Saturday, October 18, 2008

The People are the Fabric

It's been said that to really begin to know a country, you have to step away from it's glitz and glamour and meet the people. Today, that is exactly what we did. We are in Varna, Bulgaria as I write this, waiting to pull out of the port and head back through the Dardanelles and head to Israel.

This morning, we were up early and off the ship to our tour of Madara and the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Madara Rider. Basically, this is a carving of a horse and rider with a dog at its heels with inscriptions of battle victories - on a mountain side. Kid you not, it's way up there! It's a beautiful setting - much like the state of Oregon with lots of trees, hills and rain (the first we've encountered). I hiked up over 300 stairs to get to the top and took several pictures. Then, took another trail and wound up at the fortress and then the caves. Amazing! On the way down, I encountered an elderly couple. Actually, I think it may have been an elderly man and his adult daughter as she appeared quite a bit younger. At any rate, the stone path was slippery with leaves and he was using a cane. She was holding on to his arm. They were stepping down the 300 stairs at the top and he lost strength in his legs. As I was right there, I basically caught him before he hit the ground. I helped them down a few more stairs before they headed down the gentler path towards the caves. I moved on and didn't give much thought to it - until I saw them again. It was evident that the man was losing whatever energy he had as it was quite the little hike. I chatted with them for a few steps and then asked if I could assist. They were grateful for it and all was well until we hit the last set of steps. The gentleman's legs completely gave out! Thankfully, another man (younger and much stronger than I) came to help. The three of us got him seated and rested. He must have fallen earlier as we noticed blood at his feet. Further investigation showed a large gash that was bleeding profusely. This poor man! He was such a trooper, though. They sat for a moment while I went to their coach and asked the driver to move up to the steps from where he was queued quite a ways back - Go Gray Line training!!! - and between the young man on one side, the woman on the other and me holding up the rear - literally (I had hold of his belt loops), we got him situated on the coach. Whew! He was in good spirits, though, and that made it all the easier!

After that, I got on my coach and we headed to the village of Madara. Here, we visited a family in their home complete with accordian music, all the barnyard animals that live "in" the home and a huge spread of meat, cheese, sweets and a few unidentifiable items. It was great fun and the woman of the house showed us how she made a traditional Bulgarian dish - pastry, sheep's cheese, eggs and yogurt. Fabulous! We sat in their courtyard, hanging heavy with grapes ready for harvest, as well as beautiful flowers. It was lovely to say the least and I'm anxious to be able to share the pictures. This was the highlight of my day - maybe even the entire trip thus far!

We're sailing out of port right now, and I think back to the beautiful, risilient people of the Slavic nations we've visited. I remember their smiles, their generosity, their gorgeous lacework and am amazed and humbled at how they have survived the string of occupations, dictatorships and regimes and yet still continue.

I'm proud to be an American and promise to remember the freedoms I have and those that have provided them...

How Evil Pervades...

Yesterday, we were in Costanta (coh-STANZ-uh), Romania. Yes, this is the place were the Count Vlad of Transylvania resided, but more recently, Ceacescu(sp?) had his iron grip on the country. We had an "interesting" little tour yesterday that amounted to a walk to the beach, a drive up and down the main boulevard and a tour to the Roman a museum. After our trips to Israel, these ruins were not nearly as fantastic and we were charged for any photos we took - provided they saw us taking them...

The most interesting part of the tour for me, was talking with the tour guide. She was probably only 25 years old, but when we asked her about life under Ceaucescu's regime, the Romanian people were not allowed to have television, cell phones, internet, etc. They were told through propoganda that Romania was the largest, most beautiful country in the world. They were not allowed to own property, nor were they allowed to buy freely. Essentially, they were allowed to buy bread, possibly some animals (actually, I think she meant that they weren't owned, but "leased") for milk, etc.

Now, not quite 20 years since the revolution, we were able to see monuments, "beautiful" buildings and even a McDonald's at the local "mall". Funny thing about McDonald's here - a chocolate shake by American standards is nowhere to be found. However - for those of you that remember the deep fried fruit pies of McD's past...they can be found here! And yes - they are just as fabulous as I remember. :-) Most places in Romania will accept the Romania Lei or Euros. US Dollars are not accepted, generally - even at Mickey D's.

Again, I thank God for America. I know that you at home are in the midst of the mudslinging campaigns, but honestly - I'll do well to remember the freedoms we have the next time I start to complain.

