Buckley's blog

The Never Ending Story

This Week's Featured Op-Ed Column in The Cape Cod Chronicle 

Contrary to what some pundits might think, this is a fun time to be a Republican.  Or at least that's how I'm feeling.  Now I'm not talking about whatever is going on with President Bush or whichever suit is leading whichever minority faction in Congress or the State House.  And I'm really not talking about major issues facing the country like war or inflation or recession or stagflation or whatever.
 
I'm talking simply about the horse races.
 
There was a lot going on in both parties for quite some time.  We had dueling debates in various states around the country.  Democrats would meet on CNN's stage one night, and the next it would be the Republicans.  It was just a guess as to how many chairs there would be.
 
I'll admit that I am happy with my party's nominee, John McCain.  I supported him back in 2000, and after all that has happened since, I truly wish he had been the President on 9/11.  He was just better equipped to do the job at the time.
 
John McCainI'm not saying I don't disagree with him on substantive issues.  The issues of a shrinking middle class, stagnating wages for the working poor and generational poverty in America would not have been addressed by the immigration bill his sponsored.  But he says that he heard from the American people that they want the border secured first, and says, "I got the message."  That's what he says that he'll do first, and I trust him.
 
And now it is all wrapped up for the GOP.  We'll go into St. Paul on Labor Day weekend and it should be an interesting convention.
 
This will commence just a few days after the Democrat's convention in Denver.  And that's what I'm really talking about here:  the almost even divide in the party of Jefferson, Jackson, FDR and JFK between the Obamaniacs and the Hillarians.  The news channels are loving Obama & Clintonthis, too, because the tortuous prolongation of the contest gives them an easy fallback story on any slow news day.  It just keeps going on and on and on...
 
Its as if the Red Sox clinched the pennant early in season, and now even our bat boy is glued to a broadcast of a Mets-Cubs slugfest.  Sure, we're watching, partly because we feel like we've heard much of this before.
 
Again, I'm not talking substance.  I'm talking about the Clintons.
 
It is with great delight that I hear Democrats complaining about the Clinton campaign.  I tell them, "This is what we went through for eight years.  Being talked to like we were misguided fools, hysterical over nothing, and finally having to debate the meaning of the word 'is'."
 
What the real problem with the Clintons, clearly in evidence this primary season, is that Hillary Clintonthey are so good at spin that it seems that's all there is.  It is more about playing the game than actually doing anything -- anything more than remaining in power.  And there seems to be a near-pathological aversion to admitting mistakes.  It is an innate lawyerlyness that, by demonstrating skill at arguing any side of an issue to their advantage, shows the motivation is not about issues, or the public good, or even ideology, but rather personal ambition (singular) of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
 
Thus, the Democratic party seems to have broken down between those who say, "Well, that's how the game is played, and if the Clintons play it better than anyone else, then they should have it?", and those who say, "But that's not why I vote from someone."
 
At least, that's the way it strikes me, from the outside of it all.  As Republican, I hope Hillary Clinton is the nominee.  Poll after poll show she's a weaker candidate against John McCain.  Her supporters should not delude themselves.  After the past few months, not one Obama supporter I've spoken to is willing to vote for Hillary Clinton in November.  They're now as sick of a Clinton dynasty as they were of the Bush dynasty.
 
A familiar houseAnd while Obama Democrats do say nice things about John McCain, they don't actually need to show up on Election Day for him.  More than likely, many will be so disenchanted that they will go back to doing what they have done previously, and stay home.  While this would help my candidate, it would be un-American to rejoice at victory won by the disillusionment of so many.
 
What this primary season has managed to accomplish, then, has been to up-end the normal processes and see the establishment, the orthodox, react -- often badly -- to a challenge.  The GOP got it done first, but the show goes on across the street.
 
In this interregnum, Republicans can commiserate with at least half the Democrats in the country about their adversaries, Clintons.  We feel your pain -- and we try not to smile.

Photo credits:  1) McCain Campaign, 2) Obama Campaign, 3) Clinton Campaign, 4) Diana Walker

Read Andy's other columns at this blog or at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

Zuiderdam Cruise: Return to Port and Reality

Deck chairs at restThis cruise was the first vacation I've ever taken as an adult.  Not that I've never gone anywhere for non-business reasons.  But the idea behind my travelling previously typically involved some kind of project.  Or to visit friends living in a particular area (more likely, both). Not the traditional "go to someplace and just relax and/or recreate."

I haven't done that since I was 18 and went to Sugarloaf in Vermont with a friends' family for skiiing.  After one day, the temperatures went above freezing, the next day it rained, and I came home 2 days early.  At the dawn of adulthood, that taught me that pleasure-only trips can quickly go south if the simplest things don't cooperate.

I've done book signing tours in the Northwest, and research trips to London (adding visits to friends in Paris and Denmark) and Southeast Asia.  I've lived in Germany, and spent plenty of time at Sofie's grandparent's in Austria.  According to Chandra, none of these really count as going away for a vacation.  I agree.

This was different.  And if I could do it again, I would.  Not every time -- it is a fantasy life, to a great extent.  But it had some distinct advantages.  Like that I could go scuba diving one day (albeit risking my life unnecessarily) and travel to the next spot that same afternoon.  I couldn't have done that on a plane -- without my skull exploding.  Or, finding a place that was not to my liking (San Juan), I could retreat to the pleasure palace that was the ship with the knowledge we'd be on our way.

Cruise Ship Parking Lot

But, really, the best thing was having everything handy.  We could unpack for the whole week and have it all set before us. What I didn't like that, although meals and shows were free, they never missed an opportunity to nickel and dime us.  Free wi-fi should be standard.  There was no self-serve laundry -- it was either a hefty charge for whatever we could fit into a large sandwich bag or wash them in the sink.  Or, in my case, buy more socks.

But as we got our stuff together and disembarked, these were minor, minor concerns.  We left vastly more relaxed than when we arrived.  And, I have to give shipboard life credit -- I gained maybe half a pound.  The food was served in senior sizes (much like in European restaurants), which is not such a bad thing when the food is fairly rich and ful of flavor.  You get to try more things, after all.  Now add to that the trek half a mile to the dining room and back, and suddenly you're exercising even when heading to the get your fill at the thrice-daily trough.  And that late night snack of ice cream, cookies or pizza on the Lido deck

Unlike arriving via Jake Express, we now took the bus to the airport.  The cost was like 10 bucks each, which we had booked the day before.  For the short time and distance, we could have caught one of the many cabs and gotten there perhaps earlier, and a few dollars cheaper.

When we got there, the bus driver said, "Welcome back to reality."  I imagine dropping people off from a cruise is probably the most pleasant part of his workday.  People are so mellow.  In Back to Workthis case, they weren't even in a rush.  Couldn't be in a rush.  Inside the Ft. Lauderdale terminal, lines of people crowded every available space.

Turns out snow had shut down flights to and from Chicago and most of the eatern seaboard the day before.  While waiting in line, Chandra met a friend from work who had been at the airport going on her second day.  Standby was fading reality for her, so she and her teeange daughter were about to rent a car to drive back to Boston.  All the trains had been booked already.

