A Travelogue

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The End

I should write a bit about Sugarloaf, which gave us some stunning views of the city, mountain and ocean. But now that the vacation is over, I'm strangely remote from it all. Already it seems so long ago.

In the next week I'll post some photos throughout the blog where appropriate, and tie everything together. And then the blog gets a rest until our next adventure.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Disembarking in Rio





Our fabulous day in Rio was bookended by a dismal disembarkation system and an even worse boarding procedure at the airport. But in between it was great. More about that later.

Due to an unusual sea current which was completely unexpected in this part of the ocean, our already overdue arrival in Rio was delayed by a further 30 minutes bringing us to 11:30 at the dock. Original docking time was 7:00 a.m.
Luckily, we had let Princess know we had independent travel arrangements and were being met at 9:00 a.m. so we were amongst the first groups to disembark. However, that still took us to almost 1:30 and I wondered if Paulo, our tour guide who was meeting us at noon would still be there.

The entire delay can be laid at the feet of the Brazilian officials who have an archaic and ill planned system of granting entry. First, the officials had to board the ship and set themselves up, 4 here and 4 there, to personally view every passengers passport. Yes indeed. And once inspected for the appropriate visas which, by the way, cost us almost $450 including courier charges, they would stamp your passport and grant you a green entry card.

Like I said, we were in the second earliest group and it will took 2 hours. Some passengers had booked a transfer with Princess to take them from the ship to a hotel to relax, and then on to the airport. Due to the delays, they didn’t get off until 4, got to their hotel at 6, had to leave at 7 to get to the airport for 8:30. All for $88 each.

The good news for us was that we had had the foresight to book a private tour in Rio. Eight hours for $200 divided by three and an additional $60, divided by three, to take us to the airport. A much better deal.

Paulo, our guide, had sent instructions on where to meet him after we got off the ship but because we had to detour to pick up our bags, we were in the wrong area.
Leaving with our bags there were dozens of tour guides lined up, all holding signs with their customers names. No one had our names. I left Hans and Teddy and went looking and within about 5 minutes, found Paulo and his sign. Whew!

Arriving in Rio



Wow. This is a gorgeous, gorgeous city.

On our approach we sailed right past Sugarloaf, so close we could have swum to its base. We could see the cable cars moving back and forth between Sugarloaf and its smaller sister. Couldn’t wait to get there!

In the distance facing the harbor we could just make out the enormous Christ the Redeemer statue. It was still early, about 9:30 a.m. and a light haze covered the city so the statue was just faintly visible, almost just an impression of itself.

Again, couldn’t wait to see it.

Rio Airport

Oh my.

First line at 8:45 pm
This line was dauntingly long and even though we asked folks in the queue whether this was the United Air lineup Hans thought it would be smart to double check, so off I went. The office confirmed that we were in the proper line as they had only one flight that evening and in fact, everyone I could see was going to Washington, Dulles. The good news was that it was only 8:45 and they had just opened up the check-in wickets at 8:30, so we weren’t late. More passengers were streaming in behind us.

Second line at 9:15 pm
Alas, the lineup in which we were caught was only a fraction of the passengers. From here, we were led into a zig zag line. You know, where the floor is sectioned off by ropes and you walk back and forth like a lab rat. The three of us went together so we’d be seated beside each other however, when we finally got the check-in counter, the girl wasn’t issuing seats. We did, however, get our three bags checked but it took awhile since our final destination is Phoenix and Teddy’s is Calgary. We were flying together only to Washington, then Los Angeles.
Meantime, while Teddy and I were getting our bags checked, Hans was filling out the US customs declaration form. There was another long line building to go through security and it occurred to me that we would be going into that line next, so I asked Hans to get a spot while Teddy and I finished up with the bags. Too bad this idea didn’t occur to any of us 10 minutes earlier.
This line seemed to come to a complete stop until a senior person got 2 additional women to assist with the check-in. They didn’t look happy. One of them took 5 minutes to take off her jacket and fold it carefully. Then it was time for her to log in and it took so long Teddy thought she might be writing an email to her mother.

Third line, Security
This queue was adjacent to line #1 we were in earlier and was no shorter.

Fourth line
Now we were in the zig zag portion of the security line that eventually let the throng through one of three, count ‘em, *three* x-rays!

