Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Love Boat, Day 8

Day Eight began as Day One had ended: With Yours Truly and My Fair Lady staring out our window at Miami Harbor. The ship docked around 6 a.m. that morning and the unloading began in earnest shortly thereafter. Every night of a cruise your steward turns down the bed and leaves an information flyer on the following day’s activities. The night before we pulled into harbor, however, he left tickets showing what de-boarding group we were in sorted by color, what time we were scheduled to disembark, and other procedures we’d find necessary.

As opposed to just throwing our stuff overboard and making a swim for it. All things considered this would have been the quicker way to exit.

We were scheduled to leave by 9:30 a.m. so we managed to get ready by 8:30 a.m. Since we had an hour to kill we figured we could either go upstairs for one final breakfast or go stand in line. Our appetites won out but since we’d grown tired of running the stairs we opted for the elevators. It’s amazing what happens when a lot of people have already left the ship because the elevators came right to us. Up three levels we flew and away to the breakfast buffet we went.

We must have been the final ones there because while the pickings were far from slim, open places to sit were. In between the pancake and sliced ham buffets we added up what little money we had left and figured it wouldn’t be enough to buy a spot next to the window.
"But we can see Miami Harbor from our room," I whined. "Not to mention we’ll be spending today and tomorrow here."

"I want to see the ocean one last time," replied My Fair Lady. "Besides we’re not going back to our room so this is our last chance to see the water."

"You realize we’re spending the next two days on a peninsula, specifically in a hotel with an ocean view, right?"

"Hush you. Quick! A table just opened up!"
I slung a flapjack like a discus and landed it on the table she’d spied. It is a trick passed down through many generations of Skims but it’s all in the wrist. It helps if the flapjack is somewhat firmer than the fluffy ones I normally cook on Saturday mornings.

We ate in peace and watched as people finished their meals with a weary resignation, took a deep breath, then stood up and headed downstairs to disembark. A "back to the real world" feeling settled across the dining hall but it felt good to be back on land, or at least close to it. We casually finished our breakfast before we too succumbed to the fact that our cruise was at an end. We stood, smiled at one another, then picked up our things and headed back to the elevators.
"Which deck are we exiting from?" I asked.

"Well, it’s decks two and three but we should hit five first and see if we can’t get in line there," said My Fair Lady.
So we took the elevator to deck five and as we exited My Fair Lady snagged my arm and started pulling me away from where the stairs were. I turned my head and saw she was dragging us towards the picture store. Throughout the length of the trip, the cruise line had photographers everywhere. Just about anytime we went anywhere in the ship or stepped off it in port we found ourselves face to face with the flashing bulbs of the paparazzi.

Every picture taken found its way into this one shop and My Fair Lady waited until this exact moment to buy the ones she wanted. A few nights prior she had gone through and selected which ones she was “for sure” on and which ones she could go either way on. But right then and there was the hard deadline to make a decision and she wasn’t going to pass it by.

To be entirely fair to her, every other wife and girlfriend on board had pulled their husbands and boyfriends along at the exact same moment. The other men and I exchanged bemused looks as the women scattered in the store. My Fair Lady proved herself smarter than the average bear because when she was last in the store she had, in a rather clandestine maneuver, taken each one of our pictures and put them all in the same place on one shelf. As such, she went right to them, yanked them out, and put them in front of my face.
"Alright, choose," she said. "But choose wisely. Because while a great picture will bring eternal happiness, a bad picture will take it from us. Me in particular. And by 'me' I mean 'us.' So what do you think of this one?"
She then fanned the pictures in her hand in a move that would make a Vegas dealer proud.
"Uh, which one?" I asked.

"Any of them. We’re on the clock here, so get a move on."

"Well, I’m not too fond of that one," I said as I vaguely motioned to one.

"Good, I didn’t like that either."
We spent another minute or two going through the remaining pictures and settled on a handful. While at the counter we also picked up a copy of the "Cruise in Review" DVD, which I’m sure will see plenty of time in the home player whenever we host parties. If it had so much as a clip of My Fair Lady frying like bacon during The Quest, then it was worth every cent.

Once our account was settled with the photo store, we picked up our carry-on bags and headed to the stairs. We quickly found ourselves swallowed by an enormous, winding python of an escape line. We looked at one another and wondered aloud whether there might be another, saner escape vector. Bear in mind we were still on deck five at this point, and the line in question wound downstairs through the next two decks.
"What about the opposite end of the ship?" asked My Fair Lady. "Maybe people haven’t figured out that there are multiple ways off..."

"SHHHH!!!!" I hushed her. "Do you want to give out the recipe for the secret sauce too? Or maybe where Hoffa’s buried?"

"Well then, do you want to wait here or try something else?"

