Wednesday, January 13, 2016

18 Days Cruising on Holland America's Amsterdam

(on the Amtrak on the way to board our ship in San Diego)

So first a little update for those of you that followed our family’s around the world adventure.  Both of the kids are in college these days and we don’t get to see nearly enough of them.  We all think fondly of our special year, and the kids even admit they are happy that I took all those photos and kept the blog!  Mark has since settled happily back into his real estate development activities, and I graduated from my doctoral program, making use of our RTW as the subject of my dissertation.  Special thanks to all of those families that allowed me to interview them!

Part of our paying for college plan has included continuing to rent out our house in Los Angeles, so as the Christmas season approached I began to think about what we might do as a homeless family again over the holiday.  I found an 18 day cruise that departed from San Diego, traveled through the Panama Canal and arrived in Ft. Lauderdale just in time for the kids to start back to school (Peyton in Miami and Wilder in Nashville.)  I ran it by the family and once again they fell for it!   Seriously though, I feel very blessed to have a family that thinks my crazy ideas are good ones.  I am also very grateful to my parents, as our initial plan (to make 18 days affordable) entailed putting all four of us in one tiny cabin, but their Christmas gift allowed us to upgrade to two.  No doubt this contributed to everyone’s good mood through out the trip!

So I’ll start with what I like best about cruising.  Cruise ships are a great way to get to a lot of different countries without all the hassles of traveling via other modes of transport, like dealing with airports, packing and unpacking etc.  In addition the travel between destinations is super comfortable, we’re talking down comforters, drinks poolside etc.  There are other niceties too like linen tablecloths and napkins, onboard spa, gym.  Cruising is also great for families as people of different ages can enjoy each other but also have their own time and space.  Kids can stay out late and sleep in later and one group can work out at the gym and play basketball while another reads a novel on deck.  But don’t you get bored during the days at sea?  Well speaking for myself – no.  To me the ocean view never gets boring and I regularly spotted sea life including dolphins, sea lions and even a shark.  The wooden steamer chairs with their striped cushions are very comfortable, the sea days are very relaxing and they go by quickly.  I usually find the on-board entertainment kind of lacking but for the Christmas cruise they seemed to up their game.  In particular I enjoyed all of the access to live music.

Ok now for the things I’m not so crazy about.  Overall all our food was pretty good, and we had a couple of meals we thought were outstanding, but after a while all of the food begins to taste alike.  Then there is the fact that regardless you just seem to eat too much of it, as there is always more on offer.  Another major complaint we have is the lack of wifi – or rather the cost of wifi, which is outrageous.  The Amtrak has free wifi.  Why can’t our cruise ship?  Finally our biggest beef however is that you just aren’t in each port long enough to get a feel for a location.  Cruising is definitely wham bam thank you ma’am type of touristing. 

The kids also complained that 1400 or so people weren’t all that many when the trip was so days long.  And, as usual, there were a shortage of young adults in their age group.  For me that just meant I got more of their company though. 18 days of uninterrupted family time – priceless!

Ok – on to the ports.  Our first stop was Puerto Vallarta.  This is a well-established tourist destination with lots of activities on offer.  Mark and the kids opted for a zip-lining/trekking adventure, while I chose to visit the aquarium and old town.  All of us would have voted to get off the boat and stay a few days.

The next port was Huatulco, Mexico which is primarily a nature preserve.  Here we took a 44-foot sailing sloop up the coast to one of the pristine bays and swam and snorkeled off the boat.  It was really beautiful.  We spotted a whale and stingray, and one of the kids on board caught a couple of fish.

Our third Mexican port was called Puerto Chiapas which was a port created for cruise ships to give them access to a very rural part of Mexico featuring primarily coffee and banana plantations.  With our excursion budget running low, we elected to forgo anything formal and spent out time on the pier accessing the low cost wifi.  We were also resting up though as this was Christmas Eve and the ship makes a big deal with a great meal and Christmas carols.  Then the staff of the boat does a special 11pm show that features songs from the countries the staff represent.  It was worth staying up for.  Finally we opted for the interdenominational midnight service over the midnight mass.  Some of us questioned that decision however when the Catholic Mass let out earlier!  All in all though it was worth staying up for.


One of the biggest draws of this particular cruise for me was the ports in Guatemala and Nicaragua, and Guatemala in particular did not disappoint.  We arrived Christmas morning and took a bus to Antigua, a very pretty colonial city.  While many places were closed due to the holiday, we did get to see the locals celebrating the holiday in various ways.  One of my favorites was listening to a choir sing Come All Ye Faithful in Spanish in a beautiful old cathedral.  There was also a spectacularly loud firework display in the square.  We also got to eat a variety of tasty street food.  Finally though we had perhaps the best meal of our trip, Christmas lunch, at a beautiful hotel.  It consisted of corn tortillas made on a grill while we watched - chiles rellenos, grilled steak and chicken, black beans, rice and fresh guacamole.  That is our kind of soul food, and for Christmas dinner it did not disappoint!