JetBlue was overwhelmed like every other airline, and thanks to technology passengers were able to check with the airlines and other airports to totally undercut whatever desk personnel were claiming.  "The plane that you just said will be here in 3o minutes hasn't even left the ground in New York yet" and that sort of stuff.  Having had their image tarnished just a few weeks prior by keeping a plane on the tarmac for hours and hours simply gave the impression that JetBlue people were trying really, really, reallyreallyreally hard to be nice.

Okay, fine, I just got back from a week of doing nothing important, and if we're waiting another hour here, that's okay... this was our attitude.

As for the flight itself, we had taken AirTrain EconoProp airlines down and the contrast with JetBlue could not have been more stark (as mentioned previously, we found it was cheaper to fly one way with each than roundtrip with either -- go figure).  JetBlue had flat screen tv's in the back of every seat, and we could change the channels.  They gave out snacks that I had actually heard of (Famous Amost cookies, Sun Chips, etc.) and these weren't the 25-cent-slip-in-your-vest-pocket versions -- they were I-better-save-the-rest-of-this-for-later size.  Good business model, guys.

And that's it.  We got back to Boston.  It was cold.  I drove home to Chatham.  And real life began again.  Here's the skinny on the trip:

Holland America Cruise Lines:  Good food, good service, too cheap on modern conveniences, watch out for nebulous competitions.

AirTran:  Take it if you have to.  Or just to teach the other guys lessons about keeping fares low.

JetBlue:  Take it if you can.  But maybe wear a t-shirt that says "I will become this flight's Official Unruly Passenger if we do not take off one hour after we leave the gate."

Grand Turk:  Go diving.  Go scuba diving.  Go helmet diving.  Do not waste your time at the beachside club.  Instead, find some reason to hold your head underwater for at least 20 minutes.

San Juan:  Check that the Marshall's is still open before you go.  Otherwise, skip it.  In fact, skip any cruise line that offers to take you there.  A waste of a day better spent elsewhere.

St. Thomas:  Skip it.  Save your money.  Tell the cruise lines that they better dock you in town or shuttle you for free there.

St. John:  Go.  Hit the earliest ferry from St. Thomas and try to stay as long as you can.

Half Moon Cay:  Make sure this is part of any cruise itinerary, and a bonus if it is your last stop.  If you can manage it, have your birthday there.  Or die there.  Or both.  You might even get a free towel.

Half Moon Cay and R-e-s-p-e-c-t

Half Moon Cay

Read the previous installment here.

Our last full day of the cruise.  You'll see from the photo to the right, that the ship was not  adjacent to any land, but moored offshore.  No pier at Half Moon Cay, Holland America's private island in the Bahamas.  The "Half Moon" is actually a corporate homage to explorer Henry Hudson's ship -- the real name of the place is Little San Salvador Island.  Click on the photo to watch a video of the beach.

We'd heard great things about this place, including it being named "best private island" by some travel magazine.  Not that I'd be able to tell any different from any other private island, since I've only ever been to one other -- Naushon off of Woods Hole (private preserve of the Masachusetts Forbes family).  Unless you want to count Monomoy Island, which national Wildlife Service and certain bird groups have, on occasion, treated as their own private preserve.

So we had to grab a shuttle to shore, which we did early.  For her birthday, Chandra wanted to ride a horse through surf on a tropical island.  After ditching me with my detective novel at a beach chair, she got her wish. 

My sister, Elisabeth Kelly, used to live in St. Croix, and before I left for this cruise expressed the hope we'd have good weather.  "Don't worry about it.  It used to rain there every day.  But it only rained for maybe 15 minutes, and then the sun would come out and everything would dry off and before you know it, you're hot and hoping it will rain again."

All you want to do is ride around, Sally...

So right after I took up residence on my beach chair, it rained.  I took shelter under a nearby palm tree, which afforded me as much cover as a baseball cap.  So I dug into my backpack, dug out my cap, upon which it stopped raining and everything was fine.

A little after noon, Chandra returned from her ride.  It had been either swimming with the manta rays or riding the ponies.  She was happy with her choice... and even got a few invitations from her Jamaican instructors to stay on the island and take up residence with them when they returned at the end of the cruising season to Jamaica.  "Didn't take 'em up on it?" I asked.

"No," she replied.  "But there's still time..."

There's a pretty good setup at Half Moon Cay for eating.  It is set up as a buffet with all sorts of burgers, barbecue and other beach food.  Everyone eats their fill, then chokes down more dessert, and then waddle back to their beach chairs.  As this was the last full day of the cruise, the feeling is not unlike the last good summer day.  There's a palpable feeling of it being over, and so everything seems extra glorious.  Unlike San Juan, HAL nailed the schedule perfectly in this regard.  You really go out on a bang here.

Looking up the beach at Half Moon CayApparently, someone else had the same idea.  When we got back to our chairs, we learned that a gentleman had passed away a little earlier on the day while sitting on the beach.  Heart attack, apparently.  Not a bad way to die, and not a bad place to do it, everyone we ran into agreed.  I'm guessing he wasn't travelling alone, so maybe that view wasn't universally held.  But even that assumption could be incorrect.

I never found out who the deceased was.  But we guessed that when one of the shuttles running back to the ship, apparently empty, passed by, that the dearly departed was heading back with us.  "Wait, he's coming with us?" Chandra wondered.

"Well, there's no airstrip."  I had earlier remarked that it appeared everything we ate had been broughton shore with us.  The place was only provisioned enough for the 30-odd employees who look after the horses and other facilities seasonally.  Even the horses leave when everyone else does.  "And I'm guessing there's no huge cooler he can hang out in until someone else arrives.  I'm guessing that Holland American brought him here, and everything else they brought to the beach today, they gotta take him back, too."

Beach Chairs, Half Moon Cay"Where would they keep him?"

"They could have a morgue.  I mean, how look at the typical Holland America customer."  This had been a ongoing joke.  When we booked the cruise, Chandra had pointed out that Holland America Line are not mistaken for "the fun ships."  No, this is the more conservative line.  Lots of grandparents.  Average age was over 50, she had said, and white.  "Oh, so it will be like Chatham."  And it was.  So having a morgue on board made a lot of sense when many of your passengers are already living on borrowed time.  Meanwhile, Chandra enjoyed skewing the demographic.

So before we headed back, we took one more swim.  When I looked down through the crystal-clear water, I saw... things swiming around me.  Not having my glasses on, I really couldn't tell what they were.  Chandra saw them, too, and after she got my glasses, we could see they were fish.  Except for s few black stripes, they appeared to be almost transparent.  Must have been a reflection, because after all these years on the water, I'm fairly sure that fish don't have clear blood.

There were a few blasts of a horn down by the docks.  I don't know how many times they sound click here to watch the videothe signal for everyone to come back to the shuttles back to the ship, but they keep doing it.  And most everybody took their sweet time packing up.  Unlike St. Thomas, San Juan or Grand Turk, the ship will not -- probably is prohibited from -- leave anyone behind.  As our left the dock, I caught this video of departure down the narrow manmade channel, and past the beach.

So back onboard at last, we changed and hit our last dinner of the trip.  Having only had several days to prepare, I suddenly remembered to mention to our waited it was Chandra's birthday.  As we strolled into the Vista Dining Room, quite a few people were wishing her well for tonight's final night of Zuiderdam Superstars.  "What do you think you'll win?" one asked.

"God only knows," she replied.  "But after all this, I hope it's worth it."