Fifth line
Got our hand luggage x-rayed and then joined another zig zag taking us through passport control. Here there were four agents available to move us through more quickly, LOL.

Sixth line 10:15 pm
So far we had a boarding pass but still no seat assignment and I was asking at each stop. “No,” was the consistent reply. “Later.” The crowd of passengers was huge and I worried we might not get on the plane. You know, first you think to yourself, “Please just let me get a seat.” Then once you get one, it’s “Can I have a window?”

But from passport control we went directly to our gate where I told the guy we didn’t have seats yet. Quite by chance, because we were together, Hans and I were together and Teddy was right across the aisle from us.
Finally. In the plane. It’s now 5 minutes before take off and we’re not seat yet because there’s a bottleneck near the front. Turns out several passengers had been given the same seats. Luckily we were okay. Or maybe not, because they got bumped up into Business Class. That would have been nice since the flight was 9 hours 45 minutes long.

I really hate plane travel.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tilting

“What the hell!”

Hans and I were both sliding, feet first, off our bed. At the same time all loose items on the nightables tumbled to the floor. Then the ship righted itself and everything went back to normal.

This happened around 7:00 a.m. yesterday morning and later that day I spoke with a gentleman who was at the breakfast buffet when the ship tilted. He happened to be standing in front of a tray of fried eggs.

“I managed to grab the tray so it wouldn’t crash to the ground, but all the eggs slid off and onto my feet,” he told me with a laugh. “And all the other food ended up on the floor too.”

The pools also sloshed over and apparently there was a foot of water to be mopped up on one side of the ship wherever there were pools.

The captain didn’t make his usual announcement when things go awry so we were left wondering what happened until later that evening. It was the Captain’s Farewell party with free champagne in the central piazza area and he took that opportunity to update us. He was very pissed off.

“You’re probably wondering what happened this morning. The Argentine Pilot, who is required to guide us through the channel, forgot about the 250 metres of ship behind the bridge and only thought about the 50 metres in front. He made a sharp turn. You can’t do that with a ship this size. He must have thought he was piloting a tugboat. Luckily, the Officer on the Bridge was able to correct the mistake.”
Well then. There was more and he couched the rest of his speech more carefully, saying things like “political correctness prevents me from expressing how I feel,” but it was quite clear how he felt. Between the 5 hour delay in Buenos Aires (3 in port and 2 at anchor further out in Rio de la Plata) plus the unnecessary work caused by the incompetent pilot, I’m thinking our Captain will not have much good to say about the Argentinean maritime authorities.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Kleptomania


At the dinner table Teddy and I share a bottle of white wine, Hans has a bottle of red and the Russians vary. On this night, they were also sharing a bottle of white but different from ours. Lief sat on Teddy’s right and three times, Teddy caught him drinking out of her glass! She whispered it to Hans, who relayed the information to Lief.

“Oh my. I kleptomania her wine.”

Mint Jelly

Lief was having lamb the other night for dinner.
“Would you like mint jelly?” asked our waiter.
“What is it?” said Lief.
“It sort of tastes like toothpaste.”

Montevideo





“I see a mountain,” said the sailor a few hundred years ago. And that’s how it got its name. Truly, without the mountain there they would likely have sailed right past it because Montevideo is flat, flat, flat.

We hired Santiago, a young James Woods lookalike to take us around in his taxi, and he drove us to the top of the mountain, now crested by a white fort. We could see it from the ship and the view from up top was fabulous. Alas, we didn’t spend much time up there because we were approaching 3 hours, which was to be the length of our tour.

We hired Santiago, a young James Woods lookalike. His English was pretty good so we happily climbed into his cab. Unfortunately, the advertised air conditioning in his taxi didn’t work and he had a glass barrier between the front and back seats so even though he spoke good English, we heard little of it. Well, sometimes we heard it, when he turned around and spoke directly to my face using his hands to emphasize his speech. We were content not to hear too much.

Montevideo is a large city and has lots of parks, but there was little grass in them though that could be because the trees were so huge and cast such a large shadow that maybe it was difficult to grow grass underneath them. The parks were also fenced with wrought iron so there were only a few entrances and exits and the vendors, at least on this day, were selling most flea market items instead of the usual handicrafts. It was just different from the parks we’ve seen in other South American countries.

