Thursday, May 17, 2018

Midsomer Musings

DCI Tom Barnaby and DS Jones

I just got through binge-watching 20 full seasons of Midsomer Murders, a mystery series set somewhere in central England in a fictitious county called Midsomer. I won't tell you how long it took me to watch because it would shock you. Deeply. I was even so engrossed I was willing to PAY for Acorn TV so I could get the 20th current season, which Netflix doesn't carry. Luckily for me, though Acorn was lousy at streaming (at least on the first ep), I discovered that I was already paying for Britbox, which is where Season 20 is also located.

Joyce, Tom and Cully

A recent article compared the TV communities of Midsomer, Cabot Cove, Maine, and Melbourne, Australia, to see which one had the most murders. Midsomer came in with a rate three times normal (what, only three?), while Phryne Fisher's Melbourne was positively on target. Jessica Fletcher's little village easily won the day with the most bloodshed. USA! USA! That doesn't mean that Midsomer doesn't TRY.

Midsomer falls under the supervision of Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby, who is married and has a daughter. But there are TWO Barnabys. Back in 1998 it was Tom, played by John Nettles. His wife, Joyce, had the by-god ugliest hairdo I've ever seen, and maintained it for the time she was on the show, though eventually someone puffed it up with a tad more volume. Their grown daughter, Cully, also had an awful hairdo similar to Mom's, but she grew out of it. She was an actress (often between gigs) who somehow managed to know the details of the neighborhoods Tom didn't have access to. When Cully wasn't around it was up to dull ol' Joyce to join the proper charity so she'd know when to add the right hint that would trigger Tom to crack the mystery.

DS Nelson, Dr. Kam Karimore, and John

Season 13 briefly introduced us to Tom's DCI cousin John (Neil Dudgeon) from Brighton, and in season 14 he moved to Midsomer to take over when Tom retired. John's wife Sarah had a lovely hairdo, I'm sure you'll appreciate, and at first her occupation in the school system didn't add much to the plot but by the end she was discovering odd pieces of useful information like crazy. The new Barnabys came with an adorable dog, Sykes. Sykes had already been a star in British commercials about dog shelters, but easily took up the role as a Dog of Mystery. But the 19th season began by showing us Sykes' grave in the Barnaby's back yard. The actual dog had merely retired, but the TV Barnabys acquired Paddy. In addition, somewhere in there the actress playing Sarah had become pregnant, so the Barnabys were blessed with little Betty.

DCI Barnaby, whichever one, has had assistants come and go. There was also a policewoman computer whiz who eventually became a detective, and of course there are the various pathologists, all of whom can do precise organic detection that stretches belief regularly. "Why yes, the victim died four hours and thirteen minutes ago due to this rare Oriental poison which no one has heard of for three hundred and five years (and nine minutes), plus this ouchie under his 124,065th hair follicle which only our electron microscope can detect."

Along with OTT characters, there are imaginative plots, crazy plots, strange plots, and almost all come with holes of various sizes. Sometimes I beat on the arms of my La-Z-Boy and scream, "No! No! That's ridiculous!" but no one on screen hears me. There've been times when I've Googled and found that it's almost impossible to die from ground glass. If it's big enough to kill you, you'll notice it in your mouth and spit it out. If it's ground so you can't feel it, it won't harm you. So that one guy shouldn't have died after all. Do they listen to me? Nooo...

Sarah, Sykes and John

Watching the series does give one a solid feel for life in typical England. Here are the things I've learned.

• Action can take place outside a house at midnight, in the pitch dark. When characters then immediately move inside to the drawing room, bright daylight can come through the window. Must be those crazy solstices over there.

• British weather can change in a nanosecond. It can be pouring rain on you as you look at a dock on the river. But a different angle at the same moment from that dock will show a lovely, sunny day. It can also be bright sun but raining buckets... though the next scene will reveal an overcast, drizzly day.

• All British houses have lots of shrubbery surrounding them. The populace is required to skulk in it and watch the houses, where drapes are either left open or missing altogether.

