No Longer A Cruise Virgin

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I always claimed I would never do it. At least until age and physical disability prevented me from traveling any other way. It wasn’t my travel style at all…being herded onto a floating city, escorted around ports of call on expensive tours with fellow travelers who avoided what I relished….independent, unscheduled, off the beaten path travel. And yet, in mid-April I flew to Ft Lauderdale to board my first cruise ship for a twelve day, one port of call trip across the Atlantic Ocean.

Why? In an attempt to explore how to live the partial expat life, I’ve been following travel blogs of people doing it on modest budgets. One nomadic blogging couple extolled the virtues of repositioning cruises as a way to commute between the US and Europe. They occur when cruise lines move vessels from one part of the world to another for optimum cruising season; for example, from the Caribbean after the winter season there to Europe for their summer cruise season. The blog claimed not only were they generally less expensive than a one way plane ticket, they also ended up being very inexpensive per diem travel days combining a mode of transportation, travel on the high seas, great food, inexpensive accommodations, free entertainment and no jet lag upon arrival. That intrigued me. If I thought of the ship as my mode of transportation, it wouldn’t be like I was really cruising, would it? Instead I was merely commuting – “going abroad’ as they did back in the day.

To make it more palatable, I proposed a travel article on repositioning cruises to a publication which meant I would be commuting as a legitimate travel writer. As I began talking to friends about it, I realized repositioning cruises were a well-kept secret. Nobody had heard of them, not even my most well-traveled acquaintances. I began collecting their questions for the research that I would do aboard ship – crowd sourcing my way into the outline of an article. While I don’t usually blog while traveling I decided to blog daily both as a way of keeping notes but also to see how I, an avowed non-cruiser, survived the experience.

Booking was easy. Google repositioning cruises and there are brokers who post the schedules of most of the lines. Also some airlines partner with cruise lines allowing you to collect frequent flier miles by booking through them which is what I decided to do. After some research, I booked the least expensive April cruise possible via Alaska Airlines which consisted of an inside room that I would share with a friend and a basic meal package on the Norwegian Epic which was traveling from Ft Lauderdale to Barcelona, Spain. For eleven nights, twelve days including all meals, the total cost was $596 including taxes and port fees or $49 per day. The cruise promised access to 13 free restaurants aboard the ship, I could pay a small fee to eat at five of the more exclusive ship restaurants and alcohol cost extra. Most of the daily ship activities and Las Vegas style evening entertainment aboard the ship were included in the price.

Day One: At the efficient check-in at the cruise ship dock in Ft Lauderdale, gazing up at the sheer size of the vessel, (the 4th largest cruise ship in the world) I began to worry I wouldn’t have enough time to experience it all. Also the two inexpensive bottles of wine in my luggage were confiscated to be held until I paid a $15 per bottle corkage fee. Apparently one of the many emails I received from Norwegian explained the policy. Yikes.

Our basic double room was tiny and windowless but efficiently laid out. Before the ship left  port all passengers were mustered for a mandatory safety lecture and then encouraged to go to the sundeck on the bow for a lively sail away party that included dancing, drinks and a chance to meet the ship’s activity crew. I pondered joining the line dancing group…for journalistic research of course. Maybe later. With the sun beginning to set over Miami and behind a Royal Caribbean liner also making a re-positioning cruise from Miami to Barcelona, we left port. Before dinner I checked out the cabin of my traveling companions – classier accommodations with a balcony over the ship’s propellers though not much larger than our room. Beyond the windows and balcony the major differences seemed to be that they had a coffee pot, more drawers, a couch and free access to all 20 of the vessel’s restaurants.

That night we had dinner at one of the free restaurants which included a bottle of wine that went on my account – a pricey $40. Clearly it was going to be less expensive to get my confiscated wine out of wine jail. Post dinner we explored some of the evening entertainment – a dueling piano show in one venue and a disco called the Bliss Lounge with great music and a dance floor that included some of the energetic activity directors who led the earlier line dancing on the bow.

When I returned to the room a bottle of champagne and chocolate covered strawberries and note from the cruise hotel director inviting us to an exclusive cocktail hour with the captain the next night awaited.

Crowd sourced question #1: What is the vessel like? It’s a monster. The Norwegian Epic, is the largest cruise ship in the Norwegian fleet and the 4th largest cruise ship on the sea. It looks like a very large apartment on top of a container ship. It can carry 4900 passengers (though this sailing only has 3600 guests on the ship) and over 1700 crew members. It proudly boasts having the largest spa on the sea, being the first vessel with a bowling alley (it has two) and having the fastest water slide. It also has a full size basketball court, twenty restaurants and a Las Vegas size theatre that hosts one of the many entertainment shows every evening. Of the Norwegian fleet, it is the only vessel currently in the fleet which was built in France rather than Germany where the other Norwegian vessels were built. It’s literally a floating city with a crew to match all the operational needs of a floating metropolis.