We didn’t see much in Montevideo that would ever make us want to come back. The city has lots of litter. Mind you, that’s common in all cities down here except Lima, which was incredibly clean. Lots of old, historic buildings. It used to be a walled city and in the central area of town, dividing the old city from the new city, are red lines bout 50’ apart showing where the walls used to stand. This downtown park was quite lovely and also houses the mausoleum of their liberator hero whose name escapes me right now.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Delayed departure from Buenos Aires

Due to the monsoon-like conditions of the afternoon weather, accompanied by squally winds, ships have backed up in the River Platte, the inlet into Buenos Aires, waiting for the weather to calm. That means the Star Princess hasn’t been able to leave at 5:00 as planned since maritime law forbids two ships passing in this river as in some areas it’s only 85 metres wide. At present time, we’re scheduled to leave two hours late. This won’t impact our arrival in Rio, at this time.

Due to the unusual weather and winds this afternoon, the ship was apparently trying to lift at the stern and threatening to shed its moorings. The captain just told us that they had to remove the gangway for awhile in case the ship decided to go for a walk across the harbor. That would have been quite a shock to anyone standing on the gangplank. And also a bit of a shock to the boats across the harbor.

The lights went out in Buenos Aires. Literally.




We had just pulled into an underground parkade at the mall to escape the rain. As the four of us exited the car, Sandra clicked her remote to lock it and turn off the lights. Simultaneously, the lights in the garage went out. It was absolutely pitch black except for one dim light on the ramp. As we huddled around wondering what was going on, the generator kicked in and lights came on.

Sandra punched the button for the elevator but Teddy said we should take the stairs. Wise idea. Halfway up, the lights went out again. “That was a good idea,” said Sandra as we continued on our way up.

To backtrack a bit, after a hot and muggy morning (more about our tour with Sandra later) a deluge of probably biblical proportions hit Buenos Aires just after 2:00 p.m. It started off as a light rain, and because the air conditioning in Sandra’s Fiat mysteriously died just then, we opened the windows to welcome the breeze that was picking up. The few raindrops that ventured into the car were hardly a deterrent to the open window. But then, the skies darkened, the rain increased and so did the wind. Literally, sheets of rain were swept off the huge leafy trees and just poured onto the road, adding to the already thick deluge hammering the cars. The sewer grates couldn’t keep up and every one was boiling over with overflow. One road was partially submerged and it’s only because Sandra was able to make a tight left turn and avoid the deepest part that was submerged that we were able to ford through.

We drove through this for about 10 minutes while the un-airconditioned car tried valiantly to keep the windshield fog free, but it was hard. The heat and the mugginess just coated the windshield and dimmed the visibility. But Sandra obviously had a destination in mind and shortly thereafter we pulled into the aforementioned underground parkade.

The stores we saw appeared to be closed, which was fine since we didn’t go in to shop. Mainly, we wanted a drink. There was a little restaurant open downstairs to which we headed but, we couldn’t order lunch. No power. No matter. We downed two cokes each to slake our thirst and I didn’t even care that it wasn’t diet.

The lights came on shortly thereafter and so we stayed to have a bite. Teddy and I couldn’t read the menu (Spanish) and neither of us wanted to risk a salad (washed in tap water, if washed at all) so we ordered a ham and cheese sandwich. It was awful, but mostly we ordered lunch so that Sandra would. We would have liked to take her to a fancier place for lunch (so we could pay by credit card), which was our plan, but the weather kaiboshed that. They would let us pay in US dollars but wouldn’t give us a good rate so instead, Sandra paid and we gave her the US dollars. She’s going to Washington in February so she can use the dollars.

It was still raining when we left, but the skies were lighter and so was the rain.

The Pink Palace





When we first saw the Pink Palace 5 years ago, it was raining hard and no one got out of the bus to get a closer look. Today it wasn’t raining when we were at the palace and we were doubly lucky in that on Saturdays tourists are allowed to go through the palace. They give guided tours in Spanish, but we had Sandra with us so she translated anything important. Most of it was self-explanatory though, and it’s quite an impressive building. Very ornate everywhere and quite beautiful.

Across from the pink palace is the park in which the mothers and grandmothers of ‘the missing’ parade weekly. These are the women who were left behind in the late ‘70’s early ‘80’s, prior to the Falkland war, when their menfolk were taken by the government and disappeared forever. Every week they don their symbol, the kerchief, and demonstrate as they have done for over 30 years because they still don’t know what’s happened to some of them.

