Thursday, April 6, 2017

Escape from Rochester - Returning home through Washington Cherry Blossoms

Ishrod and Marilyn
Once we cleared customs and border control, we claimed our car and drove north to stop and visit friends in Orlando.  Musheer and Ishrod Hussain moved to Orlando about a year ago.  They had lived for 40 years in Holly NY.  Marilyn and Ishrat met in the Holly schools where they both worked and became good friends.  Musheer is a retired general surgeon.  They have a lovely home and they were gracious hosts.  In fact, we had somehow given them the impression that we would be staying at least overnight with them.  Nonetheless, we shared a nice lunch and a long visit and left with the promise that next trip we would make sure to stay with them and explored Orlando.

Tom and Bill
We drove north to the other side of Jacksonville where we stayed the night.  The next day we drove to Centreville VA just outside Washington near Dulles airport to stay with Tom and Sara.  Without any advance planning, the cherry blossoms were still visible.  The last time we tried tog et to Washington to see them, we were too late.  A heavy wind storm the week before basically stripped the trees.  While not at their peak, we did get see them and had a great visit with Tom and Sarah.  Tom's kids, Bill and Katie, also stopped by for short visits.

Sarah and Marilyn
It was great to visit with them and to experience the beginning of spring.  For the previous three weeks, we had been enjoying summer and easily slipped into thinking that it was summer everywhere.  As we drove north, we experienced the change of seasons in four days.  From the bright blooms and heat of summer, to the blossoming of spring and the activity of birds who have been here all winter but we always think of as harbingers of spring.

Jefferson Memorial trhough the cherry blossoms on the Tidal Basin
Sarah prepared two delicious meals...with Tom's help, of course.  Our first night we salmon off the grill and the final night pot roast which had been slowly cooking while we were downtown.  Sarah served some absolutely heavenly bread pudding--warmed with vanilla ice cream--the first night.  Thankfully, there was enough for the other two nights of our visit.  At least I had some every night.  I think Marilyn was trying to get into a Weight Watcher frame of mind.  You can click here to view photos of the DC visit.

One final note on our cruise.  We were very impressed with the friendliness and energy of the crew members who took care of us.  The Stateroom Steward, Menino, was cheerful every morning and often brought smiles with his towel animals complete with one of our sunglasses.  Who knew towel animals were a thing?

On our last day sailing, we signed up for a special tour...and Bottomless Brunch--of the galleys that provided our delicious food.  We saw some of the specialty displays including some of carved melons.  The skillful use of the different colors of the melon created a work of art.  The tour was given by the Director of Food & Beverage Training.  These are his full time duties.  He is from Bulgaria and has been with Royal Caribbean for 15 years.  One of our waiters told us that he works till at least 10:00 at night and several times during the week he then has training classes.  This commitment to quality and system to support that commitment was impressive.  We had the same waiter and assistant waiter for all five nights and we felt like we were family.  We gave them big hugs on our final night.  Obviously we are not sophisticated travelers but we do know when are treated well and valued.
Balaji Langote (India) our waiter
Marilyn with Dennis Matthew (India)
our assistant waiter.

Marilyn has much more to say about these two young men.  She actually began referring to Dennis as her grandson and was worried that he wouldn't make his way in life successfully.  He was shy, we thought, but had a nice sense of humor much like Marilyn's late father, Bob.  By the way, his English names are the result of his family being Roman Catholic and living in an area that is traditionally Catholic.  For more about the Catholic Church in India, click here.

We are now back in Rochester waiting for the first sign of spring here.  We were greeted with a colony of happy crocus and so we know there will be more, a lot more, to come.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Escape From Rochester - Cruising to Mexico

The final segment of our south Florida vacation was a cruise on Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas.  Leaving from Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale, we visited Costa Maya and Cozumel.  We boarded the ship around noon on Saturday and sailed at 6:00 PM.  The process of boarding 4,300 passengers with their luggage is quite fascinating.  The process included issuing a ship card that was used for identification and for all charges for any purchases on the ship.  They also took our photo which was tied to our digital record so that when the card was scanned when leaving or boarding the ship, our photo came up for the officer in charge to view.

As we left port, we were escorted by the Coast Guard and by a pair of pelicans.  Both were interesting and comforting though in different ways.  The Coast Guard left when we cleared the port but the pelicans stayed around until we sought shelter from a shower.  With the clouds, there was no visible sunset that evening.  Click here to view other pictures of our first day on the ship and leaving port.

Starting the next day, I saw a spectacular sunrise and sunset each day of the cruise.  It was getting to the point where I wasn't really taking that many photos since I already had so many.  I have gathered the best of all those into a separate photo album.  Click here to view it.