Speaking of campaigning - we've not been following what's been going on at home, but I'm absolutely amazed at how many people from all over the world, literally, absolutely love Sarah! We say we're from Alaska and immediately, she is the topic of conversation.

Thank you for your comments - I do enjoy reading them! Rachel - how big do you want the board? We'll be meeting Louie and the rest of the Dajani family at their store, so I will probably ship it...

Thanking God for America and our freedoms...

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sevastopol, Ukraine...

I know, I know...two posts in one day! A mother's "guilt" does wonders. LOL. Actually, it's really that I have a little time to kill before the big Bingo game tonight, so thought I'd tell you a little bit about Sevastopol as well as shipboard life.

Liz, Larry and I had a later tour today than the rest of the group and I, for one, was thankful for the respite. I had failed to set my watch back an hour, so I was up an hour earlier than usual and found myself with time on my hands to enjoy the arrival into port, and a few games. Every day on board, the Event Staff plans events that guests can go to and earn "Dam Dollars". Please note the spelling on these. It refers to the "dam" at the end of the name of each of the Holland America ships and not the lake of eternal fire as some might assume. At the end of the cruise, if you have a minimum of 15 Dam Dollars, you can purchase something with them. Today...I reached the 15 dollar mark and can now continue on. I went up on deck with Liz in anticipation of the Opposite Hand Ring Toss...only then to discover I had not set my watch back. :-) Liz and Larry left me for the laundry room and when it was finally time to play the game, I scored 8 bucks! Cool. The weather was warm and absolutely beautiful as the ship traversed the harbor into Sevastopol. Our original plan was to tender two miles out and then take the little lifeboats/tenders into port. However, our Captain Rik Krombeen negotiated with the port authorities to allow us to dock at the NAVY DOCK! How cool is that?!? It was amazing being on board as the Captain maneuvered the ship so precisely to pull the ship into the harbor and dock, bow out from the pier. Shortly before we docked, it was time for another "Sports of Call" - this time on the Shuffleboard court. I've found a new game to love. DJ Matt took pity on me and was to be my partner on the court...all so I could earn more Dam Dollars. It was fun to chat with him on a personal level - he's from Maryland and is 2 months into his 5 month contract on board. It's fun to talk to someone who loves working for the company as much as I do.

Sevastopol: What a difference - like night and day - in comparison to the experience in Russia yesterday. From the very beginning with the immigration officials who were smiling and laughing while stamping our passports, to the friendliness of the policemen on shore, the difference was marked. Evidence of Russia's control over the Ukrainian people and region is strong, as is a unique sentimentality of the Ukrainian people for Communist Russia's leaders - namely Stalin. They (those that have an affinity for the dictator) revere him with statues, flowers and even in their discussion of him as a loving "father" to Russia and the Ukraine. Admittedly, I'm having a hard time wrapping my brain around that concept.

Today, while some went to the Crimean Riviera and Yalta, the Dotsons and I opted for the Battles of Balaklava - the site of a hidden submarine base. There is a ton of WWII and Crimean War history here, of course, and as I'm not a history fanatic, I have a hard time assimiliting it all, but it was extremely interesting. As was mentioned before, I am a fan of the Cold War era movies (Red October, etc) and to actually be in a "super-secret submarine base, complete with nuclear bomb blast safe doors and escape routes, was really intriguing.

As you may remember from my post a couple days ago about stepping out of my comfort zone, it also applies to food. Now, with the quest for Dam Dollars today, I did not each lunch before stepping off board. On the tour, we were provided with a refreshment stop where they furnished coffee, tea and/or orange juice. The three of us Compadres thought it'd be nice to share a snack, so we ordered shrimp (what else?) and fries. When the shrimp came, it was fried - but not in a batter, just in a pan with olive oil. Oh...and one more thing - the shrimp (tiger prawns, actually) were served with their heads on. Something to note: I'm not SUPER adventurous when it comes to food. I am certainly not found of beheading something at my table right before I eat it. However, I thought of my proverbial basket and decided to dive in. Once I got past those beady little eyes looking at me, I ripped their little heads off and ate the shrimp. Hmmmm...Tasty. :-)

Tomorrow will find us in Constanta, Romania. Until then, please...pass the shrimp. :-)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Thank God for America...

Good morning blog readers! First, let me say thank you to those that have posted comments - it's encouraging for me as the writer to read what you have to say! Second, let me apologize for the delay in writing posts. As Mom mentioned - there is so much activity that I fall exhausted into bed every night - usually around 9pm! LOL! There has been some difficulty connecting online as well.

