Monthly Archives: June 2015

Reaching the Unreachable Star, or It Started When I Chased a Pig, Part 3

Our story so far in Part 1  and Part 2 – We’ve missed a flight, drank, met an older couple from Akron, drank, been charmed by a younger couple from Orlando who wanted a monkey (well, he did, at least), learned a little about SpaceX, met an unforgettable cruise director, and voted up on St. Kitts and down on St. Maarten.

Why is this installment called Reaching the Unreachable Star? Two reasons:

  • It’s a line from The Impossible Dream, from Man of La Mancha, which is about Don Quixote, which sort of references donkeys (who appear in this post).
  • And it almost seems like an Impossible Dream to finish this story, because there was so much I loved about this vacation (and I’m not just talking about my traveling companion. And so much that I won’t even be able to get to, like the woman in the Charlotte airport who used to be into bedazzling.

A funny coincidence

Karen and I aren’t hard to please when it comes to onboard entertainment. We enjoy the musical shows, the live bands – we made friends with Mickey and Marilyn, a couple who (and I swear I’m not making this up) found love at the IRS, and the comedians – so much so that we didn’t even get to do one of our favorite things: Watching movies under the stars on the big screen on the Lido deck.

Both comedians we saw were funny. And dirty. Both interacted with the audience as part of their humor – I guess it’s a comedy thing. But Percy Crews Jr. – the first comic we saw – had us rolling with one routine where he asked audience members whether they liked something – I won’t be more specific than that other than to say his question wouldn’t make it onto non-premium TV even in these relaxed times. He asked a woman in the front row who had the audacity to get up to get a drink. He asked the waiter he summoned for her – whom I’m not sure understood the question – and he asked a young, clean-cut guy in the front row who was just minding his own business with his pretty girlfriend. Juvenile as it was, we laughed heartily at the interplay but then didn’t think too much about it.

Or so we thought. One of the things about cruise ship dining is that you can either dine alone or with other folks. Karen and I alternated, and the next night we were seated with some other couples, including John and Shawna. Turns out they were from Scranton, PA, (Karen’s from Williamsport) and attended Penn State. She was pretty, he was handsome and buff (turns out he is a personal trainer in addition to being a student), and they were nice, engaging kids. And then someone at the table asked the question: Hey, weren’t you guys at the comedy show last night? John reddened a bit but admitted it; he was pretty good-natured about the whole thing.

That opened things up even more: It was Shawna’s first cruise and I think John’s second. They wanted to move South after graduation. And both were majoring in marketing. Which meant Karen and I started selling them on Red Ventures, where I work. I don’t know what will happen. John has a semester left; Shawna has two. But how cool would it be if one or both of them ended up working with me?

Oh, the places we went

The boat didn’t stay in San Juan long, but we made the most of the stop. We went on an excursion to the rain forest there – it did sprinkle a little while we were there. I don’t have much to say about it, except it was so beautiful and so obviously fragile. One surprise – there isn’t much alive there but the vegetation, some birds, and a few lizards. But it was truly awe-inspiring.

My one regret is that our trip to the rain forest meant we didn’t have any time to visit San Juan – it looked like a terrific place, and I’m very interested in the bioluminescent bay there.

Which brings us to Grand Turk – our final port before returning to Cocoa Beach. By this time, Karen was deep in the throes of a summer cold – mine was to come. (Funny how that worked out.) But anyway, Karen was looking for some over-the-counter medication to ease her symptoms – the only choices on the boat were Benadryl and Dristan. She went with Dristan (talk about old school), and we discovered why no one hears about it any more – it’s pretty crappy.

But Grand Turk wasn’t. It was a place of great beauty and kindness, as our tour guide John explained. There were wild horses (I thought some of them might have to drag me away) and donkeys everywhere. They were friendly, furry, and it seemed pretty well-fed. They just kind of coexisted with the people there and – as long as residents secured their garbage – didn’t seem to be causing anyone any trouble. We petted some who were hanging around the lighthouse.

Grand Turk also was home to a beautiful beach, where we met a family from Matthews (part of the Greater Indian Trail Metro) and chatted in the water with them for ages. I think we’d welcome the opportunity to go back someday.