Meeting Sandra in Buenos Aires






Some time ago I had contacted a Rotarian in Buenos Aires asking if he could make any suggestions for what we should see during our day here. Umberto replied right away and put me in touch with his sister-in-law Sandra, who he said would love to show us around.

We emailed back and forth and she was going to pick us up at 9:30 a.m. on our arrival, just outside the dock area.

So there we were at the dock’s exit shortly after 9:00 because we didn’t want to be late. We each knew what the other looked like, having emailed photos, but no specific information was exchanged, such as what we might be wearing, would she have a sign with our name, or should we have one with hers, what colour is her car, etc. This lack of foresight made the waiting very uncomfortable. I stood in the road with a make-shift sign that had her name in pen, which I’m sure no one driving past on the road could read. Hans, wearing a Rotary shirt, was walking through the throngs of cruisers looking for anyone who looked like Sandra. And Teddy was going to each new car as it parking to see if Sandra was the driver. No luck. Meanwhile, we were fending off aggressive taxi drivers but as the clock ticked on, we were beginning to think that maybe we would have to change our plans.

And then, there came Hans with his arm around an attractive woman, big smiles on both faces.

He had heard a voice in the crowd asking, “Are you Lolita? Are you Lolita?” so he went up to her and said, “I’m Hans, and Lolita’s my wife.” Hallelujah.

We were so relieved to get into her car. Not only because we had finally connected, but because her car had blessedly cold air conditioning. It was partly sunny but the weather was really muggy. Rain was predicted for the afternoon and the air was heavy with it. I could already feel a bead of sweat trickling down my back.
As we drove, Sandra gave us an engaging history lesson about Buenos Aires. She is incredibly knowledgeable about her city and her country and we spent a delightful hour touring around, visiting the Boca port, which was the original port, and the soccer stadium nearby.

Across from this port is the most charming marketplace street called something like Caminita de something (sorry!) filled with the most charming and colourful houses, most of which have been converted into restaurants. Lots of cute little shops and outdoor cafes, some of which were featuring a free gaucho dance performance. We walked around and I would have loved to stop for a drink but there was much more she wanted to show us.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christopher Caress


“If you want to sleep with Christopher, volunteer.”

That’s how hypnotist Christopher’s show starts. He puts the volunteers into a light sleep and lays them down on the stage.

“Do you know this man?” he asked one woman.

“No.”

“You’ll be sleeping with him in a minute.”

It was brilliant. Hans and I saw it Wednesday night and I enjoyed it so much I, *gasp,* even gave up my regular 8:15 p.m. dinner reservation in order to see his show again the next night. I dragged Teddy along, who had missed it the night before, but she was happy to have come and laughed so hard her stomach hurt. He turned himself “invisible” and we watched as one of the participants scampered in fear and confusion across the stage, chased by a chair that seemed to be self-propelled. Too funny! The night before he turned the 4 men into ballerinas who twirled and leapt across the stage with great enthusiasm, if not skill. Unfortunately he leaves us today in Montevideo, but he had a great show and gave us a terrific evening of entertainment.

In other news, there’s a magician on board who’s been giving free magic classes which Teddy and I have attended. Prepare to be wowed when we get back.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bad Merlot

After having a bottle of wine nightly, we finally got a bad one.

Last night the Fetzer merlot seemed off to me. As always, I’m a little reluctant to say anything to anyone other than Hans and Teddy, but Hans called our waiter over who pronounced it “sour”. Close enough. It was actually musty. In short order the junior sommelier showed up, followed by the senior sommelier, neither of whom looks old enough to shave.

There was no argument. They simply brought a fresh bottle to the table and I couldn’t resist asking the fresh faced young man if he was even old enough to drink. Turns out, barely. He turned 21 six weeks ago and joined Princess on Valparaiso, so he is actually of legal age.

Where do you learn to be a wine expert before you’re allowed to drink?

Emergency Detour


Last night at 10:30pm the Captain interrupted everything to announce that, in case anyone had noticed, he had made a 180 degree u-turn and the ship was heading back to the Falkland Islands.