Day Two: 3000 plus nautical miles to Madeira, our only port stop, according to the internal station on our room’s TV. Forecast: 82 degrees and partly cloudy. Sunset at 7:18 pm. For being tiny, the stateroom room was extremely quiet and not as claustrophobic as I first thought. The Freestyle Daily, the daily newsletter delivered to the room listed today’s classes and activities (106 in all, almost all of them free) and advice (set your clock an hour ahead tonight, wash your hands and don’t forget to dress up for tonight’s optional formal dinner). I began with a two-mile power walk on the promenade deck and coffee on the sun deck followed by an energetic outdoor salsa class on said sundeck providing entertainment for the breakfast crowd.

When I returned to the room, another envelope awaited – a letter from the Hotel Director authorizing two free meals and bottle of wine at any of the vessel’s exclusive restaurants and a phone call making sure I was attending tonight’s cocktail hour with the captain. I could get used to this.

Wandering for a few hours I found: the art gallery, the dance troupe called Burn the Floor practicing in one of the restaurants (which I watched from a great vantage point while using my Norwegian app to text my group that we MUST book this show); a line dancing class and trivia contest (note to self – go to the next line dancing class; it looked hokey but fun and the cruise activity guys were lively instructors) and the vessel library.

My three travel companions are getting into circling the day’s activities mapping out an entire schedule for themselves and booking all their dinner and free entertainment possibilities for the eleven days. I resist but ultimately let them plan my evenings out…in the interest of journalistic research, of course.

It was time to doll up for my invitation to the Captain’s cocktail hour on the 16th deck. The invitation stated in bold print that no handshaking was allowed. The ship and its crew are obsessed with germs – our hands get sprayed with anti-bacterial spray at the entrance to every restaurant, public restrooms have warning signs to use tissue to open doors and there are crew members constantly wiping down the interior stairwells.

Returning to my room I found another envelope, this one inviting me to an art auction the next day giving me 4 extra raffle tickets as a special guest. My companions who paid for the more expensive cabin are now getting irritated at my extra attention.

Getting off the elevator on the 16th floor for the Captain’s cocktail hour revealed a world unlike the lesser quarters below. Called the Haven, this floor is designed for big spenders. It has full suites, its own cocktail lounge, restaurant, swimming pool and a butler. The captain greeted us at the entrance and we (the two plebian passengers) mingled with the wealthier Haven passengers, drinking champagne and appetizers and making small talk. That night: a free show called Legends in the main theatre – impersonators of Rod Stewart, Sting and Gloria Estafan. Meh.

Crowd Source Question #2: What is the communication and internet access on a cross Atlantic cruise? The ship has an internet lounge but wireless is expensive ranging from a pay as you go plan for 95 cents a minute to unlimited access at $24.99 per day. The signal is sometimes weak in the staterooms and stronger in the public areas and on the cross Atlantic cruise subject to satellite variation. Many passengers said they can make calls home on their cellphone for roaming fees. For internal ship communications, I could download the Norwegian smart phone app for $7.99 for the entire trip. That gave me phone/message access to any other passenger who downloaded the app. I could also make reservations for services and the restaurants on the app.

Day 3: Cloudy with a 72 degree high today, location: directly north of Puerto Rico. I met my new walking buddies from day one, Annie from Ireland and Guether from Germany on the promenade for a morning power walk. Then I tried a salsa dance class in one of the ship’s lounge’s followed by a very energetic dance aerobics class on the sun deck.

I likely wouldn’t have attended the champagne art auction if it wasn’t for the invitation but I was assured it was also an educational event. It was interesting learning about Peter Max, the US artist laureate whose paintings dominated the auction and were going for up to $18,000. The extra raffle tickets that came with my invitation paid off – I won another bottle of champagne and a painting that I’m supposed to pick up tonight….though I’m pretty sure it’s not a Peter Max.

The message light was blinking on my phone when I returned to my cabin to drop off the champagne – my interview with the ship’s hotel director was scheduled for 6pm.

Crowd Source Question #3: Are repositioning cruises good for children? The Epic bills itself as a family vessel good for multi-generational families. It has a fully staffed program for children of all ages though there are typically very few children on a repositioning cruise since they occur during the school year. Out of 3600 passengers on this cruise, only 85 are below age 17 and that’s an unusually high number. Immediately after our Barcelona port the vessel continues on for a two night, three day weekend cruise and there will be 300 teenagers on that trip. Typically this vessel has 500-600 children on its regular cruises.

