Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Love Boat, Day 7

The Final Cruise Day with Our Intrepid Explorers Began Like Any Other...

Wake up/Shower/Breakfast in the cafe upstairs.

On this final day of the cruise we were due into the port of Nassau in the Bahamas. My Fair Lady and her sister (whose nickname is pending) went there as part of a band trip 20 years ago and there was one thing in particular she wanted to check out.
My Fair Lady: "There's this straw market that I want to check out. I need to see if it's still there because you can buy all sorts of funky things there."

Yours Truly: "What sort of funky things?"

My Fair Lady: "You know, funky things! Made of straw!"
My mind boggled at the thought of wonderous funky things made of straw.

Since we were so exhausted from the previous evening we had slept in and missed the majority of the morning. After breakfast we had exactly enough time to go up on deck and watch as Nassau came into view.

The cruise ship came into the port of Nassau and the first thing we noticed was how the jetty was man-made. There were large blocks of cement unceremoniously dumped into the ocean thus extending the actual "land". At a guess this was to make sure ships had enough room to swing out from the port before docking. Our vessel was one of three in port so we held on as the ship did a complete 180-degree turn then backed into the dock.

One can only imagine the size of the rear-view mirror for such a task. I wonder if it says, "Objects really are as small as they appear."

After docking, we disembarked on our final land excursion and walked through the primary gates. When you get off the cruise ship in Nassau they funnel you through this building in the port that has a series of shops and musicians all vying for your attention (i.e. dollars). Walk out the front door and you're on the main drag staring at a row of shops and restaurants. Since the weather was overcast and slightly rainy we ducked into the nearest Starbucks so My Fair Lady could top off on coffee.

To say the local Starbucks was popular with the touristas would be grossly understating the situation. There were so many people crammed into such a tiny space that hindsight makes me realize I should have taken it as a sign. My Fair Lady wasn't so much served her coffee and she barely escaped with it and her life. Sadly, the foam sacrificed itself so we could make it out.

Vaya con Dios, Le Foam.

Once on the street we ran into Seattle Sue and The Barbequer so we chatted them up. They decided to head off and explore while we walked into a local grocery in another vein attempt to procure some form of anti-sinus meds for Yours Truly. Fortunately I did snag a Coke so at least I'd have my own sugar buzz going for the next hour. after returning to the street, but not in a hip-hop way, My Fair Lady spied the infamous Straw Market and pulled me along with her. She kept gabbing about how it was so great and clean and organised when she was last here.

When we arrived at the Straw Market it became immediately apparent to us that time had not been kind to it.

Imagine a giant tent covering a three-ring circus. Now take out all the animals and replace them with row upon row upon row of cheap designer knock-offs. Then cram roughly 2,000 people into it and have at least a third be surly locals who don't want to be there selling this junk to touristas like us.

Ahh, paradise.

We entered the Carnivale fully expecting to see a few midgets and a bearded lady hawking purses. If Brother Justin Crowe had shown up I wouldn't have been surprised.

Obscure HBO show reference for the win.

The heat and humidity of Nassau seemed especially suffocating in that tent which wasn't all that surprising. With so many bodies crammed into such a tight area the barometer will only climb higher. After roughly 10 minutes of looking around, My Fair Lady started having a minor freak out and looked desperately for the exit. She practically spun around and a local asked her if she could help.
"I'm just looking for a way out!" My Fair Lady practically shouted. The woman pointed at a gap in the tent that was to our left.

"There's the door, honey, no one's stoppin' you," the woman casually replied in her rolling Bahaman accent.
My Fair Lady practically lept out the exit while I nodded at the woman before stepping out of the tent. Once we took in enough air to recuperate, we walked around downtown some more. We found an outcropping on one street that looked like a pirate museum which we confirmed upon arrival. The woman who stepped out to greet us was dressed like she just came home from the Pirates of the Caribbean shoot.
"Greetings one and all and welcome to the pirate museum of Nassau!" she bellowed. "Come in and see how the fearsome pirates of the day lived and died and plundered and murdered!"
Now say all that with a reggae lilt in your voice, then apply that to every one in the story who's not us and you'll hear things as we did.