One of the passengers was in critical need of medical attention beyond what could be provided by the ship’s doctor and the senior doctor made the call that he had to be taken off the ship. Therefore, we were proceeding at full speed back to the Falklands and at the same time a message had gone out to a Search and Rescue team on the islands and the captain was waiting to hear back from them. Either they would medivac the passenger out or, he would be taken off on land, whichever came first.
At midnight the announcement came for all ship’s hand to take up “flying positions” and everyone was asked to vacate the open decks on 14, 15, 16 and 17 and no flash photography or video was allowed. We spoke to a couple today whose balcony was on the side where the helicopter landed, and he said it was out there about 40 minutes.

The evacuation went like clockwork and the patient is undergoing treatment at the hospital in Port Stanley. Hopefully, all will go well. We lost some time but the captain says that we had some speed in hand and that we’ll arrive on time in Montevideo, Urugay, on Thursday.

And in other news, we lose yet *another* hour tonight! We will now be at Greenwich mean time less 2 hours. Amazing. But if you look at the map, you’ll see that the west coast of south America is nearly lined up with the east coast of north America, so I guess this continuous chipping away at the hours makes sense.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Bleaker Island


In the Falkland Islands today, which is comprised of two large islands and about 350 small ones, we found one named Bleaker Island. “Wow, this island is even bleaker than the last one,” is how we imagine it got named.

Port Stanley, Falkland Islands




This is Hans and my second time in the Falklands and not much has changed. It’s a small community of about 3,000 which doubles whenever a cruise ship docks. The locals wisely stay indoors when we’re out and about since there’s really no main street. What would be a major road is the one along the harbor and it’s thickly packed with cruise tourists all jamming into the same little gift shops.

The Falklands are an English protectorate, so everything here is in British Pounds Sterling (read expensive) and they drive on the left, mostly Range Rovers. Four wheel drive here would be fairly necessary in the chilly winter months. Today, at nearly the first day of summer, temperatures were about 12 degrees with a mix of blue sky and cloud. But the wind! Yikes. I wrapped my scarf around Teddy’s neck since I had a hood on my jacket and I was grateful for it. I was no fashion plate, and Teddy has the photo to prove it, but my ears were happy.

We stopped for a drink in the same pub Hans and I went to five years ago, but this time, we couldn’t sit outside. Too windy. Inside, the place was hopping with tourists but despite the crowds, we were served virtually instantly: two white wines, one Heineken and a basket of chips to share.

The Dolphins

As we were having breakfast on the Lido, we watched the tenders head out carrying their full load of passengers visiting Port Stanley. Playing in the wake beside the tenders were four dolphins, enjoying the rush of water and occasionally breaking the surface in joyful leaps. We watched them for 30 minutes and when we took a tender, they were still playing and I could see them right beside me. However, by the time we headed back to the ship the dolphins had left, probably exhausted from their vigorous play earlier in the day.

Rattle, rattle, splash


“You’ll know when we’re ready to anchor in the Falkland Islands. Just listen for the rattle, rattle, splash.” Our captain does enjoy his little jokes. And so do we.

Monday, December 14, 2009

No News

No news today, my muse has gone away.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sitting on the Lido


As I sit on the Lido writing the blog, bartenders come around wheeling carts of wine and beer. I’m enjoying a glass of wine, but it’s wine that we picked up at one of the ports for the delicious price of $4 for 2 litres. Here on deck it would cost me $9.00 for a glass plus 15% automatic tip. If we each had a glass of wine in the early evening before dinner, it would cost us a whopping $600. And that wouldn’t include the bottle of wine we have at dinner every evening.

Ushuaia (Ooo-shoo-AYE-a)




“The end of the world, beginning of everything.” That’s what the sign says, but I’m not sure what they mean.

This charming little city of 80,000 is the southernmost city in the world. Teddy says it reminds her of Banff, and I can see why. It lies at the foot of mountains still wrapped in their winter snow and its main street caters to tourists.

This is the jumping off spot for Antarctic expeditions. There’s nothing between here and the Antarctic continent expect frigid ocean.

But today, the sun was out, temperatures were at a pleasant 19 and the winds were light. Last time we were here the sun was also out, but the winds were fierce and I brought my fleece, windbreaker, scarf, gloves… and peeled all of them off as they weren’t needed on the day trip.

Hans took Teddy to the gates of the penal colony, which was active here until 1962. He left her at the door so she could look around on her own since we saw it last time. The prisoners built this town. But then, when Ushuaia was established as a penal colony in the early 1900’s, I guess there wasn’t much else for them to do.
Last night as we were preparing to enter into the channels leading us to Ushuaia, the captain said that the winds were picking up and also that the ship has some tight turns to make. “We’ll slow down so we don’t tip you out of your bunks.”