Here is the promenade, two football fields in length
right in the center of the shipl
The first full day was spent cruising past Key West and Cuba on our way to the Yucatan Peninsula and Mahahual in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.  There were 15 decks on the ship and we explored all of them.  We spent most of our sun time on decks 12 and 13 which were just above the three swimming pools.  There was a walking/running track which was just under a quarter of a mile and we walked three or four miles each day.  On the two cruising days our routine was about the same.  I would get up early to see the sunrise.  Marilyn would get up later and then we would eat breakfast choosing from extensive breakfast buffets.  Then the walk on the deck followed by lying in the sun reading.  I finished Carl Hiaasen's latest novel, Razor
Girl.  This was followed by lunch from those extensive buffets and then more sun time.  Around 2:00 I would go inside and enjoy different expresso drinks and continue reading.  We had decided not to buy wi-fi on the ship and we enjoyed being disconnected for these five days.  After a quick turn on deck to view the sun set, we then had dinner in one of the dining rooms.  There were delicious entrees followed often by two or more desserts.  I mean two desserts for me.  One night we even had two entrees since the lobster tails were bit small.

After dinner, we would take in one of the shows.  We saw an ice skating show, Strings on ice, as well as two musical presentations.  The first was an A Capella singing group, The Edge Effect.  They were very entertaining.  We had a hard time believing that there were not instruments involved somehow.  Their interaction with the audience was also very pleasant.  There was also a 90 minute production of Grease which was amazing.  Not only were the actors very good but the staging was almost unbelievable.  All sorts of sets were rising up and disappearing including a full size automobile.  And of course, those songs and dances are just as entertaining as always.

Our first port was Costa Maya on the Yucatan in Mexico.  The port itself is fairly recent and was constructed only for tour ships.  The actual town is Mahahual which comes from the Mayan word for a type of local tree.  I had booked an excursion but not through the cruise line.  I found an interesting looking tour from Native Choice.  It included a tour of Chacchoben (Mayan ruins), a local lunch, and beach time at a local lagoon.  Since it is an independent vendor, Native Choice was not allowed inside the port.  Thus we needed to walk four blocks through the town to reach their office.  This bit of extra effort was rewarded with a very professional and truly local operation.

Our tour guide was Diego and our driver was Alesio.  Diego explained a great deal about the local area on the van ride to the site including the fact that he and Alesio were both mixtos, that is, a mix of Mayan and Spanish ancestors.  Diego grew up in this area and still lives here with his wife and two young daughters.  He had a university degree in forestry but had been unable to find a job in that field that would have permitted him to continue to live in his home village next door to his mother and close to his two sisters.  He had worked for a while at a hotel but the hours meant that he was not able to spend enough time with his family.  Being a tour guide was to his liking since he didn't work every day and the hours were more reasonable.  This is a great example of the central importance of the family in Latino culture.  Most Americans would and have pulled up roots to seek appropriate employment.  For Mexicans, the economic circumstances must be desperate to leave their families, enter the US and take demanding jobs to send money back to their families.

Temple of the Sun 
This eventful day began with a visit to Chacchoben, ancient Mayan ruins.  So far three large structures have been excavated along with several stairs.  The Mayans were here by 200 BCE and the ruins themselves date from around 700 CE.  "In the 1940s a farm was established near the site by the Cohuo family, but the ruins were officially reported to the Mexican government in June 1972 by Dr. Peter Harrison, an American archaeologist who was working on a project for The Royal Ontario Museum, and who also made the first maps of Chacchoben. Harrison stumbled upon this site while flying a helicopter over Mexico and noticed numerous
hills in  predominately flat lands. Harrison realized there were temples beneath these hills, which were naturally covered over a period of 2000 years." (Wikipedia)   Archaeological excavations began in 1994 and the site was opened to the public in 2004.  There are ongoing excavations in the site.  Click here to view more photos of Chacchoben.

After our tour of the site, we stopped for a delicious lunch served by local people at a roadside restaurant.  Then we headed for the final stop at Lago Bacalar also called the Lake of Seven Colors.  This "is a long and narrow lake in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. It is approximately 42 km long measured from north to south, and less than 2 km at its widest. The lake is renowned for its striking blue color and water clarity, partly the result of having a white limestone bottom. Like most bodies of water in the Yucat√°n peninsula, the lake is fed by underground rivers or cenotes."  (Wikipedia)  The lake reflected the blues of the sky just as the ocean does.  It was spectacular.  We spent a little more than an hour swmming, kayaking and relaxing on the beach.

This location had once been a spot where local people would board boats that traversed the 24 miles of the lake.  Before there were roads in this area, the lake was a major transportation link.  Eventually a resort was built but it was clear from our exploration that it had been abandoned.  This provided opportunities for some marvelous photos of Marilyn especially.  The colors were intense and I couldn't stop taking photos of the scenery.

