survivors and perhaps ecotourism and especially cruising can be the key to that survival.  I hope they have enough will power to withstand attempts by arrogant Americans hell bent on developing their coast into block after block of deed restricted retirement homes like Sarasota Florida.   As an alternative the Mayan’s need the keep the forests standing upright, the Caribbean waters need to remain a lovely shade of margarita green, and the ghosts of Mayan’s past need to continue guiding tourists to those authentic Mayan ruins.  I have a feeling it will turn out that way.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Cruising Aboard the Carnival Pride

The Carnival Pride, an 88,000 ton floating hotel, departed Terminal 2 at the Port of Tampa, Florida only 15 minutes behind schedule on February 22, 2015.  Onboard were Cathy Hayslett, me, and about 2,598 other travelers escaping the frigid Florida weather (it was only 65 degrees) on a seven-night voyage to the Western Caribbean.  For us it was more special because this was Cathy’s birthday cruise, something that is slowly becoming a tradition.

The Ship

The absolutely beautiful Carnival Pride was a real joy to experience.  Built in 2002, it was relatively new and spotlessly clean.  Unlike its sister ship the Carnival Paradise that stank of cigarette smoke almost everywhere, the only cigarette insults on the Pride occurred if you happened to stumble through the casino on Deck 2.  
The casino was about the only place where you are subjected to irritating cigarette smoke and then only if you are there to feed the electronic one-armed bandits. After taking this picture I saw a sign warning people that photography was prohibited.  I wonder what they had to hide here? I feel like such a rebel blowing off the rules like that.  Makes me think I'm back in high school breaking into the Big O bar at 2 a.m. with the Benavides brothers.

Use of the casino was relatively light compared to earlier cruises. This may have been because our cruise was primarily for the geriatric crowd.  At 63 years old I was among the youngest people sailing for the next seven nights.

The Pride had all the amenities we have now come to expect from a cruise ship.  With numerous lounges and bars, a nice library (that didn’t carry any of my books – I need to talk to Carnival about this!), the aforementioned casino, and even a chapel that I visited only long enough to take a picture of its entrance.  Common areas like the Taj Mahal performance center, the Piazza Café, and the Atrium with its requisite bar, were spotlessly clean.

Bars are plentiful and strategically located throughout the ship.  The price of a beer will take your breath away but what the hell.  You're on vacation and its a long swim to the nearest pub on land

The well-stocked library on the Pride doesn't have any of my travel books in it. I need to talk to Carnival about this oversight on their part :)

There is a chapel on board for those who believe in this stuff.  I was there only long enough to take this picture.  So far there have been no long-lasting effects because of this encounter. 

The Taj Mahal would be a perfect place for a Jimmy Buffett concert

The 7-story high atrium is ok if you are on the bottom looking up.  However if you have a fear of heights like I do you might want to consider not going to the top and looking down.

You can't get on a ship, walk around a ship, or leave the ship in any port without someone shoving their face in yours saying "want a picture taken?"  If that isn't enough harrassment for you then you can go to the Pixel's Lounge where the happy camera addicts will gladly take even more pictures of you.  I wonder how much paper is wasted each trip on all of the pictures that are taken and printed out but that nobody ever purchases?  What a waste.

A small Internet Cafe was available for those who simply could not be away from their computer for more than a few days.

The prices for Internet access in the Internet Cafe convinced me that no email is that important.  Rather than pay these ridiculous prices we simply waited until we were in port and used whatever WiFi we could find in local bars.  The WiFi outside of the Margaritaville Cafe on Grand Caymon Island had a particularly strong signal. And it was free!

The crew of the Pride was impeccable in its attention to even the minutest detail. For instance one morning we had a maintenance issue that needed immediate attention even before sunrise.  A simple call to Guest Services resulted in the nearly instantaneous resolution of the issue less than 5 minutes after reporting the problem.  If only my cable internet provider at home was this responsive!

Staff at the Guest Services desk on Deck 2 were particularly helpful.  They even contacted the Bridge for me when I wondered if and when we would be passing an uninhabited island halfway between Roatan and Grand Caymon. Unfortunately we would pass it in the middle of the night but I knew where to look at the time to look if I wanted to try to see it just the same.

The Shore Excursions desk was the place to go if you wanted to book activities in an upcoming port.  We booked each of Cathy's two-tank dives ourselves a month or more before departing on the trip just to make sure we locked in space for her.  I prefer to make my own shore excursions so I have never used this service but its nice to know its there if I ever change my mind.