We bought our tickets and walked into the museum and quickly found it to be a rustic dive. The museum honestly looked cheap and touristy, but if you let your imagination run rampant as I did then it's a fun way to spend an hour. There were enough historical factoids on the walls to fill my mental treasure chest, and I kept kicking myself for partly reading Under the Black Flag and never finishing it. I swear when I finish my current book I'm going to hit that one. Maybe after my next one. And now, back to the swashbuckling...

Once we finished with the self-guided tour, we found ourselves in the gift shop where I considered buying a few things but ultimately opted against them. Instead, we sat down at one of the tables and ordered some nachos and Cokes. The nachos, expensive buggers though they were, came out as little more than a bunch of chips covered in local queso. For whatever reason, I was expecting a little more but I will give them the edge in power. Those things were so dang spicy my head liked to have blown off.

Fortunately it had started raining outside by this point so the temperature was dropping. We waiting long enough for the rains to die down a bit before heading back out. We decided to keep the cruise ships to our backs and head inland to see what was around, so off we went. Imagine hiking through a city built on the side of a cliff with all manner of streets as wide as the average desk and you'll do well to remember hiking boots in such a situation. Up one hill and over the next we went before reaching what appeared to be the main thoroughfare of that part of the island.

It was a single lane road down which cars were stacked bumper to bumper, and this road wound around a steep bend and down a hill. Naturally, people walked right next to the cars as there was no clearly defined sidewalk so we joined the fun. My Fair Lady grew increasingly nervous as we hiked down the hill but no cars came close to clipping us. We walked past a school that was letting out which explained the majority of the cars, and for whatever reason I found it enlightning that they wore uniforms. The boys all wore ties, white shirts, and slacks while the girls all wore red and white plaid skirts with white shirts.

The trees surrounding this area were enormous, ancient monsters that stretched towards the sky and back towards the earth all at the same time. Their branchs went out in all directions, and stepping over the broken areas of the sidewalk where the roots had punched through became a form of exercise all by itself.

Since we didn't see anything of further interest, we walked around the school and headed back downtown again. The goal this time was less oriented towards shopping and more oriented towards finding some place with air conditioning where we could cool down for 10 minutes. As we migrated along the shopping district, we found our way into a Nicole Miller store that blasted the AC so fiercely we could feel it from the street.
"AIR!" cried out My Fair Lady.
Like Speed Gonzales, all I saw was a puff of smoke where she used to be. Hopefully the store won't bill us for the My Fair Lady-shaped cut-out currently punched through Nicole Miller's front door.

Once we cooled off and could feel our legs again, we went outside and hailed a cab. We had heard about the Atlantis Resort and Casino but since we figured it was a complete tourist trap we weren't as inclined to check it out. When we looked at our watches we saw we didn't have that much time and basically said, "Why not?" Off to Atlantis we went.

For those of you who have never been to Las Vegas, the size of each individual casino/resort is daunting. I advise anyone who goes out there expecting to win their fortune at the tables step outside and look straight up. The House didn't build that because they lose consistently.

The Atlantis resort was massive. It's a sprawling mega-plex that covers acre upon acre of land and stands in stark contrast to the bleak, almost Third World levels of poverty and decay we saw on the interior of the island not five miles away. For the record, the people we met on the interior of Nassau around the school could not have been nicer or more polite, but the conditions surrounding that location resembled slums.

By comparison, Atlantis was a shining becon of excess and we walked into it out of sheer morbid curiosity. Everything was plush and decadent, but the true attraction for us was the aquarium. Ringing the entire resort was a salt water aquarium housing all manner of sea life. We walked downstairs into the main foray and stood stock still as we starred agog at the size of these animals. A giant manta ray casually swam by with half a dozen fish under each, uh, wing. According to the staff, this monster was over six feet across and the glass was not meant to make things appear larger than they actually were.

Before heading into the exhibit we swung by the gift shop on the off chance they had medicine. Low and behold they had DayQuill available, so I snagged a small box and flew to the men's room. After popping my pills I found My Fair Lady and we bumped into Seattle Sue and The Barbequer. Both extolled at length the joys of the aquarium, and insisted we journey through it. We assured them we were about to, and as they parted to head back to the ship we set sail towards the aquarium.

