Saturday, January 30, 2010

Canadian Beavers at the End of the World

Canadian beavers at the end of the world?  I guess the south latitude here is equivalent to the northern one in Canada where they live, but, alas, the grand plansfor a fur trade on Terra del Fuego didn’t work out.

Ushaia, pronounced you-sh-why-ah, is in Argentine Patagonia. There is a populated place a little further south, but its population is smaller than Ushaia’s  70,000, so while it might be the most southern town in the world, Ushaia lays claim to being the most southern city.

Back during the days of the Canadian fur trade, someone thought that bringing beavers here from Canada would provide a welcome new source of income for this part of Argentinian Patagonia.  Unfortunately, the winters here are not nearly as cold as are those in Canada.  The temperatures here vary from minus 5 in the city to maybe minus 20 in the mountains.  The beavers did what life forms everywhere do.  Instead of putting resources into growing thick long fur, they produced shorter fur which, while it is silkier than that of our beavers, is thin and so was not much in demand in the fur market.  The energy they saved from growing thick fur went into dam construction and having fun swimming.

Like many introduced species, the beavers did very well , to the detriment of the local environment.  They produce eight young a year, and there are no predators, no wolves, coyotes, or bears.  Just people, and while the Chilean government pays a $50 bounty for a dead beaver, Argentina’s government pays only $20.

The beavers spend their time building dams.  That’s what you do if you’re a beaver, chew trees to keep your teeth from growing too long, and using said trees to build things.  They don’t need to build the elaborate lodges used in the colder Canadian climate.  I have never seen such large dams as the ones I passed while hiking in a valley surrounded by mountains.

  The dams cause flooding which, while the water is appreciated by some bird species, kills trees.

In the larger scheme of things, though, that isn’t too bad.  Most introduced species wreak far worse havoc on their new homes.  I guess the beavers, being Canadian, realized they had to be polite and not push themselves on the world the way, say, an American species would if brought hereIt’s sad to realize, though, that our national animal, the beaver, is such a poor ambassador.  At least it’s not as hated as is the Canada goose, known and reviled for producing way too much fertilizer in places where it’s not needed.

The hike was lovely, and we walked through many different terrains.  Everyone was given a pair of rubber boots to wear, which was a good thing, as the peat bog we passed through was very boggy.
I was the first to fall, caused when my boot decided to stay in the mud while the rest of me kept moving forward.  I was holding my camera and had the presence of mind to hold it up as I went down.  I kept it dry and the fall was harmless, as mud makes for a soft landing.

Fast-flowing streams, springy moss tufts that were foot-sized islands in a sea of brownish water, and boot-sucking mud made the walk an adventure.  We also went through a lovely forest, and scrambled down rock shelves.

Ushaia reminds me of Whitehorse and towns in Alaska.  There's an energy here, a can-do optimism.  Young people, and talented artisans abound.  It's a place where things are happening and are going to happen.  I'd love to return, to see what the results are.

These are orchids, the only ones I've seen that grow in a harsh, non-tropical environment.  They symbolize the people here, the way a harsh environment can produce great beauty.


Friday, January 29, 2010

Penguins and Llamas and Sheep, Oh My

The penguins were everywhere.  Smallish, knee-high birds with long-thin flippers that they sometimes used to hug each other or walk arm-in-arm,

they waddled with an intensity that was probably more just a matter of having to move their feet fast enough so they didn’t fall over forwards.

They leaned their bodies forward when they walked, and when they came up out the burrows they’d dug in the seaside soil.

Penguin paths worn through the long wiry glass took them from their burrow to the stony beach.

Like all penguins, awkward on land, once in the water they bobbed and swam with such grace, it was like watching a dance.

The air was full of feathers, swirling like huge flakes of snow.  The babies, big and fat at three months old, had yet to go in the water, but right now they are preparing by molting their baby fluff feathers and developing their adult waterproof coat.

They spent a lot of time preening, actually all the birds did.  They spent a lot time, too, posing for the many cameras clicking away.  They’d walk, and then suddenly freeze, although it wasn’t out of fear, because they showed no notice of all the people walking by.  They have few predators, sea lions in the water, and the occasional fox on land.

Patagonia is the southern-most part of South America.  Both Chile and Argentina have area here, although the people tend to think of themselves as Patagonian first and their nationality second.  Grasslands and lots of wind.  Sound familiar, those of you in the prairies?  It very hilly, though, and so is different.

We then went to a sheep farm.  Sheep are known as range maggots in the United Kingdom, but I didn’t hear any such derogatory term here.  Chilean Patagonia is largely agricultural, and farms tend to be big.  A small one is 5000 acres, and the largest one in the area was 70,000, although that was two separate pieces of land.

Most farms focus on sheep, and some cattle.  We were treated to a demonstration of sheep-herding, by a man on a horse and two very happy dogs.

We also watched a sheep get sheared the old fashioned way, with hand-shears.  A good shearer can shear 200 to 250 sheep a day.

The farm was lovely and interesting, and the experience was made slightly surreal by the sudden sight of a herd of baby llamas.  Unpenned, they roamed the large area freely.  They'd appear out of nowhere, running down a road, or across a field, or from behind our parked bus.  They were only four months old and so, while they are approaching their adult height, they are thin and leggy, mostly because they haven’t yet put on their adult hair.  It was difficult to take photos of them, because their appearance was always unexpected, and they can run fast.

Chilean Fjords





And now for something completely different, a local market.