One thing everyone raves about on cruises is the food and it was no different on the Carnival Pride.  Because I steadfastly refuse to wear let alone own long pants we were forbidden from entering either the Normandie Restaurant or David’s Steakhouse.  Instead we ate our meals in the buffet of the Mermaid Grille on Deck 9 or breakfast at the superb Blue Iguana Cantina, poolside on Deck 9, midship.  The made-to-order breakfast burritos and the huevos rancheros at the Blue Iguana were excellent incentives to be ready for a new day each morning.

You can only enter the Normandie Restaurant if you look presentable and since I refuse to own or wear long pants I 'm not considered presentable so we never entered it.  I wonder what the sea bass tastes like there?  I'm not going to buy long pants just to find out however.

The Mermaid's Grille will feed you even if you dress like a slob and since I do, this is where we went of lunch and dinner every night.

The mermaid's hanging from the ceiling in the Mermaid Grille took a little getting used to at first.  I just wonder how much they have to pay those mermaids to hang from the ceiling 24/7 during each cruise?

The Blue Iguana Cantina was a great place for breakfast poolside each day.  The huevos rancheros and the breakfast burritos come highly recommended.

Staff of the Blue Iguana Cantina are not only hams themselves but also do wonderful things with the ham they prepare with your breakfast.

Lunch and dinner menus varied considerably but fish and veggies were easily found.  The broiled snapper for dinner one night was among the best snapper I have ever tasted anywhere.  The salad bar overflowed with goodies and the sliced tomatoes at each meal reminded me of when I was a little kid and would sit on the front steps of my grandparents’ house and I would watch my grandpa slice fresh tomatoes from grandma’s garden.  We would then sprinkle a little sugar on them (to counteract the acidity I think) and then nosh on fresh tomatoes to our hearts content. My grandpa wasn’t on the cruise of course but the abundant tomatoes made me think of him and me long ago.

The Pizza Pirate seemed like a logical place to run onto other Pittsburgh Pirate fans and Jimmy Buffett fans but I saw it open only one time during the entire cruise.  Aaaargh.

One of the dining options was the Pizza Pirate, supposedly open 24/7 throughout the entire cruise.  Although this seemed like a logical place to meet fellow Pittsburgh Pirates fans and Jimmy Buffett fans, we only ever saw the Pizza Pirate open one time.  Never in seven days did I ever see anyone with a slice of pizza on a plate.  Clearly someone dropped the ball in the Pizza Pirate department, but in the overall scheme of things this is so inconsequential it barely deserves mention.

The Serenity Area was restricted to guests older than 21.  However since this was primarily a cruise filled with the geriatric crowd, and Cathy and I were among the youngest people on the ship, there was really no need for the 21 year old limit. Maybe it should have been nobody younger than 64 years old so we youngsters could have been excluded?  

The hammocks in the Serenity Area were a great place to get in touch with your inner Huckleberry Finn.

The pool area on Deck 9 midship was the place to be to work on your tan lines while the ship was at sea.

The Serenity Area (nobody under 21 years old allowed) on Deck 9 aft was a pleasant place to chill out and watch the ocean race by you.  The Serenity Area comes complete with a bar (surprise!), hammocks, a small pool and a very enjoyable hot tub.  The two main pools on Deck 9 midship were ground zero for people wanting to work on their tans and maybe catch a relaxed lunch any time until about 3:00 p.m.  The “Dive-In Movies” screen was here offering recently released films that could be enjoyed from a beach chair.  Thankfully the person in charge of the pool area sensibly held the music down to a low roar so we weren’t blasted with 9,000 decibel music that made talking to your neighbor impossible on the Carnival Victory and the Carnival Paradise.

The kid's water area wasn't too heavily used primarily because there were not many kids on the ship. A blessing in disguise perhaps?

One of these times I'm going to get too drunk to karaoke on a cruise and slide down the water slide. Until that happens, however, I'll be content just to take pictures of it.

If you feel the need to improve your putting skills while in the middle of the ocean there is a barnyard pool putting green waiting for you on Deck 12.

This was the place to get in touch with your inner Michael Jordan.

Whether you are a runner or a walker, the track on Deck 11 was the place to go to get your heart rate up and keep it there.

