Saturday, December 31, 2011

Eight Crazy Weeks: A Chanukah Story

It's so hard to believe that it's already been two full months since we returned from our cruise...and even harder to believe that in two months all I've managed to do is blog about said cruise.

That's not to say that it hasn't been a busy, productive, stressful, and incredibly fun two months. Because it has, lack of photographic evidence to the contrary. Well, there are a few photos, so let's pepper them throughout this post so we can get ourselves caught up in time for 2012, shall we?

Upon returning from our vacation we immediately began work on a "Christmas Around the World" exhibit that the consulate had been invited to install at local children's museum Trompo Mágico. The nicest thing I can say about this is that despite many, many, many unforeseen hurdles (many), the project was completed in time for its early December deadline, and looked nice, if not how originally intended (see hurdles).

Speaking of hurdles, On November 20th, we attended the closing ceremonies of the Parapan American Games, which acted as a nice bookend to our attendance of the Pan American Games opening ceremonies on October 14th. It was an unexpected treat, our having only received the tickets last minute to attend as representatives from the consulate. The ceremony was small, yet fortuitously featured many elements of the closing ceremonies for the Pan American Games, which we had only been able to watch on television. Highlights included a parade paying homage to celebrated Mexican artist Sergio Bustamonte, famous for incorporating sun and moon imagery into his work.

We invited some friends over for Thanksgiving this year. It was important to us that we be able to host a big meal because we hadn't had the opportunity to do so since leaving Orlando in February 2010. Last Thanksgiving we had just arrived in Guadalajara and were graciously invited to share the holiday with a large group of TJ's fellow officers. Now, a full year later, having made extensive efforts to branch out and make local friend, we wanted to share a traditional American Thanksgiving with them. We had a great
turnout, eleven friends in total, none of whom had ever experienced the holiday before. We went all out, preparing turkey, ham, sweet potato casserole (the biggest, most exotic hit), deviled eggs, mac n' cheese, and green bean casserole. We went lazy on dessert and opted to buy pumpkin, pecan, and cherry cheesecake pies from an American run bakery, Jeffrey. Lots of great food and wine were had by all, and we all surely suffered for it at work the following day.

Early December found TJ working with a fellow Entry Level Officer to coordinate and staff a booth for World AIDS Day at a fair being held by several of the HIV/AIDS awareness groups in Guadalajara. These were connections TJ made months earlier while coordinating a film series for LGBT Awareness Month. Prior to these outreach events, these groups had minimal contact with each other, while the existence of some was unknown. It's amazing what this career allows you to accomplish sometimes.

Meanwhile, I was busy organizing a toy and clothing drive that I organized for two worthy causes: a shelter for battered women and children, and a privately run foster home that depends on donations to survive. All told, I was able to collect enough toys to ensure that each of the 40+ kids would have 2-3 new toys each, plus plenty of gently used clothing for the brave women at the shelter, who left their homes quickly to get their children to safety.

In the nine days leading up to Christmas, Catholic and Protestant families in Mexico will host a series of parties called posadas. A posada (Spanish word for Inn) is a party that originated in Spain in which you break piñatas, eat tamales, and reenact, through song, Mary and Joseph's struggle to find lodging on the night of Jesus's birth. Unable to attend any last year due to timing, but very interested in this particular cultural exchange, we were thrilled to find ourselves invited to three such parties this year. One was at a co-workers house, and there were tamales and singing, but no piñatas. One was at a local friend's house, and there were piñatas and singing, but no tamales. Another was at a club, and hosted by one of the groups TJ had worked with during the World AIDS Day outreach. It was your typical holiday party without piñatas, tamales, or singing. This type of party is becoming more common, where you call it a posada simply for taking place in December. Although none of the three featured all of the aspects of a traditional posada, I feel that we gained a very clear image of the holidays in Mexico.