For teenagers there is the Entourage Center, a no adults, fully supervised hang out place offering a full schedule of complementary daily activities. Teens can play games and participate in contests, bowl, have basketball tournaments and wii-dance. Or they can hang out and watch big screen TV. There’s also a video game room, water slides and a sports complex of courts. For children three and under there’s the Guppies Program that offers a play area requiring parent supervision and for children 3-12 years old, the Splash Academy, a complementary full program of activities run by the Youth Staff which has an extra fee for supervision of meals. For an extra charge, group childcare can also be arranged for late night activities after 10:30 PM . In addition to child centered activities in Splash Center, the staff runs family activities on board the vessel during the day such as cartoon trivia contests, kids and parent Pictionary, teen bowling and goofy golf putting.

Day Four. Forecast is cloudy, the predicted high is 77 degrees and the seas have a swell today causing everything to feel slightly off kilter. Also I’m feeling the effects from a late night of dancing last night to ABBA tunes on the outside aft deck under a large disco screen in a drizzle of rain. I’m not an ABBA fan but somehow the idea of channeling Meryl Streep singing Mama Mia in the middle of the Atlantic with a crowd of 200 plus fellow dancers was inspiration. And I had this article I was writing so I needed to do research. Also when I interviewed the Hotel Director he told me the primary reason people cruise is to escape reality and responsibility. I am embracing escapism.

A routine seems to have settled upon the passengers of the Epic. I see the same crowd on the promenade for my AM walk and the same people at the casino tables when I finish. Passengers have staked out the same corners to read, play sudoko and knit. It’s comforting to have a bit of a routine on an off kilter day. There are clearly indoor and outdoor passengers.

Another phone message from Jane, the secretary of the Hotel Director who has been assigned to make sure I have everything I need for the article. I have an 11 AM meeting tomorrow with the Captain on the ship’s bridge followed by a full tour of Haven. In the meantime she invited me on a tour of the Mandara Spa and Salon and the Pulse Fitness Center. I take her up on it since it’s Crowd Source Question #3: What are the spa and exercise room like?

It’s an amazing amount of square footage and valuable window space on the primo view 14th deck given over to beauty and exercise. It is, after all, the largest spa on the high seas according to the cruise line. The Epic’s crew is rightfully proud of the fact that both the conjoined spa and fitness center are busy all day.

The spa has several saunas that overlook the water, a hydro-therapy room with multiple pools, a steam room and tons of comfortable chaise lounges inside and out on its own deck. The hydrotherapy room also has a daily capacity limit as I discover when I try to book time in it. Savvy cruisers know to book the venue the minute they board the ship and all slots get reserved very early. Additionally the spa offers a full range of beauty services for hair, face, nails and body. There’s also a medi-spa clinic for Botox, Restylane and Perlane and dermal treatments to enhance lips.

The large Pulse Fitness Center has a multitude of treadmills and elliptical machines (all with prime window views of the open sea), weight machines and free weights presided over by two personal trainers. As well, it offers a full complement of exercise classes including yoga, TRX, pilates, ab classes, boot camps, and cycling all for a small fee ranging from $12 to $25 a class. As if that wasn’t enough there are regular seminars. Today’s included “How to Increase Your Metabolism”. The trainer informs me that some passengers use the cruise as one would if they checked into a full service spa for a week – full days of exercise, hydrotherapy, seminars and beauty treatments leaving the Mandara Spa and Pulse Fitness Center only to eat and sleep. Who da thunk?

After the evening entertainment – a hypnotist/comedian show – the day ends in the Bliss Lounge. My activity/exercise watch has been informing me that I walk 12,000 plus steps a day on this vessel. I need a few more steps to make today’s quota so why not earn them by dancing? However, the DJ is playing more ABBA. I’m not feeling Meryl Streep tonight so I take the stairs to my deck and make my goal.

Day Five: We hit the halfway nautical mileage point at 9 AM this morning, 700 miles east of Bermuda, our nearest land point. The sea is 16,000 feet deep. The day’s newsletter says the high temperature today will be 64 degrees and overcast. We set our clocks an hour ahead last night as we will most nights of the crossing. The morning’s promenade walking group is sparse. Maybe they all overslept? No, they’re all in the salsa exercise class I join afterwards on the sun deck.

At my appointed time I meet Jane and am escorted onto the bridge much to the dismay of the group of passengers who paid to take a behind the scenes tour and are limited to gazing onto the bridge from behind a glass wall. Captain Frank Juliussen, an affable Norwegian and seasoned Captain greets me and we spend an hour chatting and looking at the bridge operation. I learn:

  1. The Captain is responsible for everything on the vessel and a structure of officers and heads of departments report to him each morning.
  2. There are three officers assigned to the bridge at all times besides him: a 1st and 2nd officer and a Quartermaster. The Chief Engineer also has a bridge office.
  3. While all of this vessel’s navigation equipment is computerized, he still likes the paper navigation maps as backup.
  4. Spring’s west to east repositioning crossings are generally in calmer seas with warmer weather. The October/November reverse crossing has more variable weather and sea swells.
  5. A good captain has to be a skilled people person as well as a good technician and have a strong sailor’s instincts to read current, weather and the sea, the biggest variables for the vessels.
  6. The average speed of the Epic is 19 knots per hour but it can reach a speed of 24 knots per hour.

