Welcome to Santorini! You’re Going Home!

I’ve heard about this video before. I had to take a safety training class in Honolulu a few weeks ago and they talked about this. If I remember right, the first officer hit a reef as the ship came into Santorini and the ship started going down.

I’m sure everybody got off fine. They had plenty of time, plenty of sunlight, plenty of lifeboats – and look at all those other ships in the harbor!

A Work Day in Maui

We ran our show in the morning, at 10 am.  The tech department doesn’t seem to take these rehearsals very seriously, and as expected, there were a few missed cues by the light and sound board operators.  I don’t stop for those anymore, though, it’s just a waste of time to try to get cruise ship techs to care about a rehearsal.

Afterwards I gathered my folding bike and pedaled from where the ship was in Kahului to Paia – about a 10 mile ride against the famous Maui trade winds.  It took 45 minutes to get there and 25 to get back.  I was glad the wind was to my back at the end of the day.

Paia is an old, forgotten agricultural town in Maui.  It’s been revived in recent decades by an increase in tourist traffic.  Some time ago tourist were made to believe that driving to a place called Hana is a good activity in Maui, and the Road to Hana starts in Paia.  Accordingly, there are lots of gas stations and tourist boutiques on the main stretch of Paia.

I’ve never taken the road to Hana.  I’m sure it’s beautiful, but I’m also sure that it’s 7 hours of round-trip car sickness on a narrow, winding, windy road packed from one end to the other with rental cars and tourist, retiree drivers.  Reportedly, when you find get to Hana, you find that there is absolutely nothing there.  Then your tussled middle ear convinces you to vomit continuously all over the street, and it’s back in the car for the ride back to Paia!

No thank you.

I’d found that my swim trucks are totally uncool, so I bought a pair of board shorts in Paia.  Then I went immediately to the beach to make sure they worked.  They work very well.  I laid on the beach a few hours, play in the surf, then got back on the bike and headed home.

We had only one show in the evening for too many reasons to explain, and then that was it.  That was the work day – 1 hour in the morning and 1 in the evening and beach in between.

I Don’t Bend That Way

Today is disembarkation day and, later, embarkation day. That means one group of passengers leaves, and another come on. On these days I’ve found that it best to get off of the ship for the whole day, as the crew works very hard in the hours between groups, and if you stay on the ship, you’re likely to get vacuumed up or polished until you shine.

I took my bike out, stopped briefly at the bike shop for a look around, then biked on to the beach. Hot dogs are better when mixed with the smell of surf and coffee is always good, so I stopped for both. Eventually I ran out of boardwalk and found myself in town, luckily around the time that my friend S. called. She’d come down from the north to spend the day together.

We drove southeast, hugging the coast and stopping at the first waves we saw. As we walked down the beach with our boogie board, the lifeguard stopped us. He asked if we were planning on using the boogie board today. I guess it’s pretty clear to an experienced lifeguard that I’m a total novice. Was I holding the board wrong? Was I dressed like a rookie? He said it was because I wasn’t also carrying fins.

He strongly recommended against boogie boarding the beach as a rookie. He said the beach had the most spine and neck injuries of any beach in America – 12-17 a year. That’s more than once a month!

That was enough for me, we didn’t take a step further and instead drove farther up the coast to a break he recommended.

I still managed to fall on my face and bend myself into a pretzel at this second beach, so it’s probably best I didn’t try the first. See, this second beach was the type with a very short break – the kind that forms a wave very large and very close to shore, then SLAMS this wave onto the steeply pitched sand/rocks/small children that line the edge of the water. I’ve experienced breaks like these before, and I should have known better.

I only caught one wave. It wasn’t until I crested the top of this wave (AKA “too late”) that I recognized what kind of break this was, but by that time I was about 15 feet above where I was about to be quickly SLAMMED into. I also found that the area I was above looked more like sharp, pokey, rocks than soft smooth sand. I ditched the board, also too late, and took a dive south over north, if you know what I mean.

It turns out I’m too old now to be bending my south over my north in that manner, as evidenced by the way my back complained afterwards. No real harm done, of course, but that was enough for me. I went back and sat quietly on the beach, having learned my lesson good and well.