Everyone was so appreciative and responsive to Thanksgiving that we decided to do something similar for Chanukah. But instead of one big party, we wanted to use each of the eight nights to invite a different friend to our dinner table. The first four nights were filled with brisket, latkes, and fried donuts. On the fifth night, we found ourselves hosting a friend whose family lives out of town and had no plans for Christmas. Tired of brisket and fried potatoes, and realizing that for him this was Christmas Eve, we decided to treat him to a traditional holiday meal and whipped up another turkey. But fear not! We spent Christmas Day in the traditional Jewish manner: We grabbed the newest officer to arrive at post and headed to the mall for some P.F. Chang's and a screening of "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." It probably goes without saying that the rest of the holiday consisted of delicious turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce sandwiches. Except the last night, when we returned to Jewish culinary inspiration and took our first ever crack at stuffed cabbage.

All in all, it's been a very busy couple of months. Although it was a little more Christmas-influenced that I would have liked, we have accepted that life abroad will require us to open our minds and hearts to all sorts of local traditions. As for Hanukkah, well, it was definitely better than last year. And I certainly can't complain about the good that we have done (or at least hope we have done) for the community lately.

As a write this, the final day of 2011 is quickly coming to a close. In a few short hours, we will be joined by good friends for light snacks and a couple of drinks before taking a taxi to one of the most popular clubs in the city to ring in the new year.

It's so common to hear people say "I sure hope next year is better."

But you know what? 2011 has been a blessing. I do hope that 2012 is better, but if it's merely equal to 2011, I'll be a happy camper.

Have fun tonight, everyone. And most of all, be safe.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

I'm A Tourist In My Own City

When the Carnival Miracle docked in Ft. Lauderdale on November 10th, we scurried over to the airport, rented a Jeep Grand Cherokee, and zoomed down the highway for three days of fun and excitement in sunny Orlando, Florida. Or as we like to call it: Home, Sweet Home.

Only it isn't, really. Not anymore.

Instead of heading back to our adorable house near downtown where we could unpack, wash laundry, and relax after eight days of adventure on the open seas, we were heading to a hotel on Disney property. We never even drove by our house.

Instead of spending a lazy Sunday making a Target run or gorging ourselves at Pei Wei with our roommate Kris, we were inviting our friend Kris to join us for a couple of days of fun at Disney and Universal.

Instead of inviting our friends Ryan and Mike to dinner at Disney's Hoop-de-Doo Musical Revue, we....okay, well, we did do that. But the music has changed somewhat. And we have no idea when that happened.

And as for our other friends? The people we spent the last eight or so years getting to know? We didn't see any of them. Some have moved to other cities. A few were on vacations of their own. Others were busy. And some we've just simply lost contact with.

This was TJ's first trip back to Orlando since our whirlwind life in the Foreign Service began in February 2010. But not mine. I had returned once before, in June 2010, to do some work on our house and prepare it for renters. At the time, I blogged about how difficult the transition had been for me, how I was having trouble reconciling our happy life in Orlando with our new life in (at the time) D.C.

And now? I can't imagine life any other way.

Sure, I miss Orlando and the life we built there. We both do. But it was also ridiculously fun to go back and experience all the new things we missed out on while away. I got to watch as TJ enjoyed the new Harry Potter attractions at Universal's Islands of Adventure for the first time (something I got to do on my last visit). We got to experience the EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival with renewed fervor after a one year absence (happy to report that the tacos were surprisingly authentic). I got to stay in a Disney hotel (okay, so the Dolphin isn't a Disney hotel, but it's on property, so I say it counts) for the first time ever.

We celebrated our one year anniversary in Mexico on November 8th. We were Florida-bound, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, floating alongside the Dominican Republic, at the time.

As much fun as the vacation was, on that particular day I found myself wishing we could have celebrated the occasion in Puerto Vallarta, or Manzanillo. Somewhere...Mexican. [NOTE: Tomorrow I will be celebrating my one year anniversary of working at the the Consulate. I also wish this could be celebrated in Puerto Vallarta or Manzanillo.]

Because Mexico is Home, Sweet Home now.

Only it isn't, really. Or at least not for long.

The hardest part about this life of ours is that as soon as you get comfortable with your surroundings, it's time to get yourself some new surroundings. Of course, that's also the most exciting part about this life of ours.

