Archive for the Journalism Category

If I Wrote John Heald’s Blog…

Posted in Blog, Journalism, Travel with tags , , , on Wednesday, 6 August 2014, by Stan
Carnival Legend at Rostock, Germany. (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

Carnival Legend at Rostock, Germany

Hello readers of John Heald’s blog. My name is Stan and I am pleased to be sailing aboard Carnival Legend, particularly on this itinerary. I will be writing the blog today, fully clothed, as John has buggered off somewhere and hasn’t been seen since we departed Estonia last night.

Today is a sea day. We are sailing past Latvia and word among the crew is that John has taken an unadvertised, unannounced, um, shore excursion. (Hmmm. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Calvyn, either. No telling where he could be.)

How did I gain access to John’s computer, you ask? Well, I tried bribing John’s trusty cabin steward, Ketut, but he flatly refused to cooperate no matter how much money I waved in front of him. But when I offered to clean John’s cabin, including picking up his underpants, within seconds the door to John’s cabin was opened, I was given the password to his laptop computer, angels began singing, and Ketut hasn’t stopped smiling.

Normally this is the part where John answers your questions. It looks like he did that before he ‘disappeared’, so let’s see what John’s got in the Q & A bag today, shall we? Off we go:

 

[Insert John’s Q&A here]

 

My wife and I travelled halfway around the world, taking nearly a day and a half to get to the Carnival Legend, our home for twelve days. In my six cruises with Carnival, this was by far the fastest embarkation we have ever experienced; well under ten minutes from the time we stepped off the bus in Dover, got checked in, through security, and to our cabin. It is amazing the amount of support and logistics involved in getting guests from various airports around London to the ship. Also as amazing were the personnel at the port dedicated to getting us all checked in and safely on board.

I am one of those who would prefer to get off the ship and go explore the city/country we are visiting. I do know a few people who would rather stay on board. Yes, the ship does provide ample activities to keep you occupied no matter what you choose to do on your cruise. But me, I’d rather go see and experience new places.

For this cruise we were seated with two other couples in the Main Dining Room. In our case it worked out very well. One couple is originally from India but now lives in the US. The other couple is from Ottawa, Canada. So we have three different languages being spoken at the table, three different lifestyles, but we learned we all have one thing in common: we love to travel. By the time we left Finland, it became a part of each evening’s ritual to share what we all had done that day.

One thing I’ve done on the last few cruises is ask our waiter why Carnival no longer serves the Baked Alaska flaming. I know why they don’t but the various responses the waiters give are hilarious, especially when they answer with a straight face.

As is tradition when I sail with my wife, we dined in the steakhouse; The Golden Fleece here on Carnival Legend. I had the lobster this time. While it was delicious, I think I’ll stick to the steak in the future. I’ll talk more about the steakhouse later.

We also took in a few shows in the Follies theatre and the Punchliner Comedy Club. It was at one of the comedy shows where my wife violated one of my cardinal comedy club rules; never sit in the front row. Yep, you guessed it. I got pulled up on stage.

I had noticed the designs and artwork inside Carnival Legend and initially thought it to be a mishmash of style. Then I saw the interview with the designer of the ship, John Farcus, on one of the cabin television channels. He explained that the ship was named first. Then he was able to design the ship around the name ‘Legend’, and came up with the theme of legends from around the world. Next day I started paying more attention, and wouldn’t you know it, it all made sense! It is nice to learn new things, even when you are on vacation.

We are still trying to get used to the sun not setting until 10:30pm, and trying to get used to 5 hours of twilight after that. It is pretty cool to stay up and watch the sunset, then watch the twilight…until you realize you have to get up in a few hours to start a shore excursion.

Now, then. This is my first trip to Europe. I was very excited about this itinerary and booked our trip based on the ports we are visiting, specifically St. Petersburg. Leading up to our departure, John’s timely posts about how he was putting together the shore excursions, visa requirements in Russia, etc., just whetted my appetite even more. In addition to the tours, my must-do list included trying food from six of the seven countries we visited, including England.

The descriptions of the Berlin Top 10 and 2-day Grand Tour of St. Petersburg covered most everything I wanted to see in the short time we’d be in those places so I signed up for those two well in advance. Though I prefer the warm weather, the Winter Wonderland excursion in Helsinki also sounded intriguing.

So far, we have explored:

Copenhagen – Here we took the Walking Tour of Copenhagen. Our guide was very knowledgeable and took time to tell us the history behind many of the sites we visited. Copenhagen was very busy with five cruise ships in port. Our walking tour did cross paths with the large crowds but also took us along side streets well away from the other groups.

I didn’t realize how many bicycles there are here. It would have been nice to have taken a bicycle tour of Copenhagen. (Dear beards: I am volunteering to test out any future bike tours Carnival may add to the shore excursion offerings.) One thing I really wanted to try but was not able to was an actual Danish. Our guide stopped at a bakery but only bought one Danish…to share amongst the entire group.

We happened upon a music festival that was getting started soon. Unfortunately, the ship would be leaving well before the festival ended so we could not stay to watch it. A highlight for me was learning the legend behind the Gefion Fountain.

Berlin – All I can say is Wow! Ok, I’ll say a bit more. The weather was perfect. The tour was perfect. Carnival chartered an entire train for Carnival Legend’s guests to take them to Berlin (kudos to Carnival for pulling that off), then arranged eight different tours once we arrived in Berlin. We took the Berlin Top 10 tour. This one takes you to see remnants of the Berlin Wall, the Holocaust Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie, and many other sites.