Cha-Cha dance class was hilarious and a blast! I couldn't believe how much fun we had. Chantel, my Evil Twin, has taken pictures to share, as has Liz. Oy...

Tuesday night was our first Formal Night and it was lovely. We got a group picture as well as individuals - hopefully we'll purchase a few good ones to bring home and eventually post. :-)

Yesterday we went to Russia. After you read this, perhaps you'll understand why I titled this the way I did. We had a leisurely breakfast in the Lido as usual and then gathered as a group to go ashore. The immigration officials that boarded from Russia were very stern, no smiles and stereotypical of all the Cold War movies. We tendered across the harbor and stepped up onto the pier. We walked a short distance to the waiting motor coach and our tour guide, Marinka. Along the way, we noticed several people dressed entirely in black. Standing. Watching. Following us with their eyes. We were told we could not go anywhere without an escort. Who would want to? When we boarded the motor coach, Judy commented to me that it felt like we had just walked the Gauntlet. For an American with so many freedoms, this was creepy!!!

Our tour took us to the northernmost tea plantation in the world - in Sochi, Russia. We sat high in the hills on a steep hillside and learned through an intrepeter, about the tea grown here - it's black (as is all tea), and the smell was fragrant. We then ventured to a beautifully-made lodge where we were served tea from a traditional Russian Samovar, ate wonderful bread with jams and spreads and all the hazelnuts we could crack. We were entertained with live music from performers in traditional dress. In fact, it appears that Larry is now betrothed...ask Liz how she feels about that! LOL!

We returned to the pier and said good by to our tour guide. I should note that in all the hiking around, she was wearing stilleto heels that could poke a hole in the toughest canvas they were so sharp.

Remember, we were told that we could not purchase Rubles or get them in change as they are a restricted currency. Never one to be daunted by such a small challenge, I finally convinced a street vendor to sell me some. The whole exchange was very clandestine-feeling in that she fervently looked both ways and then seruptitiously gave me some. Next, Liz, Larry and I wandered off - taboo without an escort, but we were up for the adventure - to McDonald's! We went, ordered a Coca-Cola Light and after drinking half of it and parting with 33 of my precious rubles, tossed it as it was mostly water and no ice!

We got back on board in time to freshen up, eat dinner and go our separate ways - me to do laundry and the others to do who knows what.

Today, wer're headed into Sevastopol, Ukraine. Here, currency is not such an issue and we'll have plenty of resources.

I must sign off now, but look for another update as soon as I can!

Monday, October 13, 2008

When I am Old...

I read an admonition once, that went something like this: "If you don't want to find yourself at 90 years old, sitting in a rocking chair with a blanket at your feet and a basket full of 'I wish I had done this...', then step out of your comfort zone and do it. And so it goes. Today, we spent the morning and early afternoon in Istanbul. Yesterday, we found ourselves negotiating with some taxi drivers to get us to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I've wanted to visit the Hagia Sophia for some time now, as it is considered one of the architectural wonders of the world. It's easy to see why. With the 4th largest dome in the history of the world, it's a marvel to behold. No less so is the Blue Mosque. Amazing. It boggles the mind to see history in living color. It's a shame in some ways that our society no longer places value in what I would consider timeless, beautiful architecture. As with yesterday, today we did not have a planned tour and decided to wing it. This is a city of 14-16 MILLION people depending upon who you ask. My thought: At that many people, what's a couple million? We met for breakfast in the fabulous, but casual Lido cafe and then proceeded to disembark. We hailed a shuttle for a few lira - headed to the Grand Bazaar. There's not much I like better than haggling over a good find. Be sure that I did! Turkish hospitality is legendary and for good reason. Tea is offered everywhere regardless of whether you buy a famed rug. The rugs are gorgeous, and probably well worth the money - even if it is what I consider a sizeable sum. We toured around the city in a double decker bus and we really got a feel for how large this city is. Situated on two continents (Asia and Europe), the diversity of it's people is amazing.

So, back to my point about doing things that are out of your comfort was a little unnerving to go to a foreign port without a real plan - but I'm thankful we did. We went our various ways at one point, but we each deemed what we had chosen to be wonderful! No regrets here. :-)

We enjoyed a FABULOUS meal at the Pinnacle Grill - Holland America's alternate restaurant onboard. It was a gift from our travel agent, and we enjoyed it immensely. How can melt-in-your-mouth sterling filet mignon with asparagus, mushrooms and an amazing mustard sauce be bad, I ask you? Better yet, the dessert and even the dessert appetizers (yes - really!) were phenomenal. I can't say enough about this luxurious alternative to the traditional dining. Although, I certainly wouldn't complain about that, either!

