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The Serenade of the Seas is steaming (or actually jetting) toward San Diego, and on this last full, crowded, chaotic day of the cruise, I’d like to write about our wonderful staff. With pictures.

If only Royal Caribbean could distribute more widely the magic that their staff has on board Serenade of the Seas, they could make the world a significantly better place. Here are people who are away from their families and their friends and their homes for months at a time. They must be sad and lonely at times, and yet they always have a smile and a friendly greeting for everyone. They come from all over the world, all different backgrounds and cultures and religions, and yet they work together as a supportive team.

May I present some of the warmest, most smiling people in the world:

Wayan, from Bali, Indonesia makes sure that our cabin is always perfectly ready for us, down to a full bucket of fresh ice.

Wayan

Our wait staff—Remi from Mumbai, India is our personal hero in the dining room. We’ve set him particular challenges, such as metamorphosing “Surf and Turf” into a double-lobster “Surf and Surf”, and he has always accomplished them. Remi is supported by the lively Liodela from Colombia and our competent head waiter Puran Singh from New Delhi. I’ll show Remi and Liodela first.

Remy & Liodela

Puran Singh

Jehiny from Colombia and Keisha from Trinidad and Tobago are our baristas. After only one day, they had us all figured out. They knew exactly what Dan drinks, down to the extra shot, the skim milk, and the sugar put in before the coffee. And they knew, even when I came separately, that I had been with Dan and drank what he did.

keisha & Jehiny

When it comes to a cocktail, we’ve become particular clients of Dijanna from Bosnia. She was only 11 years old when there was war in her homeland–a sad story, but she is not a sad person, at least not for us. She has been on the ship only two months so far (and is still smiling). Dijanna has gone out of her way to make sure we and our mothers have seats together in her section.

Dijanna

Possibly the very most helpful person on the ship has been Rahim in Guest Services. Rahim is from Lyons, France. He has a smile as wide as the whole Centrum and is always ready with a cheerful hello. He has helped us deal with a difficult situation involving a cigar smoker upwind of us who has made our balcony largely uninhabitable, and with a number of smaller questions and issues as well. Rahim never loses sympathy, patience, or understanding.

Rahim

Aren’t those great smiles? Dan and I surely wish these people and their companions well. RCCL is lucky to have them aboard.

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It’s hard to go to Puerto Vallarta without thinking about art. The town is full of art. For example, you can find shops that sell objects of art still being made according to ancient tribal techniques. These decorative items are made of beads pressed into beeswax on paper mache.

tribal objects in shop

You can also find strictly made-for-tourists art for sale at reasonable prices on the way back to the ship. This seriously talented young man creates detailed scenes entirely by fingerpainting! I wonder what he was like back in kindergarten.

small IMG_3353 fingerpainter

One thing my mother likes in Puerto Vallarta is the formal sculpture along the beach. She made sure that I photographed some of them. (Hi Mom! Here are some pictures for you!)

small IMG_3319 art1

merman and mermaid

sail sculpture

I like these sculptures, too. But even more, I like the street art: crumbling walls painted in strange glyphs that evoke other, impossibly distant civilizations. Like some of the best graphic-novel art, these paintings evoke moods for which we have no words.

small IMG_3324 painted wall

small IMG_3325 painted wall 2

small IMG_3326 painted wall 3

small IMG_3328 painted wall 4

And what else I like about them is their universality. This could be the street art of an ancient Mixtec culture. Or the street art on Beta Centauri 4. Or then again, it could be the street art of San Francisco.

mural in San Francisco

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“It never rains in Acapulco.” This is the first thing our tour guide says as we start our tour. So please just pay no attention to any umbrellas you might see in these pictures.

Despite an innate predisposition against organized tours, we have signed on for a tour arranged by an acquaintance of my cousins Steve and Henny.

steve & henny

Like us, Steve and Henny are on a cruise that is transiting the Panama Canal. But they are on a different cruise line (one, I might add, that unlike ours provides umbrellas for its guests), and they are traveling from west to east. Incredibly, we are both in Acapulco on the same day. We are in a van with a total of twelve passengers in addition to our driver/tour guide. Whatever we want, he will accommodate us.

We all want to see the cliff divers, who put on a breathtaking show. We huddle under umbrellas, but the divers don’t mind the weather. Hey, they’re going to get wet anyway.

cliff divers of Acapulco

Acapulco divers diving

Other than this, we all want different things. In a tour that lasts from about 10am till about 4pm, some of us want to stop for lunch. Others refuse to eat anywhere in Mexico but on their ship. We have been promised the crafts market, but most of the tour members don’t want to go there. A few do, one of us (guess who) very much. And so, in the end, we get the standard tour, minus lunch, and with an early return to the ship for the non-market-goers.