The train ride through the German countryside en route to Berlin was very nice. Henning, our chaperone from the ship to the train station in Berlin, took very good care of our group. Sylvia, our guide in Berlin, was fantastic. Not only was she friendly and knowledgeable about the places we visited and the history of Berlin, she, herself, is from the former East Berlin and shared with us her perspective.

A German lunch was provided. In the past, I did not like sauerkraut. That was until this lunch. And I am glad I listened to the voice in my head that told me to get an authentic curry bratwurst from a street vendor. My wife and I will definitely have to return to Berlin and spend a few days here.

Helsinki – Originally, we planned to do just the Helsinki Highlights tour. But my wife decided later to include the Winter Wonderland tour. Putting aside my dislike for cold weather, off we went to an indoor winter wonderland where our guide, Ritva, told us a bit about Finland along the way. After donning cold weather gear provided by Unique Lapland, we went inside a cavernous room chilled to -5 °C/25 °F, and darkened to resemble the polar night. There we were served a shot of Finlandia (what else?) vodka provided in a glass made from ice. We rode an actual sled pulled by a team of sled dogs, skied a very short course on tandem skis, tobogganed, and visited three ‘ice hotels’ shaped like igloos.

Returning back to the ship just in time for the Helsinki Highlights tour, we hopped aboard another bus and headed off to see these highlights. Our guide, Maria, narrated our trip and we had a few photo stops. I had never heard of Jean Sibelius, but after Maria taught us about him, I realized that I was familiar with his work. And at our last stop, a few minutes before the bus was due to return to the ship, we ran across a marketplace on the waterfront. Getting a chance to try reindeer meat in Finland was on my list of things I wanted to do, but with the tours we had scheduled and the short time we had here, the likelihood of finding any, let alone trying any, seemed highly unlikely. Sometimes wishes come true in the strangest of ways: what did one of the marketplace vendors have for sale? Smoked reindeer meatballs! Of course, I had to try them. Turned out they were among the best foods I have ever tasted! And the garlic sauce they added on the side made them even better. My wife found a street vendor that had some of the best veggie sandwiches she’s ever tasted.

St. Petersburg – There’s nothing like visiting a place in person to dispel years of school history book teaching and Hollywood movie stereotypes. We’re on the 2-Day Grand Tour and so far it’s far surpassed my expectations. It’s hard to believe we’re actually in a country that not very long ago we were not allowed to travel to. Many of the people we spoke to admitted that St. Petersburg was the main reason they booked this particular itinerary.

Natasha, our guide, was by far the best tour guide we have ever had on any of the Carnival cruises we have taken. Her knowledge was boundless. She was very patient and friendly. I wish there was a way to let her bosses know how good she is and how much her guests appreciated her professionalism. She led us on a whirlwind tour of St. Petersburg including Catherine Palace, the Church of the Resurrection on the Spilled Blood, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and much more. Oh, I can’t forget about the authentic Russian lunch with borscht, champagne, vodka, and Beef Stroganoff. After a couple of hours on the tour, I was starting to read a few Russian words such as restaurant, bar, bank, and stop. I would need a week of writing John’s blog to cover everything we’ve experienced on just the first day here. Highlights in St. Petersburg were many but among them were: getting to use the few Russian words I know, my wife finding a gift shop owner who knew American Sign Language, and meeting two guys from Africa. We really wished we had more time to talk to them.

Tallinn – By the time we reached Tallinn, I had come down with a cold. While visiting the old city and learning about the Russian and Swedish history of this city was interesting, all I really wanted was to go back to the cabin and drink some hot tea and sleep. We took the Jewish History tour, which included the old city. When we arrived back at the port and went shopping, we noticed the very high quality of the souvenirs in Estonia. Naturally, we bought several. The highlight happened in one of these shops: The proprietor spoke no English and I know absolutely no Estonian. Out of frustration I said, in Russian, “sorry, I don’t speak Russian.” Her eyes lit up and with a huge smile she responded with a torrent of words in Russian. I can’t explain it but it was if I was hearing her in English. That was an encounter I will never forget.

In all honesty, I was disappointed that no bicycling shore excursion was offered in Amsterdam. From what I’ve been reading, Amsterdam is a very walkable city. Exploring it the way the Dutch do – from a two-wheeled perspective – sounds like the best way to see the city. Obviously, you cover more ground on a bike and that is exactly what I want to do while in Amsterdam, where we will be day after tomorrow.

Since I’ve have a few Carnival cruises under my belt (and I still have John’s computer), I’d like to offer a few suggestions to the beards:

1 – On the Carnival.com site, add an “Insider Tips/Past Guest Picks” link on the Shore Excursions page listing things to do while in port, in between excursions, or at the arrival/departure port before/after the cruise. Example: “The Crazy Lobster in Cabo San Lucas is a few blocks from the marina and within sight of it. Easy walking distance. Excellent grilled steak, lobster, seafood, and traditional Mexican fare. Reasonable prices.” The legal beards can add a standard disclaimer that says these are ideas submitted by guests, not Carnival.