My Fair Lady and I differ in many ways, but one of the primary ones is my love of water. She swears I'm part fish because I can, and will, jump into any body of water and immediately take to it. Conversely, put the two of us on a mountain top and she'll fly down it at full speed while I'm left standing there wondering how best to get down without plowing into a tree. Or several. When we were on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia back in 2002, she sat on the beach while I saw. Backstroking on the water while having a school of fish following me ranks as one of the great pleasures of my life, but that's a story for another time.

The short of it is I like water while she prefers land. Such is the balance of life.

/end philosophical ramblings

We walked through the exhibit which was cleverly designed to resemble an archaeological dig in the fabled city of Atlantis. There were all manner of Atlantean designed diving suits right next to faux hieroglyphics which must have told of ancient battles and great explorations of the sea. Very crafty design on the part of the hotel.

The aquarium itself stretches all along the interior of the exhibit so as you stroll through the belly of the massive hotel you see all manner of marine life. The size of the lobsters alone guarantee that patrons of the diner upstairs would not leave hungry. We took several pictures to illustrate the size of these animals, one of which is Yours Truly kneeling by a tank with two fish behind me that are each the size of my torso.

Across. Length-wise they're almost as long as I am tall.

After roughly an hour or so of wandering through looking at everything we found ourselves outside looking at the other end of the exhibit. In between us? A lot of water that looked very, very dangerous.
"I bet we could swim it," I challenged.

"Oh no you couldn't," replied My Fair Lady.

"Yeah, I think I could. Look it's not that far and... is that a fin?"
We walked to the edge and looked out over the water and sure enough, fin after fin broke the calm surface. Looking just beneath said surface we could see about a half dozen very big sharks circling.
"You still think you can swim it, big guy?" My Fair Lady challenged.

"With that sort of an incentive I wouldn't be swimming. I'd be running."
We also looked to the right of where the sharks were swimming and noticed a bridge. On the other side of the bridge? Families swimming in a pool.
"Someone clearly didn't think things through," I said. "Either that or they have a mean streak a mile wide."
We walked around the complex and found the remaining portion of the exhibit: The Sharks. If you're in the Atlantis, then on the far edge of the aquarium is what looks like a massive hut covering a bar. This somehow manages to be both misleading and spot-on because when you walk into the bar, you actually go down stairs in the middle of it and that's where the rest of the exhibit is. We walked around down there marvelling at how enormous so many of these creatures were, and again marvelled at the thought of putting schools of huge fish in the same tanks as them.

As we walked back out of this on the other side, we walked across a rope bridge and came to a small area overlooking yet another pool. A sign near-by advised that the water wasn't safe for swimming, but any enterprising four-year-old could easily climb over the wall and take a dip. Unfortunately, they'd be taking a dip with the three hammerhead sharks that hang out on the shoreline. When I say "hang out on the shoreline" I mean exactly that. We watched as this massive dorsal fin broke through the water and kept going higher, and saw the shark come in so close to the shore he may as well have climbed out and had himself a suntan.
"Candy gram," I whispered. My Fair Lady stared at me blankly.
Sometimes I feel old.

We walked across the remaining bridges and found our way back at the hotel and casino. We cut through the casino just to get one last dose of AC before heading back to the ship. Once out the front door we hailed a cabbie who was kind enough to drop us right at the dock entrance. Everyone on our ship and the others moored there were leaving at the same time so we merged into the throngs and went back through the welcoming offices, now devoid of merchants and their wares. We talked briefly with some other passengers who also spent time at the Atlantis before climbing back on the ship and making our way to the cabin for some much needed showers.

After cleaning up, we ran the stairs up to the top deck and hung out on the balcony watching the ship pull away from the dock. This was to be our last stop on this fateful voyage prior to pulling into the port of Miami, and it was an alright way to close out our adventures. I find myself in no way anxious to return to Nassau, but I can certainly justify the experience by saying I've been. My Fair Lady was of similar feelings regarding the island, and as she leaned back against me we casually watched the sun recede behind the red and purple-hued clouds as the ship was gently rocked by the sea.

Following this romantic interlude we headed back to the cabin to ready ourselves for the final dinner. As we walked down the hallway towards our room, I ran into the back of My Fair Lady who stood stock still.
"What's up?" I asked.