Later S. dropped me off near the ship and I returned to my cabin. When new passengers first come on the ship, the jet lag puts them to sleep very early in the evening. By 11 pm I would venture to say that there isn’t a single person awake on the whole ship, except for the crew that is still on shift (no doubt wondering why they are working if everyone else is sleeping).

The ship is a ghost town, and it’s a great time to take advantage of the amenities. I went to the gym first. Then later, as the ship sailed on through the black water and the wind brought cool rain, I slipped into the hot tub at the very top and back of the ship and relaxed.

Hilo, Hawaii: Biking the Big Island

Some coworkers rented bikes yesterday and we all went biking on the Big Island of Hawaii. The roads are smooth around the city of Hilo and have wide strips of bike path along most of the roads. If you stay near the coast you’re almost sure to stay on flat ground, but if you head inland at all, you’ll be in for a climb.

We passed a lot of rocky, lava stone beaches before our path ended at a dirt road into a park where the evergreen trees stood tall against the surf. Half the group decided to drop the bikes and hike on into the woods, and half of up decided to double back to a black sand beach that we had seen on the way.

I regretted not packing my snorkeling gear, as the beach turned out to be packed with locals snorkeling with their kids. Even without the snorkel we saw sea turtles poke their heads out of the waves, and butterfly fish and parrot fish in the shallows.

About an hour after we arrived a local came out of the surf with an octopus hanging from the stick he used to spear it. A crowd gathered around the man and we all touched it and some let its tentacles suck on to their arms. I’m too much of a bleeding heart to watch an animal poked and prodded until it dies, so I went back to my book on the beach.

We biked maybe 10 miles through the Big Island, and my new folding bike held up really well. The technology of folding bikes have come a long way, it seems, and the whole contraption rides stiffly and securely. There were a lot of strange looks and questions from strangers, and a few people took it for test rides on the pier, but it was all positive. In other words, no one has beaten me up on the playground and taken my lunch money for riding a stupid looking bike. Yet.

Today was a show day with rehearsal in the morning and shows at night. It was a tender port, which means the ship anchors out at sea and you are brought to shore by the life boats (or “tenders”). I didn’t want to bring my bike on a tender (I’m certain I’ll drop it right into the sea), and tenders are generally a pain, so I stayed on the ship all day.

Tomorrow we’re overnighting in Kauai, which means the ship doesn’t leave until the following day and we have all day to explore. I think I’ll take my bike out, with my snorkel gear this time, and find a beach called “Poipu Beach”, which I hear has great snorkeling.

Trans-Atlantic Repositioning

And that’s all – all for Europe.  I’ve been here now 4 1/2 months and its unfortunately time to go.  We have already started to make our way out to sea for the 5 seas it will take to reach St. Maarten in the Caribbean.  I will be in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, United States of America on the 29th of November.  A little over a month after that, I will be home properly, at which point I’ll have to stop using British terminology, like “properly.”

Not too long ago, the only way to immigrate from Europe to the States was by boar.  Those immigrants didn’t usually take the route that we are – from north-west Africa tot eh Caribbean – and they didn’t travel in as much style and comfort certainly – but I like to think that they were traveling the same water that we are now.  Back then, on the new steam-powered ocean liners, it took 21 days to get from Europe to New York.  As I said, it will only take us 5 days to traverse an even greater distance than that.

Sea days weigh heavily on the crew.  We are not, after all, real sailors.  We took these jobs to see foreign lands, and being cooped up on the ship for an extent of time can make the best of us a little kooky after awhile.  We are braced for the five sea days now, though, and I think they will go along in quiet monotony.

Casablanca, Morocco

Of all the gin shops, in all the towns in all the world, we had to come here.

The metropolis of Casablanca doesn’t quite live up to the romanticized image we get from the Humphrey Bogart film – I’m afraid the image of dozens of white, Christian, western Europeans in finely tailored western fashions sitting around a white-washed jazz club in the middle of a French-run Casablanca is about as far from reality as you can get.

But Casablanca is not without charm. A Muslim nation at the northwest tip of the African continent, Morocco may not be a financially affluent nation, but what is lacks in cash, it more than makes up for in culture and tradition. While some parts of town look like a bombed out Beirut, there is a surprising number of finely manicured gardens and a great many treasures of Arabic architecture.