"Hey, I voted at the start to toss everything overboard and swim for it but someone, and I’m not naming names here, decided that was too 'risky,'" I said.

"Fine, you can stay here but I’m heading to the back of the ship to see what’s available. I’ll call you from the cab on the way to the hotel."
And here I thought hardheadedness ran in just my family.

We ducked out of the line and headed towards the back of the ship and after descending two decks found ourselves in a much smaller line that at least was looking at an exit. I counted maybe 25 people in front of us and My Fair Lady was properly satisfied. We started chatting up a few of the people around us who were equally as anxious to leave as we were. After waiting for a brisk 15 minutes the color group we belonged to, brown, was called so everyone started moving forward. One of the cruise members thanked us for traveling with them, briskly nodding at each and every one of us, and then we were out and into the maze.

The maze is a series of chutes designed to funnel large crowds through enough small corridors that it thins the chafe from the wheat, so to speak. Whoever is left by the end gets to go through customs while those who didn’t make it... well, the less said of those unfortunate souls the better. The line to exit customs defies description. Consider the size of a full cruise ship’s roster then filter everyone from that roster into two lines and put them in a long hallway.

After successfully navigating the maze, we found ourselves at the back of the right-hand line. I looked towards the front of the line and honestly couldn’t see it. We hoped we were in the good line, but as the one to the left started hustling forward while we remained stock still, it quickly became apparent that we had chosen poorly.

Twenty minutes later we had moved maybe 10 feet while people who had disembarked behind us but went to the left line were far ahead of us. Thirty minutes after that, we’d moved maybe another twenty feet when we heard our names from behind us. We turned and saw The Couple from LA waving at us, so we waved back. I made a motion like I was being hanged, which summed up our feelings on the situation in a single gesture.

Within the next half hour, The Couple From LA was neck and neck with us and collectively we’d finally moved within sight of the customs desk. By this point, the pain in our legs was growing after shifting from one foot to the other for almost two hours. Meanwhile, the left hand line continued moving consistently while our line moved in short spurts.

Once we were within earshot of the front we finally saw the cause for the hold up: The Homeland Security Wench. This over-inflated egotist would point at the people in the front of a given line then direct them to one of the five customs desks where they would check out. We’d filled out the declarations forms before disembarking and since we weren’t loaded down with Cuban cigars or crates of alcohol that, for the record, were only about 8% cheaper than at retail, we knew we’d breeze right past the customs desk... if we could just get there.

In the meantime, someone actually had the gravitas to call out Homeland Security Wench on her complete and utter failure to recognize there were, in fact, two lines of people who needed out.
"I’m keeping the lines even!" she bellowed.

I swear to God and all that is Holy I have no clue how this fool could look these long-suffering people square in the face and say she was keeping the lines even. Immediately after she said that, she waved on five more from the left-hand side including The Couple From LA who shrugged at us in slight embarrassment then headed on to check out. We waved them farewell before they disappeared behind a wave of bodies.

Homeland Security Wench continued to hold us up while the left line flowed freely. People at the front of our line started throwing fits of pure rage as this buffoon improperly controlled the flood gates. I know not where she learned the art of crowd control but I’m guessing she failed. Repeatedly.

This explains why she was working for the government.

Eventually, Homeland Security Wench remembered there was another line and started letting people go. There must have been several families standing right in front of us because the line practically vanished. The Wench held us up when we finally made it to the front, and naturally opened the left hand flood gate once more.
"How many in your party?" she asked them. "Five? Alright, you go. How many in your party? Four? Alright, head to that gate. YOU STAY THERE I’LL GET TO YOU SHORTLY!"
She bellowed that last directly at us. There is an endless list of things I hate about the government and government employees, but a ridiculous level of over-inflated self-worth is in my top five. This cast-iron wench was a textbook example of the worst sort of government employee and we just stood there taking it. We were so close to the end that I wasn’t about to screw things up by trying to drive a stake through her heart, fun though that may have been.

Despite the mental daggers My Fair Lady and I were sending her, she finally relented and pointed us towards one of the customs officials. We gritted our teeth and marched to the counter where we handed the man our forms.
"Do you have anything to declare?" asked Customs Official #1.

"No," we replied in unison.

"Do you have any tobacco products that you’re bringing back?"

"No," we replied in unison.

"Do you have an alcohol to declare?"

"No," we replied in unison.
Customs Official #1 looked up and stared us both in the eyes.
"What the hell were you two doing down there? Did you have any fun at all?"

"Plenty of fun was had, nothing was brought back," I said.

"Dude, you’re done. Get outta here."
With that he stamped our forms and shooed us away from his booth with a quick dismissal gesture. As we walked away we glared at each other.
"They need an express lane for people like us," My Fair Lady bitterly complained. "You know, people without booze, smokes, and other crap. How do they expect to get all that stuff on the plane anyways?"