I’m an eating man

No blog post should be complete without a Beverly Hillbillies reference, and the title of this section (a play on the prestigious British boarding school) qualifies. Like Jethro, I enjoy eating. And that’s one of the great things about being on the boat – an abundance of food, much of which is pretty good. There are the big dining rooms that come as part of your fare, but you can also choose some specialty restaurants on your ship for an extra fee. We did the specialty thing twice, and one of them was fantastic! (The Italian option – not so much.) But let’s talk about the Asian place.

Karen and I shared a bunch of delicious dishes, but the two that stood out were the pork belly “appetizer” and the creme brulee dessert. That appetizer was the largest single piece of pork I’ve ever seen at a restaurant. And it was tres delicious. It was cooked perfectly. And I left out something about the creme brulee – rose. Yep, it was rose creme brulee, which just made one of my favorite desserts even better.

The trip back home wasn’t eventful. We drew Pauly again as a driver – his biggest grumble this time was about the passenger who wanted to tell him how to pack the bags. He wasn’t happy.

But we were when we got home. We love traveling, but we love home, too. You can chase happiness (if not a pig) all over the place, but the best location is right where you live. I don’t have to chase it.


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Shooting Down the Monday Blues

I didn’t have to look long to find a familiar face. “Hi, Ben! Good to see you,” I said, thrusting out my hand before I thought too much about it. I still had on my black – to match my mood – polo shirt, but I was holding a spiffy red Bounce Out the Stigma T-shirt that I’d change into in a few moments.

Bounce Out the Stigma is a weeklong youth basketball camp held for three years now at Red Ventures by Mighty Mike, an enthusiastic guy not much taller than me but a lot younger and skinnier than I am. Mike tells the story often of how he got sent home as a kid from a youth camp because he had an epileptic seizure. He vowed he’d do something about it someday.

And he has. He holds these camps for kids who have epilepsy, autism, and an assortment of other challenges, including Down’s syndrome. Some are young, others are not so young. But what they have in common is a desire to play basketball for a week with people who get a thrill from what they can do and don’t worry so much about what they can’t.

This is the third year I’ve volunteered to help with the event, and it’s the third year I’ve encountered Ben. Something was different this year, though. I’m not really sure what Ben’s challenge is, and I don’t care. All I know is he’s a good kid who gives it his best.

As I looked around, I saw some other kids I knew: J.J., Kyle, Kevin, Gabby, and a few others – I knew more faces but not always the names. What I really remembered, though, was the smiles.

Some differences, too

But everything wasn’t familiar, even with Ben. As I said, I’d initiated a handshake without thinking when I saw Ben. Ben doesn’t – or didn’t – like touching. His first year at the camp, he’d told me he wore earplugs because he couldn’t stand noise – almost any noise. As a result, he missed a lot of Mighty Mike’s instructions, but I didn’t mind repeating them to him.

For some reason, he trusted me from the get-go – maybe because I’m a wee bit older than the average RV-er (other than Peter Smul – I’m really sorry for that, Peter).

Anyway, he shook my hand and beamed as I told him I noticed he’d slimmed down a bit. “I just graduated, too,” he said. “I got an Xbox for graduation.” We chatted a bit more – he was a lot more interested in communicating than in previous years – but he wound up in a different group than the one I was helping.

What I learned in my group

Mighty Mike tries to group the kids not so much by age as by skill. I know a lot of the volunteers really like to work with the younger kids, so I usually try to help the older ones who get overlooked somehow. My group included the relentlessly happy Mikayla – she had a terrific smile, braces be damned. Others in my group included J.J. and Kevin and a kid I didn’t know named Austin (which is the first name of my oldest son).

Austin didn’t seem happy – he scowled a lot, but you could tell he was glad to have someone who would listen to him. “My dad served during the Vietnam War,” he told me. “He was in the Army. He was a general. He’s still in the Army but he’s a sergeant now.” As unlikely as that sounded, I told him it was great and that my father had been in the Army, too, but a really long time ago. “Is he dead now?” Austin asked. “Yes,” I said, “but not because of a war.”

Then he asked me another question about my father: “Did you save your Dad’s patches and stuff from the Army?” “No,” I said, surprised by the question and, truthfully, by my answer. “No, I didn’t,” I said, for the first time wishing that I had.

Austin moved on, and he joined the other kids working on dribbling and passing that day. He never did smile too much, but nearly all the other kids did, responding to all the praise and encouragement we could give.

My black mood left – these kids fighting to enjoy a little basketball teach us volunteers much about courage and bravery and smiling through the tough times.