Captain Juliussen also answered my many questions about Crowd Source Question #5: How smooth is a cross Atlantic voyage and does it include seasickness? Most cruise vessels are now equipped with stabilizers – massive fixed fins that turn opposite of each other and are controlled by a gyrostabilizer designed to keep the vessel on an even keel no matter the size of the swell. This crossing has been in a calm sea the Captain said. When I pointed out that the last two days have seemed more tipsy going up/down stairs, on the dance floor and during exercise class, he said the maximum swells have only been twelve feet and what I felt was nothing compared to crossings he’s taken with 60 foot swells. Some passengers, he said, prefer the excitement of turbulent seas and waves that can reach as high as the 9th deck of the vessel. I agreed that thus far I hadn’t gotten seasick and the gentle rocking actually put me to sleep at night.

We concluded our meeting with a photo-op and Jane escorted me to the Haven, the classy elegant topside of the ship. The decor was elegant; all blacks, golds and purples with multiple outdoor decks of oversized chaises, fountains, private bars, private concierge desk and 60 large suites with expansive views of the sea. The Haven sells out on every cruise. Prices for the Haven’s heaven vary by cruise and during the booking season.

Having made prior arrangements via the Norwegian app messaging function, I made my way to the Headliner Comedy Club to meet my traveling companions for an afternoon trivia game. I was the only passenger in the audience who knew the capitol of Uganda (Kampala) but got skunked on the currency of Paraguay. The movie Million Dollar Arm was playing on the ship’s multi-story screen but having seen it, I decided to do for the first time what I thought I’d be doing a lot of on this cruise – read a novel.

Day 6: The Freestyle Daily forecasts 66 degrees with scattered showers. The ocean depth is 12,000 feet. Clocks are set an hour later than yesterday. I got nothing read last night nor did I pull out my French dictionary to practice Francais. No siree. Instead I took advantage of the evening’s musical entertainment – a Frankie Valle tribute show and a 50’s-60’s dance party, all in the name of journalistic research.

Crowd Source Question #6: Will I get bored on an eleven day cruise that only has one port stop? No. You won’t get bored. In fact, the problem is the excessive amount of choice. Because there aren’t port stops, repositioning cruises make up for it by offering all manner of activities, lectures and musical venues. It’s now 2pm. I can play bridge, join a knitters social, climb an extreme rock wall, learn how to twist balloons, listen to a lecture on Salvador Dali and Walt Disney, slide down the water slide, join a blackjack tournament, take part in a deal or no deal game show, listen to easy breezy tunes at poolside, do a margarita tasting, use the gym or make a bobble head doll that looks like me. At 3pm I have my choice of a feature-length movie, a lecture on looking 10 years younger, bingo, indoor cycling, an adult soccer tournament, a country line dance class or a nap to prepare for tonight’s free entertainment – a magic show and a very late 9:45 dinner in the tony French bistro. I do wish the cruise had more academic activities like Spanish or French classes or science and history lectures, a suggestion I made to the Captain during our interview. In talking to other passengers, regular aficionados of repositioning cruises, they say that some cruises do offer daily informative lectures.

Day 7; 57 degrees and sunny. Our clocks were set ahead another hour last night. I sleep like a log and I’m not sure if it’s the sea air, the total relaxation or the gentle changing of the time each day by an hour. Two miles of walking the promenade and a salsa exercise class have become my morning routine. I missed the AM announcement about latitude, longitude, sea depth and nautical miles to go as I was blissfully in a small spa treatment room with an expansive view of the Atlantic getting a facial from a South African esthetician while chatting her up about the differences between this cruise and the Seattle to Alaska route that she typically works. Many of the crew I talked to are getting back home vacation time at the end of the crossing as she was. She’s going home to marry another crew member.

I talked freely to a variety of crew members who all willingly shared information about their jobs and provided answers to Crowd Source Question 7: What is it like to be a crew on a cruise ship? Norwegian cruise staff work a variety of contract lengths ranging from 10 weeks on/10 weeks off as the Captain does to the more typical 4-8 month contract with 1-2 months off between contracts. Their days can be long. Some of the crew work twelve-hour days and 60-80 hours a week unless the cruise is entirely in US waters where US labor laws must be followed. The crew quarters vary and it depends on the crew job. Some are similar to my cabin and, in fact their cabins are on the same floors as the basic passenger cabins. Some crew cabins have a shared bathroom and some are dormitories. The crew on this vessel has its own restaurant, lounge and small gym and are allowed to eat in any of the regular dining rooms, take advantage of any of the lounges and use the Pulse Fitness Center and spa during less used times. Norwegian flies them home and back to the point of embarkation for all of their leaves. There is an entire travel planning department that handles only crew transportation and visas. They can also get off in port and explore if they aren’t assigned to work that day.

