Wrapping it up…Tom’s packing…

The final “towel, pet” in our cabin aboard Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas.  Tomorrow morning we disembark.
The Gulf of Aden behind us as we head full speed toDubai, we are grateful for the incident free transit through these dangerous waters. 

Impressed with the manner in which the security of the ship and the safety of its passengers was handled, overall, we’ve been pleased with Royal Caribbean.

Without a doubt, we’d consider cruising with them in the future. Our favorite remains Celebrity which many passengers have also freely expressed in our endless discussions about the quality of various cruise lines. 

On CruiseCritic, there were a number of comments that this ship, Mariner of the Seas, is old and worn. We saw little evidence of that other than peeling paint on a metal brace on our balcony and a few signs of wear and tear in the Windjammer Cafe. Nothing major.

The service in the Windjammer Cafe each morning was exemplary, the dining room at night, a mish mash, sometimes great, sometimes not, depending upon the annoyance by the waiter of my “special order.” 

It appeared they were all overworked and overwhelmed by the number of guests that they had to serve each night, rushing our food to the table, attempting to clear our plates too soon and failing to take our drink orders.

I’d order two glasses of iced tea each night, knowing it would be impossible to get refills during dinner. Going to dinner at 7:00 pm most nights, we seldom stopped at the bar before dinner.

Tom hoped to order a cocktail during dinner. All in all, he was able to order a drink only 4 of the past 14 nights, unable to get a bar server to the table which is an offered service. 

Our cabin steward, Jing, was always friendly, warm and quick to respond to our requests, however few we had: ice twice a day, extra hangers when we moved in, handling our two bags of laundry.  Twice each day our cabin was cleaned and restocked with fresh towels.

Oddly, the only toiletries supplied by RC were the small bar soaps and body wash in a dispenser in the shower. Carnival had toothpaste, shavers, nail and sewing kits. Norwegian had few amenities, other than body wash in the shower plus we had to ask for bar soap. Celebrity supplied shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, plus all of the above. It speaks for itself.

None the less, sickness, service and food inconsistencies aside, we had a great time on this cruise, meeting many interesting travelers from all over the world, picking up some valuable tips and now, as we become more travel savvy (with much more to learn!), offering a few tips of our own. 

Tom is totally free of the illness. I’m still lingering, coughing, sore throat, hopefully turning the corner soon. Tom is currently packing with no help from me as I sit here hacking away.

Everyone at our table of six at dinner last night had been sick during this cruise with either Norovirus or this same respiratory illness.  I warned everyone that I was still ill. After five days, I doubt I am still contagious. No one at the table seemed concerned, they’d catch anything. After all, maybe as many as 40% of the passengers had some type of bug while on this cruise.

There’s nothing particular about cruising in itself that brings on illness. It’s the simple fact of lots of people in the same confined space, day after day, breathing the same recycled air conditioned air, touching handrails, elevator buttons, salt and pepper shakers, serving pieces, arm rests on seats in the theatre and on and on that creates a fertile breeding ground for contagions.

During each of our periods of illness, we’ve made every effort to be mindful of others, touching no common areas and washing our hands with soap and hot water many times each day. But as we ate our breakfast, the servers cleared our plates and with their bare hands clearing off our flatware and plates. Minutes later they were handing a guest a cup of coffee. No matter how hard one tries,there is no way to avoid transmitting illnesses.

The most annoying aspect of other sick passengers has been those coughing and sneezing into the air sending their toxins to everyone nearby. Certainly, carrying tissue, readily available in the cabin, is an easy alternative in addition to immediately washing one’s hands when coughing and sneezing into them or tissues.

Whatever precautions we may have implemented;  taking probiotics, vitamin C, staying healthy and active, and eating well, doesn’t seem to offer much insurance against our vulnerability. It’s the nature of the beast, much like being on an airplane, only to end up with a cold a day or two later.

Most likely in two days, I’ll feel well again, following the same course as Tom. In the interim, I’ve had little interest in taking photos, spending most of the past few days resting in our cabin, only leaving for breakfast to sit in our favorite comfy booth to eat and write our ongoing story and, for the few hours for dinner in the main dining room in the evenings.

Tonight, our bags will be placed outside our door for pickup between 7:00 and 11:00 pm. Breakfast will be served from 6:00 am to 9:00 am. Disembarking, a laborious process, will begin around 7:00 am. Again, we hope to be the last to disembark, resulting in less waiting time in Dubai to get into our condo at 2:00 pm.