We will be receiving our bid list soon. As hard as it is to believe, we have less than a year left in Guadalajara. Where we go after that is anyone's guess.

Who knows? Who cares?

I love life in the Foreign Service. Getting to live in a new countries. Making friends around the world. Learning about new cultures and languages. Trying new foods. Taking day trips to places you never even knew existed.

It's all super exciting.

And once you're able to let go of the old concept of home, the sky's the limit.

Just like old times. Me looking one way,
TJ looking another, and Kris hanging on for dear life.

Friday, December 16, 2011

St. Kitts

Okay, so if we’ve learned anything over the course of my last three blogs, it’s that getting off of a cruise ship and seeking your own adventure can be hit or miss.

If St. Maarten was a 1st Down, and St. Lucia was a fumble, then St. Kitts was our shot at a touchdown. Ooh, look at me and my macho baseball metaphors. Wait. What?

Anyway, we wanted to make sure that we had a good time on our last port day, so we finally bit the bullet and booked an excursion through Carnival. I’m only somewhat ashamed to admit that it ended up being the best of the bunch. Yeah, I know. Figures, right?

We booked what is called the “Sail & Snorkel Adventure,” which was described as follows:

Board your catamaran and sail the crystal clear waters to Shittens Bay (please, people, refrain from potty humor) for a rewarding snorkeling experience.

On this excursion you will:

  • Watch the sails unfurl as your leisurely cruise proceeds along the Leeward Coast of St. Kitts, passing the Frigate Bay resort area and Friars Bay before arriving at your snorkeling destination.

  • Discover Shittens Bay (hard, isn't it?), a secluded and unspoiled cove accessible only by sea. This is home to an abundance of marine life with several varieties of reef fish and beautiful coral formations.

  • Snorkel, swim, or relax onboard your spacious catamaran. Novice snorkelers will be offered special assistance.

  • During your return sail enjoy rum punch, sodas, beer and other beverages as you relax and admire the scenery as it passes by.

The evening prior to our departure, we were less than overjoyed to hear (from several sources) that a group had set sail on a snorkeling excursion out of St. Lucia earlier that day on a boat that was poorly maintained. I believe the phrase “missing one of its motors” was tossed around. They were later horrified when a motorboat was allowed to pass through their snorkel zone…while they were in the water. They probably Shitten the Bay (hey, I never said *I* would refrain from potty humor) at that point. Worst of all, this excursion had been booked through Carnival. Yeah, and we thought we had problems in St. Lucia.

This didn’t fill us with confidence, but what the hell, we decided to do it anyway. And we are so glad we did. It was our first experience in a catamaran, and it zipped through the bay at speeds that were simultaneously exhilarating and relaxing. The scenery was gorgeous. We saw some coral and a few fishes.

We snorkeled for the first time ever. It’s quite awkward at first, but a cakewalk once you allow yourself the time to adjust to your surroundings. It’s ridiculous, because you’re wearing a life jacket, but when you jump off the boat, your goggles and snorkel fill up with salt water, and you do experience a temporary, intense, irrational fear of drowning.

Or maybe that’s just me. I didn’t learn to swim until I was almost 10 years old, and only after two very real near-drowning episodes.

Of course, as it turns out, I wasn’t the only one with an irrational fear of drowning. Once TJ and I had made the leap and adjusted to our environment, we turned to find Antonio clinging to the ladder. Lacking the nerve for the jump, he had opted to take the stepladder approach to snorkeling. Unfortunately, he found himself unwilling to let go and just…float. After dragging him off the ladder, I managed to pull him just past arm’s reach of the boat before he decided he just wanted to sit this one out. It was disappointing. I wish he could have enjoyed the experience more. This had been a mutually agreed upon excursion, after all. On the bright side, we were able to get this photo out of the deal:

Note to self: Buy a waterproof camera for next time!

The ride back to port was a relaxing one filled with pleasant conversation, so-so Rum Punch, and tasty local beer. Everything the descriptions said it would be.