Decks 11 and 12 contained the water area for little kids, a water slide, a miniature golf / putting area, tennis court, and a walking/running track that received heavy use day and night.  Further below, on Deck 2 were essential areas like the Guest Services desk, the Shore Excursions desk and if you hadn’t already maxed out your credit card in port, there was an abundance of shops including the Ship’s Store where you could send your plastic into cardiac arrest.

The Stateroom

Stateroom 5265 was absolutely everything travelers would or could want in a room at sea.  I think way too many people find great joy in complaining about every possible little thing they see or think they see and many times these things are blown completely out of proportion. To those people I suggest that if you want to stay in a 5 star room then stay onshore and experience your vacation in the comfort of a Hilton or a Hyatt or the local J.W. Mormonott.  If you are on the ocean then expect the ship to rock back and forth in the waves, and the windows to have a little dew on them in the morning, and the restroom to not be large enough to play rugby in.  It’s a ship, remember!

Stateroom 5265 offered us more than adequate space to store our gear and feel like we were at home. We have learned that the single most important thing you can pack on a cruise is a power strip like the one shown here.  This is especially true when most cruise staterooms have only one electrical outlet available.  From now on remember that just like American Express, you don't want to leave home without your power stip.

There was plenty of storage space in the three large closets and the drawers by the counter area/ desk.  Just remember when putting away your clothes in the drawers that the bottom two are large and deep and the top two are narrow and shallow.  This is essential information for some men, myself included, who don’t pay attention thinking all the drawers were of equal size and then you are sternly reminded by your partner that the two drawers you left for her were half the size.  This isn’t generally a relationship- limiting mistake but remember this just the same. 

The counter area/ desk area provided more than adequate space for all of our needs including letting Cathy use her lap top to download and edit video she took with her underwater camera during her 8 SCUBA dives.   One word of caution for any future visitors – as we have found on all of our cruises there was only one electrical outlet in the room and it was in the living area.  There were none in the bathroom to plug in your electric shaver.  To that end we long ago learned that one of the most essential pieces of gear to pack for a trip is a power strip with space for at least four electrical outlets.  Go out and buy one now and put it on your packing list for your next cruise. I promise you will be thankful you followed this advice.

The balcony wasn't large enough to play rugby on but it was more than adequate to chill out and watch for the Green Flash at sunset.  If you choose a balcony room please remember to GENTLY close your balcony door so you don't blast your neighbors out of bed at 3:00 a.m. when the crashing door rockets them awake!

The balcony was adequate for two people to chill out, drink a beer, and watch the sun rise or set, or both.  If I had any complaint from this cruise it’s that people in balcony rooms need to be reminded often not to let their balcony doors slam shut each time they enter or leave the balcony.  This is especially important at 3:00 in the morning when they sneak out onto the balcony to look at the constellations or sneak in an illicit cigarette.  It’s unfortunate that adults, many of whom are grandparents, need to be reminded to be thoughtful regarding others but that’s the society we now live in.  Just be considerate of the people in the rooms around you, you jerks.

I slept like a rock every night in this very comfortable bed. I wish there was a way I could have walked off the ship with the bed and taken it home.

Our bed was more than adequate and very comfortable.  Normally at home I sleep for three hours, am awake for about 90 minutes, and then sleep again for three more hours before I crawl out of bed and make my way to Dunkin’ Donuts.  However on this cruise I slept soundly through the night each of the 7 nights at sea.  On at least two occasions I was asleep by 8:00 p.m. and slept straight through until 7 the next morning.  Eleven hours of uninterrupted sleep is completely unheard of at home. 

The television was what you'd expect on a cruise ship and I must commend Carnival for not offering the Fox Fiction Channel anywhere on their channel selection.  Rather than Fox they offer CNN and CNN International, two channels that actually are fair and balanced and lack a political agenda like Fox.  Now if only Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise lines would drop Fox their might be a chance for cruisers in the future to be subjected to a truthful description of current events while they are at sea. What a concept!

The head in our stateroom was more than adequate for our needs.  If you feel compelled to complain about its size then I encourage you to spend a week or two at sea on a 72 foot long research vessel and compare its head with this one.  You will quickly find you have absolutely no reason to complain about the one in your stateroom.