2 – Also on the Carnival.com site, make it easier to compare the Shore Excursions. Extend the descriptions on the Compare page so that you can read the entire description of each excursion without having to click ‘more’. Or, once you click ‘more’, have the description extend within the Compare column without opening a new page. As of now it takes forever because you have to: 1) scroll to find an excursion that interests you. 2) once you find it you have to click to get a full description. 3) then you either have to click the back button or click on Shore Excursions again and wait while the page loads all over again. This could literally take hours to read about all of the excursions if you have a slow Internet connection and are looking at a 7-day itinerary or longer.

3 – How about adding a ‘weather bug’ from Weather Underground or The Weather Channel on the shore excursion main pages on Carnival.com?

4 – In the Carnival Cap, er, Fun Times, add a section called “Cultural Tips” to the embarkation issue. Adding a few do’s and don’ts when visiting a foreign country on Carnival’s itinerary may be helpful. Example: In Russia, never turn down a glass of Vodka when it is offered. To do so is considered rude. Always drink it down all at once; do not sip. Pointing with the index finger, giving the ‘thumbs up’ sign, or the peace sign are considered insults in certain cultures.

5 – John has discussed this many times here in the blog. I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I agree with many others who would like to see a vegetarian entrée option or two in the steakhouse. (Yes, I know it is a STEAKhouse.) There are starters and salads that are vegetablist friendly (sorry, John’s computer is taking over), but no entrées. Myself, I love a good steak. But my wife is a vegetarian and though we enjoy dinner together in the steakhouse, I feel bad because she doesn’t have anything other than appetizers and salad to choose for her main course. John and I talked about this on his Facebook page and he offered a brilliant (where’s that option to turn off the ‘Johnisms’ on this computer?) suggestion. I’d like to take his suggestion one step further: How about putting a note on the online Steakhouse Reservation page that says if you would like a vegetarian option to contact the Steakhouse a day ahead of your visit to discuss preparing something to your liking? The same note can be placed on the reservation confirmation placed in the cabin.

Ketut just ran in and informed me that John has been spotted back on board. I had better sign off of John’s computer before

Advertisements

Endeavor’s Final Flight

Posted in Aviation, Blog, Journalism with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on Monday, 24 September 2012, by Stan

Endeavor and 747 SCA final flight. Over Palmdale, California. (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

September 21, 2012

Palmdale, California – “Houston, it’s been a great ride. California, here we come!” If Endeavor could speak, those would’ve been her last words. The space shuttle program’s youngest ‘child’ took to the skies for the last time today, departing from Edwards Air Force Base and embarking on an aerial tour of California.

As the spacecraft was ferried piggyback (doing so bolted atop a specially-modified Boeing 747 called the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft or SCA) cross-country from Florida to its hometown, she provided farewell flyovers en route. This provided one final opportunity for those who worked on her and her siblings to see their hard work in flight. The flight path of the Los Angeles leg had Endeavor and the shuttle carrier fly over several Southern California landmarks and attractions. So convoluted was the route that it resembled the Green Lantern ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

ImageBefore it reached the greater Los Angeles area, it flew over the Antelope Valley. In Palmdale, thousands of residents lined several streets to watch the shuttle stack: 40th Street East, Avenue N – on both ends of the runway at Plant 42, and Avenue O. Sierra Highway looked like an overflow parking lot at a huge outdoor event. Actually, it was a huge outdoor event; Endeavor was making its final flight and would be saluting the residents of the Antelope Valley along the way. And few fortunate residents had to do nothing more than step outside and look up to witness history fly by them.

After an hour delay to wait for fog to burn off in San Francisco, the 747 SCA, with its precious cargo secured on top, lifted off from Edwards. Someone with a radio excitedly announced, “It just took off!” The news spread quickly through the crowd. Spectators craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the iconic pair. Then keen eyes spied Endeavor and 747 SCA out over the water tanks along Avenue M. Through the haze it was difficult to make out; just a small object off in the hazy distance. But it was moving.

That moving object got closer – and larger. And it had a companion; one of NASA’s F/A-18s was multi-tasking in the roles of chase plane, escort, and photo platform. The team made a 135-degree turn and headed toward Plant 42, putting it on a path to cross over the crowd. The first cheers erupted as the aircraft-spacecraft duo passed overhead and the crowd took in the size and significance of the shuttle stack.

Endeavor continued its majestic parade through these famous skies, turning east now, paralleling Plant 42. ImageLooping back toward Plant 42, the place of its ‘birth’, the most breath-taking part of the flyover was yet to come. Now lined up along the 12,000-foot runway, the pair dipped down almost low enough to scrape the shuttle carrier’s belly. There the half-million-pound combo stayed for several seconds, seemingly motionless. Rising to clear the fence, the 747 nudged Endeavor upward and continued a slow climb. As it crossed over the onlookers at Sierra Highway and Avenue N the second time, another round of wild cheering and applause broke out among those who could. Those who couldn’t just stared, mouth agape, completely awestruck. The planes banked northward, headed over to Lancaster, Rosamond, toward Mojave, and on to Northern California. In this statewide airshow of sorts, the NASA SCA pilots saved the best for first.

ImageEndeavor landed at LAX around 12:50 pm, putting a period on the fact that the United States’ shuttle fleet will never again leave the earth. She is currently being lifted off her perch atop the workhorse 747 SCA and will be lowered onto a specially designed, computer-controlled transporter; in effect, trading a set of wings for a set of wheels. In three weeks, she will be towed through the streets of Los Angeles to the California Science Center, it’s permanent retirement home. Of Endeavor’s remaining family, only Atlantis has yet to move in to its final resting place.