In addition to the divers, here’s what’s on the tour:

There’s a big, famous cross on a hill, which is not only wet but also cold and windswept.

There’s the sad, rundown Casablanca Hotel, which houses a gorgeous but rundown Diego Rivera mural as well as a view that is second to none.

rundown Hotel Casablanca

small IMG_3217 mural

small IMG_3212 stunning

small IMG_3215 view2

(In this last picture, you can see our cruise ship, the Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas, and our cousins’ cruise ship, the Celebrity Mercury, back to back at the Marine Terminal.)

There’s the Los Flamingos Hotel, made famous by somebody famous—Johnny Weismuller, I think—and his movie-star cronies of the day. It too has a lovely view of the bay. It also has a lot of drenched semi-outdoor spaces.

Despite its gorgeous setting and the magnificent views, Acapulco on this wet tour seems reluctant to let go of a past long gone. The city seems to be weeping.

On the brighter side, there’s the Las Brisas Hotel, a fancy hotel all in pink and white, also with a stunning view. And gorgeous bathrooms.

And there’s a whimsical mosaic wall by Diego Rivera that just can’t be beat.

diego rivera wall

The tour van crisscrosses back and forth across the main downtown area, which is completely jammed with traffic. The—how shall I say this?—wetness in the air doesn’t help. Stopped at a traffic light, I catch sight of a strange structure inside a parking garage; the concrete columns appear to be coming to life.

concrete structure comes to lifeIf only they ever got any rain here, I could imagine this structure might leaf out.

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Because we are traveling with our elderly mothers, we have ruled out small-boat rides, eco-tourism, and any vigorous cruise excursions. And, in any case, we are more interested in seeing old towns than anything else. We plan relaxed days in our four Mexican ports of call.

The first of these is Huatulco, in the Mexican province of Oaxaca. Huatulco is being newly developed for tourism. When I learned this during my pre-cruise research, I wasn’t much interested in this port of call, envisioning a modern town of mid- to high-rise buildings and little character. About a mile or so away from the port, however, there is an older town, La Crucecita, where an historical church dominates a traditional plaza and market area. We plan to visit this old town and then, if nothing else appeals, just head back to the ship. But we find we like both the old town and the new port area very much.

The ceiling and wall paintings inside the church at La Crucecita are beautiful.

Angel in church at La Crucecita

st. george and dragon in church at La Crucecitas

The shops around the main square are engaging.

rudys shop
And the new port area of Santa Cruz is surprisingly appealing. The buildings around the port area are in fact new, but the development is low-rise, traditional in character, and completely charming.

view of Huatulco port from the sea

boat in marina and buildings

arbor

Later, we take a break at a beach-side restaurant where Dan and I enjoy the best margarita ever, and where we admire the traditional (but not at all “touristy”) woven tablecloths. My mother buys an embroidered dress from a street vendor. To me it seemed “touristy” in the pile of such dresses, but when Mom puts it on, it’s stunning.

mom in traditional Mexican dress
Later we all go our separate ways: Mom back to the ship, Dan walking along the beach, and I seeking out a handicraft boutique for which I’ve been given a brochure. The handicraft boutique is a pleasant two-block walk along the marina and back from the port area in a boldly painted yellow building (circled in red in the picture below).

huatulco
Here I find a weavers’ shop. One man at the front is working an old wooden loom. Another welcomes me inside. I’ve been on this cruise long enough to be leary of welcoming shopkeepers, but this young man is not at all pushy. If anything, perhaps he’s a bit shy. So I go inside.

And behold! Tablecloths just like the ones we admired at the restaurant. Without hesitation and with only a little bargaining, I buy one of these in a size that will fit my dining room table fully extended. And behold, too! The rugs in this shop are beautiful. This is not the ubiquitous merchandise in the tourist shops down by the port; this is something so traditional and tribal it could be almost be a distant form of Persian rug-weaving.

When I admire the rugs, the young man takes out a book about Zapotec weaving (you can read a little about it on this Web site), and he tells me a little about himself. He is a Zapotec from a village some seven hours away. He lives with relatives in Huatulco most of the time and gets back home only two or three days a month. He misses his village, but his wife and little daughter are here with him, and the work is important, as he is one of only a few people in his village who can speak some English. Besides, he tells me, he likes learning about things that they don’t have in his village, like electricity and taxes. In his village, the people have been weaving for two thousand years. Children start learning the craft at age 7 or 8. When the shop is not busy, he also weaves. I very much want to return to Oaxaca some day and see much more of it.