There are 64 nationalities on the crew of 1700 with 40% of them coming from the Philippines or India. I’ve interviewed crew members from Serbia, Great Britain, South Africa, the US, Mexico and Jamaica and the reason they say they all do it (besides it being a job) is for the travel. For some crew, particularly those from India and the Philippines, a cruise ship job pays more than any job they can get back home. It involves long weeks away from family who rely on them for income.

The entertainers who are part of the ship’s crew are either employees of Norwegian on contract to them or subcontracted entertainers (franchise entertainers) who work anywhere from an entire season to just a cruise. The magician, the hypnotist and the comedian on this cruise have full-time careers as entertainers in Las Vegas and elsewhere and work this cruise as a franchise entertainer. Legends and Oh What A Night, two tribute shows and Burn the Floor, a dance troupe are Vegas based shows who also contract with cruise ships to provide entertainment and may have multiple casts of the same show working multiple cruise ships. Entertainers work cruise ships for a variety of reasons – to build a resume, to travel and to make money.

Day 8: We are 230 nautical miles off the nearest landmass (Santa Maria Island in the Azores) and 314 miles from the Madeira Islands. It’s 63 degrees outside and sunny. Tonight we don’t change time.

Today is the first day I’m feeling cabin fever. It’s not for a lack of things to do (99 different ship activities listed in today’s newsletter ranging from an informal gathering of pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago to beer tasting.) I think it’s the lack of new visual stimulation. It’s good that tomorrow is our only port of call on the cross Atlantic crossing – the port city of Funchal in the Madeira Islands.

This morning I joined a group activity to hear a Q&A panel with the captain (Norwegian), chief engineer (Bulgarian) and hotel manager (French), all whom I interviewed already. I discovered:

  1. We’ll be passing through the Straights of Gibraltar at night. Darn.
  2. There are two “direct routes” to navigate the Atlantic crossing – the shortest way called the Great Circle which is shorter and takes into account the circumference of the globe and the longer route by 42 nautical miles which follows a straight line.
  3. While the vessel cannot stop on a dime, it can stop on a nautical mile.
  4. It’s not a “boat”. It’s a ship or vessel. Never ever call it a boat.
  5. If a medical condition cannot be dealt with by the ship’s medical clinic of two doctors and nurses, the options are to medivac to the nearest country or to the nearest military or NGO hospital ship.
  6. A harbor pilot boards the vessel to advise the captain as we approach port but the captain never gives up control of the vessel to the pilot.
  7. The ship goes though about 200 tons of fuel a day and can go 10-14 days without refueling depending on sea conditions and speed.
  8. On this crossing, 20,000 meals a day are prepared.

Which brings me to Crowd Source Question 8: What is the food like and is it true you graze all day and gain weight? Yes, you can graze from 6AM to 9:30 pm at the ship’s buffet but I’m not sure why one would want to do that if you don’t do it at home. The food is plentiful and there’s a variety of choices. Two restaurants are open until midnight. There’s also the option of 24 hour room service.

Day 9: We put into port in Funchal on the Portuguese island of Madeira at 7AM and my early AM walk on the ship’s promenade presented an expansive view of white, red-roofed houses climbing the 1800 meter mountain that rises from the port. Known for its wine and flowers, we only have six and a half hours in port to see it all.

Eschewing the ship’s full slate of Madeira tours offered for an additional fee we walked into town passing the vendor booths catering to passengers and took the island’s significantly less expensive narrated hop on/hop off bus that tours the south end of the island. There we wandered the charming streets of the fishing community of Camara de Lobos before returning to Funchal to explore and taste test the island’s ubiquitous Madeira wine.

Tonight we saw the extraordinary production of Burn the Floor, the Las Vegas based dance and musical show whose rehearsals I had been watching since the cruise began. Wow!

Day 10: 57 degrees today made for a sunny but cool morning Zumba class on the sun deck. Sometime between 10PM and midnight we pass the Straights of Gibraltar while a celebratory outdoor party called Hot White Nights (all attendees are encouraged to wear white) takes place on the sundeck. I’m going (more research for the article) but wonder if we’ll all look like dancing doctors.

This morning I attended an informative Q&A session for passengers called Running A Floating Hotel with the Hotel Director, Head Chef and Chief Provisional Officer. It’s a logistical operation to meet the food and beverage demands and daily laundry for a floating city of 5300 international passengers and crew members on an Atlantic crossing where the ship must be entirely provisioned and self-sufficient when it leaves port. The passengers alone are 50% US nationals and 50% other nationalities with Canadians, Germans and Brits as the top three nationalities. 50% of the crew come from India, the Philippines and Indonesia. Breakfast alone requires 3000 different food items to meet the tastes, digestive needs, religious and food requirements of everyone. Small things make a difference. The European passengers want more variety of darker breads like pumpernickel and rye. The American passengers are happy with bagels but want more selection of jams. The Scandinavian passengers love that lox and capers are always included as breakfast possibilities. I learn that once the vessel begins its European season, the menus change to meet European diets, however because this cruise originated in the US the menu has more choices familiar to US passengers.