Thursday, January 28, 2010

Isla Robinson Crusoe

In 1848, a group of Latter Day Saints decided to travel from New York to California, not by wagon train across the continent but by ship.  No Panama Canal then so they sailed down the east coast of North and South America.  Rounding the Horn, never an easy passage, was especially harrowing.  Unable to continue directly up South America’s west coast to California, they stopped at the first place they could find, the tiny island from which Alexander Selkirk was rescued in 1708, after spending four years and four months marooned there.  In the years since his ordeal, which inspired the book Robinson Crusoe, people had set up a small community there, and these people took in the Latter Day Saints.  They looked after the travelers, providing medical care, and food and water so they could continue on to California.  To show their gratitude to the islanders, every year a group of Latter Day Saints spends four months on the island, working to improve the people’s lives.

The group was there when we spent a day, working to complete a house which was already fully framed.  The population of the island is around 660 people, so the cruise ship’s arrival more than doubled the number of people there.
(The above picture is not the house they were working on.  It's a house made entirely of bottles.  My new technical expertise doesn't appear to include knowing how to move a picture from one place to another.)

The island is very steep, and while some houses and most businesses – a couple of tourist-type shops, a small general store, and a pub/discoteque – are on the flatter area along the short of a sheltered bay, most homes cling to the mountainside.  There’s a hike to Selkirk’s Mirador, his viewing point located mid-island, on its highest point, from where he watched the sea, hoping to see a ship.  The cave he lived in was further, and most of us tourists found the hike, even if we went only part-way up, daunting enough, causing shortness of breath and aching legs.

It was a lovely stop.  No organized tours, few cars.  Most people go around on motor-bikes or ATVs.  Or by horseback.  Lots of dogs live there, happy and healthy, and very friendly.  The local people ignored the influx of tourists for the most part, going about their business.  Some higher up were pleased to see us, greeting us with big smiles, their arms around small children who stared curiously at these puffing people walking up past their homes.

As I walked about, I thought often of Selkirk.  This must have been an inhospitable place when he first arrived.  He was a Scottish sailor, and was concerned about the seaworthiness of the ship on which he served.  He’d apparently complained about many things during that particular voyage, and so the captain put him onto the island.  This was a good thing, actually, because the ship later foundered, and only seven men survived.

The island, though, would have been difficult.  Selkirk expected a ship would come by soon to take him off.  He’d also expected other ship-mates to decide to join him, but none did, so he was alone.  The island is a harsh environment, but he would have been able to find fruit and fish to live on. 

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Hurrah, I have finally figured it out.  I'ce added one to the Costa Rica post.  I will add others over time.  Look for them!

On a Personal Note

     During this cruise, I’m following an itinerary other than the one that lists the countries we visit and the scenic vistas we see. It’ s journey into my future and into my past.
     I was married for almost 30 years, and now I’ve been not married for almost one. The itinerary of the past year was one of pain, grief, betrayal, and flickers of a new fire lighting the way. I have reached a point on this particular journey where I am sadder, but also stronger, more confident, and often happier. I am looking at the itinerary into my future with optimism.
     But it’s also a journey back, to the time before I was married. This cruise is the first time I’m meeting new people in a social situation, as a single woman. I knew that at some point I’d be again interested in other people, men, too. I thought, though, that I’d go through a time of wanting to be wanted, more than me wanting anyone else.
     I’ve had a crush, though, for several days, on someone, and it’s this that takes me back to my young woman days. The emotions are as surprising as they are familiar. Thinking about him a lot, that inner lift when I see him, especially when he smiles at me. The self-consciousness whenever I’m around him.
     It’s weird! I’d like to think I’ve learned something during all those married years, all those years of life experience since I was twenty-two. I guess I have gained some cynicism. I can say things like, I think about him, way too much. Or that it’s silly to be self-conscious. I know my body isn’t twenty-two any more, hasn’t been for a long time. But the basic emotions are there, and not much different.
Do we ever grow up?