We stopped at a local joint for some Conch Fritters with some of our snorkel buddies before heading back to the boat. But not before doing the one thing Cruise Director Malcolm advised against:

Paying strangers to take pictures of us with monkeys!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

St. Lucia

Buying an excursion outside the confines of the Carnival selection worked in our favor so well in St. Maarten that we decided to give it a go in St. Lucia. That's when we learned a valuable lesson:

That boat won't always float.

Poor word choice, given that we're traveling via cruise ship? Perhaps. But I stand by it.

The one thing we had heard about St. Lucia is that we needed to see the Pitons, which are two volcanic plugs located at a World Heritage Site. Now, longtime readers will know that I love me some World Heritage Site goodness.

Yeah, well, enjoy this picture of the Pitons I found on Google. Because it's as close as I got to them. Ironically, I found the picture on the site of blogger who also failed to make it to the Pitons. Here's the link to his blog, just 'cause I'm cool like that.

As you may have guessed, all excursions to the Pitons were booked by the time we made it to the tour desk. Not to be detoured from an awesome day, we signed up for a three hour Segway tour. We paid the woman at the tour stand $25 USD for a taxi that would take us to the Segway tour center, where we would then be required to pay the fee for the tour itself. The time was 9:00am.

By 9:30 the taxi had arrived at the Segway office. TJ was advised that the next tour would not start until 2pm. The boat would leave at 4pm. The math did not compute. TJ explained this to the taxi driver, who said he would take us back to the original tour stand for a full refund just as soon as he dropped the other passengers off at the beach. This, folks, is how you AVOID a scene.

We were back at our point of origin by 10:15. We stepped out of the taxi, and the first thing we heard was a demanding "What is the problem?" We patiently explained the issue at hand, and were redirected to the tour stand.

The woman who sold us the taxi seats impatiently listened as we calmly explained:
  1. How we approached her to buy tickets for a segway tour
  2. How she sold us taxi seats to the Segway office
  3. How the tour didn't start until 2:00 but we had to be on the boat by 4:00
  4. How the driver said the tour stand would issue a full refund for our troubles
After hearing all of this, she said "I won't be refunding your money." This, folks, is how you CAUSE a scene.

There was a heated back and forth in which she explained that she only worked for the taxi company and is not responsible for the tours, and we reminded her that perhaps she should have told us that when we came to her to schedule the tour, not a taxi ride. This lead to her saying that she is not responsible for knowing tour times, and us suggesting that, given her proximity to the port, perhaps she should make that her responsibility so that she doesn't inconvenience her clientele. When that went nowhere, I politely suggested she remove the sign that advertised Segway tours from her booth, as it seemed to indicate some sort of relationship between the almost ripping it off the wall before TJ reminded me to be a good boy.

Eventually, we got our money back. But not without 10 minutes of me blocking access to the booth and repeatedly telling her "I want my money, give me my money, you stole my money..." while TJ informed every potential customer that looked our way of what they had done. After chasing away five potential customers, her manager suggested she give us our money and send us on our way.

And she did. As she handed the money to TJ, she looked me dead in the eyes, flashed an "I hate you" grin, and said, with venom dripping from her teeth,

"You have a blessed day, now."

Now, as I teased in Ships Ahoy, here is where Antonio learned a very polite, religiously condescending way to tell someone to go f--- themselves.

Oh well. We had our money back. What more was there to do, other than to say,

"You, too, ma'am. You. Too."

At this point it was only about 10:30 and we weren't quite ready to get back on the boat. So we headed over to a nearby bar and used our $25 the next best way we knew how. AND we got to see the Pitons! Sort of.

After that we did the only thing we could, which was pose sexily at the waterfront and shop for souvenirs of this blessed day.

St. Maarten

The last time we took a cruise, we made the mistake of not booking any shore excursions. We simply assumed that we would be able to arrive at port, hop off the boat, and find something to do. No way were we going to let somebody sucker us out of OUR money, no-siree!

Yeah, that was dumb.

We disembarked in both Freeport and Nassau, took one look around, and hopped back on the boat.

We weren't going to make that same mistake twice. Yet we weren't quite willing to pay Carnival's inflated booking fees, either.