 After our dinner plates were taken away, a crowd of the dining room staff gathered round and sung an Indonesia birthday song AND happy birthday to Chandra.  Quite a few of our fellow diners joined in as well.  Then, sufficiently stuffed, we headed off to the show.

Julie AndrewWe had previously had a discussion as to what that final song should be.  Pickin's was gettin thin on the song list, and we were trying to guage the crowd.  She had been told to pick an up-tempo song by the show's staff, and so that limited it a bit.  At last, she picked "Respect" by Aretha Franklin.  Kinda fit her mood by that point -- with the big mystery about what she'd be getting after picking up the slack for the entertainment crew.

So, as I recall, Julie Andrews stopped being Julie Andrews and did Dancing Queen by Abba.  The girl from Canada did another great, great job with... well, whatever she sang.  But when Chandra came out, this final night, she told me her throat immediately closed up so she ended up singing the song a little higher than Aretha Franklin (pProbably shoulda had another Amaretto Sour).  Then Stephanie, the young lady from Texas came out.

I don't know where she got this dress, but she was travelling with her mother, father and sister.  HoustonThis is not the sort of dress one wears to a formal evening.  Maybe a very high-end disco.  But, more than likely, it was bought during the cruise specifically for this show.  She did a fine job (although the Canadian girl consistently did a better job singing and Chandra consistently looked more comfortable on stage).  So, as you can see from this video, she took home the prize of... something we were not informed of at that time by the judges.

After it was all over, I caught Chandra coming out of the Queen's Lounge while she was just happy it was over, it was clear she unhappy with her throat constricting to give her voice a more pixy-like tenor.  "So," I asked, "what did you get?"

She held it up.  A towel.

Meanwhile, Stephanie went by with her family.  She was carrying a white IMac.  "Why does she have a laptop?" I asked Chandra.

Chandra said that Stephanie had the song and had been rehearsing.  I hadn't signed up for internet access since the ship charge for it was $5/minute -- with an extra connection charge, even if you were using wireless.  To download a song, then, would have cost... a lot.  Like the dress.

Then Cruise Director Trevor Millar, who was one of the judges, and his assistant, who served as emcee, walked out of the Queen's Lounge.  They thanked Chandra for all her nights, singing, and then she introduced me.  I said I was really happ to finally talk to him since no one at the front desk had gotten back to me regarding my credentials as a travel writer for Cape Cod Today

I could not -- could not if I had been director Norman Jewison himself -- gotten a more authentic portrayal of shock from these two young gentlemen.  They stopped.  Their eyes went wide.  They looked at each other.  They looked back at me.  But before they could say anything, I asked, "Do you give the winner a laptop?"

"What?  A laptop?  Who?  No!  No, no, no...  who said that?"

 From what I learned, she got two towels.  Good thing she bought the dress.  Maybe it was better Chandra didn't win.  There might have been two more dead men on board that night.

We ended up at the casino that night.  It is nothing special, and slots pays off in Bahamian Prize-Winning Towelquarters.  When the next and final stop is Florida, you really don't need a pocket full of foreign change in your pocket. We each decided to splurge.  I think I broke a five at the cashier.  When that was gone, I found a quarter on the floor and that became twelve bucks within a few seconds.  We had to get going, so it took us a while to get rid of it all.  Maybe not what the a casino is meant for -- still, Holland America came out ahead.

But we had a towel.

Next installment:  Back to port and reality

Day at Sea #2: Santa Baby

Read the previous installment here.

Today is an easy day.  A day at sea.  Our first day at sea was different.  We had just left port the day before.  We spent the day exploring the ship.  Tasting different foods.  Asking the Doin' nuthin' and lovin' itcrew things they couldn't answer.  Going places we shouldn't.  Touching things we were told not to.  It was like an homage to my three year-old, Sofie.

But now we knew things were winding down. Tomorrow we'd be at Half Moon Cay, in the Bahamas, and the next was back to Ft. Lauderdale and home.  This day at sea would be fully appreciated.

 This morning I found two deck chairs on a sunny side of the ship, just 10 feet below our windows.  And with my disposable pulp detective novel in my lap, and Chandra in the next chair, we sat and indulged in reading.  All day.  And intermittently napped.

After lunch, I brought down a tray of dessert and iced tea to continue the indulgence.  It was about this time an announcement was made by Trevor Millar, our Cruise Director, over the P.A.  Because of popular demand, the girl from Canada would be brought back into the competition AND this meant ONE MORE NIGHT OF ZUIDERDAM SUPERSTARS!!!

I nearly had to use a shovel to get Chandra's jaw off the floor. "No!  No, no, no!  They can't do this to me!  I wanted this to be the last night -- no, c'mon!  Tomorrow's my birthday!  I don't to have to perform for everyone on my birthday!"

At least, that's how I remember her rather calm, cool, collected reaction.

So we sat down again with that tired old list of songs and tried find something that she knew and would enjoy singing.  I still wasn't being much help.Houston

"Sweet Dreams?"

"Sweet dreams are made of these..." Chandra sang to herself, "... no."

"Sugar Walls?"

 "No."

"Strut?"

 "No."

"I didn't mean Bob Seger.  I meant the Sheena Easton one."

"Hmmm, I know you meant."

"Santa Baby?"  I was joking.

"Hmmmmm...."Julie Andrews

Oh, okay, maybe I wasn't joking.

"Yes.  Yes, I can do that.  Okay, yes.  And I'll be all dressed up because it is a formal evening for dinner tonight."

Problem was, we were set for set for the late dinner, and the show started before our dinner was to end.  We went down to the Vista Dining Room and explained we needed an earlier seating.  Not that the staff had any problem with this -- they all knew Chandra well by now, and hoped to catch the very end of the show after the final seating for dinner.

Because it was formal night, everyone was dressed to the nines at the show.  I really can't recall what Julie Andrews sang, but she was wearing the very large shiny-stoned piece around her neck, and several people around me started poking me, asking "Are those real diamonds?"Canada

"If they are, she won't be getting off the boat with them."  Some shopkeeper in Charlotte Amalie must have been made very happy yesterday. 

The other two young ladies did a good job, too.  The girl from Canada really has some pipes, and I'd say you'll definitely hear more from her... if I could remember her name.

So then Chandra came out.  A confused Trevor Millar introduced her, saying this was a little touch of Christmas in the Caribbean.  To get a taste of Chandra's vamping, click on the photo of Trevor and fellow judge, Becky Allen, or here.

Trevor Millar and Becky AllenAs you can hear, the crowd ate it up, and I'm pretty sure Chandra got the most votes that night.  There were a few other contestants, but when it was over, we were left with four finalists to go on for ONE MORE NIGHT.

Yay.

When we finally got back to the room, exhausted, the latest towel creation awaited us.  I looked at it, and reflected on how Holland America was able to get their passengers to provide entertainment, night after night, for free.

 "How appropriate," Chandra sighed.  "A monkey."

"I wonder if he does tricks, too, if you give him peanuts."

"You think you're very funny, but you're not."

"Hey, I didn't ask them to make a monkey tonight."

Towel Monkey

 "Hmmmmm."

I looked at the animal again.  It was a real work of art.  "But do you notice how he's hanging by his thumbs.  Like in limbo.  Not knowing what's going to happen, or even if it is worth it?"