The restroom was, well, a restroom.  Everything you'd ever need to make that part of your journey a comfortable one. The restroom came only with a shower but again we are on a ship and space for everything is limited.  Note the blue and white sign hanging on the towel rack in the image above. Check out this link for the story behind that sign. If you need a bathtub or a sauna or Jacuzzi either stay in a suite or camp out at the local Hilton for a few days.

Our stateroom steward Anthony was very attentive and more than pleasant to interact with and that only enhanced the experience staying in 5265. 

Bottom line from our perspective is that if we ever sail again on the Pride (and now we really want to) we will try our utmost to get assigned to stateroom 5265 or one of its neighbors.  We know we will enjoy it immensely and you probably will as well. 

The Cruise Itinerary

The route followed by the Carnival Pride on our too-short 7-day journey to the western Caribbean, mon.

We pushed back from the pier only 15 minutes late at 4:15 p.m. and slowly made our way down the Tampa ship canal to the open waters of Tampa Bay. There were no Buccaneers in pirate ships on Tampa Bay but there were lots of Green Bay Packer fans onboard.  It took us about 2 hours and 30 minutes to traverse the distance from the cruise terminal to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge at the mouth of Tamp Bay.  We reached the bridge in time for a perfect sunset photo.  Passing under the bridge we followed a southwesterly course overnight toward Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Approaching the Sunshine Skyway Bridge at sunset offered a nearly postcard-perfect photo opportunity.  And I took it. (Not a half bad image for a cell phone if I must say so myself).

The underside of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge looks like this.  Passing under the bridge was one of the highlights of the trip at least according to my typically child-like way of viewing life.

Our first full day was entirely at sea during which I saw zero pelagic bird species.  We reached Costa Maya, Mexico about 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday after being underway a quick 42 hours.  Costa Maya is a relatively new cruise terminal about an hour’s drive north of Chetumal, Mexico. 

Mexico's flag was one of the most prominent features of the Costa Maya cruise terminal.

Xeric scrub vegetation near the cruise terminal was dripping with wintering songbirds that nest in North America.

This Common Black-Hawk kept an eye diligently pointed at all of those songbirds in the scrubby vegetation hoping that one of them would make a wrong move so that lunch could be served.

Although there is a Senor Frogs in the Costa Maya cruise terminal I found this roadside dive outside the terminal that served excellent Comida Mexicana.  I had fish tacos and a beer for $5.00 US - that was less than just one bottle of beer at the Frog's restaurant.

The Princess Cruise Line ship the Caribbean Princess was tied off next to us on the pier in Costa Maya.  I would like to sail on this ship solely because of its Caribbean name, mon.

Singer Zac Brown once referred to Caribbean waters as being "a lovely shade of margarita green" and they certainly are on the Costa Maya

The coastline near the Costa Maya cruise terminal is largely intact and so far has not been defiled by condo developments, marina's and other tourist-related eyesores like so much of the coast near Cancun and Playa del Carmen. With any luck at all the coast will still look like this in 25 years when my grandson Garrett is hopefully cruising these waters.

We were in port about 8 hours tied off next to a Princess Cruise Line ship returning to Fort Lauderdale.  Cathy went on a two-tank dive with a Carnival Cruise Line contractor while I looked for birds in the nearby scrubby vegetation.  I found nothing exciting although the Cape May Warbler I found was new for my Mexico list.

We didn't spend nearly enough time in Belize, the ecological garden of Central America.  Cathy enjoyed two great dives offshore from Belize City and was able to see a Leatherback Turtle snoozing on the ocean floor here.

We sailed overnight bound for Belize City, Belize where we were tendered ashore from the ship anchored 3 or 4 miles from the city. Cathy went on another two-tank dive while I defied all of the warnings and admonitions of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. State Department and spent the day strolling round Belize City in the area reputed to be the most dangerous part of town.  All I can say is that the coconut shrimp at the Bird's Isle Restaurant far south of this supposedly "dangerous" area was among the best I have ever tasted.

After too short a visit to Belize City we departed in late afternoon bound for Roatan Island, one of Honduras' famous Bay Islands, arriving there at 8:00 the next morning.  
This sunrise off the coast of Roatan was my first Honduran sunrise in 20 years. Because I don't have another 20 years left I need to get back there sooner rather than later.

Again Cathy went on a two-tank dive and again I took off on foot to explore.  

Although Jimmy Buffett received the inspiration for his excellent song "One Particular Harbour" while overlooking the harbour on Mo'orea Island in Tahiti, he very easily could have received the same inspiration while looking over Mahogany Bay on Roatan.