Around Punta Arenas, Chile





We opted not to take a tour in Punta Arenas since we’ve all seen penguins and they seem to be the major attraction in the area. These are small penguins, not the glorious king penguins from the movie, “March of the Penguins,” or we would have gone. But we did miss out on a special sight since our tablemates went to see them and were treated to the unexpected bonus of two giant condors swooping around the area. That, I would have loved to see. We did see two giant stuffed condors in the museum that we toured, and they have a wingspan of 10 feet. Incredible.
Punta Arenas is known to be very windy. In fact, our little information sheet tells us that when the winds get really blustery, they string ropes in the downtown area for people to hold onto.

Saturday wasn’t very windy and it turned so warm during our walk that I ended up taking off both my windbreaker and my fleece, walking just in short sleeves. A perfect day for walking, though we did walk further than my short little legs are accustomed to and after I hobbled back to the ship, I headed straight for the Ibuprofen.

After we toured the museum we considered heading back to the ship but then, we were only a few blocks from the cemetery. We hemmed and hawed, should we go or not? Someone had recommended it but really, what’s so special about a cemetery? None of us really wanted to go but in the end, since we were fairly close, we went. And it was fabulous.

Rows and rows of some kind of cedar trees that were trimmed to a velvety finish, a smooth green line from their rounded tops right down to the ground, shaped sort of like your thumb. Some looked a little bell-shaped but all were trimmed to within ¼” with nothing sticking out. Gorgeous.

Graves are above ground with many mausoleums holding entire families. Teddy said it’s similar to New Orleans where the dead are also above ground. There it’s due to the high water table. Here, it’s probably due to months of frost.

We walked through the main central park, which Hans and I had seen 5 years ago on our first visit here. The statue of Nelson still dominates the center and his bare foot, which has been rubbed to a golden patina, sparkled in the sun. The saying goes that if you rub his foot, you’ll come back to Punta Arenas. Must be true since here we are again. Around the base of his statue were five dogs, quietly asleep. They didn’t look hungry since there was food nearby for them to eat so I guess they were just having their siesta.

The park carried the lovely sounds of a pan flute expertly played by a local musician. The pan flute just sounds right here. It’s a South American instrument and it’s absolutely the right sound for here. Whoever the anonymous musician was, he played beautifully and we gave him our last Chilean pesos as well as a few US dollars. He was playing the beautiful notes of Ave Maria when we approached him, another song that makes me weep and I had to turn away.

By the time we returned to the ship, my legs just managed to stagger to the buffet for a late lunch (3:00 p.m) but they wouldn’t take me back to the coffee machine so Teddy delivered coffee to us on the deck.
And so ended another perfect day.
Except for dinner, of course. *sigh*

Tendering in Punta Arenas

The couple across from us on the tender into the city was from Salt Lake City.

“We were there in June 07,” Hans told them.

“Actually, we were there around 1907,” I said, attempting to clarify.

What I meant was, I knew we were there later in June, around the 19th and not the 7th, but in the year 2007.

Punta Arenas, Chile


“Allo? Allo? Allo?”

I had dropped about five paces behind Hans and Teddy as we were walking in Punta Arenas and so, appeared to be walking by myself. The man behind me was clearly trying to get my attention and just as clearly, I was ignoring him and trying vainly to catch up to Hans and Teddy.

“Wait for me,” I stage whispered. They paused and turned slightly towards me, allowing me to step up between them.

“That man behind me is trying to accost me,” I said once safely flanked. “He keeps repeating ‘allo’ and trying to get my attention.”

“He’s on his phone,” laughed Teddy.

And just then he passed the three of us still going, “Allo?” Allo?” into his phone.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Punta Arenas, Chile

Tomorrow, Saturday, we’re in Punta Arenas, Chile. No place special. It likes to pretend it’s the southernmost city in the world and had scads of postcards printed saying so. However, Ushuaia, Argentina is actually the southernmost city.

You can buy the Punta Arenas postcards for 5 cents.

Be Careful What You Wish For


We had three delightful tablemates during the first half of the cruise, but they left us in Valparaiso. We were curious to see who we’d get in the second half of the cruise and were quite disappointed the first night when no one else showed up at our table. Of the two other tables in our section, only one had a pair of ladies. The other was empty.