The shopkeeper’s name is Gregorio Ruiz. Here he is with his family.

zapotec weaver & family
If you get there, say hello for me.

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Our dinner-table companions Richard and Brilinda are frequent cruisers. So frequent that they belong to the elite Concierge Club, and they get invited to special reserved events. Today, for example, they were invited on a tour of the ship’s bridge. They weren’t supposed to mention this to the hoi polloi, but somehow at dinner last night word leaked out.

So naturally I asked if I might tag along, and we decided to give it a try.

Two security officers greet the exclusive group at the forward elevator lobby on Deck 10, where they check off our names and cabins on the list of reservations.

I, of course, don’t have a reservation. For the purposes of this exercise I have become Bri and Richard’s daughter. The security officer checks my passport and SeaPass card, and graciously allows me to join the group.

As we enter the bridge, we are wanded with a metal detector. Our cameras and cell phones are examined. Our names are once again checked off the list. And we are allowed in.

The bridge is so spacious that the fact that it is full of equipment is not the first thing to register. What registers first are the views. The bridge has two “wings” that project on either side of the ship.

view of bridge wing looking forward, Deck 11

Together with the wrap-around windows, these provide views in every direction but up.

weather deck

looking aft from the bridge

looking down through the floor of the bridge

There is a complete control console on each wing. From here, the captain visually docks the ship, his own hand on the controls. The two handles control the rotation of the engines. The knob centered just behind them is the side-console version of the wheel.

side instruments on the bridge

There is also a central control console that would do the starship Enterprise justice. And yes, despite persistent rumors among the passengers to the contrary, the ship does have a wheel.

command central

command central

the wheel

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This morning, under unsettled skies, we docked in Puntarenas, Costa Rica. We booked no tour. We want only to walk around in Puntarenas, a town so small that the cruise ship’s destination guide does not bother to show a map of it and talks only of what the tourist might see in other places in Costa Rica.

Approaching Puntarenas

A walkway along the beach hosts several blocks of makeshift kiosks selling handicrafts and souvenirs to debarking tourists from the cruise ship, and, perhaps also to any local tourists who may have come to enjoy the wide, sandy beach. Already we can tell a difference between Puntarenas and our previous destinations. Smile and say, “No, gracias,” and the vendors here respond with a smile, “De nada.” Meet the eyes of a stranger, and smiles are exchanged.

vendors along the beach walkway

I photograph a rustic beach structure where a Costa Rican family watches their children play, while I also try to get the cruise ship in the background.

family in the beach structure

A little girl of the family maybe five or six years old meets my eye. She returns my wave. I continue down the walkway, and the girl runs up to me. She is offering me a small piece of prettily painted folk art. I don’t want the folk art; what I want is to take a picture of her. With gestures and use of the word “photografia” (I hope this might be understandable in Spanish, which I don’t speak), I ask her permission. “Si,” she says, posing prettily with her art object. I take the picture and offer her a dollar.

girl in Puntarenas

“No!” she says. She is vehement in her refusal. Instead, she offers me her art object again.

I think, “Okay, if it’s a sale she wants, I can do it that way.” I take the object, an apparent desk adornment of painted wooden flowers, and offer her the dollar for it.

“No!” she insists. “No, es un gado!” (or something that sounds like that… probably, my later research reveals, “regalo.”) She shakes her head and backs away from my money. “Regalo!” she repeats.

I don’t know Spanish, but I know a gift when one is thrust upon me. “Gracias,” I say.

“De nada.” It is a solemn moment. Then we smile at each other, and the girl returns to her family. I keep looking over there, catching the eye of the mother to make sure I’ve done no wrong. But all appears to be fine. When I walk back down the pathway, I wave, and the girl waves back.

I am now the proud owner of the most beautiful desk ornament ever.

There aren’t many beggars in Puntarenas, but there are a few. I keep coins in my pockets and give some to everyone who asks. I have received a gift from an angel, and I want to pass it along. Today, I feel blessed.

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Today is the day. This is the reason why we are here on this cruise—we and about 2,500 other people. Fellow passengers who have been on this cruise before warn us: claim a good position, claim it early, and hold your own against the press of late arrivers. Some people, they tell us, actually sleep out overnight in the position of their choice.

sunrise approaching the canal

Naturally, we want to know, based on their experience: what is the best position on the boat from which to view the transit? Suddenly, we have become potential competitors, and they are reluctant to say. Forward on Deck 6, maybe. Or Deck 11 or 12. Or along the side of the boat or aft on Deck 5.