Most likely, we won’t be writing tomorrow as we get situated in Dubai. But we’ll be back on
Wednesday with photos of our “home” for the next 13 nights, our trip to the market, views of the city and whatever other morsels we discover in our first 24 hours in the amazing city of Dubai.
Stay tuned, folks. 

Back in Cartagena today…updates..

In order for us to get to Belize by cruise ship, we’ve had to repeat a port of call of Cartagena, Columba, along a similar route on the cruise through the Panama Canal.  We knew this when we booked the two back to back cruises.  Since
we’re using cruises as a “mode of transportation” where possible, this didn’t concern us at all.

We’ve decided to stay onh the ship rather than take one of the over-rated expensive excursions all ofw whichultimately end in shopping which neither of us cares to do.  Weo could wander off on our own but, we heard stories of muggings and pickpocketse nearthe cruise ships ports-of-call. 

Its open season fort thieves when passengers wander off on their own on foot from the pier.

Content with our decision to stay behind, we especially enjoy the time on the ship when
half the passengers are off on the various excursions. 

There’s plenty of seating at the pool where we’ll wander off to shortly to work on our 45 minute a day tan while enjoying the poolside band, mostly oldies from our youth.  They played to the crowd when aboard ship are seniors, like us.

 Last night, we opted for aa late dinner, instead going to the show in the Equinox Theatre at 7:00 pm.

Much to our surprise the entertainer, Jack Walker, a fabulous performer from Las Vegas was on this ship doing the same show he had done on the Celebrity Century.  We’d watched his show two weeks ago!

Upon entering the theatre early to ensure we secured good seats, we stopped him as he entered the theatre to tell him we’d watched his show on the Celebrity Century only two weeks ago to which he was delighted and surprised, apologizing that we’d have to sit through a repeat of his earlier show.

Tom made me laugh, when he said to Jack, “Jack, we’re groupies following you around the world!”
We all belly laughed.

The show was equally entertaining a second
time. Ending at 9:00 PM we were both ready for dinner and sauntered to the Silhouette Dining Room passing through the casino on the
way. 

We have yet to waste a dollar on gambling, although it’s tempting when hearing the sounds of the clanging machines. We have a few “Captain’s Club” gambling coupons we’ve yet to use fearful that once we’d lose that, we’d be inclined to keep going.. 

We have a lot of world to visit.  Wasting our funds on gambling seems pointless and foolish.
As we walked though the casino we talked about the unlikely possibility of winning in a casino and the natural human behavior to continue gambling until the “winnings’ are gone.  Its irresistible. 

We only know one person who is continually “ahead” of the game, playing smart poker, leaving the tables when losing, not getting emotional about winning or losing. He knows who he is.  That would not be us!  Thus, we stay away.

As you read this post, you might say, “Good grief, these two are conservative!”

You know what?  There’s nothing conservative about leaving everyone you know and love,
getting rid of everything you own, being car-less, homeless and stuff-less. We’re new at this.  We’ve decided to pace ourselves,  physically, financially and emotionally.  As we experience more and more
v overtime, we’ll spread our wings always striving to make financial, security and physical safety a priority.

Shortly after 9 PM we were seated at a cozy window table for two, white linen napkins placed on our laps as a flurry of servers scurried around us: cocktail waiter, wine steward, waiter’s assistant, tuxedo dressed waiter and then, the head maître d whom we’ve come to know these past few days.

There was little on the menu in the way of appetizers or entrées that fit my strict diet.  The
waiter insisted they will make anything I want.  I opted for an appetizer seafood platter with sautéed scallops and shrimp on a bed of cabbage and arugula with grilled grape tomatoes, again a tangy Caesar salad minus croutons and grilled salmon accompanied by my usual plate of steamed buttered vegetables.  

Tom continues to surprise mebwhen he ordered the seafood risotto appetizer as well as the butternut squash soup  Oh my, all these years I’ve suggested he try new foods, falling on deaf ears.  Now, he tries and enjoys everything put inr front of him.  

Almost every night at dinner, as he spreads his epicurean wings, he asks me if I’m mad at him for
turning down all the fancy foods I prepared for myself   I am thrilled he’s trying them now.