11 Days in Jamaica – Last Day

Posted in Blog, Journalism, Travel with tags , , , on Saturday, 25 August 2012, by Stan

Ocho Rios Sunset - (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

 

Sunday June 24, 2007

Today is our last day in Jamaica. After breakfast I decided to take a walk around Ochee. Since it was an early Sunday morning there were very few people out. It was nice and quiet. I had to force myself to slow down and really take everything in. For some reason I walked an extra block eastward toward A3 highway. I had never walked out on this street before during my previous trips here. Of course, everything was closed but I was still enjoying seeing all the businesses for the first time.

When I got to the highway, one of the newspaper persons was selling the Sunday Observer. I decided to buy a copy to read on the way back to the airport. It also gave me a chance to spend some of my Jamaican coinage.

Turning back northward, I walked up a street I had only driven by in the past. Everything seemed new to me although I knew all of it had always been there. I must have passed at least 3 churches on my short walk. Then I passed one in a tiny strip mall.

Why this particular church caught my attention, I do not know. Maybe God knew that the message from this one church is one I needed to hear. So I drew closer to the door.

The church was packed all the way to the back door. Although it was a typically hot Caribbean morning and a bit more humid than usual, it was still packed. There were four or five floor fans blowing full force. Parishioners fanned themselves with paper fans. I couldn’t help but think how many Americans are sitting in big, air-conditioned churches right now. Would they still come to church if it was 90 degrees/75% humidity outside with no air conditioning inside?

One of the ushers invited me inside. I thanked her, but declined, explaining that our group was leaving in about half an hour. Even though I was standing outside the door, I was not alone.

Inside the preacher was delivering his sermon, which could be heard from where I was standing. He was drenched in sweat, his clothes looking like he had just taken a shower in them. But he was undeterred by the heat. He was fervently preaching about love. “Love without action,” he said, “is deceitful.” He gave a few contemporary scenarios. Time had gone by so fast that I didn’t realize it was time to get back to the hotel already.

One of my regrets is that I had never been able to attend a church service while in Jamaica. We’ve always had to perform or leave on Sundays. Next year, if I am blessed enough to return to Ochee, I think I will try to attend a service at this church.

We loaded up the equipment truck and headed back to Mo Bay and the airport. I was glad see to that the stretch of road from Falmouth eastward was finished. It was good to ride on a smooth road for a change. We got to the airport, got our equipment and ourselves checked in, got through security, and waited for the boarding call.

Unlike last year, this time we had plenty of time after checking in. Some band members snoozed in the chairs downstairs while others shopped. I stopped in at Jamaica Farewell and bought my usual bottle of Sangster’s Rum Cream. Too bad you can’t get this stuff in the States. Well, actually you can, from a company called Jamaica Direct, but they charge a hefty shipping/courier fee. I went this route last year. Even with the shipping/courier fee, it was still worth it.

Jamaican Bobsled Cafe, Montego Bay - (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale CreationsFour of us were hungry, so we headed off looking for something to eat. One of the members said an employee at the Jamaican Bobsled shop told him about the café upstairs. So that’s where we went, the Jamaican Bobsled Café. They have several restaurants on the island. Arguably, the most famous one is on Gloucester Avenue in Montego Bay.

It was close to boarding time when we finished our lunch. We headed back to the terminal area. Once we found the gate, we found out that the plane was going to be delayed. Figures. So this edition of our Jamaica trip ends the same way it began, with a late plane.

11 Days in Jamaica – Day 10

Posted in Blog, Journalism, Travel with tags , , , , , , on Thursday, 23 August 2012, by Stan

Beach at Negril Treehouse Resort - (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

 

Saturday June 23, 2007

Two years ago we were able to stay in Montego Bay overnight before leaving Jamaica. We took a side trip to Negril and watched some of the cliff divers at Pirate’s Cave. We had a time constraint so we didn’t get to stay very long. That meant even though I wanted to try it, I didn’t get to jump off the rocks.

This year was different. This year we had all day Saturday off. I was determined to get back to Negril. Early in the week I started talking up a possible excursion to Mo Bay and Negril around the band. By Saturday, Dave, Rory, and Robert committed to going with me. It was going to be a very long drive from Ocho Rios all the way to the west end of the island and around to Negril. Chris and Papa Wilson answered the call yet again to drive us.

It was a kicked-back day, no rush, no reason to hurry. It was a good time to enjoy not doing much of anything. All of us at one time or another dozed off for a while. Chris pointed out some places of interest to those who were awake. He commented on the noticeably increased police presence on the roads. We assumed it was to catch speeders. (I later found out from The Gleaner newspaper that the police were adapting to criminals’ tactics; bad guys from one parish would come and do their dirty work in another parish. But, to make it easier to slip past the constables, they would leave their weapons in the parish where they committed the crimes. That way if they were ever caught, they’d be clean as far as weapons go).

As we rounded the western end of the island just past Mo Bay, Chris directed our attention to a massive construction site along the ocean side of the road. We couldn’t tell what it was going to be but his guess was another mega-resort. It looked like a small city. He said that it would be good for the residents of the town in that it would provide much-needed jobs. By this time we had been on the road for almost three hours. We did endure one traffic jam in Montego Bay due to bridge construction.

Soon we pulled into Negril. Chris again went into tour guide mode, pointing out all the hotel properties we passed. Sandals, Beaches, Riu, Hedonism II, Swept Away, Couples, and on and on.