From the Mahogany Bay cruise terminal I walked to the Roatan International Airport.  There I sought out some local flying service willing to take me on the 7 minute long flight to Utila Island where I wanted to do a touch-and-go and return 7 minutes later to Roatan.  My interest was entirely in adding both the Roatan and Utila airports to my list of airports I have landed at or departed from.  Unfortunately the cheapest rate quoted to me was $400 for the 14 minute roundtrip flight.  I caught a taxi back to the cruise terminal instead.  
I wish I was here right now

The tropical forest on Roatan dripped with resident bird species that were supplemented by an abundance of North American nesting songbirds that wisely chose to spend the winter on this exquisite Honduran island.

Cathy said the two dives on Roatan were the two most spectacular among the 80 dives she has made in her diving lifetime.  Meanwhile I fell in love with Roatan and did not want to leave.  Jimmy Buffett received the inspiration for his song "One Particular Harbour" while overlooking the harbour on Mo'orea Island, Tahiti.  He very likely could have received that same inspiration while overlooking any one of a hundred vistas on Roatan.   Another classic Jimmy Buffett song is titled "I Want to Go Back to Cartagena."  For me I am going to change the name of that beautiful Colombian city to Roatan because I want to go back there.  Tomorrow is too long a wait.
Maybe one day they will change the second "a" in "Cayman" to an "o" so the nation's name sounds more Caribbean.  Until they do, however, I will continue to refer to the islands as the Caymon islands because thats what they are, mon.

After 19 hours at sea we arrived in another Particular Harbour known as Georgetown, Grand Cayman.  Since my first flight on Cayman Airways in 1985 I have believed that the real motto for that airline should be "Yah, Mon, Fly Caymon."  Accordingly I find it nearly impossible to say the word "Cayman" without changing it to the more appropriate "Caymon."  So to me the island is Grand Caymon and the country is the Caymon Islands and that's the way I prefer it.
Cathy's dive boat departing the dock at Don Foster's Dive Cayman dive shop.

Maybe the next time we are in Grand Caymon I will ride around on this pirate ship for a few hours. I will wear my Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap, and a Jimmy Buffett t-shirt that says "A Pirate Looks at 40" on it. Then I'll just ride in the bow and say "aaargh" a lot.  Yup. That's what I'll do.

Our arrival was a few minutes early where Cathy went diving with Don Foster’s Dive Caymon.  Cathy and her daughter enjoyed two excellent dives with Don Foster during our visit to the island in December 2014 and it turned out that today's dive was just as good.  Meanwhile as she dove I went exploring.  Earlier I tried to make arrangements via email with Avis for a rental car at the cruise terminal. However despite sending four requests for a car reservation I never once heard back from Avis.  Instead when I arrived at the cruise terminal I asked about hiring a taxi for a couple hours.  My interest was entirely in traveling north along Seven Mile Beach to a couple of golf courses where I wanted to look for wintering waterfowl on the water hazards of the golf courses.  
A gigantic grouper sandwich and a bottle of locally-brewed White Tip Lager, formed the perfect Caymon lunch at Margaritaville Grand Caymon

A taxi driver parked across the street from Margaritaville Grand Caymon wanted an extortionate $60 (at least it was US dollars and not Caymon dollars!) for two hours in his cab.  Instead I walked south along the coast to South Sound Road and then returned to the cruise area.  On my return three hours later I saw the same taxi driver parked in the same place trying in vain to pick up a fare.  Now when I approached him I pointed out that he had been sitting there three hours and hadn’t made a penny.  Once I mentioned this to him I said I’d give him $20 for 2 hours in the cab and away we went to the golf courses where I added two new birds to my Caymon Island bird list.
Because of the shallow depth of the harbour on Grand Caymon travelers are shuttled between the ship and the shore (and vice versa) by tenders that run constantly throughout the day.  The one thing you want to make sure of in this situation is that you don't wait to catch the last tender because if you miss it you could wind up sleeping on a park bench that night.

Moments after I took this picture of downtown Georgetown, Grand Caymon, a Peregrine Falcon flew by our stateroom so closely I could have reached out and grabbed it out of the air!

