Friday, December 10, 2010

the trip so far

We flew all night, Seattle to Miami, arrivng at the questionable hour of 7 am on a Sunday morning.

We took the express bus to the corner of Lincoln road and Washington, in Miami Beach. I had been there before.

In 1960, my grandmother left the snows of Upstate New York and moved to South Miami Beach, into an apartment in the same building already occupied by one of her younger sisters, my Aunt Dora, whom I had never met.

In the summer of 1960, my mother and I flew down there and spent two months living in the funky 3-story hotel across the street from Grandma barcus's place. I was 9 years old, and South Miami Beach was the land of retired European Jews, with the accompanying kosher restaurants and delis.

For the next several years, my family visited Miami Beach once or twice a year, staying in a couple of different hotels. Many good times were had by all. I especially remember the wonderment of leaving icy, snowy Elmira, New York, and, a few hours later, deplaning in the dark humidity of South Florida. I remember the colored lights, fountains, and lush vegetation on the newly-opened Lincoln Road mall, followed usually by the sour pickles and giant sandwiches at Wolfie's, at the corner of Lincoln and Collins.

Back to the present. we stashed our bags at the Ritz carleton, helped ourselves to the horrendously-overpriced breakfast buffet, then went our separate ways, planning to meet up at 11, to then cab to the Cruise Terminal, where we were to meet the rest of our group, currently at a hotel in Ft. Lauderdale.

Dylan went off to stroll around and get away from Karen and me. She went to the beach. I went deep into my memories.

I walked the few blocks to 942 Pennsylvania Ave, where my grandmother had lived, and where my Mom and I had spent that amazing summer, 50 years ago.

It was not hard to find. The building looked the same, but the front hedge was now six feet high, instead of knee-high, and the security gate protected the condos inside. I had last been there in 1976, the summer I drove around the country, looking for the best-place-in-the-US, but that's a different story. At that time, there were still a number of old Jews living in the building, but there had been enough turnover that there was no lingering memory of either my grandmother or Aunt Dora. So it goes.

I stood there for a while, remembering everything. I called my brother in Milwaukie, and we reminisced a bit. I walked across the street, and was pleased to see the hotel we had stayed that summer, now with a 'historic-landmark' plaque out front. Times change.

I made my way back to the Lincoln Road area, stopping at two other hotels where the family used to stay. The Surfcomber is now the DoubleTree Surfcomber, and the lobby slick and hip (as it was not in the old days). I went out to the pool - very familiar. I went up to the sun deck where my brother and I played shuffle-board.

50 years.

Eventually, we three met up, took a cab to the cruise-ship, easily met up with the other three (Karen's 99 year-old mother, her brother, and her cousin. We patiently went thru the elaborate check-in lines, found our cabins on-board (the Norwegian Star, by the way), and it departed Miami at 4, on time.

In Miami Beach, I bought a bottle of wine ($13) to smuggle in my suitcase, and Dylan bought a pint of Jack Daniels, with the same goal. Karen's bag arrived at our cabin - mine didn't. A couple of hours later, I was handed a letter, saying that my bag could be claimed elsewhere on the ship, after they had a look inside. I had been busted.

There were perhaps 20 people in that line, all feeling like the nickle-and-diming for which Norwegian Cruise Lines is famous, had just commenced. They triumphantly found my bottle, which I could reclaim by simply paying a $15 'corkage fee', which I did, making that an $28 wine. As it turns out, there were few wines on the official wine-list that were at that price, and we enjoyed it as best we could a couple of nights later.

Dylan received the same letter, but, rather than play coy, he reached in and pulled out the Jack Daniels. The cruise-guy looked at the bottle, looked at Dylan, and quietly handed it back to him, saying 'just drink it in your room, OK?'. Ah, the fraternity of Youth.

At sea, and on land.

We were at sea for a couple of days, getting familiar with the ship layout, signing up for yoga classes, getting a little exercise, trying not to eat too much, and (sad to say) actually enjoying the nightly entertainments.

On the 3rd day out, we docked at Cartegena, Columbia. It was very hot and muggy. Outside the tourist-trap shop they make you traverse, we were accosted by the taxi drivers, all speaking very fast Spanish. Over the din, I heard an American voice call out "I have a minivan for 6 people", which is exactly what we wanted.

We negotiated with Douglas, very brown-skinned but with the powerful body of an ex-boxer, He was originally from Bethlehem, PA, but has been living in Columbia, with his Columbian wife, for over 20 years. All 7 of us (including Douglas) managed to barely squeeze into his van, and we headed off with about 5 hours before we had to be back at the ship.

He narrated his well-practiced history speech while we threaded our way to the famous Spanish fort, which was a bee-hive of hawkers-of-all-things and blinking tourists. The castillo is pretty impressive - you can look it up. We declined paying the admission to climb up, and instead walked around the base a bit. Two minutes of walking took us entirely away from the frantic activity at the entrance gate, and we had peace and quiet as we marveled at the battlements, remarkably well-preserved.