As we returned to port to board our ship, I noted another cruise ship docked next to ours.  This was a Carnival ship and it appeared to be listing a bit.  I was glad to see that ours was nice and level.

Click here to go to the album with pictures of our excursion this day.

We cruised over night to Cozumel, an island just off the eastern Yucatan coast.  We had booked another excursion.  This one included some snorkeling, lunch on the beach and then a ride in a dune buggy around the island including a stop and our of the ecopark at Punta Sur.  I climbed the light house which stands at the southern end of the island.  From there I was able to get a magnificent view while Marilyn was checking the goods at the three shops in the park.

Click here to see photos of our day on Cozumel.

We continued our dune buggy ride to the middle of the island along the beach and then turned inland to cross the island on our way to a tequila tour and tasting.  I had wanted to drive the dune buggy but it turned out that it was sized for Mexicans rather than 6'2" Americans.  Actually that turned out well since I could enjoy the sights without worrying about navigating an often troublesome and well used buggy.  The male part of our companion couple graciously drove the entire trip.

Our final stop involved an extensive educationa bout tequila including why organic tequila is the best tequila.  By Mexican law, tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco where only blue agave plants are used in a ten year production cycle that cannot include any other ingredients.  This is similar to champagne which can only come from the Champagne region of France.  There are other champagne just as there are other tequilas but they are not real.  If you want to learn more about tequila, check out this Wikipedia article.

We cruised the day and arrived back at Ft. Lauderdale the morning after that.  We were not sure if cruising would be something we enjoyed but our experience with this one convinced us that this will not be the last one we take.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Escape from Rochester - Naples

A view of the Gulf of Mexico from the boardwalk at the Ritz-Carlton resort.
We drove to the west to spend two days with Ralph and Buffie Richardson.  Ralph and I first met when we were five years old in kindergarten at St. James School in Kansas City.  From there we attended Rockhurst High School and then Rockhurst College (now Rockhurst University) both in Kansas City.  Ralph went on to earn a Ph.D. in physics at St. Louis University and then to a very successful career at Stanford Research Institute and then as a Vice President of Air Products and Chemicals, a provider of gases and chemicals for industrial purposes.  Ralph and Buffie started dating in college and so I have known her for a long time as well.  They retired to a beautiful home in Olde Cypress in Naples.

Dean, Ralph, and Jerry.  I completely missed this
island green and thus am taking this photo.  All
three took par threes.
While we were on the road to Florida, Ralph sent me an email saying that he had set up a golf game for Friday morning with two other players.  He said that he had a set of clubs that were "old but usable" that I could use.  I replied that his clubs sounded like me:  old although perhaps not so usable.  I told him that I hadn't played in a couple of years but that did not deter him.  He insisted--gently--on playing with his two friends.  He kept assuring me that his game wasn't that good and the other two were just "great guys."  He even had a pair of golf shoes for me to wear along with a sleeve of balls.  There were also plenty of old balls in the bag if I ran through those three.  I told him that could well happen before I made it to the first green!

I am so glad that Ralph persisted.  We played with his former boss, Jerry, and Jerry's brother-in-law, Dean, and they were excellent playing companions.  I felt a part of the foursome right from the beginning and I actually played better than I thought I would.  Admittedly my expectations were very low.  I actually took par on three holes although, true to my way of enjoying golf, I didn't keep score.  And, amazingly, I only lost one ball over the 18 holes.  We finished with a delicious lunch on the club patio.  I felt so good that I decided to give the game another shot this summer.  As I reminded Ralph, in the north we have golf seasons, not entire years.

That afternoon we enjoyed visiting in their lanai and pool.  We thought about going to a wolf preserve or the Big Cypress Swamp preserve but decided to just stay put.  Actually, their house backs on to that very same Big Cypress Swamp Preserve so technically we did go see that!  That evening we went to dinner on Naples Bay.  We strolled the boutiques in the area and enjoyed the evening air and the beautiful sunset.

The next morning we packed up to head back east to Fr. Lauderdale-Port Everglades where we were to board the Independence of the Seas for our five night cruise.  We enjoyed Ralph and Buffie's gracious hospitality.  I always enjoy reminiscing with Ralph, especially about our time at St. James School.  This time he reminded me of the visiting Mexican dance troupe and the regular paper drives.  More about those some other time.

Click here to view the photo album of our time in Naples.

Timing note:  I am writing this on Saturday at my brother Tom's in Northern Virginia.  We are returning to Rochester this Monday.  The next trip blog will cover our cruise and then a final one for our time here in the DC area.