Cruising through Central America:
6-13 December 2009

Sunday, December 6

At 5:45 am on this Sunday, we walked to the train station from our midtown Atlanta home in 27deg weather, landing a half hour later at the airport where crews were de-icing planes. By 11:30am we were on the streets of Miami in our nephew's car as he drove us to the port. He's a student at Miami University and knows well how to get us to the Norwegian Cruise Lines ship for our first ever trip on a big boat.

And big it is. The Norwegian Jewel holds some 2,000 guests and 1,000 crew, and is loaded with every state-of-the-art amenity and diversion that a ship launched in 2005 may own. We joined the trip at the direct invitation of Marisa's brother Kamin, and our group included nine of us family. This connection was our big reason for going and, following the cruise, remains our biggest reward.

Having always made our own plans and schedules for all of our travels in the world, Marisa and I steeled ourselves for being mustered and managed by others. Our first taste was, of course, the check-in process along with 1,991 passengers. That was over soon enough, but during the unpleasantness, the newcomer doesn't know how much more waiting and luggage-pulling lies ahead. It was just okay and ended soon enough with our settling into our room on deck 10, complete with balcony.

There was a humorous emergency drill set in the ships huge theater where we showed up in our life vests and were treated to samples of ear-splitting alarms and basically reminded to always do as we're told in an emergency. On about the 5th honk of the alarm demonstration, a New Yorker next to us said quietly to himself, "Enough already."

Before the ship left the dock at 4pm, the pattern for the coming week had been set: let's meet to eat, go back to the cabin, stroll, then meet to eat again. And pretty much any time you want. Eat. The gym was utilized by just one of us, but the pool and some of the games set out on decks - shuffleboard, ping-pong, giant chess and checkers, among others - found favor with the two girls in our group, Kamin and Michelle's daughters Madilyn and Ali.

While Michelle's dad Roy and I watched - with our backs to the portholes - NFL football in a lounge, the ship took to sea without our knowing it. Just a hint of movement under us, and we were well off the Florida coast in minutes.

The evening meal for the entire group was at Tsar's, one of the large restaurants included in what guests have already paid for. The place owns a lovely setting and makes it easy to forget that you're not downtown in some nice hotel restaurant. Good conversation and food, then good night, and sitting on our stateroom balcony, the two of us, and the rushing water. We slept with the sliding door open every night but one on this trip, both loving the uneven, but steady, rush of water against the hull.

Monday, December 7

A beautiful, blue-sky morning greeted us through cabin's open door to the balcony. This was the first of what would be three full days at sea on this trip. Because the ship is comfortable in the extreme and folks are now fully ready to leave work and home behind, relaxation takes over the body and empties the mind. Some in our group admitted to being willing to go right back to bed after breakfast and a couple of book chapters.

On these sea days the cruise line folks have multiple planned diversionary activities in addition to the many places to eat, sun, drink and eat. The girls (young ones and grown) were aware of drawings, sales and promotions around the boat all day; the men knew where to relax and read with coffee or a beer. The pool area was well utilized from dawn to midnight.

The girls had already become expert at self-serve ice cream cones, offering to bring one to any one of us who thought we'd take a taste. Soon we all seemed to add strawberry swirls to our decadent, around-the-clock, food consumption.

After another feeding at the aft deck area, some of us took in the big show of the evening: Band on the Run at the huge theatre on board. I wondered if McCartney gets royalties for the use of his title or for just the one song they included in the show. The material was from 70s pop/rock bands. The musicians were quite good; there were a few really good voices, decent dancers, one contortionist/dancer and lots of costume changes. Forty minutes later we had heard about the entire Village People and Queen oevre, with lots of ABBA, Donna Summer and Bee Gees thrown in. It was fun, loud, flashy and quick. And, hey, it came with the package.

Tuesday, December 8

As we finished our lavish, self-serve breakfast, the Norwegian Jewel glided into the port at Roatan, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras. From our perch on the aft deck we saw the apparently peaceful buildings and narrow beaches common to Caribbean islands.

During the Mayan reign in Central America, the Paya Indians populated these Bay Islands. A smaller and less advanced group than the Mayans, the Payan civilization was characterized by more simple housing and tools. Europeans made initial contact in the 13th century and for almost 200 years after that Spanish conquistadors and British pirates battled for control of the islands. The British eventually established control of the Bay Islands, until the 1960s when control was officially returned to Honduras.