We left the ship at 11:45 and headed straight for food. There seemed to be some difficulty, at first, in finding a restaurant in which women were welcome – but that may have only been our own speculation. Women in Casablanca are certainly not absent, but although you walk the streets with them, you tend to not notice them at all.

The languages of Morocco are French and Arabic, and I did have a difficult time communicating with – for example – the strolling shoe shine boy regarding a price for the shining of my shoes. Eventually I held out a few coins for him to pick through, and like an Ape of Gibraltar, the guy took every cent (I should’ve known better than that!). I found out from the man sitting next to me that in the exchange I paid twice what I should have, but $.90 isn’t much for a shoe shine, even if it is twice the going rate.

My shoes look great, by the way.

The Rock of Gibraltar

As soon as I got out of the car, the ape was on my head. Just for a second, though, and then it jumped onto the out-cropping of rock next to me. In effect, it had just used my head as a spring board to get from the top of the taxi (how did it get on the top of our moving taxi?) to the rock next to me. It scared the hell out of me, but I guess that’s what you should expect when you go to see the Apes of Gibraltar.

The Rock of Gibraltar is one large mountain at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula (the same The Rock of Gibraltarpeninsula that houses Spain and Portugal). Although surrounded by Spain on one side and water on the other, the territory is actually a British colony, and subject to the laws, currency and politics of the Queen and Parliament.

Due to its strategic position at the mouth of the Mediterranean, the mountain and town of Gibraltar has been, historically, one of the most important – and fought over – military outposts in all of Europe. Standing at the southern side of the Rock, you can clearly see the African continent only 16 miles to the south. Not a single ship could pass through these waters without being clearly seen by those in Gibraltar. The only other way into the Mediterranean is in through the Persian Gulf, which – to get to – would require sailing around the entire continent of Africa.

But the Straits of Gibraltar have been without warfare since World War II, and now-a-days, the major industry in Gibraltar is – you guessed it – TOURISM! The colony welcomes over 30 million tourist a year, a large number considering the actual population of the colony is only 30,000.

Aside from English hospitality and novelties, Gibraltar’s most famous tourist attractions are the wild apes that live all over the mountain. The apes are not indigenous to the area, in fact they were introduced to the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors when they conquered the Rock in the 14th century. Since then, the apes have divided into five different “families” and, certainly, become quite opportunistic in the company of humans.

In the twenty minutes were stayed at the top amongst the apes, one hat was stolen, three of us were jumped on, and one of us was even lucky enough to be wee-ed on by a real Gibraltar Ape! The apes were everywhere, starring at us with their little beady eyes and inspecting all of the helpless visitors for anything that might resemble food. You are well warned before visiting to not carry any food in your pockets, unless you enjoy groups of chaotic apes chewing through your pants to find what you’re hiding.

The view from the top of the mountain – mainland Spain to the north and Africa to the south – is fantastic, but would have been a lot easier to enjoy were we not engaged in a stare-down with the apes that wanted to eat our pants.

Our driver dropped us off at the downtown area of Gibraltar and we all sat down for an overpriced plate of a “FULL English Breakfast.” A “FULL English Breakfast,” consisting of tea or coffee, 2 eggs, 2 hot-dog-like sausages, half a pig, and a gallon of baked beans, is a heart attach waiting to happen – but I suppose a full American breakfast from IHOP would not be much better, certainly.

Afterwards I walked back to the ship. That was the plan at least, but when the sidewalk turned into the runway of the Gibraltar Airport, I figured I’d gone the wrong way. It seems like poor city planning, though, to have mixed the only airport landing strip with a pedestrian zone – but who am I to judge the decisions of a parliamentary monarchy.

Livorno, Italy and Monte Carlo, Monaco

We ported yesterday in Livorno, Italy. Yes, ported is a word.

It was the last time I’ll be stepping foot in Italy for what might be a great while, so with my last few Italian hours, I went on a mission for some Italian dress shoes. I always mess up shoe shopping, and naturally I got the cheapest, best looking, most uncomfortable shoes in the place. I can just never tell if they are comfortable or not by walking 10 feet back and forth in the shoe shop with the sales clerk looking on impatiently. I swear I’ll take anything.

Today we visited Monte Carlo for the last time. It was raining, 52 degrees and the seas were rough. Even now, as we sail for the island of Coorsica, the boat is rocking enough for us all to be popping sea-sickness pills and chomping at green apples (people say they help seasickness).