Laundry is a 24/7 operation since sheets and towels are changed daily and passengers can have their personal laundry done as well. The ship does two tons of laundry daily in two massive tunnel-like machines that take five minutes to prewash, wash and dry a single load.

Day 11: It’s the last 24 hours on board. Overnight we made it through the Straights past Gibraltar and are now proceeding north along the eastern coast of Spain which can be seen in the distance. There was a disco ball at Hot White Nights. I wonder if all of Gibraltar pulls up a beach chair and watches.

There’s a disembark schedule for tomorrow so passengers leave according to their color coded luggage tags. The crew has to clean staterooms, replenish supplies and prepare for new passengers who will board tomorrow afternoon for a three-day cruise that begins in the evening. There is very little turnaround time and only a few of the crew can go into Barcelona since most are prepping the vessel for the next trip.

Crowd Source Question 10: What are the demographics of passengers on reposition crews and what are people like? The average passenger age on this cruise is 59, typical of repositioning cruises. The youngest passenger is 1-year-old and the oldest is 95 years old. 320 of the 3600 passengers began by cruising the Caribbean on the Epic before we joined them in Ft Lauderdale for the cross Atlantic crossing. There are a total of 53 nationalities among the passengers, half from the US. Sitting in any of the public areas and restaurants one can hear conversations in multiple languages.

In interviewing a random sample of passengers their reasons for traveling on a reposition cruise fall into two categories – those who are cruising and intend to fly home immediately from Barcelona and those who are, like me, using the cruise as a mode of travel to get to Europe. The first group are dedicated cruisers who viewed the past eleven days as a floating resort with a casino, swimming pools, entertainment and a full range of daily activities. Those who fall into the second group on this cruise either live in the US part-time or just had an extended vacation in the US.

I met a number of Europeans who bought homes in the US (particularly Brits who bought condos in Florida during the recent economic crisis), live there in the winter and cruise back to the UK in the spring to spend summer and fall. I met US citizens who did the reverse taking advantage of the economic downturn overseas to buy part-time property there. Both regularly travel between continents on repositioning cruises, going to Europe on the spring repositioning cruises and returning to the US during the fall repositioning season. These were not wealthy jet set types, but rather regular folks who have figured out how to live modestly on both continents and use the cruise as a cost-effective commute.

Day 12: Sometime early in the morning we made port in Barcelona, one of the biggest cruise ship terminals in Europe. The Royal Caribbean ship that left Florida with us is also there though we haven’t seen it at all on the open sea. Our now familiar group who has salsa danced and had coffee together most mornings meet for our final breakfast before disembarking to go through a very expedited customs line and catching a taxi into the city. We agree we all feel refreshed, awake, relaxed and ready to explore Barcelona’s sights immediately.

Crowd Source Question 11: Would I do it again? Definitely. Having traveled a lot via plane to other parts of the world, commuting by cruise ship is infinitely more civilized as a mode of transportation in my modest travel budget. Instead of uncramping my jet lagged body from a 15 hour flight in a compact economy seat having subsided on mediocre food while watching a tiny screen of in-flight entertainment, I arrived refreshed, relaxed, well dined and exercised.  I saw Las Vegas entertainment. I met interesting people. I could choose from a variety of daily activities or lounge in a quiet spot. For me, the twelve days were part of a two month trip so it makes most sense for travelers who have the time to commute slowly or who use the voyage as solely a twelve day floating spa/casino/cruise. I’m still not convinced I’m ready for a cruise itinerary of heavily scheduled regular ports of call. Had I not been limited to 6.5 hours in Madeira, it’s a place I likely would have decided to stay and explore for a few days. I could have paid for only the cruise to Madeira and disembarked there to begin my European vacation, an option I might consider next time.

Because, yes, there will be a next time.

Guatemala: The End of the World at Lake Atitlan

“You must see it, you’ll love it.” It was amazing how many people had been to and were confident I’d be charmed by Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. People I knew before and met during the trip were convincing enough that I ventured down a narrow winding road in both mini van and tuk tuk to check it out for myself. And I was charmed – so charmed I stayed a few days longer than I’d planned in San Pedro, one of the villages surrounding the lake.

DSC00314The lake is in a giant caldera formed by volcanic action about 1.8 million years ago. It’s the deepest lake in Central America and today is surrounded by three volcanos and several villages, mostly Mayan and each with its own distinct character. The area has also been discovered by expats, yoga teachers, eco-accommodation owners and out of country volunteers who work with local Mayan women and families. This area of Guatemala was heavily impacted by the 36 year 1960-96 Guatemala Civil War which left families without fathers and sons.