We gathered our stuff for exploring and joined the herds of our shipmates who had also booked some off-boat tour, and we squeezed out to and down the gangway, greeted by a group of locals in costumes, playing and singing, hoping for a tip, one assumes.

The young family in our group had booked with an independent tour guide Kamin located online, and it included beach time, a brief driving tour and some snorkeling. We got into one of about 15 vans crowded in a lot near the port and drove off, sitting cheek-to-cheek with some eight others.

Streets there are narrow with the bad ditch/culvert system we've seen in other poor islands, with aggressive vegetation living side-by-side with sludge and trash. Buildings, even those of concrete block, appear recent and tentative. Our guide spoke quick English with an indigenous accent that made her confidence and cheerful attitude seem oddly arrogant, though she probably isn't. Christian missionary outposts, both schools and places of worship, were everywhere and pointed out by the guide with some pride it seemed: Adventist, Catholic, Episcopal, Kingdom Hall Jehovah's Witness, Methodist, Baptist.

We stopped first at a hilltop place sporting a collection of, obviously, pseudo-huts filled with souvenirs. These sit serenely overlooking steep hillside and beautiful ocean below. For the merchants - one of whom was a lady with a baby - this was a worthwhile visit as several of us bought stuff. (Marisa bought Damita's Christmas present here: a wooden vase inlaid in a checkerboard pattern.)

Our second stop was another hilltop spot, this time with huts large enough to allow a historic dance demonstration by a local Garifuna group. Descendants of Carib, Arawak, and West African peoples, they were involved in 18th-century wars between France and Great Britain. After surrendering to the British in 1796, a large number were deported. The local dance references a time when men were disguised as women in order to hide from these British who were, so the Garifuna say, on a mission to kill all males. We also enjoyed also a bread-making demonstration using cassava root. For all the world, the finished product tasted like baked potato chips.

Our third stop was down by the water at a small dock from which guests to a boat to the nearby mangrove swamp. Wade had no interest in the wooden boat that sat quite low in the water and was about to be filled by large American tourists. Faye and Marisa enjoyed the trip, however, comparing it to far more dangerous conditions that Faye (and sometimes Marisa) had experienced in a variety of dinghies and launches in St. Thomas (where Faye and husband Oliver had lived for a number of years). Trawling through a space, at times only wide enough to accommodate the boat, the experience was a mite disconcerting at times: the tree branches meet overhead, the exposed roots seem alive and even menacing. Deciding (rightly so) that the camera belonged on shore, Wade took some photos of the surroundings. The little village was painfully spare with the occasional building or automobile that seemed too nice to be there.

The last stop before the end of our four-hour tour was another shopping opportunity, situated among a group of unfinished concrete block structures, assumed to be houses in the making. Only then did we add up in our memory the large number of such incomplete projects we had seen. There were at least six men digging around in the trenches of one foundation, but they moved exceedingly slowly and took lengthy breaks. We couldn't know if they were showing us their effort or actually building a habitable place.

We were back on the boat, back to the buffet by early afternoon, ready to spread out, read and nap some more. The big meal was in a restaurant, Azura, that shares a kitchen and a menu format with Tsar's from the previous night. Still very good. That evening's show was a ventriloquist whose PG-rated show played well to the pre-teen crowd: Madilyn (12) and Ali (10).

Wednesday, December 9

The Mayan ruins of Belize were the highlight of this trip.

Having anchored well offshore, we took a ride with the tenders of about twenty minutes to reach the dock. Under blue skies and 90-deg temperatures, we climbed aboard a larger tour bus and were taken fifty miles up the Northern Highway and away from Belize City. At Tower Hill, we embarked on a smaller riverboat that would take us to the ruins of Lamanai about twenty-five miles away on the shallow water of the New River.

Our tour guide on the bus was also the captain of the boat and used the powerful engines on the 25-foot boat to great advantage, swerving effortlessly through the many changes of direction, unmarked except by occasional fishermen who waved and smiled as we passed. We made a few stops along the way to look at a heron, an iguana here and there, some monkeys and a crocodile. The fast, smooth ride itself was deeply relaxing.

At one point we stopped beside a farm we were told belonged to one of the numerous Mennonite families of Belize, most of whom are of Canadian origin due to the long-standing British Commonwealth connection. Though the description of their contribution to Belize society was respectful, a not-so-tolerant joke was also offered, the punch-line of which was: "A cousin plus a cousin makes a dozen."