Cruise Ship LIfe - Daily Program

Every evening a daily program for the following day is delivered to each cabin, or stateroom as they’re supposed to be called. Here is what tomorrow, January 24th, 2010, holds.
The program first offers a brief bio of Thomas Grindlay, the Dining Room Manager. We learn he’s from Canada, living near Huntsville, Ontario. He worked in the hospitality industry in Toronto, and then at the Banff Springs Hotel. Realizing he was bored with the hotel industry, he came to work for HollandAmerica as Maitre’d, “and the rest, as they say, is history. He supervises a staff of nearly 90 hard-working professionals who are dedicated to making sure you have the finest service on the high seas.”
There’s a paragraph from the navigator every day, telling us the bearing and planned course, although today it’s a discussion of how you can use your watch as a compass. If you hold your watch horizontally and point the hour hand toward the sun, south will be at a point approximately midway between the centre of 12 and the hour hand. I’m not sure, though, if this applies only in the southern hemisphere. Anyone know?
There’s a half-hour set aside for guest to have a photo taken with the Captain.
The dress code is formal, meaning for the ladies, gowns, cocktail dresses or elegant pantsuits, for the men, jacket and tie are required, dark suit or tuxedo suggested, cultural formal wear such as Asian style is also acceptable. It also says, “In order to compliment your fellow guests, please observe the dress code throughout the entire evening in the indoor bars, the La Fontaine dining room, and the Pinnacle Grill.” For those guests who don’t want to dress up, there’s the Lido restaurant, a cafeteria self-serve place.
Here is “Today at a Glance.”
7:30 a.m. Sit and Be Fit in the Queen’s Lounge
8:00 a.m. Catholic Mass Wajang Theatre
Walk a Mile Meet at Lifeboat 6 Deck 3
9:00 a.m. Tai Chi
Dance Class A: Cuban Mambo Crow’s Nest
Watercolour Class A
Protestant Sunday Worship
Daily Quiz Available, 9:00 – 3:00 (This includes a trivia sheet on a selected topic, plus a Sudoku puzzle, and maybe other things, I don’t know.)
Sports Equipment Available, 9:00 – 6:00 (Ping Pong, Paddle Tennis, Shuffleboard, Volleyball, Basketball, maybe more.)
9:30 a.m. Onboard Sports: Target Toss
Culinary Question and Answer (no topic listed, which is unusual)
Morning Coffee is served, 9:30 – 10:00 (I’m not sure why this is here, as you can get coffee any time you wish)
10:00 Seminar: One of a Kind: The Jewelled Creations of Sidney Mobell
Digital Workshop: Put Your Best Face Forward:Editing Your Cruise Photos
Beginner Bridge Lecture in the Hudson Room
Bridge Lecture in the Wajang Theatre
Fitness Class: Pathway to Yoga $12.00 in the Greenhouse Spa
Paddle Tennis Players meet
10:30 Wii Bowling
Favaro Collection Unveiling & Prize Giveaway in the Signature Shop (sells jewelry)
11:00 Explorations Speaker Series with John Palmisano (one of several speakers, I can’t remember if he’s the language expert or South American history, no topic listed)
Techspert Time with Jeff (he’s does workshops on photos, blogs, etc, and this is time to ask him questions or seek individual help)
Sidney Mobell book signing
Gems of South America in the Mirabella Luxury Boutique (the higher-priced jewelry store)
Spa Seminar: Burn Fat Fast (maybe I’ll go to this)
11:15 Fruit and Vegetable Carving
12 noon The ‘Brain’ Super Team Trivia (I do this, although the questions on this cruise are way more difficult than on others, but I guess we all need a reminder of how much we don’t know)
Singles and Solos meet for lunch (I’ve never been to one of these)
Blackjack Tournament in the Casino
Lunchtime Music on the Lido Deck
Voice from the Bridge Announcement (the Captain comes on, speaks about where we’re going, what weather we might expect, sometimes has maritime trivia or information)
1:00 Watercolour class B (some classes are popular enough, and in too small a space, so they do the class twice.
Art History at Sea
Opera Appreciation with Rabbi Mintz
Arthritis Relief with Acupuncture
1:30 Texas Hold ‘Em Tournament (all cruise ships I’ve been on have a casino)
2:00 Exploration Speaker Series with Ron Barasch
Creative Writing (that’s me!)
Digital Workshop: Your Away from Home Movie
Basketball players meet on the Sports Deck
Party Bridge (this is supposed to be like social bridge, non-competitive as compared to the Duplicate Bridge) in the Hudson room
Duplicate Bridge in the dining room
2:30 Arts & Crafts
Onboard sports: Hole-in-One Golf Challenge, in the Atrium
3:00 Dance Class B
Photography Lovers meet
3:15 – 4:00 Afternoon Tea
4:00 Bonus Card Snowball Jackpot Bingo (costs money)
Amsterdam Book Club meets (me again. In between I’ll have office hours, which is regular thing but is never in the program. It’s time for fledgeling critique groups and people who want one-on-one time with me)
Techspert Time with Jeff
Friends of Bill W. meet (AA meeting)
Volleyball players meet
5:30 Early Seating dining Antarctic Orange Dinner (this means that as well as dressing formally, we should wear orange. The only orange I have is a mola t-shirt and orange nail polish. The last themed formal night was black and white, which was much easier. Melissa got an orange scarf)
7:00 Cocktails with Stryker (a band which plays older dance tunes. There will be dancing, partner style, and the dance hosts will keep busy.)
8:00 Early Seating Showtime
Main Seating dining Arctic Orange Dinner (this is when I eat. My table mates are great which means I usually go to the dining room, even though eating there can take an hour and a half or more, which is time I could be using to write, read, or sew)
9:00 Broadway to Hollywood in the Rembrandt Lounge (there’s a very good pianist in this lounge,a nd he usually has a theme for each evening. Sometimes it’s Guess That Tune, which is fun)
10:00 Main Seating Showtime
11:00 All Request Night with Your Dj in the Crow’s Nest (this is music from the 60s on, and you can dance alone or in a group if you wish.)

The show is Elliot Finkel, Piano Entertainer Extroadinaire (other shows have included a soprano singer, a comedic magician, high-energy dancers, Las Vegas style shows, stand-up comedian, etc. etc.
The movie is Like Water for Chocolate
The rest of the program shows the hours for each bar and restaurant, the spa, the photogallery, pools and hot tubs, a Q and A (today’s is Are the Height of the Waves Related to the Distance Between the Waves?,, where you can find alcohol to drink, and hours and where to reach the doctor, art director, shore excursions desk, future cruise consultant, travel guide, and assorted other people and services. Room Service is availavle 24 hours a day