There’s a spot that Chris and Papa Wilson took us to in ’05, just beyond what I refer to as ‘hotel row’. It’s called the Negril Treehouse Resort. This is where we stopped for lunch. We piled out of the van, stretched our legs, then made a bee-line for you-know-where.

The circular, open-air restaurant surrounds a bar. It sits right on the beach. On occasion, a beach-goer will walk in, still dripping wet, and order a drink or three. Chris and Papa Wilson took a table near the hotel side of the restaurant while the four of us sat on the beach side. I ordered Jerk Chicken, expecting it to be similar to what most hotels serve, i.e. ‘watered down’ for the tourist palate. I asked the waitress how spicy it was. She replied that the chicken itself wasn’t spicy, but they could add extra sauce if needed. She asked how spicy I wanted it. “Very,” I said.

Our meal arrived promptly. Beverages? Of course, Red Stripe all around. A dark-colored sauce glazed the chicken and there was a generous portion on the side. Again, thinking this was the ‘lite’ version, I brushed on the extra sauce like I was painting a fence. Then I took my first bite. Whatever image you have in your mind now is probably close to what happened. My nose started running, the thermometer rose, the steam whistle blew, but my head did not explode. I was in heaven. Yeah! Now that’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout! That’s how I like my Jerk Chicken! But this was a new taste I had not experienced before. I thought I knew Jerk Chicken. Now I have to rethink everything I thought I knew.

After eating, Dave and Robert decided to go walk around and get a little sand and water between their toes. Rory and I stayed and just kicked back. I did take a few photographs meanwhile.

Robert and Dave came back to the table. We got up and walked over to the gift shop. Outside was a policewoman with a machine gun slung over her shoulder. Once I again, I wondered why this did not make me at all nervous. If policemen in the States walked around with machine guns, I’d be nervous, but not here.

Our next stop was Pirate’s Cave. It’s just up the road a bit from the Treehouse Resort. Along the way, it felt like we crossed over into a wholePirate's Cave - (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations new world. You leave the commercialism/tourist part of Negril behind. This section of Negril looks more like a smaller Caribbean island like Grand Cayman than it does Jamaica. Dave commented that what we should have done was planned to stay the night and just be beach bums here all the next day. Next time we may do just that. The vibe is certainly laid back here.

One couple was eating lunch out on the patio at Pirate’s Cave when we arrived. I looked around and did not see the cliff divers. We walked along the edge of the rocks, taking in the view of the huts off to the left, and the azure Caribbean Sea 3 stories below. The cliff diver must have either seen or heard us come in.

Diver at Pirate's Cave - (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale CreationsRobert and I were ready to jump. Rory and David said they’d be happy to just watch us. ‘Donovan’ – I’ll call him that because I forgot his name – gave us some instruction. Step out, no need to jump out very far. Keep your legs straight and your arms at your sides. Robert went in first. He came back up the stairs from the cave below. Looked easy enough, so I stepped up to the edge. I had come all this way just to do this. There was no turning back now. I looked out and jumped off. I picked up speed quickly and soon heard the rush of the air in my ears. Then I heard Donovan yell, “Tuck in your arms!” Obediently, I pinned them to my sides. I remember thinking, “I should have hit the water by now.” I finally did hit the water in what felt like an explosion. I had done it! What a rush!

Swimming back to the cave took a bit of effort because the water kept rising and falling. I climbed up the stairs and reported back to the guys. I was ready to try a dive now. Donovan had cautioned me earlier about diving and recommended that I jump first to see what it was like. He did two dives to show me how to do it right. I told him I was ready. I stepped to the edge again and…… “Man, that’s a long way down.” All the things that could go wrong started running through my head. What if I over-rotate? What if I don’t position my hands the right way? We didn’t have any more gigs to play so Lee couldn’t get too mad if I did get hurt. Ooh, getting hurt might hurt. So I backed down. The guys told me that was a smart choice. Still, I wanted to jump in again. I convinced Donovan to do a tandem; he dove while I jumped. Chris got it on film. Check one more thing off the bucket list.

Much has been said about Rick’s Café. All the hotels feature a trip to Rick’s where you can have dinner, see the famous cliff divers, and watch “the most beautiful sunset in Jamaica.” I asked Chris to drive us by there just to see what this Rick’s Café was all about. Rick’s was less than five minutes further up the road. We turned into the driveway. In the parking lot were 15 or more big tour busses and tour vans. Security guards were directing traffic. We looked at each other and told Chris to keep right on going. After the relaxing day we’d been having, the crowd here would have ruined it completely. Personally, I think Pirate’s Cave is much better place.

Chris drove out of the driveway and headed back the way we came. Robert turns to me and says, “So, Stan, where are we going next?” It made me feel good to know that everyone enjoyed the day. Chris and Papa Wilson deserve the credit for turning me on to Pirate’s Cave and the Treehouse Resort two years ago. Maybe I should start working on another trip for next year now.

Darkness had long since settled over the island by the time we got back to the hotel. Long excursion, a lot of driving, but a good time was had by all.

11 Days in Jamaica – Day 9

Posted in Blog, Journalism, Travel with tags , , , on Wednesday, 22 August 2012, by Stan

(c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

Friday June 22, 2007

Today is Friday. We have our last gig of the trip tonight. I have no plans until then. Funny that even though this is mostly a vacation, I still keep waking up around 6 am. I usually go on down to breakfast before it gets too crowded.