The site at the New River Lagoon had a few shops and a museum with sparse displays laying out what is know about the history of the site. As part of the tour, a friendly local group served us lunch in one of the picnic shelters before we began to explore.

We saw three sets of temple ruins, each more complete and expansive than the last. On the second temple a rope from top to bottom is strung to aid any who wish to climb. The severely steep and tall steps make the ascent challenging and the descent even more so. No wonder the guide made sure we all knew the we climbed "at your own risk." The view from the top added to the sense of accomplishment for climbing the 30 meters to get there.

The climbers were the only ones with cameras, so these photos are taken from points on the way up or down.
Kamin showed off by calming walking down without use of the rope. Halfway down, even Madilyn and Ali were a little red in the face!

The water ride back was again enjoyable, and, before getting back on the bus there were some inviting items offered by vendors, including fine wooden bowls. Both Marisa and Faye bought two wooden bowls from local artist Albert Cunningham.

The hour-long bus ride back featured absent air conditioning and more views of the strange combination of buildings and people: humble inhabitants, entrepreneurs, foreign land speculators, merchants and students. There were, as on Roatan, plenty of missionary locations as well as some public schools. Our guide pointed out homes, both complete and incomplete, that stand upon listing foundations. They were built by speculators from around the world who knew nothing about how to build in Belize. There were also Century 21 realty signs and newer large Florida-like homes next to plain and cluttered dwellings. It seems that the cheap getaway is always attractive to persons with a little money and a real desire to escape their country of origin and pretend to a higher class.

In the evening, back on the ship, we took in a show by an a capella quartet that was quite good.

Thursday-Sunday, December 10-13

Our only touch of Mexico, on Thursday, was a place called Costa Maya, built just for ships to dock and disgorge aggressive shoppers. Brand new, pristine shopping stalls and outdoor bars created an sunny mall that any suburbanite would find familiar. (Though I suppose one could bargain for better prices, something Toys R Us probably doesn't do.) There was also beach and snorkel opportunities for those interested and the Johnsons and Roberts spent the day doing just that.
The view of Costa Maya from our balcony The view from the balcony
as we leave Costa Maya that evening

On Friday, our scheduled stop at a Bahamian island called Grand Stirrup Cay was cancelled due to high seas. This was on an island by itself developed by Norwegian Cruise Lines, and needed tenders to come out a good distance on the water to pick up us passengers. So, we were on the ship from Thursday afternoon until we disembarked on Sunday morning in Miami.

This cruise was a family event for us, and we will all remember fondly how relaxing it was to be with each other in a place where none of us had to make a bed, fix a meal or think up an activity. We could meet up for another endless dinner, sit by the pool and read, go to another show at night or just go take a nap.

We would each celebrate Christmas in very different places this year, all of them far north and cold compared to this moment of warm, forced separation from reality. The availability of family so nearby on the ship gave us a sense of being in the same neighborhood, even if hours went by between meeting up with each other. In short, the confinement created a small town feel that stands in nicely for the life of family - for the proximity we've all sacrificed in order to travel the country seeking better education and better jobs. That sometimes harsh separation from each other has been softened somewhat by options for fast travel. But simple access is denied us every day. That's why the cruise is a worthy refuge, a floating haven.

Amazingly, after we completed this trip diary, Kamin sent us a blog post by Garrison Keillor, and it was not at all about anything "woebegone." Rather, it was his diary of a winter cruise wherein he saw Mayan ruins. He didn't mention Norwegian Cruise Lines by name, but, hey, he's a Minnesotan. AND he read the very same book Wade read on the cruise. (Marisa read her usual 6 books in a week.) Here are some excerpts of his oh-so-similar experience:

"I read a book of stories by a young Pakistani writer, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and found it riveting, the most wonderful thing I'd read in a long, long time, thanks to the freedom of being at sea, away from CNN and NPR and Google, out in a vast silence in which the details of Pakistani village life loom large, as if one were actually there, sipping sweet tea with Saleema and Husad and Mr. K.K. Harouni.

It's the village aspect of ships that we love. The food is OK, the entertainment is third-rate Las Vegas. The ship docks in Mexico and you take a bus to look at Mayan ruins for 45 minutes and return to the SS Gringo. Fine. It's the village life that's wonderful, the pleasure of people-watching and eavesdropping, which the automobile has cheated us of, the camaraderie of card games…"

So, there you have it. If you are lucky enough to get the invitation and to have the means, do it. A cruise is a heart-warming sample of our missing, longed-for, shared experience.