Friday, January 22, 2010

Chile and Big Waves

A short post this time - it's Gale Force 8, and big ship or not, the motion is definitely felt on board. The dining room was sparsely populated this evening, and boxes of barf bags have discreetly appeared around the ship. I went out on deck three, which is about four storeys above the water. At least normally it's that high, but tonight waves are breaking on the deck two windows, and spry is flying as high as deck 6. Outside, one side of the ship was very wet, but other was dry. It was exhilarating to stand in that wind, which on the Beaufort Scale is around 62-74 km an hour, but the actual wind speed is higher because we are heading into it at 22 knots per hour. This is the most comfortable heading, the waves break on the bow, whihc causes pitching, rocking from front to back, which isn't as nausea-inducing as rolling, which is side-to-side motion that happens when the waves come at you from the side. After crossing the North Sea in Gale Force 5, in a 40-foot sailboat, nothing on this ship bothers me very much.
We've been in Chile for the last few days. I've had a bad cold and so didn't get off the ship for the first two ports, but did go for a walk today in Valparaiso. Tomorrow we are supposed to stop at Isla Robinson Crusoe, which is where the man who inspired the novel, whose name was not Robinson Crusoe, was marooned. He lived in a cave for four years and four months before being rescued, and the plan for tomorrow is to hike to the cave. If the water is too rough, though, we won't be able to stop, as the ship needs to anchor, not dock, and so we need to use tenders, which in their other guise are life boats, to get to shore. If it's too rough the ride is too uncomfortable and dangerous for most passengers, and so we won't be able to visit.
I'll write more about Chile, when my computer stops weaving about on my lap. I think it's had too much to drink, just as all the passengers who walk by, also swerving and reeling, must have had.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Peru - Swimming with Sea Lions

Peru is wonderful. We spent two days here, in Callao/Lima. I saw penguins in the wild for the first time. I hadn’t realized penguins lived so far north. We’re still not that far south of the equator, but Humboldt penguins live here.
I know this picture is not of penguins, but I don't like any of the pictures I took of them.  So here are other birds that I saw.


There are also lots of sea lions on the islands just off Callao. Callao is a port city, and used to be separate from Lima but, as cities tend to do, they both grew and so are now one large metropolitan area.

One thing you do not want to be is a male sea lion. The dominant bulls tend to have harems of about ten females. They know the young males are potential competition, and so often kill male pups once they reach the age of about two. The females take their male pups over to a nearby island, so they won’t be killed, and there the males live on their bachelor island. Once in a while one of them decides to swim over to the larger island where the bulls, females and younger pups live, to challenge one of the older bulls, but success is difficult. Most of the males live with the other males for their who lives.
We went by boat to see the islands, and were offered the chance to jump overboard and swim. Out of two boats and about 60 people, only Melissa, me, and one man decided to do this. It was the high point of the day. You need to swim backwards towards the sea lions, as they are afraid if they see your eyes. Once you reach an area near the island, which was very rocky, where there’s a group of them swimming, you can turn around. They get afraid, but they are also intensely curious animals. Their eyes are huge and liquid and show such a gentleness that even though they are so big, especially the bulls, 1000 pounds or more, I was never afraid. They are funny, too, because being both curious and afraid, they tended to look at you, then duck underwater, then come up again to keep looking.

The people on our boat were very impressed that we did swim. One man told us we were his heroes. This surprised me a bit because, while we were swimming, they all had to sit on the boat which was going up and down on the Pacific swells, getting seasick. But they were really thrilled that two women from their boat did it.
For the quilters and knitters among you, Peru has some fabulous weaving, knitting, and felting. Lima has a big artisan’s market, and the prices are so cheap that most of the time I haven’t bothered to haggle, even though I enjoy doing that. I just figure that these people have so little money and material objects compared to me, and since the prices are good, I pay them. The weavings are either done with fine yarn and are used for table runners or wall hangings, or are done with coarser yarns for rugs. Ponchos are woven or knitted, and all are beautiful. They use a lot of alpaca yarn, so the items are soft and drape well.
Today we walked around with Bob Morrisey, who’s on board to teach the other new program, acting. He’s been in a lot of movies and TV shows, as well as acting and directing on stage. When he was younger he was in Cats and other Broadway musicals. Like most actors, he’s very entertaining to talk to. He was in one scene of the Katherine Heigl movie The Ugly Truth, which happened to play in the ship’s theatre last night. He hadn’t seen it, and so we went to watch with him, determined to do our best to embarrass him. When his scene came on we cheered and clapped. Today a man who had also been there watching it said that we obviously must have enjoyed the movie very much, since we applauded in the middle. It’s actually an ok movie, not great, so we explained the situation to him. When the move was over I asked Bob for his autograph, and he must have detected sarcasm, for he refused.
We had a good time walking around today. We went to a museum which has a lot of gold artifacts dating from over 2000 years ago. They are kept in a room that has a vault door that makes most bank vaults look easy to break into. Later we walked along the cliffs along the shore. Dozens of parasailers kept drifting overhead, creating a sense of a gentle stream, only in the air instead of the ground. We followed them to their source, noticing that each one had two people, and discovered that for fifty dollars you could go up for a ride. We were keen to do this but unfortunately there was quite a line up and we didn’t have enough time before we had to be back on the ship.
I’m having technical difficulties getting photographs onto my blog. I’ll keep trying, but if I can’t I’ll post them on Flickr and Facebook so you can see them.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Writing Class