When I left the gym Monday morning, it was with a big old smile across my face. My next scheduled volunteer session is Thursday morning, but I’m not sure I can wait that long.

Thanks to Mighty Mike, Red Ventures, Ben and Austin, among others, for proving again what’s really important and why this Monday deserved to be celebrated – not dreaded.

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Why Don’t Monkeys and Donkeys Rhyme? Or It Started When I Chased a Pig, Part 2

This is the sequel to It Started When I Chased a Pig, which I posted yesterday. You should probably read that one first. If you want.

So we checked out Zachary’s, a sort of Greek-American diner, and decided it would be a better option than the hotel buffet breakfast the next morning. And man, it was hopping when we walked over to feed. It was so busy we got seated next to this beam that separated us from the next table. Which turned out to be a good thing.

I’ll explain. I mentioned in Part 1 that, since we were in Cocoa Beach, I kept an eye out at the restaurant the night before for Major Nelson and Jeannie. No such luck, but my vigilance paid off during the Saturday morning trip to Zachary’s. Because in the booth next to us, there were four workers for SpaceX. The one we noticed was Gary (we knew his name and where he worked because it was sewn into his SpaceX uniform).

Here’s the thing, part 1: He looked a lot like Meep from American Horror Story Freakshow. A lot. Which is not good.

Here’s the thing, part 2: It was 8 o’clock and Gary was pounding beers. We hoped his shift had just ended …

Anyway, we had a great breakfast and hopped on the shuttle to Port Canaveral. And of course our driver was a character. He told us two seasickness cures. One was to get in a swimming pool for about 30 minutes – “It’ll equalize everything,” he said. His other method, which he says works for any nausea: Eat a green apple. Do they work? Can’t tell you. We didn’t get motion sickness on the Carnival Sunshine or any of the other cruise ships we’ve been on. But feel free to give these remedies a try.

Cuddy in the House

One of the first “things” we experienced was our cruise director, Jaime Dee. She looked like a younger Lisa Edelstein (the actress who plays Cuddy on House). A younger, prettier Lisa Edelstein. A younger, prettier Lisa Edelstein who could do a split on the lobby bar. I’d better stop right here. Anyway, she was full of energy and enthusiasm and danced whenever she could and I think it rubbed off on the staff, because they were all positive and enthusiastic about making the cruise a great experience. Even Karen liked her. We also liked her minions Chris from Connecticut and Darnell – he always seemed to get the shitty jobs, running My Little Pony trivia and dressing up like a Mardi Gras king. But Jaime really stood out. We ran into her both on and off the ship and she was always “on.”

One Saint was a sinner

I gotta be honest. I didn’t much like St. Maarten. We took a tour. One of the things about the resorts I’ve been to is they’re usually surrounded by extreme poverty, and it makes it tough to enjoy yourself if you think too much about it – and I typically think too much about EVERYTHING. In St. Maarten, the poverty initially wasn’t obvious – it seemed like every vehicle on the island was pretty late model. And I did like hearing the stories about how the Dutch and French portions of the island for the most part get along well. But many of the buildings were in disrepair, and I didn’t get a good feeling in the French city we stopped in. There just was nothing there to captivate me, to make me ever want to go back.

St. Kitts, on the other hand, is a place I could live. Our plan for the port. Get off the boat and take a 15-minute walk or a cab to Palms Court Gardens and Restaurant. I know what you’re thinking – sounds pretty boring. But once we got out of the cab (you didn’t seriously think we’d walk, did you) and walked through the gates, we absolutely loved it. There was a really nice swimming pool overlooking the ocean, lined with palm trees. We had a double pool couch, and we just relaxed and hung out all day. The staff was terrifically friendly – even bringing me an extra cocktail because they had one left over. The restaurant was good – I had the catch of the day in some sort of Caribbean sauce.

And we ran into people we knew – we’d met Dave and Amy at dinner – we pretty much alternated between eating with folks and being alone – early on during the cruise. She was a retired teacher, he’d worked at Lockheed – I got the idea he was a pretty big deal there. They were from New Jersey, and we hit it off pretty well. Which was a good thing, because it turned out we’d booked pretty much the same excursions throughout the cruise. We also ran into Jaime Dee there. Despite that, it was a really relaxing day. Until dinner that night. Read on …

There really were monkeys

We’d planned to eat alone that night. And we had a two-person table that overlooked the ocean. With our favorite waiter, Christopher. We settled in for a quiet night – one that wouldn’t happen. That’s because sitting at the table beside us were Ramon and Rebecca. They were younger – and prettier – than us. And among the warmest, friendliest people I’ve ever met. We started chatting and found out Ramon was from Puerto Rico and Rebecca was from Brazil. They lived in Florida now. We talked and talked and got on the subject of what we’d done that day.