In Nicaragua we hired a taxi to drive us to local town and show us around a bit.  There were no tourists to be seen and our cab driver, who had lived a while in Miami, told us they only get one cruise ship per month.  The kids had wanted to “volcano surf” an activity that consists of sledding over steep volcanic sand, but alas that activity was only available out of Leon, a fair distance from the ship and didn’t leave us enough time.  In the end our taxi got a flat tire and the boys helped to fix it and get us going again.  On that day we were happy to get back to the boat.

(I really wanted these - aren't they beautiful?)

Next up was Costa Rica where our family had been previously.  The commercial port we docked at however was further north and not especially scenic.  We ended up getting a cab into the local town, sitting on the beach a while, taking a dip in the warm water and grabbing a street taco or two.  I felt bad for the other passengers if this was all they got to see of beautiful Costa Rica.

(I think I forgot my camera on this day.)

So now we have three days at sea, which will include the hopefully very cool crossing of the Panama Canal.  I think we are all ready for some “rest” days.  I however lost a bet and therefore am committed to whatever onboard family “activities” Mark and the kids dream up – keep me in your prayers!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Delhi, and Farewell to India

We had flown from Bangalore to Delhi and took trains both to and from Agra.  The first train was a fairly nice first class car with large comfortable seats and breakfast, which featured a tasty omelette, as well as American cereal served with hot milk (makes it taste like oatmeal).  It was an express train that resulted in a very pleasant and scenic two hour ride.

On the way back though we were in a supposedly first class sleeper car.  In Europe, when it is daytime, berths on sleepers are converted to seats, but apparently in India that is not the case (even though they were clearly convertible).  The train was filthy, and we had quite the time locating our berths, which turned out mostly to be uppers.  Most of the trains occupants were either sleeping (common in the middle of the day in India) or lounging with the lights off and curtains closed.  The bathroom was squat style, and the only food available was offered by men walking by with buckets.  This was also not an express train, and so the same trip this time took almost four hours.  I should note however that both trains ran on time.
 Our fearless leader

My friend on the train

On this trip I had the most stressful event of the trip, wherein I discovered, after having to leave one upper berth for another in another car, that I didn't have my constant companion, my cross body purse, containing my passport, money and credit cards.  Upon discovering this approximately ten minutes later, I raced back to the other car, with Hindi speaking Omar from our group close behind.  At first it appeared that it wasn't where I had left it, at which time my panic began to peak, but Omar managed to locate both my purse and sunglasses in a pile of dirty sheets and blankets.  Everything was intact, and I was able to breath again.

You'll have to excuse the poor picture quality of some these photos as the windows through which they were taken were filthy, causing my camera to have difficulty focusing.

 Swimming water buffalo

 Volleyball anyone?

Our hotel was yet again over the top fabulous.  We are spoiled beyond belief, and can't help talking about the other members of our cohorts who opted for China or Belize :).

My suite in Delhi - sweet!

The final day of our trip, and the only one we had in Delhi, was spent talking to an HP executive in the morning and touring Old Delhi in the afternoon.  The Indian exec from HP told us about the challenges of doing business in India, about corruption and crazily complex tax laws, but also that the potential is so great that global companies are making a go of it.

In the afternoon we went first to the government center in Delhi.  It is a large and beautiful area, designed by the British, that would remind you of our mall in Washington.

Next we headed to Old Delhi where we took a rickshaw ride through the market.  This was one of the most harrowing things I've experienced that topped most everything we did on my family's entire nine month trip.  How to explain it?  It was a sea of humanity and vehicles of every kind seething through tiny alleyways, with us at the mercy of our alternately skilled and distracted bike pedaler.

We jolted and surged past stalls filled with silver and silk saris and trims, and occasionally men in conservative muslim dress who would give you the evil eye, or in one case when I made the mistake of smiling at him, curse you out.  Others, I am happy to report, smiled back.

After we disembarked from our rickshaw, sweaty and a little weak in the knee, we climbed the steps up to the largest mosque in India.

 Us sporting the very attractive covers we were required to don

Fetching, aren't I?

We continued to be the subject of lots of attention

I have to say in summary that this trip exceeded all of my expectations.  It was a detailed and up close look at the many sides of India, from the elite to the burgeoning middle class to the world of the majority of Indians still living in poverty.  Many of the countries we visited on our big trip are ones I will never see again, as there are just too many more still to see.  India however I would happily visit again.  I'd love to show my family some of what I experienced, and as India is so big and so diverse, I know a second trip could not possibly disappoint.