Today was my first writing class. It was good, the students seemed very happy. I covered the first part of the creative process, in which I discuss the differences between our right and left brains, and the wonderful subconscious. We did exercises to help us learn how to shut off our left brains and access the right. It sounds a little silly to talk about turning off half our heads, but each side has a role to play in the creative process, and each has to allow the other side to do its job.
(If anyone is interested in learning more about how to write and what I cover when I teach, let me know and I’ll do a blog on that.)
Being an incredibly giving and dedicated teacher, or a glutton for punishment, I told the students that I’d be formally scheduled to teach only every other sea day, which means about 30 one hour classes over the whole cruise. When asked if they’d like to meet more often, most said yes, and so I’ve arranged for us to meet in the Explorers lounge, one of the many sitting areas which is a bar only in the evening. I’ll be there at 4:00p.m. on the days I’m not on the schedule and will hold a class, although I’ll have to keep the more exuberant exercises for the days we’re in the theatre, because they can get noisy and people often use the Explorations Lounge as a quiet place to read, since it’s across from the library. And on 4:00 p.m. on the days I am scheduled to teach, as well as the class at 2:00, I’ll have office hours, a chance for people to give me things to read, which I’ll comment on during the next office hour. I also find many people want to come and just talk, about writing but often about other things. I’ve learned that as a writing instructor, I become a confidante in many ways. Since writing, even if it’s not autobiographical, reveals something about the writer, people want to share, to receive affirmation and explore their thoughts and ideas. Three people came by today, which is impressive considering the writing class wasn’t advertised ahead of time, and so they couldn’t have known to bring stuff. So I have three things to read.
One person who brought me a story was concerned that I was taking on too much, which I thought was very considerate of him. I’ve learned over my years of teaching to set limits on the time and energy I give. I limit any submission for detailed comments to no more than ten or twenty pages, depending on how many people are in a class. I learned to do this after someone gave me a 300-page novel.
I like to be available to my students and I want to teach more than every other sea day. It’s why I’m here, and I want to do the best job I can. And I still have lots of time to do other things. No teaching on any port days, for example. And I’ll still be doing only two hours a day on sea days. The book club will add another hour on sea days, although I don’t know yet how often we’ll meet for that.
It’s a perfect combination of travel, teaching and interaction with students, and time to do the things I want to do. So far the things I’m spending time doing are writing, sewing, downtime to read or whatever, exercise, and some socialization. I play the trivia game every sea day, and really enjoy the people at my dinner table. I haven’t gone dancing any evening yet, but hope to soon. I plan to take the drama class, and want to start attending the watercolour class. I could also do play bridge, take dance classes, attend lectures, take arts & crafts, play paddle tennis, which is kind of like racquet ball with a tennis ball, only slower, play chess, play ping pong, watch movies in the theatre or on the DVD player in my cabin, swim in one of the two pools and sit in one of the the hot tubs, have my hair cut, get a massage, have acupuncture or a mud bath or any of several spa treatments, take yoga or aerobics classes, lift weights and go on the treadmill (which I have started doing), attend cooking and bar tending classes, or just sit and eat for twelve hours a day. And those are just the things I can remember right now.


The Panama Canal is amazing, it really is, especially when you think about the technology available when it was constructed. It’s being widened now, so that larger ships can pass through. The current locks are 110 feet wide and 1000 long, which means this cruise ship, and it’s a smallish one, is about 106 feet wide, and a little less than 1000 feet long.
Panama held a referendum of all its citizens to decide if the widening should take place. Apparently, of the money the canal makes from charging fees for ships passing through, a quarter goes to salaries (there are about 9000 people employed, a quarter goes to maintenance, a quarter to researching new technologies that can improve operations, and a quarter goes to government revenue to be used to benefit the people. About 30% voted against the changes, apparently out of concerns about environmental impact. So the work is underway, and is supposed to finish in 2014, which will mark 100 years since the Canal was inaugurated. And to assuage environmental concerns, new technology is being used so that the water used in the new bigger locks will be saved and reused.
Melissa and I went on a tour called Monkey Island Adventure while we were in Fuerte Amador. It was fun, we saw monkeys in the wild, howlers and white-faced capuchins. The capuchins are among the most intelligent monkeys, and are often seen in movies and other situations where trained monkeys are needed. If you’ve seen the movie Outbreak, the monkey is a white-faced capuchin. We stopped at the side of a river in the canal, where a family of capuchins observed us, posed so we could take pictures, and a couple jumped onto the boat to receive a piece of banana.
A river in the canal? There are three sets of locks in the Canal, and the rest is a wide waterway which in places widens to become a lake filled with islands. Much of the area is very beautiful, although the widening work is apparent in many places. Hills are being lowered, areas are cleared of all vegetation, and dredging, and is underway to place explosives to remove rock.
Some facts:
During the 34 year construction, which included a disastrous French first attempt and then a 10 year American involvement, the two countries spent $639 billion.
The Canal is 48 miles long and saves ships a distance of 7,872 miles. The average transit is 9 hours.
Container ships are charged $80 per container, and many of them have 3 or 4 thousand of them. Once the expansion is finished, ships will be able to have two and a half times bigger capacity.
Cruise ships are charged by the number of beds. I’m not sure of the fee per bed, but they pay fees approaching half a million dollars.
In 1928, a man names Richard Halliburton swam through the canal. He paid a toll of 36 cents.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Costa Rica

Sloths are adorable. Really. See?  (Can you tell which one is the sloth?)  Sorry, Melissa)

We stopped in Puerto Limon in Costa Rica, and I went on a trip to a local sloth sanctuary. It currently has over one hundred sloths, most of which are brought to them by people who find them or rescue them from awful situations. Babies are hand fed and usually need to spend their lives at the sanctuary, as they don’t learn how to live in the wild, but adults, once they’ve recovered from their injuries, are set free to live in the protected forest of the sanctuary.

Sloths are slow, and apparently this is because they don’t get a lot of energy from their diet. It can take them a week to digest a meal of leaves. They are not stupid, though, and are very well adapted to their forest homes. Being slow, they’re easy targets for kids who throw stones at them to knock them out of their trees. People often capture them to be pets, and then decide they don’t want them after all. With deforestation, the sloths have to find new territories, and crossing a road to reach new trees doesn’t work well if you’re slow and awkward on the ground.

We walked through the sanctuary forest and saw many sloths up in trees. They come down only to urinate and defecate, although, surprisingly, they are good swimmers. We then saw some of the sloths who live in the sanctuary buildings. The babies are soooooo cute. They each live with a stuffed animal, since they have a need to cling to something, ideally their mothers, but something else soft will do. One baby was sucking on his front claws (which are about three inches long,) and this, of course, reduced everyone to puddles of goo.