The next night we were thrilled to see four other people waiting for us at the table.

“Hallelujah! We have guests. Welcome to our table.”

“dobre den.”

Oh oh.

“Do you speak English?” I asked hopefully.

“Nyet,” replied one of the men, a huge smile splitting his face.

Well then. That made conversation a real challenge. Turned out that the man sitting beside me, Liev (pronounced like Kiev) did speak a little English but he was busy translating the menu to his three companions, who spoke not a word. Not. A. Word.

Last night was a repeat of the same except that the waiters had procured some Russian language copies of the menu so it was easier for the four of them to choose their meals. Despite the linguistic gymnastics we’ve gone through the last two nights we seem to have a good time, but it’s exhausting.

The area of Russia is 17 million sq. km.
The area of Canada is 10 million sq. km.
The cost of this information? One brandy, paid to the Russian team who were correct in bragging that their country was larger.

Easy Magic

There are many ways to pass the time on sea days. For example today, we could compete in the logest drive golf competition, join the Star Olympics ping pong match, play basketball, attend a wine tasting, play trivia (done that, been humiliated), take a ballroom dance class, etc. You get the idea.

But a few nights ago we watched Greg Moreland, a magician who was the after-dinner entertainment and yesterday and today he was giving free lessons in easy magic.
Teddy and I both went, and when he did the tricks for us and the other 75 people in the room, they were wildly impressive. And then he showed us how. So prepare yourselves. When we get back, we’re going to blow your socks off!

Scenic Cruising




“You think they’d have coffee up here,” complained my neighbour to her husband.

We were sitting at the bar in Skywalkers. This round bar/nightclub has 360 degree windows and at Deck 17, sits up above nearly everything at the stern of the ship, giving a virtually unobstructed view all around.

Hans and I had come here to watch the magnificent unfolding panorama of Southern Patagonia from the comfort of armchairs and heat. Outside, I saw my first glimpse of snow.

The hills on either side of the channel are rocky and rugged, mostly granite and magma left over from ancient times when glaciers crept over the landscape at their, well, glacial pace. Today we can still see the Amalia Glacier, a river of ice flowing down three channels from the Southern Patagonia icefield and meeting in a fat, 200’ thick wedge of blue ice at the water’s edge.

The rounded hills are dark shadows, ranging from deep charcoal closest to the ship and become ever fainter until the last ones vanish into the mist. Here and there the hills are curiously flat topped as though sheared off by a giant knife but it turns out they’re only capped by low clouds.

To accommodate the higher paying balcony passengers, the captain pivoted the ship until both the port and starboard side got a good look at Amalia. We lowly peasants from the inside cabins got the best views because we were forced to leave our cabins in order to see anything at all. Hence, the prime viewing spot at Skywalkers.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Once Upon a Time in the West

Oh My God!

The 5 piece orchestra on Deck 5 is playing Once Upon a Time in the West. That piece of music is just so hauntingly beautiful. There are two violinists making the sweetest sounds with their violins. I have to sign off now so I can listen and weep.

Resistance Pool


Well, this has been my one disappointment.
(Photo of the resistance pool)

I was so excited to learn that the Star, like the Emerald Princess, also has a resistance pool allowing you to swim in place against the current. The first 2-3 days the maximum speed of the current was too weak to allow decent swimming and this was mentioned to the deck attendant. He told us that when they set the machine so you can crank up the speed of the current, it breaks down too often. Still, he did adjust the setting and for the next few days the current was stronger and Teddy and I were avid users of the pool.

Then the machine broke.

And it’s still broken.

We mentioned it to various staff at the Spa (they know nothing), the deck attendant (who said they would fix it), the Purser (who said they needed to get a replacement part and they would get it in Valparaiso.

Not sure what happened. It didn’t get fixed in Valparaiso because this morning it still wasn’t working. I mentioned it to two crew today, one of whom told me “It’s not good telling someone. You need to write it on a comment card.” Well then.
So I duly wrote a polite note expressing the urgency of getting the pool fixed so that I could swim off the pounds I’m gaining in the dining room. I signed my name and cabin number. If I had had a photo, I would have attached it so they could see I wrote the truth. Hopefully it will be fixed soon.

Pickpocket

No, we didn’t get hit. But I spoke with a fellow in the pool who’s companion had his wallet deftly lifted somewhere in Valparaiso.