A strange thing happened today. I was standing in line at McDonalds, minding my own business and trying to get a cheeseburger when a pretty french girl comes up and tells me that her friends challenged her to lay a big, fat smooch right on my lips. So I finish paying for my burger and she lands one right on me. Needless to say, this goes against all principles of courtship that I have ever learned or experienced. I guess it was lucky that she was good-looking – I think that it would have landed on me no matter what the circumstances. This wasn’t something that was on my official “Things To Do Before I Die” list, but had I any idea that these things were possible, I might well have placed it there before today. The smell of burgers and mayonnaise must have some sort of animalistic effect on the French?

Messina and Pompei, Italy

Sicily is the big island in the middles of the Mediterranean that, if you look at a map, looks like it’s getting kicked in the pants by the boot of Italy. My attraction to the place is based mostly on the role it plays in Godfather trilogy, although I know that’s ridiculous considering all of the serious history, modern and ancient, that the place contains. The two major cities in Sicily are Palermo and Messina. Palermo is usually the destination of tourists, although to be honest it’s not much for that. More people speak English in Palermo, maybe that’s the attraction. The shopping is better in Messina, but the population there doesn’t expect too many tourists and it doesn’t cater there to the demographic. By that I mean they don’t have very many tourist shops, not very many people that speak English, and not very many shops stay open during siesta (1-4 pm).

I had a training meeting to go do in the morning, and the free lunch aboard seemed attractive now that the Euro has gotten so much stronger since the American re-election. By the time I went out with friends it was 1 pm, and there wasn’t a single thing open in Messina, Sicily. But the best part about Messina, perhaps, is the fact that it is not a tourist town, and that if you stop and watch for a bit, you’ll see a normal day in Sicily. Often a drawback of heavily touristed areas is that you don’t get an idea of what a normal day in that country looks like.

A normal afternoon in Messina isn’t very interesting, let me tell you. They have some statues they are very proud of, and the largest mechanical clock in Europe (which doesn’t, and never did, work), and several large and stately cathedrals. But the streets are quiet and the shops are shuttered.

Cafes are open, so we had some coffee and later some gelato. The weather was perfect, so a walk around the deserted shopping area wasn’t totally lost.

We sailed north, up the coast of mainland Italy, last night and docked this morning in Naples, Italy. Many of the passenger tours were called off this morning because of the rain and the cold(ish) weather around here. Naples is the closest port to Pompei though, and rain did not deter us from seeing that place.

Pompei was a doomed city of ancient times. The first evidence of life (that has been found) place the beginnings of Pompei around the 7th century B.C., although the interesting stuff didn’t start happening until the first century A.D. In the 60’s A.D. there was a terrible earthquake that shocked the city and required substantial rebuilding afterwards. The rebuilding, apparently, was shoddy at best in some places, where they substituted solid marble columns for marble-covered brick columns to save time and money. Maybe they knew the place was doomed. Probably not, though.

In 79 A.D., nearby Mt. Vesuvius – still, to this day, an active volcano – blew it’s top and covered Pompei with 6 meters of ash and rock. Apparently people didn’t have much warning, since the disaster seems to have killed a good deal of people that seem to have been going along in a normal day. The ashes preserved not the bodies of some of the victims, but the outlines of their bodies. Archeologists years later found these strange holes in the ash and filled them with plaster. The result was full castes of the bodies of people killed in the disaster. Children with their mothers, grown men cowering in the corners, people laying where they ultimately fell. There were even carbonized loaves of bread found in the bakery. It’s morbidly interesting.

But, just like the people were preserved, so was the town. Some of the dwellings still have the original, 2,000-year-old wall paintings up, some of the old shops still have the names of the shops painted on the front. I’m told that the brothel still has 2,000-year-old pornography on the walls!

Santorini, Greece

Santorini is one of the most famous of the Greek islands. Its thought that if the lost city of Atlantis did in fact exist, it probably existed with the Santorini group of islands. Situated high on cliffs overlooking the sea, the buildings of Santorini are mostly whitewashed – some painted peach and light blue hues.

The trip to the top is perhaps 1,000 feet. You could walk it, hire a donkey, or buy a ticket for the lift.