DSC00435There are no roads that go completely around the lake so the easiest transportation between villages for locals and tourists alike is an army of small passenger boats that ply the waters on a schedule that depends on when the boat has enough passengers. In December, winds blew across the lake in mid-afternoon making the ride a bumpy and wet affair if sitting on side of the boat.

I decided to stay for the End of the World. December 21st was to be the apocalypse if one believed the doomsday prophets and tourist agencies capitalizing on the Mayan celebration of B’ak’tun, the end of one of the three Mayan calendars. In San Pedro on Lake Atitlan, December 21st dawned as it had every day I’d been there. The local gringo cafe was calmly serving lattes. The local Mayan fishermen were fishing. Backpackers were arriving and making their way to hostels. Nobody seemed concerned the world would be ending at midnight. No. The Mayan people were celebrating the transition from one cycle to the next of their complex calendaring system. The calendars: the Sacred Cycle which lasts 260 days, the Civil Cycle lasting 365 days and the Long Count calendar consisting of five cycles called b’ak’tuns, each lasting 1.87 million days are part of the calendar. A pik’tun is 7,885 years, a kalab’tun is 157,704 years, a k’inchiltun is 3,154,071 years and an alautun is 63 million years.

DSC00427Zach decided to head to the Mayan ruins of Copan, Honduras to witness the B’ak’tun ceremony there to compare notes when we met up again. Dawn of December 21st began with a ceremony of thanksgiving on the shores of the lake. The day continued with feasting, dancing and ballgames and ended with a ceremony conducted by the local Mayan shaman welcoming the new B’ak’tun.

Having survived the apocalypse, the following day I ventured out of the caldera and back to Antigua for my flight to Medellin, Colombia – the former murder capital of the world.

A Peregrinewoman Birdwalk

Today – a self indulgent detour from my December/January travels to 1) celebrate my debut as a published travel writer and 2) the first response to my blog which both happened yesterday, popping up on my iphone as I was sitting in the gallery of the Washington State House of Representatives watching them pass a budget. It was thrilling (the budget was also a good one, but I digress….).

Yes, I write a lot for my job – material that gets read by others and could be called public writing. I’m one of the co-authors of a book on teacher evaluation:

http://www.sunypress.edu/p-2282-teacher-evaluation-policy.aspx

I wrote two chapters of another co-authored book that was the product of a summer Fulbright Scholar trip to Peru – a book so obscure it can no longer be found. And I was once quoted on the glossy fliers for Slickrock Adventures after a trip I took with them to Belize. I’m also an inveterate Facebook poster during my travels with a small band of readers who regularly respond. But yesterday I became official – a solo article in Travel Post Monthly and my first blog commenter, elizzabizzy.

The travel article is posted below. Click and scroll down past the archive of current/prior editions to find the contents of the current edition. You’ll read about Carnaval Negros de Blancos in Pasto, Colombia, the last stop on my trip. And because you might be interested in what happened before the exuberance of Carnaval…coming up next – Lake Atitlan, Guatemala and Medellin, Colombia.

http://www.travelpostmonthly.com/#

Ancient Guatemala: Antigua

There are two Black Cat accomodations in Antigua – the Black Cat Hostel that promises a happy hour in the bar every night and a hangover breakfast in the AM and it’s little sister around the corner, the slightly more expensive Black Cat Inn, that promises an upper terrace breakfast and private or semi private rooms. I went for comfort as the rendevous point to meet my peregrine offspring, Zach, who was flying in the DSC00279day I arrived by van. It was a great choice. The rooftop terrace was surrounded by the vibrant colors of flowers and painted buildings. The wifi signal was strong and the cups of Guatemalan coffee never-ending.

Antigua is surrounded by three volcanoes, visible from most parts of the town, that have erupted or shown DSC00276activity in the last centuries. In 1717 and again in 1773, earthquakes destroyed the city. The last major volcanic activity was in September, 2012.

The town turned out to be an excellent hub for exploring the country. Tourist agencies offering cheap travel and/or hostels and adventure packages are ubiquitous.

Mexico: San Cristobal de Las Casas -The Virgin of Guadalupe y Yo

I was raised Catholic. Midwest, small town Catholic. Serious-old school-steeped-in- tradition-Latin Mass-Catholic. I’m a fallen Catholic for many reasons, but among them was that I’m not solemn or reverent enough. And so it was that I found myself in one of the world’s most Catholic countries during that part of the Catholic world’s most important December religious festivals – the Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe (also known as the Virgin Mary and the Patroness of Mexico).

My first clue should have been the flight from Los Angeles to Mexico City the week prior. It was filled with pilgrims traveling to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City –  the most visited Catholic shrine in the world, drawing over 6 million visitors during the weekend of the festival.