• British houses come in three types and three types only: The historic mansion, sprawling and ancient. The modern mansion, not quite as sprawling and boxy with lots of large, floor-to-ceiling windows and minimal interior design. The cottage or row house, which seems like a claustrophobic cave with tiny rooms and ceilings that everyone has to bend over to fit under while trying to work their way around parlors stuffed with far too much dowdy furniture.

• Though almost everyone drinks and drinks and drinks, British pubs are always on the verge of bankruptcy.

• When calling at a home, one is always immediately offered tea. This is served from a fancy tea service, which includes a tray and often delicious snackies that have been waiting. Really, people seem to keep such stuff on hand and don't have to make a special Twinkies run. Despite all this tea drinking, tea rooms are always about to go bankrupt.

• Come to think of it, EVERY business in England is about to go bankrupt.

• All Brits have done at least one thing that leaves them open to blackmail.

• The nobility are scum. The rich are scum. Kids who go to private school are scum. More than half of British priests are scum.

• Druids overrun the nation. Religious conservatives who might as well be carrying torches and pitchforks appear in equal numbers with their pagan counterparts. Both camps are fervid in their beliefs and unwilling to accept anything later than 17th Century ideas into their minds.

• All Brits are required to take midnight (or later) walks. In the middle of the night village streets experience pedestrian logjams as folks stroll about for various "medical reasons" while peeking into neighbor's windows and keeping track of everyone else's movements. From behind the shrubbery, of course.

• Villages keep a full calendar of rinky-dink "fayres" for people to attend, buy knickknacks, dance around not-necessarily-Maypoles, and be murdered at.

• The populace get around more on horses and bikes than cars. When they do drive cars, they are often sporty types.

• Roads in England are crap. I saw this when I went over. There'd be one lane to service two directions of travel. One blinks one's lights to indicate that oncoming traffic will be granted right of way. On Midsomer, this means backing up out of the way and having the car fall into a deep ditch. Every. Time.

• Towing services must be the one business in England that is NOT on the verge of bankruptcy.

• Brit murderers are skilled. They always know EXACTLY where their victim will be standing/walking/flying when their chosen Method of Execution is timed and aimed to go off. Precisely. To the millimeter. I mean, if the person hesitated or wasn't exactly on the path they thought they'd be on... (That guy who got auto-remote-controlled machine-gunned in front of his garage saw the gun shooting a path towards him. Luckily he was standing at precisely the center of the garage door so the bullets could kill him. If he'd been to the side, or had even stepped out of the way...)

• Many English people are insane. Many, many English people. When plots need a crazy person to do the job, that doesn't mean that the same episode can't bring in another crazy person who has nothing to do with the murder. Or bring in entire families (including extended members) of coo-coo ca-razy people who foam at the mouth but whom others in the community have never guessed are anything but completely sane.

• Theramin theme music is instantly recognizable. It is also missed when some directors decide against using it. Bad directors. Bad!

• Brits can't move sideways. They are physically incapable of it. They see a deadly force approaching straight-on at a reasonable speed, and they don't take a step to the left or right. They stand there or sometimes even walk toward it, and thus -- SPLOIT!!!

• Brits are required to own black hoodies. And black gloves. Black wellies to be kept in the boot of their cars if at all possible. All midnight skulking must be done in these outfits.

• Upon hearing a strange noise coming from downstairs (or someplace similar) in the middle of the night when there should be no one there, Brits refuse to phone the cops but rather rise out of bed, move toward the noise, and say, "Hello?" to announce themselves. Usually followed by, "What are YOU doing here?" SPLOIT!!!

Dr. Fleur Perkins, the current pathologist, gets
a kick out of dissecting murder victims.

• Unlike America (as seen on TV), England has people who are experiencing a variety of ages. They have babies, children, young adults, middle-aged adults, older adults, and ancient adults. Of both sexes. How weird!