I hadn’t lain out on the beach all week. After breakfast, I ran the stairs, changed clothes, headed back down to do just that. It was still early enough that only five or six people were in the water. I picked out a lounge chair and laid down. The bright sun was climbing higher in the sky. A few big clouds gave the sun something to briefly hide behind once in a while.

The people in the water were far enough away that their voices were barely carried ashore. The gentle sound of the waves lapping the shore was louder than they. A few chairs to the right of me, a family was seated, trying to catch some rays. There was no one on my left. What a peaceful scene. I was going to enjoy this. I drank my water and quickly dozed off.

My bliss lasted nearly three hours. What shattered it was the arrival of a group of about eight people. They were loud. Instead of taking the lounge chairs in the row behind me, they dragged the chairs up closer so they were now in line with mine, surrounding me. I tried to shut my eyes to shut them out but I knew getting back to the bit of heaven I had just been jolted out of wasn’t going to happen.

Five minutes later I hear, “Stan!” A few of the band members were walking around and spotted me on the beach. They asked what I was doing (!). We ended up trading places; all except Leroy walked over to the area where I was, while Leroy and I walked back toward the hotel. Leroy had mentioned wanting to do some more shopping so I went with him.

We walked through Soni’s Plaza, down past the Craft Market, all the way down to Taj Mahal. Since we had gotten in the habit of not dressing like tourists, walking around town was so much easier. It was kind of like being in two worlds; in the gift shops that catered to tourists, the store clerk stayed very close to us, never letting us get out of sight. In the stores that catered to locals, we got quizzical glances, something like, “you look like you’re from here but something just isn’t right.” On the way back, I talked Leroy into stopping by Island Grill.

Island Grill is a Jamaican fast food place that is giving Burger King and KFC a healthy serving of competition. They have something like 14 outlets across the island. There is something about the fries they serve there. I tried them for the first time in Kingston last year. They are the best-tasting fries I have had anywhere. Leroy agreed; those fries are the bomb!

Today was also the last chance I’d have to try an Indian restaurant called A Passage to India. It is right across the street from the hotel. I had seen the place and the billboards countless times but had never tried it. I told Rory that I was planning to go, mainly because Ronnie, our alto player last year, wanted to go.

We walked up the winding staircase to the restaurant. We were the only diners there. Another group came in much later, but for the most part it was just us. The dining area was covered, open air, with a patio and a larger indoor dining area. Service was a tad bit slow, probably because everything was cooked fresh.

Our appetizers arrived. They were so good we practically inhaled them. For the main course, we had lamb tikka and chicken tikka along with garlic naan. (Why horn players would eat at an Indian restaurant before a gig, I don’t know. Why horn players would order garlic naan before a gig, I don’t know. But I’m glad we did on both counts.) The naan came to our table straight from the oven. The flavors in the tikka sauce were like a well-balanced symphony. All the different spices seemed to burst out at once, but none overpowered the other. We ended up sopping our plates with the naan. Ronnie, thank you for the suggestion!

Usually I feel a touch of sadness when we play our last gig here. It means we’ll be leaving Jamaica in a day or two. This time I didn’t feel as sad because some of us were going to Negril tomorrow.

Tonight we played two sets for the dinner crowd. People would walk by and look. Some would stop and take pictures of us as we played. Those who were dining would bob their heads in time with the music. Others got a little pep in their step as they passed.

David, our alto sax player, really dug into his solo on one of the songs. He played through the changes like a master. I wish someone had recorded it because it should be used in the classroom to teach students how changes should be played. A perfect example of improvisation. I was so mesmerized that I missed my entrance at the end of his solo.

At the end of the set, Lee thanked the crowd for listening and the hotel for having us. We took our bows and packed up our gear. Some stayed and ate dinner while others took their gear back to their rooms. God willing, I’ll be able to join the band here again next year.

11 Days in Jamaica – Day 8

Posted in Blog, Journalism, Travel with tags , , on Saturday, 18 August 2012, by Stan

Cool Cool Runnings - (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

 

Thursday June 21, 2007

Each year we visit Jamaica, Lee likes to charter one of the party boats for the band. It’s a chance to get everyone together and have a good time. The boat is a catamaran. We normally book it during one of the off days when the cruise ships are not in port.

We normally head out just after noon. On the way to the dock, my friend Tony came seemingly from out of nowhere to say “W’apning”. Tony runs the powered water sports. He’s got jet skis, parasailing, glass bottomed boats, etc.

On board the boat, the crew introduces themselves. Standard safety instructions follow as we cast off. We sail slowly around the shoreline and anchor near a reef. It’s time for snorkeling. Some of the guys swim way out past the reef. The first-timers always comment on the different types of fish they see underwater.

This year, one of the enterprising locals had some of his crafts loaded onto a kayak and paddled out to our boat. He had the usual conch shells, beads, and carved art. His ingenuity paid off; several people bought items from him. Too bad for his land-bound colleagues.

After snorkeling and swimming around in the waters of the Caribbean Sea, we pull up anchor. Slowly we head for another spot to anchor for lunch. Our crew cranks up the music and really gets the party started. People on the shoreline hotels come out to watch. Local kids start dancing. One of the hotel guards even threw down, doing a dance that can only be described as “The Jamaican Stomp”. All the attention we attract is good business for the crew; the name of the boat, “Cool Cool Runnings” (its big sister is named “Cool Runnings”) is written in large, bold, blue letters on both outer hulls. Party-minded guests are thinking, “I wanna be on THAT boat!”