We then went on a canoe ride along a jungle river. I realize I’m using the words ‘forest’ and ‘jungle’, but both mean rainforest. I’d hoped we’d get to paddle our canoes, but there were six tourists in each boat, and one young man in the back with one paddle to propel us. The jungle is a confusing place, filled with green growing things of assorted shapes and sizes. The paddlers have amazing eyes, and they would point out birds, lizards, and snakes to us, manoevering the canoe to the river bank so we could get a closer look. Even with him pointing out the animal, we often had a hard time spotting it. I guess living in that environment helps a person become observant, especially since Costa Rica has five of the most poisonous snakes in the world.

My first writing class is the day after tomorrow. I can’t remember if I mentioned this in a previous post, but my classes with alternate with the drama class, so I’ll teach only every other sea day. This is good because I want to take the drama classes, but I want to teach more than that, and some of the people who came to my sneak peek are very keen. I tried convincing the cruise director to let me use another space on the drama days, but he claims there is nowhere that will work. I’ve realized that as Enrichment staff, I’m pretty well at the bottom of the totem pole of all the entertainers and activity people he has to deal with, and as a new program, Bob Morrisey, the drama teacher, and I are at the bottom of the Enrichment staff pole. At the urging of some of my soon to be students, I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands. I’ve found a couple of places that might work for us to meet, and so on drama days, I’ll hold an impromptu class in the library or in one of the quieter lounges. The cruise director won’t list my impromptu classes in the daily program, but hopefully the students will know and will come. I suspect this will need flexibility and some tweaking, but that’s the plan for now.

Today we crossed through the Panama Canal and are anchored just off Puerto Fuente, which is across a body of water from Panama City. Tomorrow I go on a trip to a place called Monkey Island, and then I want to shop for molas.

Friday, January 8, 2010

La Difference

I’m being boring, or misguided, or dedicated tonight, your choice, because instead of going the hear Doc Severinson play for tonight’s show, I’m working on my current novel. I also cut fabric into strips earlier today, for a quilt I’m making for Melissa’s future grandmother-in-law. I’m pleased to be so productive.

Doc Severinson, and I didn't know this before, was Johnny Carson's band leader.

The Sneak Peek for my writing program went well. It’s funny, I had a dream that hardly any people showed up, and they got bored while I was speaking and so loudly chatted amongst themselves before leaving en masse. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

The students appear keen and well motivated, and the actually are hoping for classes more often than the regular schedule includes. Scheduling is difficult on the ship, as there are a lot of different programs and a limited number of spaces, and so there’s no way to add regularly scheduled classes. As it is, the drama teacher and I are supposed to alternate days, which is why the writing students feel they won’t get enough writing time. I’ve decided that I will hold a regular session on the aft part of the Lido deck. This deck has two small swimming pools and the cafeteria-style restaurant. On the back deck there’s a shaded area with many tables, and so that should work well. I haven’t had a chance to propose this to the students yet, but will see if this idea will work for them.

I’ve only been on board two days, but already I’m seeing a lot of differences between this cruise and the regular one or two week ones I’ve been on before. This one is the crown jewel of what are called Grand Voyages, which tend to be longer, usually a couple of months. Everything is at a higher level. In part I suppose this is because the passengers are paying much more than the usual one-week cruisers do. Here are some of this things I’ve observed.

There is a legally mandated lifeboat drill on every cruise. On shorter cruises it’s always about an hour after the ship sails. Everyone has to put on their life jacket and assemble at their assigned life boat. On this cruise, the captain delayed the drill by a day, because he felt everyone was probably too tired after travelling to get to the ship. Also, while everyone did have to go the their lifeboat, we didn’t have to put on our bulky and uncomfortable life jackets.

The captain refers to himself by his first name, thus seeming much more approachable than the more formal captains on the shorter cruises.

The passengers, guests, I have to remember to call them guests, are much friendlier right from the start. Many of them do the world tour every year, and so know each other and are happy to see their friends again. The sense is that this ship is a small town for the next four months, that this isn’t a holiday away from real life, but is real life for that length of time.

The guests in general are fitter and more active on this cruise. I think this is because this is a more adventurous itinerary, and so the people who choose to do this trip are the sorts of people who want adventure and challenges.

The crew, entertainers, and other staff are top notch. Cruises in general are known for pampering their guests, but this one goes beyond the others. And the stewards, waiters, and other people directly involved with the guests seem to genuinely enjoy both their jobs and the guests. And I can hear the string quartet from where I'm sitting in the library, and they are amazingly good. Previous string quartets and not bad, but not of this quality.

Tomorrow we stop in Costa Rica. Melissa and I are going to visit sloths and other animals, and paddle a jungle canoe.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