"Mmm-hmmm."

"Did they tell you yet what the prize is?"

"No... no..." she said.  "They keep avoiding the subject.  But after all this, it better be damn good."

Next installment:  Half Moon Cay and R-e-s-p-e-c-t

American Virgins: Amber and the Iguana

Read the previous installment here

Port

We should have gotten up earlier.

Our idea had been to head into Charlotte Amalie, which is commercial center of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.  Then catch the water shuttle to St. John and spend the day there.

Now, as you can see from the photo to the left, the dock is pretty well laid-out.  But it is far, far from town.  So when the mass of our fellow passengers hit the shore, they overwhelmed the many shuttle buses there. 

 That the Noordam, sister ship to Zuiderdam, was docked right next door, simply added to the number of visitors.  But it was pretty cool to head down that pier, flanked by these monsters, Noordam's bow pointing landward, and Zuiderdam facing out to sea.

At the taxi stands, it was practically chaos, with no set line, and no set fee.  We finally found a space for the two of us for $10 Noordam & Zuiderdameach.  One way.  And they wouldn't leave until they filled every seat.  If there was one seat empty, and a group of four showed up -- nope, we just sat there.

As we approached Charlotte Amalie, we noticed a few cruise ships docked right in town.  Maybe I'm wrong, but I got the impression that whoever got their ship in first got the best parking space.  Okay, that's fair.  But if you're going to drop your people so far from everything you've told them about on the island, you should organize the transportation.

Stepping off the bus along the waterfront, we found where the water shuttle to St. John took off.  The trip over takes 45 minutes, but wasn't leaving for over another hour.  But the return schedule either meant we could only be there for two and a half hours or, taking a later shuttle, get back at 3:45, with only fifteen minutes before Zuiderdam departed.  Since the gangplank went up about that same time, that seemed a little too close.  If we had gotten up half an hour before, we could have caught the earlier boat and had a longer time on St. John.

So we poked around town a little bit, seeing there were plenty of jewelry stores.  Chandra figured that since we'd have some time on our hands after we came back from St. John, she'd look around for some amber pieces.Click here to watch the video

Charlotte Amalie is very, very touristy.  Between the speeding taxis, it was amazing when I came across, in the middle of it all, a true local -- an iguana crossing the street.  As I was shooting this video of him, some other tourist, deep in conversation, nearly stepped on him.  "Nothing special," I said to the guy.  "Kind of like a scaley rat."  His female companion did not appear to be helped by my observation.

The shuttle, the Capital Venture, arrived on time and when we got a chance to board I strongly suggested that we get down below and leave the exposed topside to the very loud, very profane frat boys so they could work on their skin cancer (Jeez, guys, I know you're on vacation, but there were little kids around).  The cost was only $11 one way. 

Since I got my master mariner's license a few years ago, I've made ahabit of checking out the documentation of any vessel I go on.  It Capital Venturelists capacity, age, and so forth.  In this case, the shuttle carried the name like "Cape Adventure", and originally was from Cod Cod!  I'm guessing it did charter fishing, but maybe someone else has better info.

Chandra asked how they could have gotten it all the way down here.  I got a dreamy look in my eyes, thinking of being on board for that voyage, down the East Coast, past the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti and Puerto Rico.  I'd be up for it.  Probably wouldn't have the turn down service or towel animals like Zuiderdam, though.

Once over on St. John, we grabbed a bite to eat in Cruz Bay and tried to figure out our plans for our short time there.  The whole feeling of the place was much more relaxed and less commercial than St. Thomas -- that helped our mood. 

After looking over the map, we decided on Hawksnest Bay, on the north side of the island, and part of the National Park here -- so it was free.  We found a shuttle to take us (no waiting for it to Hawksnest Bay, St. John's, USVIfill up) and it only took about 10 minutes.  When we arrived at the parking area for the beach, our driver assured us that all we had to do for a return trip was to stand out by the road and a shuttle would eventually pick us up.

I don't believe it is cop-out for me, as a writer, to say "click on the photo to the left and watch the video".  I can't do the place justice with words.  The water was crystal clear.  The sky was blue, blue.  The sand was warm.  It was a little windy.  If I could, I would have stayed all day.

We were probably there a little over an hour before it was time to pack it up.  A shuttle did indeed swing by after less than ten minutes.   But it dropped us off a little further from the Cruz Bay pier than we had wanted.  Hoofing the next few blocks, we jumped on board and took in a Leaving St. John'slittle sun on the upper deck (the sun's rays not so harsh now), and departed St. John (click here or on the photo to watch the video). 

Although time well-spent, it was clear to both of us that Holland America should have allowed more time on Grand Turk and here, and skipped over San Juan.  They could have also facilitated an easier transit to St. John, as Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas has no bargain shopping, and only advantage is as a place to go elsewhere.

Arriving back in Charlotte Amalie, Chandra and I hit the jewelry stores.  No amber here.  No amber there.  Lots and lots and lots of diamonds.  One recommended a store just around the corner.  We looked for the store.  There was no store.  So, discouraged and tired, she headed one direction and I decided to head in another, perhaps also to get a few souvenirs.  Again, there were no bargains.  I'd seen a lot of the same kind of clothing in Indonesia and the Philippines -- quality was the same, but the prices were as much as I might pay in P-Town.

I finally found the store that supposedly had amber.  It specialized in sweatshirts, ships in a bottle and some very cheap-looking jewelry.  Showed what the other jewelers, with their focus on diamond-crazy cruise tourists, thought of amber.

Thinking about it, I decided to walk back to the ship.  I had time.  And I could see it.  I always think that if I can see something, it can't be so far away.  On the Cape, this seems reasonable.  Mountains confuse me.  The Plains states confuse me.  Large cruise ships on the other side of the harbor... well, they don't confuse me so much.  But I probably shouldn't have tried this in a tropical environment while wearing swimshorts.  After the first quarter mile, that little mesh interior starts acting like a cheese grater with every step.

Leaving St. ThomasSo after half an hour of this, I finally arrived back at the ship and carefully made my way up the gangplank and back on board -- jungle rot on my mind.  Note:  you can never bring too many different kinds of ointments with you when travelling in the tropics.  Maybe that's why I had forgotten my socks.

After all that rushing around, Zuiderdam got a late start out of St. Thomas.   We headed out of the harbor at sunset, passing Charlotte Amalie (click here on the photo at the left to watch the video).

That night, I swung by the front desk and asked to speak with someone about my press credentials, hoping to get some greater background on the ship.  No one in the past few days had bothered to get back to me.  The very polished young man there went into the back office again, and returned again, saying his manager was busy (again).  Okay, but as I was leaving, I asked the young man where he was from.From Baguio to Vigan

"The Philippines."

"Really? Where?"

"Luzon."

"What part of Luzon?"

 "A small city, Baguio."

"Oh, yes.  Up in the mountains.  I flew in there, on my way to Vigan."

He looked a little stunned.  I added, "Nice place.  Not too warm."   When the U.S. had a miliatry presence in the Philippines, Baguio had been a headquarters and retreat from the stifling heat and drenching monsoons closer to Manila Bay.  My bus trip from Baguio, down the mountains to the coast had featured hairpin turns at 60 mph or more that left me wondering if we had kept all wheels on the road at all times.  The young man at the desk agreed, "I'd rather fly out of Baguio, too."