Lunch is usually jerk chicken, rice and peas, salad, and dinner rolls. Free-flowing fruit punch and Red Stripe beer is provided to quench our thirst. I never get tired of jerk chicken. While we eat, we chat with the crew.

Following lunch, the crew stows the empty containers. The DJ turns up the music again. We head out toward sea into the wind. The deckhands unfurl the main sail. The waves get bigger. The boat starts pitching. The crew starts inviting everyone to dance. Of course, it’s Soca dancing. While all this is going on, one of the crew shows off her jumping skills. As the boat pitches upward, she jumps an instant before it reaches the wave’s crest, launched by its upward momentum. She is headed upward as the boat rides down toward the trough. When this is done right, you get some serious air. She certainly did it right. We tried too. It only took a couple of good waves to get the hang of it.

‘Round about this time, the flying fish leap out of the water and begin their legendary glide. There must have been a big school nearby because they came up a dozen or more at a time. No wonder this is one of the highlights of the trip.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. We slowly headed back to the dock. Our cruise was nearly over, but the music kept pumping. Hotel guests got one more chance to envy us. We reached the dock and tied up. Some people still had their sea legs when they stood up to get off the boat. We said goodbye to the crew. Hopefully, we’ll see them again next year.

One of the band members had made dinner reservations for ten of us at La Diva, the hotel’s Italian restaurant. This is the most popular restaurant in the hotel. We all showed up at the appointed 8:30pm time slot but had to wait almost half an hour.

The meal itself was very good. I had the rack of lamb with mint jelly. In fact, everyone in our group was pleased. During the meal, we toasted to Lee’s wedding anniversary, and to our bass trombone player, Dennis’ anniversary. One lady at another table brought her 5-year-old son by our table. He sang an anniversary song to Lee. The mom said it was the kid’s idea.

It took quite a while before each course was served. Since were a large group having a good time, we kind of overlooked it. But it was growing late. The place actually closed while we were there. In fact, the freezer had been locked up by the time we ordered dessert so they had to go find someone with the key to open it again. It was 11:30pm by the time we finally left. Even with the wait, I will come back to La Diva next time we stay here.

11 Days in Jamaica – Day 7

Posted in Blog, Journalism, Travel with tags , , , , , on Friday, 17 August 2012, by Stan

 

Wednesday June 20, 2007

This is a day I always look forward to when I return to Jamaica; the day when I get to hang out with Lancelot. We’re usually gone all day long. Today he said he would show me the center of the island and the town of Mandeville.

Lee wanted to play some more quartets this morning after breakfast. I had to call Lancelot and ask if we could leave half an hour later. He said it was not a problem.

The quartet session went well. We played most of the same charts as last time and one different piece that was even more challenging than the others. I had to leave the group a bit early to go meet Lancelot.

I went back up to the room to drop off my horn and change clothes. As I walked down the hotel’s driveway, Lancelot pulled up. It’s always good to see him. He’s full of wisdom, sayings, and is a wealth of knowledge about Jamaica.

We headed out. I did ask if we could stop off at  Walkerswood. They make the seasoning I use when I make jerk chicken at home. They have grown enormously in the past couple of years and now have a big factory. Their product line has grown, too, and is now readily available in the States.

Next we drove through the town of Moneague. We drove by Moneague College and through some of the side streets before heading back to the highway. Once we got back on the highway, Lancelot stopped at a small roadside fruit stand for some pineapple. He knew the Roadside fruit stand in Jamaica - (c) Stan Thomasproprietors and talked with them for a moment. It seems like he knows everyone on the island. He offered me a slice of pineapple, confidently saying that it was “so good, it will put Hawaiian pineapple to shame.” Jamaican pineapple is good; more orange in color than the Hawaiian variety, but I have to say nothing tastes as good as fresh pineapple from Hawaii.

While watching television, I remembered a conglomerate company called Lasco made several public service announcements about the shortage of milk on the island and their attempt to resolve the crisis. I asked Lancelot about this. He said that a few years ago, there were more dairy farmers on the island but they weren’t being paid enough for their product. So they stopped raising dairy cows and went into other crops that paid more. As a result, Jamaica now has to import most of its milk products. Sad because according to Lanceleot, all the government had to do was buy the milk and supply it to the school children. That way the dairy farmers could stay in business and there would be enough milk on the island.

As we drove over some of the many hills on the island, Lancelot pointed out the thin pipes that supplied water to the residents. Pipes which frequently broke. Pipes which are woefully inadequate to supply the growing population. Many residents have water tanks in which to store water. These are sometimes filled by water trucks. Since the government does not take a proactive approach to upgrading the water infrastructure, residents are forced to take drastic measures to get action. When the pipes break and are not repaired in a reasonable amount of time, and the water trucks don’t come, residents will block the roads. NO traffic gets through. That means commerce is virtually halted. Alternate routes are available but involve driving hours out of the way.

Linstead has developed quite a reputation. The crime rate is high. Lancelot pointed out one store that he says had been robbed 20 times already. He explained the reason for most of the crime is because there are few jobs. Several of the factories that used to be on the island have shut down and gone to other islands like Trinidad. Of course, that leaves nothing for the youth to do. And, as one of Lancelot’s sayings goes, “the devil will find work for idle hands.” Coincidentally,  The Gleaner, one of Jamaica’s newspapers, ran a story that Sunday about one of the candidates running for office campaigning to clean up the horrid conditions in Linstead’s marketplaces.