That’s when the conversation took a monkey turn. While we’d been at Palm Court, they’d been downtown in Porte Zante, where a street vendor handed Ramon a monkey and took a photo, which Ramon then felt obligated to buy. At $20 a pop. It’s a typical play in ports, and many cruisers would get angry. Not Ramon. He fell in love with his monkey and decided he needed one. So he started questioning the vendor about how to make this happen – he was really serious about it. All of this had us in stitches. Or so we thought. Because the next part of the story had us really cracking up. We’ve talked about it at least 10 times since we got back to the Greater Indian Trail Metro.

The vendor told Ramon and Rebecca a story that she swore was true, about an aunt who lived in Barbados. The woman had thrown an outdoors party and as the night progressed, she and the guests got too tired (and likely too drunk) to clean up. So they went to bed inside and just left what they thought was a mess on the patio to clean up the next day. Only the next day, the mess was considerably worse. Because during the night, the monkeys came to the party. And they ate and drank and played like monkeys do. And I guess like people do, too, because they’d fallen asleep on the patio. So not only was the patio an even bigger mess, it was now populated by about 15 – give or take – monkeys. About 15 hungover monkeys …

We howled then and we’ve howled every time we’ve brought it up since – making up scenarios of drunk monkeys partying (and I know I REALLY shouldn’t laugh about animals drinking alcohol) and hungover monkeys and how angry they’d be. More than that, we truly enjoyed meeting Ramon and Rebecca – we ran into them a number of times after that and we exchanged goodbye hugs twice with them. I’ll truly never forget this terrific couple.

Crap, I haven’t even gotten to the donkeys in the title. I feel like Ted telling the kids how I met their mother. There’s still more to come – naughty comedians and virgin cruisers, the rain forest, rose creme brulee, donkeys (yes, really), Dristan, and huge pig parts (and get your minds out of the gutter), to say the least. But that’ll have to wait for next time (probably next weekend).


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It Started When I Chased a Pig

I didn’t really chase a pig – it would be an ugly race. And I confess I wouldn’t have much incentive for catching it, unless it was splayed out on a cooker, roasted to perfection, practically swimming in a tangy vinegar sauce. That kind of pig I’d chase any day.

But Karen overheard one of our shipmates – we recently returned to the Greater Indian Trail Metro after an 8-day cruise to St. Maarten, St. Kitts, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Grand Turk – saying that line – “It started when I chased the pig” – and I thought it would make a great headline for something. Even the story of a terrific vacation in which I didn’t chase a pig at all. So here goes.

A first time for everything

If you know us, you know we’re a curious blend of early and late. As in, I’m always early – to a fault –  and Karen’s, well, not so early. But when we need to be somewhere we want to be, we’re always on time, usually with room to spare. So it was when we left for the airport to hop a flight to Orlando on the Friday morning of our vacation. We got to the airport before 9:30 for a 11:20 flight. It was smooth sailing through check-in and security and everything else, and we were at our gate not too long after 10 a.m. Because we were catching the shuttle to Cocoa Beach (a 45 minute or so drive) after we landed, we knew we would be pressed to eat anything resembling lunch for awhile.

So we decided to eat at the airport. A reasonable decision – I usually get a bagel and coffee there before a flight. But on this day, we decided for a sit-down lunch at Phillips Seafood. It was a mistake. Not because the food was bad – it wasn’t. But because it was busy and slow, especially when it came to paying. (I knew the time was running short, but I wasn’t concerned – the flights I’d been on recently had all left WAY after the departure time. Except they were all charter flights. The most recent one waited more than an hour for a passenger to board – it was the guy who was IN THE SEAT right in front of me the whole time.

But this wasn’t a charter. Still we made it to the gate at 11:13 – three minutes after they’d closed boarding. It was our first – and I hope our last – missed flight. And, as is typical for me, it turned out to be a good thing. Because we were able to rebook on a flight about an hour later and still made it in good shape to the Orlando airport, where we were greeted with two great developments:

As is typical with me, something that started out badly turned out to be a good thing.