Next, Doug drove us to a tranquil shaded plaza in the northern part of the Old Town. Dylan stayed with Sylvia while Karen, Eric and I wandered the lovely narrow streets, lined with brilliantly-painted colonial facades and luxurious vegetation. We made our way to the city walls overlooking the ocean, and walked along them for a bit, appreciating the fortifications and views. Julio thought that the city looked a lot like New Orleans. We agreed that Cuba must look like this, too.

Getting hungry, I asked if Douglas knew a good place to get some ceviche and a beer and, of course, he knew just the place("much cheaper and better than the fancy restaurants - trust me"). He pulled up in front of a line of food stalls, in sight of the famous clock tower, and introduced us to his friend, the proprieter, who was already serving ceviche to two other men, who Douglas has known for years. It seemed promising.

We described what we wanted and the owner brought out big bowls of fresh shrimp, conch, oysters, crab, etc. We could have any combination we wanted. We ordered a large serving ($18) to share and a couple of beers. And we sat and waited, while Douglas continued to regale us with many stories, some of which were certainly true.

After a while, it dawned on us that the ceviche was being made from scratch as we waited, rather than sitting there ready to be instantly dished up. When it finally arrived, it was delicious.

Tangy with lemon, sweet with some species of ketchup and onions, and loaded with shrimp and clams.

The beers were good, too. Sylvia and Julio also ordered raw oysters separately. Having had an unpleasant oyster experience back in the 70's (it's a long story), I had a taste of the onions and sauce - no oyster. Everything disappeared quickly.

Back in the van, Douglas drove us to the entrance to the blocked-off part of Old Town, which was car-free that day. A little conversation (and bribe) of the police got the barrier raised (he explained that Sylvia couldn't walk, so they 'had' to let us drive in), and our minivan was the only vehicle we saw, as he drove us around the various plazas, all with historical significance like the former slave market, ironically dominated by a monument to that would-be slave-trader and colonial exploiter, Columbus.

At the Plaza de Bolivar, we parked, and, while Sylvia dozed in the van, the rest of us wandered the streets, appreciating the vibrant building colors, the vibrant native women (with picturesque baskets of fruit balanced on their heads - photos welcomed, for a price), and the upscale shops, full of stuff we didn't want.

Cartegena is charming - there were armed police everywhere, and Douglas told a few stories of how petty criminals are dealt with, by both the vigilant police and other passers-by. Those we believed.

We made it back to ship at the last moment (in fact, we were the last group permitted up one of the two gangways). We were back in luxury-land, and the ship left Cartegena promptly at 3. As simple shore excurisions go, we had a pretty good time.

A Man, a plan, etc.

I woke up at 6 the next morning and quickly dressed in the dark cabin. I grabbed a coffee in the already-busy food area, and found a place on deck. It was just dawn, and we were surrounded by many dozens of ships, including at least a couple big cruisers like ours.

We were at the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal.

The prior evening, I happened to be watching the BBC News in our cabin, when, amoung the usual stories about Republicans bullying Obama into giving them everything they want (don't get me started), the screen suddenly showed a shot of a waterway, with large letters saying 'Panama Canal Closed'. Apparently, for the first time in over 20 years, heavy rainfall had caused the officials to close it down. This was interesting news, since there were few alternatives for the Norwegian Star on this cruise.

Back to the next morning. The captain told us that the canal had indeed been closed, for the first time in history, due to the unreasonably heaviy rain of the prior two days, but one of the two locks at Gatun was operating, and cruise ships were being given priority over freighters. This was a relief.

We approached Gatun around 9, and spent the next 2 hours negotiating the steps up to Gatun Lake. It was amazing, and the most amazing thing of all, to me, was that the engineers of 1900 had designed the thing with such vision that, over 100 years later, it still worked great, with much of the original infrastructure operating daily. Think about it.

We steamed (or whatever) our way across the broad, smooth lake, amid occasional rain squalls and sun-breaks. It was a remarkable thing.

Later in the afternoon, we left the lake and entered the narrow channel whose landslides, disease, and too-primitive engineering had doomed the French. The quiet, green, terraced hillsides gave no evidence of the perpetual noise, frustrating setbacks, and lost lives that accompanied the excavation of this gash in the Continental Divide. If you don't know the story, check it out.

Later, we hit the two remaining lock systems, which eerily lowered us back to sea-level. As we went to dinner, we passed underneath the graceful Pan American Highway bridge, and we were soon in the Pacific. It's all rather incredible.


It's day 6, and at least three of us have varying degrees of intestinal distress. Mine is the least severe. We suspect the raw oysters, as their two primary consumers are down for the day. It's not a pretty sight.

It's a day for reading, writing, and attending to the stricken. We are at sea, bound for Costa Rica.

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