We instead opted to disembark, fight the urge to get back on the boat, and find a local tour stand from which to book an excursion. And we did just that.

Thus began an exciting five hour tour of St. Maarten. The island has been split almost equally between the French (who call it Saint-Martin) and the Dutch (who call it Sint Maarten) since the 1600s. Although the French control a larger percentage of land mass, the Dutch currently beat them in population. Stop # 0 (I call it 0 because it lasted for 5 minutes and therefore doesn't count) of our trip treated us to this nice hillside view of the island.

Our first real stop was at Orient Beach. Now, now, I know what you're probably thinking. But we did NOT know this tour was heading into nude beach territory when we booked the excursion. I've never been all that comfortable with my body, and generally find it a chore to drag myself to a clothing-required beach. That said, it's vacation, so why not.

Ha! Vacation, nothing! I don't get naked in public for anybody. But I won't say that I didn't do a little window shopping. For the children out there, and for the sake of our careers, I'll simply share this photo, shot facing the non-nekkid part of the beach.

The beach was lovely. The nudesters, not so much. But hey, let 'em enjoy their holiday, right? As we were heading back to the shuttle, I stopped to admire this one guy's zoom lens. No, really. He was carefully putting his very expensive looking camera away, and he had a bag containing two, maybe three, high powered zoom lenses. What did YOU think I meant? Anyway, as he set the camera down to talk to his wife, I turned my attention to TJ and Antonio, who were engaged in conversation with some of our shipmates that had just arrived at the beach. We were soon back in the shuttle heading for our second destination, all thoughts of zoom envy behind me.

The second destination on our whirlwind tour was a brief stop at a shopping plaza in Marigot, the island's French capitol. The beautiful Fort St. Luis overlooks Marigot Bay and the shopping district. This is the type of security we need in the US on Black Friday, people!

The fort was built in 1767 to protect the French residents of Marigot from invasion. It was later temporarily occupied by the Dutch, but now just serves as a nice place to catch a panoramic view of the island. We didn't have time to make the climb, so I will simply remember this portion of the tour as being the only source of air conditioning during the entire excursion. Sure the shuttle van had A/C. But you know how it feels when someone blows on you on a really hot day? Yeah, it felt like that.

Street Markets and French-Inspired architecture aplenty.

The tour wrapped up with a delicious lunch at local burger joint/tourist trap Sunset Bar & Grill, located on the Dutch side of the island. This place isn't just famous for it's delicious burgers and margaritas, of which their were plenty. No, this place is best known for it's location. Not only is it situated on a white sandy beach with a nice cityscape backdrop, it also happens to sit at the end of the runway at Princess Juliana International Airport. Right. At. The. End.

What this means is that diners are able to watch jumbo jets take off and land while they eat. Doesn't sound very exciting, does it? Yeah, we didn't think so either. Turned out to be the highlight of the day. Just take a look at these photos to see how close you actually are to these babies. It's completely exhilarating to be this close to an airplane in motion.

Close, huh? Oh, not close enough?

How about now? Note the sign, please.

After lunch our guide asked if we wanted to see any more of the island, but we all muttered an exhausted "Mmm?noooo...whaaa?" and he took us back to port so we could all shuffle off to our cabins for a much deserved afternoon nap.

But not before someone in the shuttle exclaimed, in a horrified my-trip-is-ruined kind of way, "Has anyone seen my camera bag?!?"


All in all, a great day (well, maybe not for that one guy). But would I ever go back?

Well, if you insist.

You betcha!

Ships Ahoy!

November 2nd found us in Ft. Lauderdale setting sail on the Carnival Miracle for an eight day Eastern Caribbean-bound adventure to the beautiful islands of St. Maarten, St. Lucia, and St. Kitts.

This was only our second cruise, both in our 8+ years together, and our lives in general. We could but hope it would turn out better than our last cruise aboard the Carnival Sensation in October 2008. That four day cruise to the Bahamas saw us visiting the islands of Freeport and Nassau with another couple...a couple that we weren't exactly friends with anymore, but had been very close to at the time of the booking. Eep! (Note: They've since broken up, and one of them is actually quite nice. The other...meh.)