"Holy crap!" she exclaimed.
I looked over her shoulder and saw that the room next to us and the two across from us had already packed their luggage up and were ready to de-board in the morning. How could we tell?

Everything was alreayd lined up and tagged in the hallway. My Fair Lady spun to look me in the eyes.
"Were we supposed to have this done already?" she cried out in terror.

"I've been on exactly one cruise, counting this one, so I'm probably not the best person to quiz on the subject," I answered.
This was apparently not the answer she sought. She whipped back around and spotted our steward. She grabbed his arm and assailed him with a flurry of questions. I barely got half of what she said but considering how fast this man natively spoke I'm sure he had all the answers before she finished.
"No worries there, simply get everything out and ready to go before midnight and you will be fine," he assured us.
My Fair Lady looked visibily relieved. We went back into the cabin and started prepping for dinner.

By "prepping for dinner" I mean I laid on the bed watching some old black and white war movie starring James Coburn and James Garner while she decked herself out.

Once My Fair Lady was properly coifed, we headed downstairs to the dining room. As we walked in, we were greeted by the boisterous sounds of… an empty hall. For whatever reason, whenever we showed up at the hall we were usually in the first 10 people to arrive. Keep in mind the hall was three floors tall so we routinely felt a little lonely at the start. Our Man Mauricio was quick as always in welcoming us.
"We have a special surprise for you tonight," he said with his ever-present smile firmly in place. "We’re going to take a' good care of you all tonight and this is something you’re really going to enjoy."

"Thank you, sir, we're looking forward to it," I replied.

"That lobster the other night was fabulous," commented My Fair Lady.

"We aim to please, milady," said Our Man Mauricio.
He then whisked away to the kitchen. But in a manly fashion, just so we’re clear.

People started filtering in and from the looks of things the wait staff would soon have their hands full. Say what you will about the benefits of the Early Bird Special, it struck me that most everyone on the cruise had reserved a spot at the late dinner. So much the better for the multiple layers of servers all due their tips that evening.

Quick Digression Time™. The wait staff on board a cruise is comprised of a multi-tier hierarchy. You have the Head Waiter, the Servers, and three or four people in between. When it comes to the tipping situation, you have the choice to pre-pay or pay-as-you-go. We opted to pre-pay so everything we’d normally cough up would instead be tacked on to the final bill. That being said, I would honestly argue the merit of 15% going to three people who showed up at the start of each dinner to say hi, then vanish for the remainder of the evening while Our Man Mauricio busted his tail all by himself. For the record, this guy deserved a 30% tip MINIMUM while those other fools deserved exactly nada. But that’s just me.

Regardless of the tipping situation, once the rest of the gang arrived Our Man Mauricio proceeded to treat us as though we were the lords of all creation. One course after another soon arrived and fortunately everything was staggered out just far enough so no "stacking" occurred. My Fair Lady gets a twitch in her eye whenever courses are "stacked" one on top of the other. I’ve yet to see her Hulk Out™ but she’s come close on a number of occasions. Our Man Mauricio proved himself a professional that final evening, just as he had the previous nights, and delivered nothing short of five star service.

Somewhere before the dessert course, we noticed a sudden calm fall over the dining hall. Every waiter and servant stepped away from their respective tables in unison and began filing out. We didn’t think much of it at the time, though the thought of mass poisoning did fly through my head before exiting just as quickly, so engrossed were we in our conversations. Then the lights dimmed and the hum of a loudspeaker kicked in.
"May I have everyone’s attention please?" rang out a voice from above.
We looked up but didn’t see anything, then glanced to our left and saw Iron Chef Caribbean standing off to the side. Clever trick being able to throw his voice via PA system. The hall quieted down as Iron Chef Caribbean stepped out of the shadows and held everyone’s rapt attention.
"We have a special treat for all of you tonight," he said, echoing Our Man Mauricio’s sentiment from earlier. "On this cruise line, we strive to present an unparalled dining experience each and every evening, and this week has been no different. But tonight... tonight we present to you your servers and dining guides for this past week. These are the people who make this trip as enjoyable, and the meals as wonderful, as they are. Everyone please welcome the people who have made these meals for you!"
With that, Iron Chef Caribbean stepped aside, techno music swirled down through the rafters, and every server on the ship strode forth clapping in time. They marched in en masse around the hall one after the other and down the three flights of stairs and into the main hall. After circling around all of us, who applauded their expertise the entire time, they marched up the stairs and stood before us in the presentation of the dining staff. It was our turn as patrons to stand as one and applaud the top-notch service performed by the staff. Fortunately for us, Our Man Mauricio was close by and he heard us shouting his name. He turned and waved to us as we all took his picture.