As the dessert menus were handed to us, the waiter in the tuxedo said, “Madame, Chef Xavier has a dessert for you.”

Tom ordered the Tiramisu.  Moments later, the waiter appeared with Tom’s traditional Tiramisu, setting it in front of him and then grinning from ear to ear proudly placed a bowl of low carb, gluten-free, grain-free, starch-free, sugar-free Tiramisu in front of me.

Looking up at Tom from what appeared to be a bowl of pure wonderfulness, we both smiled at the same time. Yes, this is heaven. And yes, it was delectable…

Pastry Chef Xavier’s VIP service…

Pastry Chef Xavier and Jess.  We shared “foodie” tidbits! He’s determined to make me a special dessert. 

We aren’t the type of passengers or customers to complain. If our steak is too well done, we may politely ask for a new one if the restaurant is not too busy.  But more often than not, we eat it anyway, content to be together having a meal, even if it isn’t perfect.

Since beginning this strict way of eating 18 months ago, I have been sensitive to avoid making a spectacle when ordering food,
seeking out  appropriate options by carefully perusing the menu and by asking the waiters to question the chef if necessary.

Aboard ship for almost 18 nights with approximately 36 meals eaten thus far (we only eat two times a day) we’ve had plenty of opportunity to discover which foods fit the guidelines of my strict diet (Tom’s less strict than I, especially on these cruises). 

For me, it’s a matter of feeling well or feeling
sick.  No will power needed for that! For Tom, lately he feels well no matter what
he eats and although he’s gained back a few pounds, once we get to Belize with our home cooking, he’ll return to my way of eating losing the extra poundage in a few weeks. 

The only part of the meals aboard ship that has been a little hard to resist, has been watching the fabulous desserts come out to our shared table each night, taste tempting plates of elegant fruit or chocolate sauces, drizzled or slathered over varying types of cheesecakes, mousses, cakes and pies, all of which, in my old life, I would have enjoyed immensely.

Each night, the thoughtful waiters have attempted to lure me into ordering a “gluten free” desserts of which there are two
options. Try to explain the restrictions
of my low carb, sugar free, grain free, starch free, no processed food diet to a broken English speaking overworked waiter is impossible.

As a result, when they’ve graciously tried to
accommodate me, I’ve gently refused instead asking for the imported cheese plate (minus crackers and fruit) even if I had nary a bit of room in my stuffed belly after an otherwise satisfactory meal of a protein, salad and steamed vegetables.  Doing so seems to pacify the waiter that he’s done his job leaving me content with the offering.

Invariably, the cheese plate arrives with a smattering of dried and fresh fruits which I discretely put aside without comment,
consuming the tidbits of cheese in a mere minute, thoroughly enjoying the tangy flavors.

When booking all of our cruises, we’ve chosen “Select Dining,” an option whereby we can eat at anytime from 5:00 pm
to 9:00 pm in the main dining room Celebrity Equinox’s Silhouette dining room is an elegant massive two level white linen dining room with waiters scurrying about in tuxedoes and a white towel neatly draped across their arm.

With this choice, we can eat alone at a table for two or eat at varying configurations, round for six or eight or rectangle for up to
10, sitting across from one another.  This
shared dining has been delightful, each night meeting new table mates, when lively conversation ensues in most cases.

On a few occasions, we observed our newly found dining companions to prefer to remain quietly to themselves which we respect, instead talking and enjoying the time among ourselves or with people on our other side. Most often, passengers choosing to sit with others, do so to enjoy meeting new people.

The other dining option is a fixed dining time of either 6:00 pm and 8:30 pm at  the same table each night of the cruise, sitting
next to the same people, night after night.
Risky.  Plus, we’re attempting to live a life of doing exactly what we want to do, when we want to do it.  Selfish, perhaps. Nonetheless, immensely fun.  If we miss out, so be it.  We’ll figure out an alternate plan. 

Anyway, back to last night.  We were seated in the elegant lower level of the dining room as opposed to the main level when we didn’t have a reservation. The maître’d has taken a liking to us.  As a result we’ve only had to wait on one occasion for more than a few minutes for a table. 

If there was a long waiting line we waited in
the “ice bar”  enjoying a beverage until the maître’d informed us that our table was ready. 