After a successful day for both of us (Cathy said the dive was just as good as the two she enjoyed with Charlotte in December) we very reluctantly departed Grand Caymon 20 minutes early bound for Tampa.  The reluctance wasn’t solely because we were once again leaving Grand Caymon.  The reluctance was also because we were headed toward the inevitable last full day of the cruise.

Saturday February 28 was uneventful as we transited the Gulf of Mexico.  The last time we were on this route we witnessed a daring rescue by the United States Coast Guard of a heart attack victim onboard our ship. This time the most excitement came from a bartender in the Blue Iguana Pub who had difficulty popping the top on my 32 ounce can of Foster’s Lager.  Sunday morning we passed under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge at 5:10 a.m. then made our way toward Terminal 2 from where the cruise began seven very short days earlier.
We sailed out of and returned to Terminal 2 in the Port of Tampa 

Our arrival at the terminal was at 7:40 a.m. and we exited our stateroom at 8:25 a.m.  With absolutely blinding speed we were off the ship, through the joke known as U.S. Customs and Border Protection (otherwise known as GS-13’s who collect our Customs Declaration, search nothing and ask only “are you brining back any tobacco or alcohol?”), out the terminal and in our nearby parked car in 17 minutes.  Leaving the parking ramp in Tampa and returned to Sarasota, arriving in my driveway 80 minutes after stepping off the ship.  The staffer at Carnival who developed the disembarkation process for the Pride in Tampa deserves a medal and a few days off because it was the most humane departure we have ever experienced.


Everything about this cruise and the ship from the food selection to the public areas to our room was perfect.   Earlier I made a comment about people who seem hell-bent on complaining about every little thing on a cruise as if their sole purpose in life is to complain.  I’m sure there will be those who will complain about something onboard the Carnival Pride but I’m flummoxed to figure out what it could be. To those people who complain about the wattage of the light bulbs in their rooms or a speck of rust on the balcony or that the syrup for their pancakes in the morning was too runny I have this to say.  You are onboard a ship with limited space for everything and everyone. There are probably 2598 other cruisers on the ship with you so not everything will be exactly as it is at home.  If you are unwilling to accept the fact that everything is not perfect then stay at home.  If you expect a 5-star experience then make a reservation at a Hyatt or Hilton or a Mormonott on land and stay there. Don’t come aboard a ship expecting everything to be like it is on land.  If you do you will be disappointed and you will take up all sorts of space on Cruise and other forums bitching about something that in the end you had complete control over when you made the decision to purchase a cruise or stay on land in a Mormonott.  End of lecture.

As with every cruise Cathy and I have been on we absolutely hated to see this one come to an end.  One week on the Carnival Pride was no different and we wish we were still on her now.  Perhaps if Cathy or I win the lottery we can sell all of our belongings and rent suites on cruise ships and just sail away for the rest of our lives.  The Carnival Pride would be a perfect ship on which to experience that fantasy.

Carnival’s frequent cruiser program is called the “VIFP” Club or “Very Important Fun Person” Club.  Based on the number of nights you have sailed with Carnival you are given various levels of status akin to being Gold or Diamond or Platinum or Chairman’s Preferred in airline frequent flier programs.  Once you reach Gold status on Carnival (minimum of 25 nights at sea with the cruise line) you are afforded certain perks that travelers with fewer nights are not able to enjoy.  One of those perks is a cruiser appreciation party for Gold, Diamond and Platinum cruisers where you get to meet top management on the ship and where the cruise line plies you with free booze and appetizers while senior management gives you a pep talk about how important you are to the company (I’m glad they recognize that). Cathy has Gold status (I’m 3 nights short) and was invited to the party and she let me crash the party with her.  There we met several people with Platinum (minimum 75 nights at sea) and four people with Diamond status (minimum of 200 nights at sea). One couple was brought on stage and recognized because they have the most nights at sea of anyone who has ever cruised with Carnival – an amazing 576 nights at sea.

The saddest part of any cruise is putting it all behind you and having to return home.  That sentiment was no different at the end of 7 great days aboard the Carnival Pride

As we crossed the Gulf of Mexico on our return to Tampa on Saturday Cathy asked me to figure out how many nights she now has in the VIFP Club.  She then asked how many more nights she needs for Platinum status and I told her. She then smiled and said “I think I want to go for Platinum on Carnival” so now we are working on getting her Platinum cruiser status on Carnival.  My only wish is that all of those future nights at sea could be aboard the Carnival Pride.