After another great dinner in the dining room (at which all the waitstaff asked Chandra what he was going to sing), we got on over to the Queen's Lounge for he competition.  By now we were starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel for songs.  Chandra decided to go with one she really Zuiderdam Superstars Night 3liked, "I Love You, Baby."  She was the first to go on, and did another great job... but the crowd still needed some warming up.  When the final 3 were picked, she was one of the top vote-getters.  And Julie Andrews.  And one of two sisters from Texas.  But not a younger girl from Canada, who was very talented (but needed to work on her stage presence), who was cut.

One more night of this.  Okay, we just needed to find one more song.  What was the prize after all this work?

 Next installment:  Santa Baby

Photo of the iguana courtesy of Barbara Crews, the About.com Guide to Collectibles.

San Juan Socks

Read the previous installment here.

Zuiderdam in Port San Juan We woke up back in the United States.  Asleep at sea -- then,  daylight, we were docked in the heart of San Juan, Puerto Rico.  After a liesurely breakfast, we headed out for the day and, having come last from Grand Turk, we had to pass through U.S. Customs and Immigration.

Once out of the terminal, the air of Old San Juan was humid and smoggy, and reminded me of summer in any American city.  Chandra and I managed to avoid the first phalanx of tour bus drivers as we ambled along the harborfront.  But one older gentleman convinced her with a price of only $10.  So we piled in, meeting several of our fellow Zuiderdam passengers -- who apparently had been waiting for the driver to completely fill his minbus before he'd leave.

For the money, it was worth it.  The driver kept up a good banter about life in Puerto Rico, the rising price of gas (although it was much cheaper than the mainland), and the public welfare system.  We headed out of Old San Juan and into San Juan, which was not old, or new, but simply there.

Our bus driver noticed a few small groups of young American adults around, and said he'd noticed around recently.  More than a few people on board told him they must be on Spring Break from college.  He'd never heard of it.  We told him that it was very likely he would become very familiar with it in the next couple years.

When in a new place, I consider it a gift to find a local to give you a glimpse of regular life there. So when we stopped at a beachside park near Condado Plaza Hotel & Casino, Chandra and I went to get a cup of coffee with the driver while the other Zuiderdammmers milled about the seaside scenery.   The coffee and the air were about the same thickness, with the former being far more bracing.  I took about five sugars in my four-ounce cup.Zuiderdam Superstars Night 2

 I should now acknowledge that I failed to mention in my last installment that the previous evening was Chandra's second night of the Zuiderdam Superstars competition.  Instead of being in the Northern Lights Disco, they held it in the Queen's Lounge, which has a real stage and seating and everything.  Julie Andrews (not her real name, but close enough) sang I Could Have Danced All Night (again), and nailed it (again).  Chandra chose Mustang Sally, which every loved. The field was winnowed down to a manageable number.  We still weren't told what the rpize of this three-night competition was, but the crew and crowd were so enthusiastic, it didn't really matter.  So when we had gotten back on board the minibus, our fellow travelers had come to realize who Chandra was, with many asking what she was going to sing tomorrow night.  And whether Julie Andrews would sing Julie Andrews again.

Parliament Back on the road again, the driver took us next to the Parliament building.  Not unlike many other state houses, it has its share of distinctive regional art.  In this case, of course, Puerto Rico is not a state (yet). We obviously weren't the only people who had a visit here in in mind, as the place was crawling with tourists and over-lipsticked local tv reporters. 

 Departing, our bus wound its way through the narrow streets of the center of Old San Juan, to a small center plaza surrounded by various department stores.  At this point, we had a choice to continue along on the tour to the El Morro Fort at the entrance to the Port fo San Juan, or get off and check out things downtown for ourselves.  Seeing a Marshall's out the back, we took our cue and got off.  I needed some socks. 

There is no good explanation why I only packed one pair of socks (except for dress socks) for the whole weeklong trip.  Sure, I could wash them every day and hope they'd dry in the air conditioning overnight ( I had.  They hadn't.)  And I was wearing sandals for the most part onboard.  The real answer was, I had left my other pairs neatly rolled on my bed at home, and now needed to find size 14 socks.

Grasshopper

But apparently the men of Puerto Rico also have big feet.  Or at least those who buy white gym socks.  No problem, and they were something like 6 for 10 bucks.  But it is not a stretch to say that this was the high point of the trip.  There were some tourist traps around the square, too, and Chandra checked out some of the jewelry.  A fan of amber, she saw some pieces that really excited her, until she saw the prices.  No bargains here.

It was time to start sightseeing on our own, and headed towards the closer of the two ancient forts in the old city.  Along the way, a young man took a few pieces of palm leaf to weave a grasshopper for Chandra.   He did quite a good job, and it conveniently fit into her straw cowboy hat.  And her tip amounted to her most satisfied purchase in town.

Up at Castillo de San Cristobal, we paid the $3.00 entrance fee to the National Park Service and had a look around (click on the photo or here to watch a video of a panorama).  High above the rest of the city, we had a commanding view of the coast and ocean to the north, as well as the port to the south, including our own Zuiderdam.  But the air quality and heat were really starting to get to us after that climb, and we descended into the bowels of the old fort, which had also served as a prison.  Archaelogical work has revealed prisoner's artwork on the walls of the oldest cells.  But the cool, damp cell was a welcome respite this day -- and the view was better than the inside cabins on Zuiderdam.

Heading back down into town, we stopped at a local eatery that seemed to have just missed the lunch crowd.  Following my normal rule, I ordered something I never heard of, which turned out to be akin to a BLT.  Chandra ordered fried plantains and some soup.  The plantains were a big mistake.  Or maybe they like them that way there -- tasting like nothing.Cell

Sad to say, we were pretty much done with the place by the middle of the afternoon, so we headed back to the ship.  It gave us some time to relax, get some better food and try to look over the songbook for the next competition with Zuiderdam Superstars.  No matter how many times we did, the selection didn't improve.

Emerging from the ship after dinner, we took encouragement from the daily letter from the cruise director, Trevor Millar, and checked out San Juan's nightlife.  The ship wasn't leaving until 11 PM or somaking it a long day in San Juan.

Turned out to be too long.  I'm not sure what place in Old San Juan was supposed to have the nightlife, but we never found it. Instead, we walked and walked and walked... and saw a few bars, and stopped into one that had a few Spring Breakers... and walked and walked... and finally gave up.  Waiting on our bed was our room steward's latest towel creation:  a purebred terricloth puppy.Towel Dog

Maybe Old San Juan is interesting to people who come from Sunbelt cities where the distances between malls are marked by vast stretches of parking spaces.  There is a kind of European and Latin feeling to the place, but the run-down nature of the place is distinctly American.

It reminded me a bit of Macao, actually.  But like Macao, the place can be seen in a day or two.  I'm guessing it is actually a more interesting place to live for a while than to visit.

I can understand that logistics require Holland America to put Zuiderdam into port somewhere between Grand Turk and the next stop at St. Thomas.   But San Juan just doesn't cut it.  Not for a whole day.  Upon reflection, I would have rather had another day at sea, even if it meant going around in circles.