"My guess is they either won’t, or they’re going to have to ship everything back via UPS or something," I replied. "Of course we could see people pounding bottle after bottle in the airport tomorrow which would be pretty funny."
Heading away from the debacle that is the Miami customs area, we made our way to the baggage claim which we found in full swing. Normally whenever we travel we get to the baggage area far ahead of our luggage but thanks to Homeland Security Wench we found our bags already dizzy from going 'round and 'round and 'round without us to rescue them. We picked them up, double-checked to ensure no one else had gone through our things, and then headed for the front door.

The doors parted, the Miami air assailed our nostrils, and we dragged our bags towards the cab area. We noticed several groups were slated to go on the next cruise because the matching uniforms were as far as the eye could see. Some Japanese schoolgirls walked by and were quickly followed by a Japanese basketball team. As we walked towards the cab we heard one of the dock workers shout at us.
"Hey, you can’t go over there for the cabs! That’s only for people coming onto to the ships!"
By this point, we were through being told what to do. Our pace was not even fazed as we hiked over the cabs and flagged one that had just unloaded his passengers. He barely got out of the front before we’d already thrown our luggage in the trunk and piled into the back.
"The Beacon Hotel," we said. "And for the love of God, get there as fast as possible."
To the man’s eternal credit, he knew when hostile passengers were in his cab. He stomped on the gas, the tires squealed as they peeled out, and we shot past the dock worker who was probably still shouting at us that we could only get in a pre-approved cab. Once we cleared the docks and hit the bridge going over the harbor, we looked back and saw business as usual continued on the cruise ships. Our cruise may have come to an end, but new faces were ready to sail the high seas over the next week. We smiled at each other then turned to look out the front of the cab and watched Miami get ever closer.
"How are you today?" the cabbie asked us in broken English. Looking at the name on his driver’s license I pegged him as Turkish.

"We’re good, better now actually," I replied. "We liked cruising, but it feels good being home."

"Very good then," said the cabbie. "What are you seeing while in town?"

"Oh, this and that," My Fair Lady said. "We staying on South Beach so we figured we’d hang out down there."

"Lots of fun down there, especially in ocean," said the cabbie. "Do you surf?"

"I body surf but could never stand on a board longer than about two seconds," I said. "As such, I think we’re just going to lie about for the day."
It took us about 20 minutes to get over to South Beach and as soon as we turned onto Ocean Drive I immediately freaked out. It was exactly like I was living in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and I’m not exaggerating. If you’ve played the game but never once been to South Beach, then let me assure you that Rockstar got the geography exactly right. While most people know the area from Scarface, I personally think the movie sucks so opt to defer to the game... which was more or less based on the movie.

When your head is through spinning from that explanation the rest of the story continues below.

The cab pulled up in front of The Beacon Hotel and we yanked out our bags and walked up to the front desk. Clerk Betty stepped up and welcomed us warmly. We confessed to being early and when she checked the list she found our room was two hours away from ready. She was nice enough to have our bags checked and since we couldn’t get into our room yet, we stepped out onto South Beach to explore for the first time.

If you’ve never been to Miami it simply floors you how bright the sky is. On a clear day you can see for miles, and it was very clear that day. The sand wasn’t what I’d call "white" so much as I would "covered with cigarette butts and miscellaneous grit." The water wasn’t much cleaner thanks to copious amounts of seaweed, but we still enjoyed looking at it all. It also helped that a good portion of the people on the beach were easy on the eyes and not wearing a whole heck of a lot. Hey, when you’re on the beach in Miami you either enjoy it or run from it screaming.
"Do you want to get in the water or lay out on the beach today?" My Fair Lady asked.

"I’d like to have a room to change clothes in first, but otherwise I’d be up for it."
We headed back to the Beacon, but instead of walking inside we opted to hang a right and walk down Ocean Drive. One thing that struck me as inspired was how each hotel had their restaurant outside on the sidewalk itself. Whenever you walk down the sidewalk there you will walk through about a dozen restaurants and most of them belong to a hotel. All of them have barkers who will try with all their might to put your butt in one of their seats, so consider yourself advised to come armed.

As we hiked down the sidewalk we looked at the various menus wondering what would constitute a solid meal for later that evening. We spied a few that looked better than the rest, and made mental notes to return for further review. Or at least I tried to make mental notes, but after walking past one restaurant that can best be described as "Hooters meets the Playboy Mansion" I had trouble focusing. I don’t recall the name of it, but oh man can I recall the, uh, menu.

My Fair Lady failed to see anything on the menu she found appetizing, funny enough.