Upon being seated at a rectangle table for eight, closest to the wall (not ideal), our penguin dressed waiter rushed up to me and
for some unknown reason,  was aware of my dietary restrictions. Had the word spread
that the tall, dark haired, older woman with the adorable grey haired guy was gluten-free along with other goofy restrictions? 

He ran circles around me. Tom, preferring not to draw attention to himself, more than that which he accrues being endlessly chatty and humorous, slithered down a little in his chair.  I chuckled. 

This was proving to be VIP service, none of which we requested or expected.

Ordering a Caesar salad minus croutons, a giant rare rib steak, buttered al dente asparagus and a platter of steamed non-starchy vegetables, I was content. Oh, no.  I wasn’t getting away that easy!

When I refused dessert, shocking our attentive waiter and not wanting to “hurt his feelings” I explained that I was on a
strict diet for health reasons. I gently explained that there was nothing I
could eat other than the ol’ standby cheese plate and that I was quite content (although I was actually tired of it already).  The waiter dashed off before I could say another word.

In moments, Chef Xavier, pastry chef extraordinaire, white tower hat atop his head of curly brown and grey hair, crisp white uniform spotless and neatly pressed appeared at our table, insistent in a delightful accent I couldn’t quite decipher, that I give him a list of every item I couldn’t eat. 

Paper and pen in hand, he was determined to prepare a special dessert for me to enjoy each of our five remaining nights aboard the Celebrity Equinox, until we disembark early for our extended stay in Belize. A little embarrassed by all the attention I quietly spewed the list of items I must avoid
commonly used in baking. He asked many
questions on the items I could have.

It was obvious, when I tried to refuse his generous offer, that he loved the challenge when his usual days and nights consisted of
creating the same “cookie cutter” desserts for the 11,000 meals served each day. 

Tom took the above photo of Chef Xavier and I table side. The favorite maître’d,
observing this scenario insisted that he’d find us tonight and each upcoming night taking down our names and cabin number.
I suspected that their sophisticated computer system could easily locate us
after we check in for dining.

So, I look forward to a new dessert concoction tonight and nights to come. I told Tom that even if doesn’t taste fabulous, I’ll eat it anyway and enjoy it knowing that the thoughtful consideration in itself whet my appetite. 

Thanks Chef Xavier. Your kindness adds yet another memorable event to our year’s long
journey, so rich in its content and already becoming so rich in the experience of the meeting new and interesting people along the way.

Extra expenses while cruising…

After seven days aboard ship, we’ve begun to get a handle on what we’re spending while cruising, over and above the cost of the cruise itself.

So far, based on cash remaining in our wallets for this cruise (which we’ve kept locked in our cabin safe) and the bill on the TV, we’ve spent $759 from the moment we arrived at the pier in San Diego. 

This total includes cash tips at the pier, tips throughout the cruise. Tips were included in the price of the cruise but we’ve experienced extraordinary service warranting some additional tipping. In addition, we’ve charged the $399 WiFi bill and bar tabs. Tom’s cocktails (Courvoisier and 7 UP) are $7 each and my diet tonic with lime i$2.  We each have two to three of these each day at most.

Coffee(too strong), milk (which we don’t drink), hot tea, iced tea (too strong), and “tap” water (purified, they say) are free. All bottled beverages vary in price, ranging from $2 to $5.

 To save on
the cost of beverages beside our cocktails, we brought along about 30 quart-sized powdered packets of our favorite beverage, Crystal Lite Iced Tea.
Ice and water is provided in our cabin and available in the restaurants. 

With our trusty Contigo chill-holding, handled mugs in tow, we’re able to make our own iced tea to enjoy throughout the day, hauling them with us everywhere we go. We’ve calculated that we’ve saved no less than $300 for the entire cruise by having our own beverages on hand.

Yesterday, simply by buying and sending the six grandchildren one postcard each, as we’ll often do when entering new countries, we spent $16. 

Each night, we’ve given our waiter in the Grand Restaurant an “extra” $10 in cash although a 15% tip was added to the original cost of the cruise which totaled $ 5,545.48 (for both of us in a balcony cabin of 186 square feet).  

Dubrokov been amazing accommodating my strict gluten-free, grain-free, starch-free, and sugar-free diet, bringing me extra piles of steamed vegetables and larger portions of salad. Luckily, the menu references gluten and sugar-free options.

Everything we’ve heard about venturing out on any of our cruise ship’s offered excursions has made the idea
of spending $100 to $300 for the two of us has been unappealing. 