Naturally, I got me a donkey. My ass still hurts (get it?!). We went up in a big group, maybe a dozen of us, with out big donkeys running us into the walls, or trying to scrape us off the top of them. I don’t blame them, but it didn’t make me trust them much. The donkeys would stop and chew on the plants on the way up, then start running for a few steps, then stop and smell the donkey in front of them…until their owner came up behind us on his own donkey with a whip to get them in line. Just hearing the voice of the Greek owner was enough to make those donkeys start clamoring up the hills like moths to a bonfire.

The city itself is sleepy and calm, beautiful and bright. The only industry is tourism, so most of the buildings were restaurants, hotels, shops, car rental places, scuba diving centers – all with incredible views of the sea, of course.

I think if I lived in Santorini I might get a little antsy. Once you get to the top you can clearly see the entirety of the island and of all the nearby islands. Being from the Midwest, I’ve always felt encouraged by the idea that there was always more land in every direction – it seems to suggest that there is as much opportunity as land. Considering, also, that Santorini sits right on the edge of a giant underwater volcano…and that tiny Santorini doesn’t seem to have much of an escape route – well, I guess I’m just saying that the place would make me a little claustrophobic.

But as a holiday retreat, no place compares. It’s beautiful, it’s sunny, it’s calming, it’s created for leisure.

Navplion, Greece

I put on my trusty dannish flip-flops, my greek shorts, my spanish t-shirt, packed my beach mat into my american pack and set off this afternoon for a trek around Navplion, Greece.

This is the first of 4 Greek destinations on our current cruise. We don’t often travel around the east side of the Mediterranean, which is standard for the big cruise companies out here. Aside from being too hot most of the summer and fall, I believe the companies are a little worried about being so close to the Middle East hotspot out here. It was only a year or so ago that car bombs went off in Istanbul remember, and that can be a little disconcerning for the big cruise ship company’s insurance companies, I’m sure.

So this is a special treat, really. Navplion is a sleepy little shoreside town with a massive fortress at the top of a sudden and massive cliff face just south of the main tourist area. The fortress is really the only true tourist attraction for the place, although the 999 step you need to walk to get to the top deter most tourists from even visiting the place when you get there. I certainly wasn’t interested in climbing all the way up there to find, mostly likely, a 10 Euro entrance fee to see another pile of rocks that nobody uses anymore. No thank you.

Like a magnet, I found the beach right away. It was crowded, though, and the water was, I thought, rather cold. I packed everything up again and found a secluded gravel trail extended around the backside of the massive, peach-colored cliffs – which housed the same fortress we just spoke of. I walked perhaps a mile down the road, found some better, private-sized beaches with smaller, not as sharp rocks and laid out my gear again.

Without waves, without any other water sports, without anything interesting to look at underwater, and with the freezing temperature of the water – going to the beach in the Mediterranean is a little different that going to the beach when I was a kid. Soon I was bored and climbed back up to the trail to explore further.

The path was dust and stones – par for the course in Greece – but it was lined with wildflowers, flowering bushes, tall evergreen and smelled plainly of sea air and fallen evergreen needles. The sun is bright today and the weather is considerably warmer in this part of the Mediterranean.

At the end of the last cruise we spent three days and two night in Venice. I know that a lot of people out there really enjoy Venice. Some people think it’s the most beautiful place in Europe.

I think the place stinks, but I think I’ve mentioned this before. It was, however, nice to be surrounded by a chilly air. It made me remember that the seasons are changing – a fact you can forget or even disregard down here in the Greek sun.

The fort on the top of the peach cliffs here in Greece, however, were made by the Venetians so many centuries ago when Venice was a soveriegn country and owned damn near everything along the Aegean and Ionian coasts. I think I would have liked to have seen Venice back then. Venice with a purpose. That might have been nice.

But now the fortress is empty, Venice is sinking and these places are in the twilight of their majesty and able to only those people that are attracted to dead, lifeless places – tourists.

I have a friend here that, if asked to visit a site of ruins, will tell you quickly and strongly that she has seen just about enough rocks and dust for the rest of her life. I’m always glad that she says it so that I don’t. I think that the history of these places is fascinating, but the historical stories of these places are far more interesting than staring at the barren places where these interesting things reportedly happened. To really appreciate these piles of rock you really need to have a sort of Catholic reverence for holy relics or holy places, and you need to consider the ruinous sites as separated and somehow holier than the earth that surrounds the sites.