We claim a position looking forward but along the side of the ship inside the Solarium on Deck 11. It’s not a recommended spot, but the mothers will be able to sit in comfort and to see.

This doesn’t last. We are too restless.

I find I can “Excuse me” through the crowds anywhere, anytime, as long as it’s just to take a picture and not to squeeze people out of their closely-guarded premier locations.

Like the title of this post, the Panama Canal itself is a palindrome of sorts. Ignore the punctuation, and you have three lock-chambers going up and three lock-chambers going down. But the punctuation gives it meaning: one lock of three chambers, a wildly free-form lake, a narrow channel dredged right across the continental divide, a bridge, a lock of one chamber, a smaller lake, a lock of two chambers, and a bridge.

There are two parallel passages through the locks, but only one-way traffic is allowed. We are assigned the port passage, behind the freighter Freja Breeze. Alongside and slightly ahead of us, the container ship Zim Haifa is making the transit. Zim Haifa is about as big as we are. We are both “Panamax” ships: the largest ship that can transit the canal. Construction now under way to enlarge the canal’s capacity will be completed on the canal’s centennial, in 2014.

ships in 1st & 3rd chambers of Gatun Locks

Zim Haifa in the Gatun Lock

we are up gate is open; Aim Haifa is down in the next chamber

gates closing on Zim Haifa

Transiting the three chambers of the Gatun Locks takes most of the morning.

We burst into the glorious Gatun Lake shortly before lunch. Our 13-story oceangoing cruise vessel is now cruising an inland fresh-water lake some 85 feet above sea level.

last gates of Gatun Lock open; Zim Haifa in distance

Gatun Lake

I watch the passage of the strikingly narrow and long Culebra Cut, which includes one of only two bridges over the Canal, from a treadmill in the bow of the gym on Deck 12. The channel in the Cut is so narrow that two Panamax ships cannot pass; hence the need for one-way traffic.

Culebra bridge

By mid-afternoon, I have ensconced myself at the rail on Deck 6, one of those hotly contested premier positions earlier in the day and still crowded—but accessible. From here, my elbow-to-elbow neighbors—now my very good new friends—and I watch the transit of two more locks (Pedro Miguel and Miraflores) comprising three chambers in all. “This is a much friendlier crowd than up on Deck 11,” my neighbor to the left remarks. Maybe, I think, they’re friendlier up there too, now that we’ve been watching this canal for hours. “Oh yes,” says my neighbor to the right, “we’re not like them; we’re always willing to squeeze one more in.”

letting out the water from Pedro Miguel lock

Freja Breeze ahead of us on Miraflores Lake

freja breeze leaves 1st chamber of miraflores lock

gates opening for Freja Breeze to leave 2nd chamber of Miraflores lock

In addition to the impressive locks, we see strange and familiar birds, ice rainbows in the clouds, thunder and lightning, canal dredging and construction equipment, Miraflores Lake, and the Miraflores Visitors Center, a five-story building filled with tourists who are cheering us as we pass.

bird

pelican

dramatic weather

rainbow

As the sun sets, we exit the last chamber and ride beneath the second of the two bridges and into the Pacific.

last bridge

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The captain has announced that the approach to Cartagena is spectacular, and so there are more people up on deck at 5:30am today than normal. A fiery sunrise to the east and a complementary rainbow to the west do their best to enhance an already beautiful approach to the city.

sunrise approaching Cartagena

rainbow over Boca Grande, Cartagena

madonna in Cartagena harbor

My cousin Stevie, an inveterate cruiser, has warned us about Cartagena. Someone he knows, he told us urgently, witnessed a murder from the window of his tour bus in Cartagena. It’s not safe, he insisted. He would not rest until he made me promise we would not go out on our own in Cartagena.

But we can’t resist. We are going out on our own in Cartagena.

Once we make it past the gauntlet of independent tour operators and negotiate a taxi fare to the city center of the old walled World Heritage city, things get easier. Our taxi driver Fernando talks his way past two guard posts, pointing out the elderly mothers in the rear of the taxi. He drops us off right at Bolivar Square, and we arrange to meet up again at the same place at an agreed time for the return trip.

Bolivar Square is not as pleasant as the guide descriptions make it sound. Yes, it is a beautiful park with a great statue of Simon Bolivar, but the tours all come here. And where there are tourists, there are hustlers. The place is not comfortable. We head out, Dan and me and our 90-year-old mothers.