Each large town we drove through had a franchise or two of the ubiquitous Burger King or KFC. As we came into Spanish Town, I remarked to Lancelot that I hadn’t seen any McDonald’s. He replied that there were no Mickey D’s on Jamaica. What?! A country where there is no McDonald’s? He said the last one closed in 2005. We covered a large part of the island during the day and sure enough, no golden arches to be found.

What happened? I found out after we got back to the states that the golden arches had been under a black cloud since they first tried to come to Jamaica’s shores back in ’94. Apparently the international fast-food Goliath lost a court battle against a local David and McDonald’s was prevented from doing business on the island for a few years.

When they were allowed back on the island, Mickey D’s was late to market – believe it or not – and never did establish a foothold. Jamaicans had by then already pledged allegiance to Burger King and KFC, in addition to their own home-grown chain called Island Grill.  According to this commentary, not only was McDonald’s late to market, they didn’t even research the market.

Rejoining one of the main highways not far from Spanish Town, Lancelot abruptly pulled over next to a roadside coconut stand. He bought two coconuts, one for each of us. He asked me if I had ever had coconut water before. I told him the hotel served it on occasion. He told the proprietor to cut the coconut so I could drink the water. One skillful chop from his machete and I was drinking fresh coconut water. I drank as much as I could, all the while thinking about what Tom Hanks’ character, Chuck Nolan, told Wilson about coconuts in the movie “Castaway”.

While Lancelot talked with the proprietors, he started using part of the coconut to scrape the ‘meat’ out of the inside and was eating it. Once again, the proprietor picked up his machete. Whack. Whack. Chop. Soon, I was scraping the inside of the coconut and eating the meat, too. It dawned on me right there how many people you see here walking around with machetes. They are used to cut down fruit, chop down trees, clear vines and brush. They are used to cut open fruit, trim hedges, cut grass, and chop meat. And I never for one moment felt uncomfortable about how prevalent machetes are in Jamaica.

Over his lifetime, Lancelot has lived in all 14 of Jamaica’s parishes. Out of all the towns in all the parishes, he says he wants to live in Mandeville. He was practically beaming as we drove into the town. Mandeville sits on a hill and offers an excellent view in many places. It reminded me a lot of San Francisco.

Driving through the town, we passed a military installation. As we passed by, a large helicopter flew in and landed. We passed quite a few upscale homes and many gated communities. Then, Lancelot turned up a narrow street, which led to a building resembling a plantation house. This was our destination. It was called Bloomfield Great House.

Bloomfield Great House actually was a working coffee plantation back in the 1800’s. The main building has been converted into a restaurant. Inside was a beautifully-decorated restaurant with indoor and veranda dining areas, private dining sections, and a big dining area for large groups. On the walls hung many works of art by Jamaican artists. The tables were covered by primary-colored tablecloths. Long streamers of sheer fabric were draped from the ceiling. Use of these vivid colors created a very vibrant atmosphere inside.

We were seated on the veranda. From here you have a commanding view of Mandeville and large part of the center of Jamaica. It was breath taking. There was a slight breeze blowing. I ordered a combo lunch, which came with shrimp and chicken, vegetables, and of course, rice and peas. Lancelot had a club sandwich with fries. We talked a bit while we ate but I spent most of the time just being absorbed in the view. So this was Mandeville. I think I could live here, too.

On the way back we took a slightly different route to connect back to the highway. Lancelot showed me some one of the places he used to live. We stopped at another place that offered a scenic view of the interior of the island. Then we headed back to Ochee.

Lancelot stopped at the Oasis petrol station to fill up the tank. One of my side ‘projects’ on this trip was to photograph some of the billboards and other signs in Jamaica. I hopped out of the car, camera in hand, and quickly snapped a couple of pictures of the station’s sign. Upon returning to the car, a gentleman, who I assumed to be the manager, came trotting over. He anxiously but politely asked if I “would care to disclose why you photographed the sign.” I blurted out my best “no problem, I’m just taking pictures of signs” speech. Understanding what I should have said, Lancelot instantly came to my rescue, telling him, simply, “He’s a tourist.” At first I was offended. Because Jamaica has become a second home to me, I don’t think of myself as a tourist. Then I realized that the manager thought I was a local.

Our trip took us through the parishes of Saint Ann, Saint Catherine, Clarendon, and Manchester. In addition to the towns mentioned earlier, we visited Ewarton, May Pen, and a host of others. Our last stop was at Faith’s Pen for some jerk chicken and pork. It was dark by this time. In my haste to get back to the car, I took a shortcut behind a building and ran into a barbed wire fence. Incredibly it was only a couple of strands high where I hit it. Thank God it only left three superficial scratches.

We arrived back at the hotel and I bid Lancelot farewell. Some of the band members were sitting in the courtyard. Since I had been gone all day, they wanted to know where I had been. I told them about Mandeville. While we chatted, more members of the band walked by. I was very hungry by this point and the aroma of the food from Faith’s Pen was making me even hungrier. I offered some of it to Leroy, then excused myself to the poolside grill and ate the rest.

Later on that night I ran into Lee. He told us that we are scheduled to be the opening act at the first Wine and Jazz Festival in Palmdale. This is going to be a big gig for us. Jeff Golub, The Rippingtons, and Richard Elliot will be performing. I’m really looking forward to this one.