Yesterday, an excursion was offered for a “self-guided” tour of Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala for $48 per person.  The passengers were to gather in a designated area only ten minutes from the pier to be handed a map in order to travel about on their own. Duh? $96 (for two) for a map and a finger pointed in a direction?  No, thanks.

Oh yes, there were other excursions such as the $188 (for two) bus ride to the Western Highlands of Guatemala, to the home of the living Maya and the ancient city of Iximche, now in ruins.  This four-hour outing included lunch in a local restaurant.

Tuesday night we heard of a couple on the ship suffering from food poisoning after such an outing. This is not to say the local restaurants are selling “tainted” food but our tender tummies may not do well eating and drinking local fare, especially with no time to become adapted. 

Another offering for yesterday was a trip to visit a block of historical buildings on cobblestone streets. The cost was $199.50 per couple.

If this were our annual “vacation” we may have budgeted for some of the excursions and be enthusiastic to take advantage of every such opportunity. Knowing that in no time at all, we’ll be living in one interesting and historical locale after another, we’ve decided to wait to venture out on our own or with locals we meet along the way.

As I have mentioned in the past, our interests lie in “living” in the various countries from one month to four months (planned so far) allowing us to feel more like a resident than a tourist. 

We aren’t as much interested in familiar tourist attractions with long waiting lines and barking salespeople, although we will visit the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, Giza, the French Riviera, the Mayan ruins in
Belize and many more.

Although the ship has many stores offering high-end merchandise including clothing, jewelry, art, duty-free liquor, and various sundries, we are so well equipped, we don’t have a need or desire to purchase anything. 

Tom downloads the daily Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper and has many books, as do I, on the Kindle apps on our phones and computers. When not busy, we may spend an hour or two reading each afternoon.

As for the Internet, while at sea we use the ship’s pricey plan at $.24 a minute on the $399 plan, allowing each of us to stay in touch with family and friends for
about one hour per day. 

While in port, we can use the XCOM Global Wi-Fi device, which finally started working yesterday after the company’s tech support discovered they’d set up the device incorrectly for us. We are being credited for the days we were unable to connect at $14.95 a day.

In only four days, this Sunday, we’ll be seated at the bow of the ship at 4:00 or 5:00 am to get a first-hand view of the ship’s entrance into the Panama Canal, its locks and dams where the Pacific Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean. This was our motive for selecting this particular 15-day cruise.

We’ve attended three of five aboard ship seminars thus far on its rich history, its politics, it’s culture, and its people along with the interesting story of the building of the canal. 

We were told by the presenter that this ship barely fits (by 24″ on each side) into the locks and dam system.  This will be an interesting sight to see through the 8 to 10-hour trip through the canal. Tom is excited that in
May, we’ll also cruise through the Suez Canal, another interesting bit of history we’ll also enjoy.

It all boils down to the tone of our new lives together: we’ll only experience that which appeals to us, not what a cruise ship director or travel agent may encourage us to do and not, “what everyone else may do.”  Yes, sometimes we will follow the mainstream, the crowd, doing the expected. 

More often, we’ll wander about in our own time, visiting with locals on our own schedule, living life, loving life, and enjoying this interesting end enriching time of our lives. 

All in all, cruising is expensive.  We’d budgeted $1400 for extra expenses on this cruise and no doubt we will end up in this range. That averages about $7000 for the 15 days for a daily average of $466, almost twice as much as we’ll spend on the other seven cruises we’ve booked so far.

This cruise was special as our first out of the chute as the first leg of our worldwide journey and especially meaningful to Tom, as a history buff with extensive knowledge of the Panama Canal all of which I now find fascinating. I had no idea how much he actually had already learned about the canal on his own over the years.

See…we learn new things about one another spending 24 hours a day together.  Not too bad, eh?

Footnote:  Norovirus is still raging aboard ship.  Now the waiters fill our plates in the breakfast/lunch buffet line as opposed to our scooping up our own choices. Also, a staff person stands at the entrance to every area, at each elevator, and in doorways holding huge pump bottles of hand sanitizers requiring every passer-by to partake.

In addition, we’ve been washing our hands before leaving and upon entering our cabin several times per day. We brought along 500 sanitizing wipes (having stuff pays off!) which we use to clean our phones, our mugs, and any other items we may touch. So good so far.