Hi, Florida! Bye, Florida!

You'd think we'd learn a lesson from that. But you'd be wrong. Accompanying us on this voyage was our good friend Antonio, making his first-ever journey outside of Mexico. I'm happy to report that we were all still friends when the boat left, and by the time it returned. Whew! Disaster averted.

I'll post about our various island adventures separately, but for now we'll just talk about life on the boat. And, as any cruiser can attest, life on the boat is best measured by what you've been drinking. Carnival certainly knows this. There's a special drink served each day.

We set sail from Ft. Lauderdale at 4pm on Funship Special (November 2nd). Yellow Bird and Riviera Delight (November 3rd and 4th) were Fun Days at Sea. We spent this time investigating every nook and cranny of the boat.

The Mad Hatter's Ball plays host to
much of the ship's entertainment.

That first night presented us with a wonderful song and dance show that introduced us to our entertainment crew and ship mascot Funship Freddy.

Due to international copyright laws, this is the only show that allowed flash photography. So don't expect more than this, folks!

Well...okay. This isn't a picture from a show, but here's a fancy mullet we had a spectacular view of one evening while awaiting curtain call.

Despite the party in the back, I can assure you
that she was all business in the front.

On the third night, TJ was jonesing for some karaoke. Regular karaoke was delayed, pending the conclusion of a karaoke contest. TJ didn't want to wait and didn't think he'd win, so he entered the contest, singing Livin' La Vida Loca. More on that later.

We arrived in St. Maarten early on the morning of Blue Margarita (November 5th). After a day exploring the island we played a round of put-put golf and I won a medal for eating a cookie off of my forehead without using my hands. Obese people of the world, rejoice!

Chillin' on the stoop

The ball was a hole-in-one. The cookie took two tries.

We had a very interesting day in St Lucia on Goombay Smash (November 6th) in which Antonio learned a very polite, religiously condescending way to tell someone to go f--- themselves. But more on that at another time.

The best day of all was Caribbean Breeze (November 7th) in St Kitts. We booked an AMAZING excursion for this day that I'll talk about...three blogs from now (This is about the boat, people! Focus!). We spent some time that evening hanging out with new friends Susanne and Teresa. These are two amazing women that TJ and I met on Yellow Bird during dinner. Okay, met is a little strong. They tried to talk to us but we were fairly oblivious. Fortunately they were having none of that and accosted us at the bar later. We ended up talking and dancing with them most every night thereafter. We met these California gals as they were enjoying their sixth annual cruise together, a tradition they started when Teresa moved to North Dakota for her husband's work. Oh, and that crazy guy is Malcom, our Cruise Director. Funny at every turn, we were quite pleased to snag a photo with him in his most outrageous outfit.

Two more Fun Days at Sea were had on Ultimate Suntan and Bahama Mama (November 8th and 9th).

We were pretty worn out by this point, so we took it easy. Light entertainment consisted of a demonstration on how to create the famous Carnival towel animals (which is really just a way of hawking their yours now!), and a scavenger hunt in which we had to do many ridiculous things in front of large crowds.

...things were clearly taking a turn for the worse, because I have no recollection
as to why I am carrying around an empty can of Boddington's here...

On the final night of the cruise there was a show called "Carnival Legends." This is a show that mixes the ship's talented cast of singers and dancers in with a few of the vacationers that competed in karaoke contests (most likely under the influence of a Drink of the Day) throughout the course of the vacation. That's right folks. Here's where we get to TJ's gross miscalculation on Riviera Delight. I present to you...RICKY MARTIN!

Livin' La Vida Loca...again

We finally made our way back to Ft. Lauderdale on November 10th. Yes, November 10th. There are no drink specials for disembarkment. I guess they don't want to be held responsible for drinking and driving. Or maybe it's because disembarkment is at 8am and no self respecting tourist would be caught drinking before 9. Either way, it was...simply...November 10th. The end of our vacation.

Except for the three fun days in Orlando that followed, of course. But more on that later.

We've still got islands to talk about!