Iron Chef Caribbean took this moment to say a few more words but by this point I had tuned him out. We hadn’t been served dessert yet, and that ice cream was dang tasty. As such, I wanted said presentation and recognition of the wait staff over so they could resume serving me my dang tasty ice cream. Good thing for my stomach that the final words were short, then everyone went back to what they were doing.

During the meal, My Fair Lady and I spoke with our fellow companions about our cruise experiences and reminisced deeply over the past few days. We spoke at such length that come 11 p.m. w were still chatting like there was no tomorrow... which technically there wasn’t. This was truly the end of our trip and we all wanted to snatch every last second we could before bidding a final adieu to one another. We collectively realized at 11:15 p.m. that we were all monumentally screwed if we didn’t split up right then and there and fly back to our rooms to commence with the packing. Our Man Mauricio took a few group pictures of us then we made with the e-mail exchange list, each vowing to stay in touch with the others. As it stands, My Fair Lady and I are due in Seattle next summer for her cousin’s wedding so we might drop in on The Barbequer and Seattle Sue at the very least.

Once the good-byes were said and done, we sprinted to our room. According to the clock, we had roughly half an hour to pack up two suitcases worth of stuff between us, not to mention all the collectibles we’d accrued during the trip.
"Can you imagine what things would be like if we actually bought a lot of stuff for everyone?" asked My Fair Lady. "We’d be screwed!"

"We still could be if we don’t stop gabbing and make with the packing," I said. "You like what I did there? I made a little rhyme. Aren’t I the funny?"

"Only when you try harder than rhyming ing with ing."

What we did over the next half hour wouldn’t normally be called "packing" so much as it would be called "throw as much stuff as possible into the bags, jump on 'em and hope everything fits." It’s amazing how quickly two people can strip down a room and pack everything in sight into two suitcases when under a time crunch. Lucky for us we’d already disposed of the bodies otherwise we’d have had a crisis on our hands.

Without warning we heard a loud thud in the hallway outside. We froze and stared at each other.
"Are they on to us?" I asked.

"They can’t be," My Fair Lady replied. "Check it out, I’ll cover you!"
I leapt to the door, threw it open and looked down the hall. Nothing but suitcases lined the walls with nary a courier in sight. I looked the other way and my heart seized.

They were coming.

I quickly calculated how fast they were moving versus their proximity to us and concluded we had another 10 minutes at best. I spun to find My Fair Lady’s expectant eyes burning into mine.
"We’ve got another five minutes, hurry!" I shouted.
It should be noted that my philosophy when in a rush is to cut people’s time to complete a task in half. That way when they accomplish it, they have at least a minute or two to double-check their work. For whatever reason, this works nine times out of ten. Try it some time on your significant other and enjoy the fireworks!

As the clock counted down, we rapidly flew around the cabin. Everything that could go into t6he suitcases found its way in and with a final body slam for each of them, we were able to get the zippers zipped up and the locks in place. My Fair Lady threw open the door then ducked as I hurled our bags over her head and out into the hall. The suitcases rebounded off the wall adjacent to us and landed against our cabin wall standing straight and ready for pick up by the couriers.


As My Fair Lady shut the door, the couriers started snagging the bags in our section of the hall and began taking them downstairs. We looked at the clock and saw it was 11:59 p.m. with five seconds to midnight.

I believe in finishing with time to spare, baby.

We quickly prepped everything we’d take off the ship with us when we de-boarded that morning then passed out shortly after midnight. We figured we’d be exhausted in Miami the next day but it didn’t matter. We’d be on American soil for the first time in a week and we both could hardly wait.

As it turns out, waiting was only the beginning.

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