On Board the Amsterdam

We boarded yesterday, Melissa and me. It was interesting, as we didn't have to go through the passenger line ups but could board with the crew. This took less time, and meant we didn't have to pose for an embarkation photo. These are taken for every cruise, and are supposed to show how excited and happy you are about your cruise, but usually show how tired and grubby you are after traveling to where you board the ship But it's a tradition, and is one of many pictures the ship's photographers take of everyone during the cruise. It's not a problem, as there's no obligation to buy, and you don't even have to go to the photo gallery to look for the pictures of you if you don't want to. Finding the photos is another thing - imagine searching for one picture among hundreds that all have the same background and people in the same pose.
Anyway, Melissa and I are here and unpacked and mostly settled in. We have an inside cabin, which is a disappointment, but we will cope. Our cabin is in the very front of the ship, which means we feel the motion more than do people in the ship's centre, but at least we know we are on water, even though we can't see outside. Being inside is mainly an issue in the morning, because there's no way of telling what time it is when you wake up, as it's always dark unless I turn on a light. But, enough whining. And I can spend all my time outside of the cabin other than when I'm asleep.
There was a meeting yesterday for all the enrichment staff. Actually, I'm not sure what I am. My contract says Enrichment Staff, my cabin keycard says Service Staff, and elsewhere I've been referred to as Support Staff. The other people present included teachers of watercolour, arts and crafts, tai chi, bridge, dance, and drama. There were also six men who used to be called dance hosts but are now called social hosts. And a Catholic priest, Protestant minister, and a rabbi. Many of these people have done the world tour cruise before, and there were many joyful reunions.
I was told that only top flight people get to work the World cruise, which makes me feel good, but also a little intrigued, since the only interview I had was back in May when I had an interview with HollandAmerica's texecutive in charge of hiring, who happened to be on the disastrous Panama Canal cruise I did then with Melissa and MAtt (her fiance). (If you want to know more about the disastrous cruise, ask and I'll do a post on it.) He struck me at the time as a very decisive person, but we only spent about fifteen minutes together, during which I babbled something about what I could offer as a creative writing teacher. I assumed I'd have another interview by the person in Seattle who is in charge of hiring entertainers, and that she'd want references and so on, but I guess my assessment of his decisiveness was correct.
By the way, for those of you who know how much waiting for information I did between May and now, I'm told that this isperfetly neormal. For those of you who don't know about the waiting, I only learned I had the job at the beginning of december, got my contract a week before the cruise began, and was told my flights the day before I left.
Tomorrow I do a Sneak Peek of my program which is an opportunity for guests who are interested to learn what it's all about. I went to peeks today for watercolour and arts and crafts and they both look great. Arts & crafts, by the way, is taught by two women with PhDs who teach art at university, and took great pains to tell us they are both professors. I guess a & c cann seem chintzy, so they want to show it's about art, not making those plastic lace bracelets.
I was glad to see that the teachers appear to be very good, and their styles are similar in many ways to mine. I also got some ideas of how to do things tomorrow during my own sneak peek. The drama and creative writing programs are both new ones for the cruise, so I was glad that the experienced people went today.
Melissa is enrichment/service/staff too. I planned to introduce her has my gofer, but she pointed out that what we call gophers in Saskatchewan are actually prairie dogs, or maybe ground squirrels. I guess she can be a prairie dog.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Delights of Air Travel

The first sign of the new world of flying is all the people, in the area of the airport for people flying to the US, clutching laptops.  Not in bags, the computers are hugged protectively to chests or tucked under arms.  No carry-on bags are allowed, you see, other than something small.  A purse, perhaps, but not a backpack nor, in my case, a laptop-sized bag.  I could take valuables on, but they had to be carried separately  My camera bag was allowed, but I also carried a book, a magazine, my Gameboy, two ziplock bags of jewelry and one containing medication, a small purse, and my laptop.
  I'd heard that there are stringent new security measures in place for anyone flying to the US, and that I should get to the airport three hours early.  Being an obedient air traveler, I did so.  Fifteen minutes later, after emptying the laptop bag and giving it to my kind friend Terri, who'd driven me to the airport, I was at the gate, somewhat amazed at how quickly and smoothly everything had gone.  I later went through security again, because I'd left my phone in the laptop bag, and Terri was kind enough to make another trip to the airport to bring it to me.  (Thank you, thank you, Terri).  The second time through was as easy as the first, and they even let me put most of the items I was carrying in a plastic bag from the Relay store, which made life much easier since I no longer had to keep stooping to pick up things that I'd dropped.
  But then, (cue the ominous music) came the second round of security.  Several earnest-looking people set up a table in front of the door through which we had to pass to get to the plane,  We were directed into two lines, one for men, the other for women,  At the front of the line, we were each patted down.  It was a little strange, standing there in front of everyone, arms held out to the side, while a stranger ran her hands up the inside of my legs and over my chest.  The female patter was very pleasant, though, joking about how strong her thighs are getting since for each person she starts with the front, then squats to reach the ankles and lower legs, then stands again to get the back. 
  Everyone's carry-on items were examined again, even though the first security people had done a thorough job.  We were then directed into a hall lined with chairs on both sides, and told to sit and wait.
  A friendly security guy, directing traffic in the hall, told us that all flights into the US are required to do this extra level of security.  The costs are all borne by the country in which the flight originates, and not by the US.  I saw at least eight extra security people involved patting, searching, and keeping people moving.
  Most pattees, or passengers who are supposedly being welcomed to the friendly skies, took this all with good humour, doing no more than shrugging or rolling their eyes at each other.  We were told that we wouldn't have to go through this again when we returned to Canada, or for our connecting flights within the US. 
  I have to confess I'm skeptical about the value of all this.  It often seems that security measures brought in after an attack or a near tragedy such as the one that sparked this latest round of security measures, are put in place so it seems that the airlines are keeping us safe, rather than actually doing anything useful.  The patting, to everyone's relief, didn't actually reach the area in which the would-be terrorist had hidden his explosives.
  The frendly security guy also told me that he suspects the airlines will not return to the old rules for carry-on bags.  He said that allowing big bags again would be signaling terrorists that it is open season on airplanes.  I don't quite get that, but his additional remarks did make sense - that carry-ons have been getting larger and heavier to the point where many people bring bags of up to fifty pounds and get upset when there isn't room for all of them in the overhead bins.  Distribution of weight is an important factor on planes (I've been on a couple of sparesely populated flights in which passengers were asked to move to different seats in order to better distribute weight.)  It's better for the airlines to have luggage in the cargo holds than in overhead bins.
  I don't know if this man's information is valid or not, but it is interesting.  Some people said airlines are going to lose passengers if air travel continues to become more uncomfortable and passengers are made to feel even more like cattle.  It is the best way, though, to get somewhere that is distant, and to do so quickly.  Someone else said that airlines make much of their profit from business travel, and that large corporations may decide that it's more efficient to invest in private airliners.  If any of you are more knowledgeable about any of this, I'd love to learn more.
  In any event, I made it to my hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  The other people in the shuttle from the airport were also headed for the same cruise as me.  There was a couple from Wales who'd been traveling forty-eight hours, and a young man from Seattle, a jazz guitarist, who plays with assorted bands on the ship.
  One last thing before I close - a confession.  I brought a lot of luggage.  Two suitcases, one duffle bag, and a sewing machine.  The couple from Wales have done several long cruises, and they each had one suitcase and a small bag.  Of course, they probably their suitcases probably weren't crammed full with books and fabric.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Getting Ready