It was easy to do at first, but now I’d rather just go to the beach or sit in a cafe and watch the locals.

I like Navplion because it seems to be a very slow moving place. Perhaps you can always tell the pace of a town by the number of benches it contains. Busy places have no use for them, but beach communities and places of leisure have them as often as possible. In Navplion, the benches are abundant and mostly filled. That’s why I like Navplion.

But that may very well be because my pace is also slowing down. When I first arrived here my pace was still that of land, and I had a difficult time adjusting to a life of empty time and leisure. Even now I have a hard time respecting my lifestyle, with it’s lack of labor and it’s lack of humanitarian purpose. What frightens me the most is to know that I’m beginning to slow down finally, that I’m finally beginning to give into the lack of purpose that I have here.

I’m afraid to go home in January without a defined plan, because I know that I’ll take one look at the winter Chicago weather, the want ads of real jobs, and the bars containing beer you have to pay cash for, and I’ll end up right back on a ship like a scared cat jumping out of a big, cold pool of water.

Return to Athens, Greece

The 18 days I spent in Athens, Greece for the 2004 Summer Olympics were unlike any group of 18 days I’ve ever lived. Beach volleyball, soccer matches, swimming pre-lims, the spark of the Olympics in the air, camera crews in the streets, people from over 100 different countries crowding the trains, fans wearing their flags like capes, the flaming Greek weather… I feel like those 18 days in August were a full, complete experience – maybe I lived more in those 18 days that I had in most.

And to come back to Athens gives me a foggy feeling of nostalgia. I still don’t understand a single word of Greek, Athens is not home to me, I still found things I’d never seen – but it still felt like a homecoming. It was like looking at an old black and white photo of my Olympic experience. It reminded me of that time – but it lacked all the color and fluidity of that time.

It was rainy today. Rainy! In Athens! When I was here last I would have killed to have rain come pouring down. It is difficult to explain how uncomfortably hot Athens is in August. Almost all of the favorites in the Marathon race dropped out and unloaded their lunches on the side of the road before the race was done because of the heat. When you went to the beach and laid down, your towel would be soaking wet with sweat before you ever stepped foot in the sea. Let’s not even get into the #2 Tram of Death… And here it is, in the low 70’s and raining all day today. I could hardly believe it.

I went out with my fearless friends today, two girls who had NOT been to the Olympics with us, and who had been forced to hear ALL about how GREAT the Olympics were when WE were there and they WEREN’T. I understood their revulsion at having to hear all about the Olympics all day from me, so I tried to keep it to a minimum (and I did a poor job of it).

We went straight to the Acropolis to get our fix of history before doing some shopping. The minute we got off the ship it was clear that more than the weather had changed in Athens.

Before the Olympics began in August, the Greek government, by way of the media, told the Athenian citizens in no unclear terms, to get the hell out of Athens while the games were going on. They didn’t want the Olympics to be known as the most crowded Olympics in history; they said they wanted to get rid of some of the awful Athens traffic. If they had relatives out of town, it was suggested that they go there.

(Then, when the tickets didn’t sell as quickly as expected, the Grecian government, by way of the media, begged the Athenian citizens to show national pride and buy bunches and bunches of event tickets to make up the difference. Real nice.)

But they are all back now. Homeless men are only outnumbered by homeless dogs. The mass transporation has been changed from it’s Olympic setting of “super-duper” down to “medium” now that the games are past. Trains seem to come when they feel like it now. Busses…well, what busses? I’m sure they are there, but not like they were in the Olympics.

The amount of tourists has seemingly not diminished yet, although without the Olympic Games to amuse them, they all funnel into the Acropolis daily. Thankfully, the official Olympic gear had been heavily reduced, although not in the main Olympic merchandise store (which is the only store with reasonable sizes left). I stocked up a bit and all but finished my Christmas shopping.

I visited Sydney, Australia about 6 months after the 2000 summer games, and they vibe was similar there. The city was still gloating about having had the Olympics there. The signs were still up, people were still talking about it, the facilities were still on display. There was a shiny residue all over the city of what had undoubtably been a defining moment in it’s modern history. It was lovely to be back in cold, rainy Athens today.