Next installment:  Amber and the Iguana

The Seed Corn

This Week's Featured Op-Ed Column in The Cape Cod Chronicle 

With Sofie off to Euroland this week visiting her Austrian grandparents, I've had some time to pull my head up from work and think about her future.
 
Born almost five years ago on a U.S. Army base Germany to an Austrian mother, Sofie started off with some advantages.  She can go to college for practically free at universities in Europe.  She's already learned to ski in the Alps, on the mountain that "Where Eagles Dare" was filmed.  And when it comes time for a job, she'll have two continents to from which to choose.
 
When I became a single father, Sofie was only 11 months old.  My choice to return home immediately was a simple one.  There was a large extended family, with a number of places we could stay temporarily.  Summer was coming, and what better place for a child to get fresh air, sunshine and exercise? But I was aware this was short-term planning.
 
But remaining in Chatham has been disheartening.  Chatham is not so much my home, as it is Sofie's home.  I compare it to the Chatham I grew up in, and for all the powdered milk and hand-me downs I knew, I find today's affluent Chatham lacking.  It all boils down to whether Chatham actually cares about its future.
 
If child - any child of any background - grows up here, do we care if after paying for that education that they move away?  Or are we to continue down the path of a "cruise ship economy", with workers and residents both here for a short period of time, and only the scenery stays the same?
 
Our much ballyhooed, much worked-on, unanimously-passed and often-cited Comprehensive Plan is now also much-ignored.  No one seems to be willing to talk about the economic development, despite a crying need.  As housing prices and the overall cost of living in Chatham continues to skyrocket, wages for the average wage-earner have stagnated.  We make meager progress at providing more affordable housing, but fail to address the other side of the equation:  How can we attract better paying jobs and businesses?
 
The initial decision of the Board of Selectmen to pay the Chamber of Commerce to handle economic development was disturbing public policy.  It strains credulity to believe that the Chamber would look to bring new business to town that would compete with its members for space, customers and employees -- regardless of the benefit of the community as a whole.
 
It is likewise absurd that our elected representatives would cede economic planning to an unelected, private entity, and fund them to boot, with no oversight.  We might as well get rid of the Planning Board, ConsCom and ZBA and hand their power over to local realtors and builders.  These may all be good people, but we need to look forward not back.  And this is not the way to run democratic, open government.
 
This is the twenty-first century Massachusetts.  Chatham has low crime and low dropout rates, terrific environmental resources, the most over-educated fishing fleet in the world, a large pool of retired business executives.  So the best we can come up with are six-to-nine month $8 an hour dishwasher and chambermaid jobs in an economy whose existence is based entirely upon whether the sun is out?  Talk about a house built on sand.
 
The Cape already has five locally-controlled economic development commissions.  But not Chatham.  Local parents - Selectmen included - should reflect on what kind of options they want to provide for their children.  We have a good idea of what Chatham's future will look like, and even what it will cost.  But what will it pay?

Read Andy's other columns at this blog or at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

Grand Turk: The Shark

Read the previous installment here.

Zuiderdam at Grand TurkIt's a funny thing to wake up and see something out your window that wasn't there when you went to bed.  I'm not talking a bird or dog, or even a Ford Econoline Van with blacked out windows.  I mean something like an island.  And a long pier leading from it to you. (click on the photo to the right to see this video on YouTube).

Got on my swimming trunks and tank top.  NAUI card showing my SCUBA certification.  Glasses (no contacts underwater).  ID card to let me back on the ship.  Cell phone.  Camera.  Still early, our breakfast already arrived.  Yogurt and orange juice.  Brush my teeth.  Okay... time to die.

Up the pier to the little courtyard beyond, members of the dive group trickle in, one by one.  One very sporty couple, wearing wetsuits and ball caps (both suitable weathered), and a few middle aged guys.  One heavy-set fellow from Canada named John had an appropriately wry sense of humor, and asks me how long it was since I dove.  "Too long," I say, not wanting to lie, but not wanting to concern him greatly either.  He's looking forward to Grand Turk, one of the top dive spots in the world, as he'd already gone in Mexico and elsewhere.

So our guides arrive and turns out Mr. Sporty knew our Jamaican dive master from yet another island in the  Caribbean.  So all was good -- this guy was not going to take us to certain death (that was entirely up to me).

The dive boat sets off for a brief ride to the dive site #1.  Then we set to work getting suited up and finding our Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.  I must stress again that it has been a decade since I handled dive equipment.  So I pay great attention to John as he get his tank and harness and such together.  But he decides not to go with a wet suit.  I'm on my own.

I slip it on and try to figure out where the zipper is.  Oh, inside.  Which means it is on inside out.  Anyone see this?  Nope.  They are paying attention to details like how to keep breathing underwater. 

Take it off, turn it right side out.  Put it on again.  Pull up the zipper. Wait, what are these things pushing into the back of my shins...?

I'm really stumped on this one... like big, flat pieces of plastic...

 ... look around at everyone else... nope, I'm at the back of the boat, so still no one notices my searching glances... then I notice...

... I can see everyone's zippers on their backs.  Mine is on the front.  I have it on backwards.

Getting ready to head outOkay, take it off AGAIN, still no one noticing, turn it around, put it on, reach around and zip it up, and there you have it.  John looks up. "Can you help me get this on?" he says, motioning to his weight belt.

I oblige, taking note of the number of weights he's carrying.  I decide to go with one less.  He's about half a foot short than me, so I figure that's about right.  Even at my thinnest, I'm naturally buoyant for some reason. This amount of weight feels right.

 Now I'm suited up with everything, and just as he's about to go in, I turn to John and say, "Pardon me for asking, but how much do you weigh?"

"Three hundred," he says, and exits.  At the time, I'm under 200.  And now carrying a shade less than he is.

Everyone else jumps in, one by one.  The divemaster calls to me from the water," Inflate your vest!"

I look down.  Right.  Gotta have some air in there to regulate my buoyancy.  More at the surface when we start.  Then as we descend, let it out.  I can add more from the tank if I want to rise.

But I cannot, for the life of me, recall the procedure to inflate the damn thing.  It is easy.  I know it is.  But what that easy thing is...

"C'mon -- just put some air in the vest!"  the divemaster calls again. I fiddle to look like I am, and then figure that I'm holding everyone up and go in.  Fully aware that I have almost NO air in the vest to keep me afloat, but carrying much, much more weight than I should.  I should sink to the bottom like a stone.  And whether out of pure Yankee cussedness or simple male curiosity that says "Okay, let's see what happens when we do this", I jump into a hundred or more feet of water.

I hit the water and sink.  Not too fast, though, and start pumping my legs to get back up to the surface.  When my face breaks the water, I'm already breathing hard.  I spit in my mask to clean it, rinse it out, put it on and breathe in through my nose just enough to make a seal. Kick, kick, kick.  Then everyone's gone.

I never really knew why nature decided to give me big flat feet.  By any concept of proportionality, I should either be 7 feet tall or have size 11 feet.  Instead, I'm 6'2 and have size 14.  When I was nine years old, I wore size 9 men's shoes.  That and narrow ankles meant I was constantly getting sprains as I was growing up -- and was convinced in an earlier era I would have been culled from the clan by some saber tooth tiger.  But in the case of swim fins, I'm equipped with better leverage than most.