I'm going to need a cruise vacation to recover from getting ready for this trip.  Packing for four months is complicated.  I've often though, when I go away for a week or two, that surely the amount of stuff I take then would be enough for any length of time.  After all, there are laundry machines.  But four months require a greater variety of things.  I suppose I could get by with the two weeks worth of clothes, but the thought of wearing the same two dresses for the two formal nights a week for sixteen weeks is simply not appealing at all.  I'm not exactly a fashion plate, in fact I very rarely wear makeup and any thoughts I have about clothes concern whether an item makes me look even fatter or not.  (Menopause and body image, a whole other topic.)  But I do want some choice of what to wear while I'm away, some variety so I don't get bored and so the people who have to look at me don't begin to not see me because they know what to expect and so don't really bother to see.
  Plus I have to pack for warm weather.  This will be first time I cross the equator, and the season is summer in the southern hemisphere.  And I have to pack for cold weather, unless the Antarctic is more affected by global warming than I think.  I hope it isn't unduly affected or changing, simply because it is unique in the world.  I'm not usually good at going along with rules unless I understand why they exist and that reason makes sense to me.  We won't be able to set foot on any Antarctic territory but I do understand the concerns of a thousand people per ship tromping around and so I have no problem with this rule.  Simply seeing it will be a thrill.  And seeing penguins will be the icing on the cake, or rather the ice on the frozen dessert.
  So I've ben sorting clothes into piles - stuff I want to take, stuff I definitely won't take, stuff that's a maybe, and stuff I have to try on.  I've kept pretty well every piece of clothing I've ever earned.  I even found a shirt I wore during the 70s, with sleeves that puff out from shoulder to elbow, and then again from elbow to wrist.  Anyone remember that style?  Then after I decided what I wanted to take, I had to cut it down by at least half so it would fit not only in two suitcases, but so it will fit in the cabin.  There's a fair amount of storage space but the cabins are not big.
  Then there are books to read and books I like to have when I teach certain topics.  Books to read isn't really an issue, as there is a good library on board the ship, but my to-be-read shelf is turning into to-be-read shelves, and so I want to whittle it down somewhat.  The teaching books ended up not coming along.  I'll just have to  wing it.
  This whole teaching experience will be an exercise in flexibility.  I'll have hour-long sessions instead of the two or three hours I'm used to.  I'll be covering all genres instead of designing a course to cover a particular one.  I'll have larger groups than I'm used to, although I have experienced this in the past.  There was one school up north I went to.  They'd asked how big a group I wanted to work with, and I said no more than twenty-five, but when I arrived a found they'd been so excited about having a writer come visit that they wanted to whole school to participate, about one hundred kids.  I managed.  Flexibility and the ability to think fast on your feet, those are real assets for teaching writing.  Probably for lots of other things, too.
  Anyway, I am packed.  I have clothes, books, puzzle magazines, quilting stuff, personal items.  I'm sure I'm forgetting something, but that's the way it always works.  Four months is just a little long to do without something important, but probably I can find the item or make do with something else.
  Flexibility.  I guess that's my mantra for this trip.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


I was going to name this How I Went Round the World and Ended Up in the Same Place as I Began.  But then it occurred to me that after this experience, even if I do end up in the same physical space as I began, it won't really be the same place because I'll be different.  We all change and grow as we have experiences.  I suspect I've changed a lot during the past year, actually I know I have.  I'm stronger, more confident, and more who I am.  For a long time I didn't know who I was, because I'd learned to be a chameleon, changing to be whatever a person, someone who mattered in my life, wanted me to be.  For the first time that's over, and I am discovering who I am.
  Anyway, getting back to the coming four months:  I am going to be designing and running a creative writing program during Holland America's World Tour cruise.    To see the intinerary, clock on this:
  Or, if clicking doesn't work, copy it and paste it into your browser's address space.
  I will have a lot of new experiences, seeing places I haven't been, cultures that are unfamiliar, meeting people both on the ship and on shore who will be interesting in all sorts of ways.  I'll teach some of them how to put ideas in their heads onto paper, and they will teach me in ways I probably can't even imagine yet.
  In this blog I plan to share my experiences, and those of the people I meet, if they agree.  There will be photographs, too, lots of photos.
  Please let me know your experiences, too, especially if any of them relate to or are caused by, this blog.  Writers need to observe and experience, we never stop opening ourselves to the world.  You are part of my world, and I welcome you.