We headed back to the hotel and Clerk Betty handed us our room keys. When we walked upstairs we found ourselves staring at a floor-to-ceiling picture of Al Pacino from Scarface, specifically the scene in the street immediately after the chainsaw incident, and I started laughing. The thought of Big Al walking through the hotel I was staying at filled me with a sense of awesome. Also, I had another flashback to the hotel your character owns at the beginning of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. These flashes would happen roughly every 15 minutes over the next day so whenever I talk about anything we saw in South Beach, just accept that I was also mentally driving around GTA: VC.

Our room screamed "Art Deco" which was appropriate considering the hotel was in the Art Deco district of Miami. Say what you will about the rest of the city, this district had its own vibe, its own unique spirit. A friend of mine’s family lives there and he has his own opinions on the positives and negatives of Miami, but South Beach has a wondrous flavor all its own. Thousands of people have come through and each of them has left their fingerprints on this area of the city. Combine the flavors of people with the rich, frequently vivid passions raging there through the decades, and South Beach swirls around you in a cloud of energy.

I won’t argue that things probably would have been easier had we been fluent in Spanish, but we managed to have fun walking around. A few streets up from Ocean Drive was a main thoroughfare where we saw a slew of high-end cars. I pass by a Ferrari/Maserati dealership every morning on the way to work and I used to marvel at the testers. Dallas isn’t home to as many Lamborghinis as we saw each day, though it truly pained me to watch them only driving 30 mph. A car like that shouldn't be allowed to go less than 75, which would make it awkward when dropping the kids off to school.
"Duck and roll, little Timmy, just like we practiced! The bruising and pain will fade in time. Trust me!"
After dropping off our bags, we suited out, liberated a pair of towels from the front office and headed across the street to the beach. Ocean Drive is a two lane road separating a row of hotels and restaurants from a giant sea of sand dunes. Inter-spersed in between every fourth dune or so was a path to the beach itself. My Fair Lady and I situated ourselves on the towels and actually laid on a beach for the first time on our vacation. The view of the Miami skyline and the crystal blue sky was the sort of view dreams are made of. We snacked on the gummy candies My Fair Lady brings on every trip, and watched the people walk to and fro as the ocean waves crashed in the background.

We sunned ourselves and enjoyed the sea breeze for close to two hours before clouds rolled in threatening rain. Maybe we were gun-shy coming back from the tropics, where rain storms came and went as fast as a person can sneeze, but we knocked the sand out of our towels as quickly as we could then busted our tails back to the hotel. We actually managed to cross the Beacon’s threshold before the rain hit. Seeing that it was approaching dinner, we decided to clean up and head out to eat in South Beach.

My Fair Lady looked stunning. She belonged in the vast ocean of fantastical beauty on display that evening. As we walked through the restaurants it became apparent how the people of South Beach treat everyone else. It is a see-and-be-seen environment, the very definition of overt narcissism which frankly I found hilarious. The menu which grabbed our attention belonged to the News Café and our table was right on the sidewalk. My Fair Lady ordered a Mojito, an object of desire on her mind since before the cruise began, and when it arrived promptly found another love of her life. I tasted it and my face rapidly contorted into its "anti-alcohol" look of disgust.
"Why even bother trying this when you know you’re going to hate it?" My Fair Lady asked.

"Because there’s always the chance I may find something I like," I replied. "You know, like tequila."

"I still can’t believe that for someone who hates the taste of alcohol that tequila is the one thing you liked."

"Neither can I but I still figure the shot of 151 I had before that burned out the inside of my mouth. At that point, I could have licked a tire and wouldn’t have noticed the flavor."
This, dear friends, is a story for another time.

Dinner was fantastic, and afterwards we walked the neon-lit streets of South Beach hand in hand. Sure, it sounds more than a little sappy but it was a solid capper to our first cruise together. We retired later that night to the Beacon only to hear people coming and going long past midnight. Apparently when we told Clerk Betty we’d like "a quiet room" she took that to mean "by the front door where we can hear everything." Foresight on our part resulted in us being well stocked on books for the trip so we managed plenty of reading that night, though around 2 a.m. words sort of blended together. The good news was that was when everything quieted down in the hotel and we blacked out.

The following morning we had a massive breakfast outside, because the chefs along Ocean Drive apparently don’t subscribe to the South Beach Diet ironically enough, then hailed a cab and returned to the Miami airport. Thank you for coming along with us through these exhaustive blog posts, wordy though they are, and for hounding me on cranking them out. Funny enough, these have given me an extensive creative work-out in terms of writing what has essentially turned out to be a novella and for that alone this trip was worth while. My thanks also to the many people we met along the way who helped us enjoy the journey to its fullest.

Thanks for the memories.

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