So I don't sink... so quickly.  And when we descend, well, that's not an issue either.  I remember enough of my training to remember to hold my nose and blow to equalize my pressure every few feet.  But when we reach the bottom, I'm working hard not to scrape my face and belly onThe Anchor the reef.

Now, I should take a moment and say the scenery was amazing.  I was toward the end of the group, with John, and one of divemasters keeping track of us.  After about 5 or ten minutes, our divemaster swam up beside me and pointed down.  Then he pointed again.  Down.  I thought he was signalling me that I should go lower -- and then I saw in a little hollow in the reef below us the unmistakable head of a shark.  He wasn't big -- maybe the size of a large Dachsund or beagle -- and apparently quite shy.  Then he disappeared back into his cave. (photo credit:  Oasis Divers).

Not being able to ascend, I believed this was just the sort of shark I wanted to meet down here.  Small and meek.

At last, our divemaster came over to me, probably noticing I was paying far too close attention to the bottom of the ocean, and pushed a little blue button on my vest.  It inflated a little.  He did it again, and gave me the OK sign.  Yes, yes, that was it!  Right, now I remember.  OK, I signed back to him.  And I was off to the races.

Up, down, all around.  I could see how this is a favorite spot for divers.  It wasn't the sheer 400' walls of Indonesia, but it a close second.  And takes less time to get to.

As a diver, I always had a terrible time gulping down all my air, and thus shortening my time underwater considerably.  This time, however, I was cool  and ended up back at the surface about the same time as everyone else.

We took a small rest, then strapped on our second tanks in another location.  Now not in fear for my pathetic neck, I was able to thoroughly enjoy the experience.  Another tap on my Flying Fishshoulder from another diver revealed two dophins swimming by not 30 feet away -- a real treat. 

But when we finished up before noon, I was exhausted.  Happy, refreshed, relieved and gratified that I could now say that my last dive was in March 2007 and not ten years prior, it was definitely worth it.

And then the flying fish came on board.  Not just one.  Several.  One landed right on the seat.

Before throwing it back, I managed to snap a shot.  Hadn't been able to take my camera underwater, but when sea life comes to you, it is not something to ignore.

At long last, the dive boat headed back to the pier.  I want to take this moment to say that the crew was entirely professional, and by keeping an eye on me provided the assistance needed to make it an enjoyable experience.  A less conscientious outfit could have led to a very different outcome for yours truly.  Holland American certainly picked a good company to partner with.

The Dive Boat & Zuiderdam

Returning back to the Zuiderdam, I changed and returned to shore where I caught up to Chandra much later than we anticipated.  While the undersea part of her helmet dive went very well, it was very late taking off and there were all sorts of problems with boats breaking down and such.  Still, she was psyched having never done anything like that before, and was thinking about doing snuba (think cross between scuba and snorkling) in when we came to St. Thomas. 

So we're sitting at our table on the Lido Deck, having lunch or dinner or a snack or something, waiting for the ship to cast off,  and looking over the list of songs for Zuiderdam Superstar that night.  What should Chandra pick?  If you want to know the general nature of the selection, think:  Michael Bolton sings Kelly Clarkson.  Heavy on the soft rock and recent country.  Finally, she was able to pick out a few she was happy with, but then the announcment came over the PA:Helmet Diving

"WILL MR. ANDREW BARKLEY PLEASE USE THE WHITE COURTESY PHONE TO CALL THE FRONT DESK."

!?

"IF MR. ANDREW BARKLEY IS ON BOARD, PLEASE CALL THE FRONT DESK BY USING THE WHITE COURTESY PHONE."

Now, I was not going to quibble over the name.  I was pretty sure that it was me they meant.  But with Sofie visiting her grandparents in Austria...

... or maybe it had to do with the ship's staff finally verifying my press credentials...

...?

So I called.  They apologized for the mispronunciation.  Turns out that when I came back on board with Chandra, they had not swiped my ID card, and thought I was still on board.  Nope, I was here.  No problem, they said, thank you.

 Back at the table, we're back looking at the songs, trying to pick out one that would be cool for her to sing.  She wants Duran Duran's Hungry Like the Wolf.  I'm not much help, asking if they have Union of the Snake, too.  "NO," she says.

 "Lady Marmalade?"

"You wish."

 "On my birthday?"

 "Mmm-maybe."

"In public?"

"What?"

"WILL MR. ANDREW BARKLEY PLEASE USE THE WHITE COURTESY PHONE TO CALL THE FRONT DESK."

Oh, for Christ's sake...

"IF MR. ANDREW BARKLEY IS ON BOARD, PLEASE CALL THE FRONT DESK BY USING THE WHITE COURTESY PHONE."

 "Hello, this is Andrew Buckley.  I called before and I'm still on board."

"Thank you!"

If you ever hear that they won't hold a ship for one person, think again.

Next installment:  San Juan Socks

Day at Sea #1: Judgment Day

Read the previous installment here.

Not too long into our voyage, I was getting on one of the glass elevators that hug the outside of the Zuiderdam, when one of the crew came around the corner with a cleaning cart.  I held the door for him and he rolled on.  Everyone on board was extremely polite and this guy was no exception.  "Where are you from?" he asked.

 Now, I know this is probably a question that all cruise ship crews are told to ask of passengers to make them feel at ease -- or at least Americans.  But it also a very, very common first question when one travels through Southeast Asia.

 I told him, "Massachusetts."  He nodded and he looked like he was trying to figure out where that was relative to our departure point in Florida.  "West?"  he said. 

"North," I replied.  "There, the sea is now covered in ice."

Krishna in his chariot in DenpasarHe straightened up (as if could have done so any more than he already was), looked out the glass wall behind him, with a look of horror at the idea that it all could be frozen.

 "Where are you from?"  I asked.  He said, "Indonesia", sounding that maybe every once in a while, someone asks him this in response to his own inquiry, but it never goes further from there.

 "Which island?"

This surprised him.  "Bali."

"Which town?"

 "Nusa Dua."

"I've only been in Denpasar, Kuta and Sanur."  Same island.  I had almost had heat stroke at the latter.  Stopping over for a day, on flights between Kuala Lumpur and Ambon in the Spice Islands, I took a taxi to the Bali American Express office located at a five-star resort in Nusa Dua.  We pulled up to the front, but found the office was at the other end of the hotel.  I ran about a quarter of a mile in the full sun of a 96-degree day, then back again to ask my driver to wait.  When I finally sat down in the air conditioned office, I was drenched in sweat and continued perspire heavily for a full ten minutes.  I wasn't even staying at the hotel, but the entire staff -- and everyone on Bali -- was so helpful and cheerful, and unfailingly refused any sort of gratuity.

So the young man in the elevator then admitted that he worked in Bali for some time, but he originally came from nearby Surabaya on Java.  I told him I never had a chance to get to Java (most densely populated place on earth), but hoped to some time to see the temples in Surabaya.  He nodded very happily, "Yes, yes, you should come!", as the doors opened and wheeled the cart out.

This was a day at sea.  A day to relax, explore the ship and await the verdict on whether or not I was going to have to go scuba diving.  Don't get me wrong -- I wanted to go.  I felt I needed to go.  But I just wasn't sure I remembered enough to keep myself from dying.  And it is real easy to die when scuba diving. Or so I've been taught in class.