  • No waiting for our bags. They were sitting right there ready to be claimed.
  • We got to meet Pete and Meryl – it might have been Beryl. Or even Mary. She was pretty soft-spoken (more on that later)

But the second of those two is getting ahead of myself. First we called the shuttle service to arrange a new pickup, and within about 20 minutes, we got on the van. With a driver from Boston (and was he ever) who said his name was Pauly (if we liked him) and John (if we didn’t). The first thing Pauly (we liked him very much) told us was that he had to go to the other side of the airport – he had to talk over the classic rock on the van’s radio – to pick up some more passengers.

Only when we got there vehicles from some other services had parked in his designated spots. “That’s a $500 fine if they get caught,” he growled. Everything was a $500 fine in Pauly’s world. And he fumed, and griped, and bitched, and got more and more frustrated. “I’d block ’em in, but that’s a $500 fine, too,” Pauly grumbled, getting out of the van to wave his arms at the obviously unimpressed other drivers. Finally, one left and we moved up to the loading area, where we picked up two families.

One was a family of cops. Karen liked them better than I did, but I didn’t dislike them either. I couldn’t hear them very well, but I didn’t really want to. They were spouting some anti-Obama rhetoric – some of it sounded straight from the mouths of Fox News performers.

Pete and Meryl (or words to that effect)

The other folks who got on then were Pete and Meryl (for the sake of brevity, we’re going to stick with that as her definitive name). They were from Akron, retired, and veteran cruisers (with about one exception, everyone we met was a veteran cruiser – but again, I’m getting ahead of myself).

Pete was a white-haired, barrel-chested, loud talker, but he was as entertaining as anything. He punctuated nearly every line by saying, “I tell you what.” But he wasn’t just loud, he was friendly, funny, and not even a tiny bit pretentious. He was just Pete. (We later found out he was deaf in one ear and had reduced hearing in the other, and he had a very limited field of vision as well.) But he sure as heck didn’t waste his – or our – time griping about it. He kept us entertained all the way to the hotel, a Radisson in Cocoa Beach. Even when we got stopped behind a parade of boats (and I swear I’m not making this up). We liked him – and Meryl, who by necessity was quiet with all the words coming from husband but was very nice, too. They were going on the same cruise – so were the cops, for that matter.

We ran into Pete and Meryl a bunch of times throughout the next eight days – he entertained us every time he did. One particularly funny story – we went to the water park on the top deck of the ship and went down a fairly daunting water slide. He was quite a guy.

The Pink Maze

There really was a pink maze – it was the Radisson near Port Canaveral. It obviously had been expanded several times through the years, because you couldn’t get to some rooms from some locations. Our room in Building 5 was one of them. Turns out you had to snake your way through several buildings – rolling tons of suitcases and carry-ons with us – to get to Building 4. Why Building 4 when we were staying in Building 5. Because Building 5 didn’t have an elevator. So we had to take the Building 4 elevator, then navigate some more hairpin turns into Building 5 and finally into our room.

It was an exhausting day, and by this time we were starving. But we had asked Pauly about some restaurants on the way over. He recommended two (along with a half-hearted mention of the hotel restaurant) on either side of the Radisson: Kelsey’s – which he characterized as a pizza joint – and Zachary’s – which he said was a country cooking diner. Turns out he undersold both. We peeked at the hotel restaurant menu – and were completely unimpressed. So we decided to try Kelsey’s.

It was terrific – and definitely more than just pizza. I got perhaps the best chicken marsala I’ve ever had. But where it really excelled was the cocktails. Karen got mango sangria – it came in a pitcher that contained at least three glasses worth of a pretty damn delicious mixture. I got a mango mojito – OK, I got two mango mojitos, and they were terrific. I wanted some baklava but I was so full by the time I finished the chicken – all the while keeping an eye out for Major Nelson and Jeannie; we were in Cocoa Beach, after all – I couldn’t pull the trigger.

It was so good that on the way back through the maze, we decided to check out Zachary’s to see if it was a better option for breakfast than the buffet at the hotel. It was, and I’ll go into that tomorrow.

What else will be in part 2? How about  monkeys, naughty comedians, the rain forest, rose creme brulee, actress Lisa Edelstein, donkeys, SpaceX Gary, and Dristan? But no pigs. Except for quite possibly the largest piece of one I’ve ever seen on a dinner table.



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