I trudged from the bus station to my budget San Cristobal hotel (found online in the bus station at three times the normal price) while fireworks blasted all around me. On the ground. In the air. Accompanied by the peal of churchbells. It was all part of the festival. As were the decorated vehicles with Virgin images and carnaval of music and rides.
DSC00167This was no staid holy day of obligation and quiet contemplation Catholicism. In parts of Mexico where indigenous cultural beliefs (in this case Mayan) have melded with traditional religion, the celebrations are a rich mix of both practices. Yes, there were churches and masses and incense, but there was also noisy, messy, joyous celebration.

The following day I joined the carnival throngs of Mayan families from the villages surrounding San Cristobal. Women wore colorful ribbons, beautifully brocaded capes and black fur skirts to distinguish their village origin.

Three days of fireworks and carnaval were enough and DSC00220another do-over was done. It was time to embark on the remainder of the trip. There would be no more nostalgic jaunts down memory lane from this point onward because it was all new territory. A twelve hour van trip to Antigua, Guatemala that included two van transfers and a border crossing: a do-first.

Mexico: San Cristobal de las Casas……. Do Over # 2

Having ecaped the combination of religious fervor and gathering Rainbow Family festivities in Palenque, I caught the bus to San Cristobal de las Casas for yet another do-over. In my memory, it was a charming mountain town steeped in colonial architecture surrounded by smaller Mayan villages. It was there, 28 years earlier, that I met the subject of one of my college research papers – Gertrude Blom.

On my previous trip, I had stayed at Casa Na Bolom, the home, hotel and research center of Frans and Gertrude Blom, internationally reknowned archeologists, photographers and environmentalists.

Frans and Gertrude Blom

Frans had passed away, but Trudi Blom still lived at Na Bolom and each night at dinner she presided over a long wooden table lined with an array of guests. The Bloms were particularly concerned about the plight of the Lacandon Maya, a Mayan group whose numbers had been impacted by the diseases incurred by contact with the Spanish and white populations. When members of the group came into San Cristobal from their jungle homes, they were always given free room and board at Casa Na Bolom. My most memorable dinner companions one evening 28 years ago had been the leader of the Lacandons’, his wife and three of his children and two nuns from the United States – one a Mother Superior trying to decide if she should leave the convent to marry a man she loved. Also Gertrude Blom.

She had passed away since my stay there and I knew that in 2011, she and Frans had been reburied in a traditional Lacandon ceremony and village. Bolom is Mayan for jaguar and Frans Blom had been one of the first archaeologists to discover and excavate Palenque. Those karmic connections to my Palenque do-over were not enough to get me accommodations at Na Bolom on this trip. It had been booked up for months.  I arrived in town sans reservations at the height of the second biggest Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe in all of Mexico.

Mexico: It Was An Itch That Needed Scratching…

….as my grandmother used to say. The do-over is done, the 30 year itch was scratched and  Palenque is no longer shrouded in the romanticized mists of my memory. From the beginning it didn’t unfold as it did back in the day. Getting there took longer. The local airport had closed and I couldn’t just get off the plane. The journey this time required a plane to Mexico City, plane to Villahermosa, bus ride to DSC00055Palenque and microbus ride to the ruins. Palenque, the town is about 10 minutes by microbus from the entrance to Palenque, the national park and both are in a jungle.

According to my bus driver, the tourist infrastructure had been vastly improved since my aborted trip, a good thing since the town was filling with Europeans and Americans arriving for a month long party.

Undeterred, my rolling suitcase, day pack and I found a one room, rustic cabana inside the national park in order to recreate what I assumed would have been the accommodation situation had I gotten off the plane 30 years ago.

DSC00031Jungles at night are noisy places. Nocturnal creatures are active. All sound is amplified. And it’s pitch black.  Sometime during my first night I was awakened by the loud grunting and growling of a jaguar outside my flimsy cabana window. Unsure of how to protect against a fierce omnivore (I’d seen the Life of Pi before leaving on the trip), I pulled the blanket over my head, huddled under it with my I-Phone that had no signal and stayed vigilantly awake the rest of the night.

The next morning I asked the owner about the prowling jaguar and he said the noise was monkeys. To be precise, it was a band of howler monkeys whose repertoire of sounds includes the  growls of large felines. They were everywhere in Palenque ruins while jaguars had not been seen for years.

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During my four days in Palenque  there was the influx of celebrants for the Rainbow Family Gathering spilling out of public buses loaded down with camping gear, musical instruments and the crumpled look of a 24 hour bus ride. I had expected their arrival. But it turned out Palenque was also in the first days of its annual celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, an event that includes teams of relay runners jogging the highways and streets of the town carrying a picture of the Virgin followed by decorated team relay vehicles. The combination of religious fervor and “migrating, alien nomad” fever was was undoing my contemplative do-over. I decided to  replicate another trip taken back in the day and bought a bus ticket to San Cristobal de las Casas.