I believe there may be unsafe areas in Cartagena. And I believe that the tour busses may drive through them. But the World Heritage walled city is—at least during the daylight hours we visit—as safe as any place we’ve ever been. True, there are police on almost every street corner where a tourist might wander, sweet-faced serious young men hardly more than boys. But once away from the hustlers at the tourist spots, the people are friendly, helpful, and courteous. The city is clean and beautiful. We wander until the mothers need to rest, which they do in a gracious old hotel, where a solicitous young man provides coffee and juice. And then Dan and I wander some more through narrow streets balconied with bougainvillea.

street scene w balconies

street scene

curved street w band playing

street scene

atrium

balconies w bougainvillea

narrow street w bougainvillea

We don’t see our taxi driver Fernando when we get back to the place he dropped us off. But strangers help us. “I’m the person who told you where to find a coffee shop, do you remember? If your driver doesn’t come, I can help you find another.” “I’m the person who helped you negotiate your return trip, do you remember? Your driver is just a little further up the block.”

And so he was.

Fernando leaves us at the port, clasping our hands warmly. Across the language barrier we wish each other the best, old friends who will never meet again.

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A great open space called the Centrum dominates the middle of the ship, rising from Deck 4 through Deck 10. The “ground” level houses the Guest Relations desk, populated 24/7 by friendly staff dedicated to righting all wrongs and meeting all needs. It also houses the Excursions Desk whose staff shows up intermittently on a schedule that seems completely random. In addition, there is a bar, an Internet area, a place for a band, couches, chairs, tables, and a dance floor.

All the upper decks overlook this area with balconies, bars, Internet areas, and other social spaces. Glass elevators provide passengers with vertically shifting views into the Centrum. A rainbow-and-metal sculpture several levels deep swings from the ceiling of the Centrum in gentle rhythm with the slight swaying of the ship.

centrum bar

Centrum balcony

Visually, the Centrum is stunning.

But like the shops on Deck 5 when there’s a sale and a drawing, or the pool area on a sunny afternoon at sea, there are times when the crowds are so dense here that it brings out my claustrophobia. And yet, now more than ever, the space with its crowds is beautiful.

Centrum stairway

Centrum overview

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Now here is a challenge for anyone who likes some daylight time alone during a day at sea on a cruise ship: try to find a place to be alone in. There are times—5am, for example—when it is possible. There may also be places during the day, but I can’t find them. Even my own room won’t do: the man upwind of us and also the man upwind of him smoke cigars, and even when they’re not on their balconies, their—uh, perfume—lingers, and I can’t breathe.

I rule out in advance the dark places such as the theatre. There will be too much darkness all winter in Boston; I don’t need to start accumulating it now.

Certainly there’s not an alone inch in the pool area on Decks 11 and 12, the Calcutta of the ship.

For similar reasons, we can rule out the informal dining areas astern on Decks 11 and 12.

Last time I was on a cruise I was able to be alone in the Solarium on Deck 11, right next door to the pool but indoors. The pleasant sounds of water in a fountain and birdsong (probably recorded) were soothing; a glass ceiling let in plenty of natural light; and it’s filled with greenery. It’s not fresh air, but it will do. Or rather, it did do last time, but now it seems the solarium has been discovered. All day long there is not a single empty seat. Yesterday morning when I left the one I’d claimed early in the morning at the end of a row (well, hey, at least I was alone on *one* side!), someone was already waiting in line to grab it.

The helipad on Deck 6 is a possibility but (for obvious reasons) there are no chairs there.

The library—an indoor space on Deck 9—and the map room—same place but on Deck 8—do admit some natural light, but they are also right on the corridor to the main elevators in the center of the ship. Although few people linger, many constantly pass by.

As the day slips into late afternoon, I manage to get a chair at the end of a row in the Solarium with no one next to me. But people are still here, a fair number of them. And worse, they see me with my computer and come over and ask questions. They are all very nice. Let me be clear: I like everyone I’ve met on this cruise, staff and passengers alike. But they are driving me crazy. This ship has twelve decks (though many are purely residential—narrow corridors lined with cabin doors), but it isn’t enough.  I’m starting to get claustrophobic; I detect the initial impulses toward antisocial behavior.

I have ten days to go.

(Note written on Day 9, four days later: I talked with the wonderful people in Guest Services about the cigar problem. They have talked with the cigar smokers, who have been very kind and understanding in agreeing not to smoke cigars on their balconies, and I have been able to spend a wonderful day at sea on my balcony, breathing.)

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