Hans never carries a wallet into town. The bulk is too telltale. Instead, he has a few bills folded up in one of his many pockets so it would be virtually impossible for someone to guess which pocket has the money. We try to be very careful and so far, so good. But it served as a reminder that we are in countries where pickpockets abound and you can never take too many precautions.

La Sebastiana




This was one of the places we really wanted to see in Valparaiso. When we were in Santiago about 5 years ago, we visited La Chascona, one of three houses owned by the famous Chilean Pablo Neruda, the first South American to win a Nobel Prize. The movie “Il Postino” was about Pablo Neruda and his exile in Italy, and some of his lovely poetry is quoted in the movie Patch Adams.

Valparaiso and Vina are both built on a very steeply sloping hillside that sweeps into the sea. I mention this because the roads leading up the hill to La Sebastiana were the steepest I have EVER seen. They were unbelievable. The poor little taxi groaned and chugged its way up and at each bend the hill became, incredibly, even steeper. I’m sure it couldn’t have been 45 degrees, but it felt like it was darn close to that.

Eugenio deposited it at the entry and went off to find a parking spot, then just waited for us in the shady garden.

We were each given a hand-held speaker that directed us through each room of the 5 storey house, describing what they contained. In the living room, for example, the table centerpiece was a large, hollow, white ceramic cow that probably held 1 ½ gallons of fluid. Neruda used this to serve punch to his guests. The living room itself had a circular floor on which stood an old carousel horse picked up somewhere on his travels. Every level had many large windows overlooking the hill spread out below and the beautiful jewel blue sea at its base. As befits a poet, he gave his favourite dark leather armchair by the window the fanciful name of The Cloud and used its comfort and the vista to inspire his writings.

Touring Valparaiso and Vina del Mar




I don’t know what vina means in Spanish, but vino means wine so I’m thinking vina is the female version and that Vina del Mar means something like Beautiful, Delicate and Wonderful Wine of the Sea. Could be true.

As we exited the ship in Valparaiso (pronounced Val-parah-EE-so) we saw a desk that said City Tours. A group just ahead of us were getting a 2 hours tour in a minivan for $25 each, which seemed quite reasonable but they were already too many to include the three of us. So after they left we tried to get our own tour going. We needed to be a minimum of 4 people as the basic cost was $100, or else we would each have to pay $33. To take a taxi up to La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda’s house, would be $25 one way. Seemed like a lot. So Hans went outside to see what he could negotiate with a local taxi driver while I went to the bathroom and Teddy looked around for some other people to join our group and help defray the cost.

By the time I got back, Teddy had found another couple and just as we were extolling to them the virtue of joining us, Hans came inside to say he’d found us a better deal. A local taxi driver would take us wherever we wanted to go for $25 per hour.

“Does he speak English?” Teddy and I asked in unison.

“Yes.”

Well, that was a tad optimistic as his English was quite limited. However, between the 3 of us with our smattering of Spanish, his sparse English and much laughter and sign language, we did communicate fairly well and we got a terrific tour.

On our way to Vina, Teddy noticed two brown coloured hills in the distance and asked what they were.

“Dunes,” Eugenio replied, and that’s exactly what they were. Huge sand dunes. We drove out there because there’s also a nice viewpoint of the Pacific on the other side of the road, and we spent a little time walking around the trails there, which were busy with Japanese. The surf pounded the rocks far below us while ahead, the huge rocks thrusting out of the ocean were completely white. And not bleached by the sun. Along the edges where we stood and where there was vegetation, the cliffs were covered with wild Livingstone Daisies in brilliant hot pink. I spent months coaxing these pretty flowers to bloom and here they were blanketing the cliffs and growing wild. Gardening is not fair.

Far in the distance on the other side of the crescent shaped bay that holds Vina and Valparaiso, we could see our cruise ship dwarfed by the distance.

We had arranged with Eugenio that at the end of our tour he would take us to a Super Mercado where we could buy some coke and wine, and that’s where we headed after visiting La Sebastiana. Eugenio was very helpful, carried our basket and led us to the wine section where we were once again able to buy 2 litre boxes of Carmeniere for $4. The coke was darn near as expensive: nearly $2 for 1.5 litres.

So, amply supplied with wine and coke for our next three days at sea, we were deposited back at the dock and our ship.