Tomorrow is our first day at sea and our first official formal night. I'm going WAY out of my comfort zone and making good on my promise to provide a few laughs with my turn at the ballroom dancing lessons. I'm sure that medics will be standing by...

After that, I intend to visit the art auction and procure some additional Tarkay pieces or maybe even another Kraznyinsky. In the afternoon, it's onto the Shuffleboard tournament, then to flower arranging and somewhere in between all that, I'll be scouring the ship for usable items for our Ship Building Contest (did I say "Out of My Comfort Zone" yet?). Tomorrow night we'll dine formally and will end the evening with who knows what?

The next day- which I think is actually Wednesday, will find us in Sochi, Russia. Who would have imagined?

By the way...what's in your basket when you're 90?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

It's What Day and I'm Where?

I think it's actually Sunday, but I can't really be sure. Somehow, in the two + days of air travel and the short night in Athens, and all the activities that ensue when embarking...I've lost track of time.

I will have to say, that I really don't have any horror stories to share about our flight here. We left on time, our luggage was checked straight through and we arrived without incident. Easy-peasy.

Arrival into Minneapolis/St. Paul was nothing major. We promptly found a Starbucks and a McDonalds and then settled in for our flight to Amsterdam. We opted not to try and hit the Mall of America as we didn't feel we would have enough time. Probably best.

We arrived into Amsterdam and I have to say, the flight, while long as nice as international flights in coach are. Our stay in Amsterdam was fun - once we got started. :-) I had been led to believe by reading and other's personal experience, that the canal rides were just "right outside" the airport. Well...not exactly true. What is right outside the airport is the train station. But, getting any reasonable information is difficult at best. With a last-minute dash to get all eight of us on board, we boarded the commuter train to Amsterdam Centraal. From here, we just walked outside and then realized..."wait - this doesn't look familiar at all!" Turns out, we'd come out of the train station on the opposite side of where we should have been. Thankfully, the weather was absolutely gorgeous and we eventually found the Gray Line canal tour. Oh, it was beautiful, restful, sunny, and just what this traveller needed to unwind a bit. A few in our group walked to the Anne Franke house and other spots. I was perfectly content to sit in a boat and relax. One thing I should mention for those traveling to Amsterdam: If you want to leave the airport and stow your sure to stow them AFTER you go through customs. Otherwise, you'll have to remember your original concourse and search for the correct lockers after entering through customs. Then, you'll have to exit and enter customs again when you make it the the correct concourse. Trust me - I know this from experience!

We left Amsterdam at 8:30pm or so and headed to Athens. We arrived a few minutes early and my stomach started doing a tango in fear that we would not meet our luggage. Or that only some of us would get it. Amazingly enough - all our luggage arrived in good condition and we headed out in hopes to meet our ride. Dimitris, an Inchcape Agent that works with Holland America, met us right outside the customs area with a sign that said "Carlson Party". I felt so official! We were escorted to our hotel in Piraeus several miles away in a Mercedes Benz "sprinter". Very comfortable an d we were blessed beyond measure by the kindness of our driver and Dimitris to pick us up at 1AM on a ship day! They arranged a late check-out for us at the hotel and reminded us to be ready to go at 12noon when they would return to pick us up.

Our hotel room at the Triton was small and the bathroom even smaller - if that was possible. But, it was clean and the beds were comfortable. We got up in the morning and ate breakfast (which was included) and then wander out for a look around. It was a typical working-class European neighborhood with fish/meat/vegetable markets, banks, churches and the very large port just across the way.

Dimitris and the driver were early to pick us up and we drove to the Pier where were were to embark. I was glad we had a ride, or it would have been a bit of a hike with our luggage in tow. When we arrived, were were once again greeted by our new-found friends from Inchcape and the embarkation went well. I was even able to chat a bit with the Holland Port Agent, Cathy Cox, whom I had not seen since my tenure in Seattle. It was a nice surprise! We took lots of pictures of the ship in port, then got on, ate and headed to our staterooms.

I'll have to post more later, but suffice it to say, we have Istanbul in our sights an lots of activities to do onboard still. So, until next time - sweet dreams of far away lands.