We ordered room service for breakfast, which was a wise choice.  Same food as from the dining room.  No waiting.  The food came on time and we had a real feast.  When we finally ventured out, I headed to the library.  A book had seemed an unecessary burden in my luggage, and instead brought my laptop.  But taking the advice of Walter Brooks, I decided to forgo the $5/minute wireless internet charge and enjoy the simple pleasure of reading a near-pulp detective novel.

It was brilliant day topside, and I headed as far up as I could.  Towards the front, the ship was fighting a headwind that made some seating a real challenge.  The worst suburn of my life (purple) was gotten from the tropical sun in Key West, so I was keen not to repeat that experience. Slathered in Sofie's SPF 45, I took one of the remaining semi-shaded, semi-leeward deck chairs and set to reading for most of the day.

 Lunch for us was always on the Lido deck, with its variety of buffets, self-serve ice cream and endless ice tea and lemonade.  My goal was not to gain any weight on this cruise, and resolved to take the stairs as much as I could.  And to walk around the ship on the promenade deck as Latuhalat on Ambon, Indonesiamany times as I could.  There was such a traffic of walkers and runners there, too, that if you picked the wrong time of day, you might get run over by the intent and aged athletes on the circuit.

Tonight was a formal night, which pleased Chandra to no end.  When we were being seated, the waiter pulled over the dining room manager to tell him that I had been to Indonesia.  I asked where he was from, and he said Sulawesi, and I told him I had been there on my way to and from Ambon.

"My mother is from Ambon!", he exclaimed.  "Where in Sulawesi were you?"  I said I had changed planes twice in Makassar, but spent two nights in Manado before catching an Indiana Jones-era flight to the Philippines.  "I'm from Manado! Did you go diving?"  I explained I hadn't enough time between flights to safely dive (you need 24 hours of normal atmosphere before you go from the depths of the sea to flying high above it -- I'd heard terrible stories).  So I tried My prahu heading to Manado Tuato climb Manado Tua, a volcanic island nearby.  He looked at me like I said I decided to eat a live tarantula, but quickly recovered with a smile, and said, "Maybe you can go diving tomorrow in Grand Turk."

"That's what he's planning on," said Chandra.  I attempted a brave face.

 "You'll have fun then," he said.

Sunday's entree"Yes..." and I looked at Chandra and the menu, wondering if my next dinner might come through a straw inside my new iron lung.  "Thanks.   I'm hoping so."

Chandra asked if Ambon was a nice place.  I said that when I was there, it was, but soon after it had erupted in civil war.  The northern half of the island was Muslim, and the southern half was Christian, and with the help of militias from western Indonesia, it had taken years for it to simmer down.  In fact, the wall off Ambon, much like a scene out of Finding Nemo, was the last place I had gone diving.  I had found out then that I was really too buoyant for my-then slim build, and needed to put on more weights to keep me from rising to the surface.

King Crab legsSo dinner at the Vista Dining Room was, as usual, terrific.  I had ordered a tenderloin wrapped in pastry as my entree, and Chandra had some baked stuffed seafood thing (gotta love the specificity of one who dug clams full-time).  But when the meal arrived, she was given King Crab legs.  When I explained the mistake to our waiter, he looked up at the kitchen, back down, apologized, left, and returned less than two minutes later with her original entree.  So I ended up eating both the crab legs and the tenderloin.  I'd work it off tomorrow, I thought, struggling to get back to the surface.  But maybe the dive company would reject me, and then I could go on the helmet dive with Chandra.

During dinner, I realized those classes for my master mariner license I took at New England Maritime really paid off.  Click here to watch sunset on the ZuiderdamThe ship was really rocking by sunset (click on the photo to the right to watch a short clip on YouTube).  The dining room at the stern, not too many decks above the water line.  Chandra noted the seas weren't even that high, and I said it was because the ship was too tall.  "It's rocking back and forth because the center of gravity is higher than it should be.  Imagine if you were paying top dollar for one of those first class cabins.  Sure, you'd have a great view and a huge room.  But you'd be swaying even further from one side to another.  Be glad we're in a cabin the center of the ship, relatively close to the water."

We'd been wondering about one of those repositioning cruises, where for a bargain price you go on a one-way cruise to when the ship goes from its winter cruising grounds in the Caribbean to to a summer route in the Mediterranean.  "Do you think it would sink?" asked Chandra, referring to crossing the Atlantic.  "No, but the rocking might be enough to make you wish it would."

The entire waitstaff inquired about what Chandra might be singing tomorrow night -- the next night of the Zuiderdam Superstars.  "More Elvis?" they asked.  One of them must have been working a swing-shift at the Northern Lights Disco, and caught her performance.  She said she probably was going to do something different, so they'd just have to see...

When we finally hit our cabin, there was a little red light flashing next to our bed.  A message.  Calling down to the front desk, I received the verdict:  "The dive outfit says you're good to go diving on Grand Turk.  Meet them at 7:30 tomorrow morning, and bring your dive card."

Dive card.  Yes, I had that.  That thin piece of plastic, proving I was a licensed diver, would protect me.  Embolism.  Punctured eardrum.  The bends.  No problem -- because I have a card.

Next installment:  The Shark

The Big Lie

Note:  This column was written and submitted just prior to the announcement that the H2B visa cap had been reached on January 2.

Back when I was a teenager, my uncle, Tom Buckley, said that if I wanted to be rich, then I should do something no one else wants to do.  "Look at Ben Nickerson or Joe Dubis", he said.  "Garbage and septic tanks.  Lenny Fougere, too."  It was true.  They were all locals who had done very well for themselves doing things most of us have a natural inclination to avoid.  Smart choice.A tough & dirty job Cape Codders will do
 
The supply of the service is inherently low, the demand is high.  So there's money to be made. These days, however, there's a big lie floating around, and it is being believed by many because it plays to our own sense of elitism.
 
That lie is:  We don't have enough workers on Cape Cod.
 
This is an outgrowth of the original idea that:  Americans won't do these jobs.
 
Economist working for the state and federal government clearly acknowledge that an influx of workers from outside the system are depressing wages.  But larger media outlets add a dismissive caveat that this is only at the lower end of the scale, mostly for those who have a high school diploma or less.
 
I recall something that State Police Colonel and candidate for Lt. Governor Reed Hillman said in 2006.  There's no better crime prevention measure than a job.
 
The HowellsBy importing cheap labor into our system, you are telling the poorest in our society that they are overpaid.  People who cut your grass.  People who pick up your trash.  People who clean your toilet.  It is an affront to their dignity, and yet too many in the business community say it, and the media, by and large, repeats it without question.
 
Those who do question it, by and large, are attacked as keeping white hoods and nooses in the trunks of their cars.  These charges typically come from comfortable whites who have the most to gain from large and cheaper labor pools.
 
Isn't it strange, though, 1964 saw both the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Immigration Act that greatly loosened our borders?  This was pointed out to me by a Masters-educated middle-class black American woman.  It stacked the deck against hardworking black Americans who wanted something better than a cycle of poverty.  Sure, you could vote;  but you couldn't find a job.  Defending the current system -- one that effectively keeps black Americans down and denies them their dignity -- is racism.  Not the other way around.

(read the rest of the column here at The Cape Cod Chronicle )

(Photo credits:  1) Massachusetts Coastal Coastal Zone Management, 2) Yahoo Movies)

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