• If Brits feel the need to kill someone, they ponder it a while and perhaps bend the laws of physics to do so. It comes from having too much time on their hands. For example, one midnight a woman injected her lover (no longer needed) with horse anesthetic (to implicate the local vet) to make him drowsy. Then she loaded him into the back seat of a car. A cement mixer just happened to be sitting next to that car, not churning away to keep its load from setting because after all, hey, this was midnight and the work day was far behind it. So she sets up the mixer to fill up the car halfway with cement that hadn't set yet even though it apparently had been sitting in the truck for HOURS. Her lover is still partially awake as the cement rises halfway up his chest, asphyxiating him. Just imagine: she could have merely increased the dose of the anesthetic to off him. Or bonked him on the head, like most MM murders happen. ("What are YOU doing here?" BONK!!!) (Granted, in those cases it's more: BONK!!! "What arre youuuuuu... ugh.")

• Until fairly recently, England saw a great many cases of incest. Not so much these days, thankfully.

• Until fairly recently, England was an all-white nation. Suddenly in 2011 people with brown skin moved in in sufficient numbers to make things look normal. Wonder where they'd been before that?

• Thank goodness there are strict gun laws in Britain, or the entire population would have killed each other by now! Guns are kept locked in safes and are registered within an inch of their lives... Although Great Uncle Shamus sometimes has passed an unregistered gun down through the generations...

• Since it's difficult to use a gun, murderous Brits think imaginatively. They pick up the nearest deadly thing: poison mushrooms, poison frogs, various weapon artifacts like spears, candlesticks (yawn), arrows, Neptune's trident, vats of soup, rounds of cheese... Guns are so passé! And of course ONE murder isn't enough. You must do two at least. Three is excellent. Four might be pushing things.

John, Paddy and DS Winter
And most importantly:

• British TV is only made watchable by the use of subtitles. Even then, one might have to pause the broadcast and Google to find out why Bob's your uncle.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Alaska, part 3: Ports of Call


As I said, the first day of cruising was At Sea, though not as far out as originally scheduled. Still, we pitched and rolled and my inner ears were affected just enough to leave me pretty darned dizzy. We all got a chance to explore the ship and figure out a daily routine.


Finally we entered the calmer waters of Glacier Bay. When in the late 1700s Capt. Vancouver came through the area, the bay wasn’t even there. Three hundred years ago we had the Little Ice Age. The native Tlingit people said the great glacier there began to advance “as fast as a dog can run.” They had to abandon their lands. (They got their lands back in the 1980s.)


Since that ice age, the glacier carved out a mammoth bay. There are large bay-emptying  (tidewater) glaciers here and there, especially at the very end, and lots of mountain valley-type glaciers. The water is teal-colored, as is most water that comes off a glacier and carries sediment with it.

As the day began we were boarded by a bunch of Park Rangers and a few Tlingit. Most passengers gathered in the Mondrian auditorium to hear the talk about the bay and its history. A Tlingit lady in full native costume told us the story from her people’s point of view, bringing us into the modern era with the tale of what had happened to the Tlingit. Her parents didn’t know the customs or language, but she had been lucky enough to grow up listening to her two grandmothers, who taught her about their people.

The bay was a pretty, normal bay for a while... and then we began to see bits of ice, like someone had spilled an ice tray from a very big refrigerator. I made my way up to the top promenade, where most of the ship who weren’t sitting in the heated, dry forward view lounge, were standing around the railings.


Wiki: “Glacier Bay Basin in southeastern Alaska, in the United States, encompasses the Glacier Bay and surrounding mountains and glaciers, which was first proclaimed a U.S. National Monument on February 25, 1925, and which was later, on December 2, 1980, enlarged and designated as the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, covering an area of 3,283,000 acres (1,329,000 ha). In 1986, UNESCO declared an area of 57,000 acres (23,000 ha) within a World Biosphere Reserve. This is the largest UNESCO protected biosphere in the world. In 1992, UNESCO included this area as a part of a World Heritage site, extending over an area of 24,300,000-acre (98,000 km2) which also included the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Kluane National Park (Canada) and Tatshenshini-Alsek Park (Canada). Part of the National Park is also designated a Wilderness area covering 2,658,000 acres (1,076,000 ha).”

Again: “John Muir, the naturalist, conservationist and scientist, pioneered the focus of the world on the Glacier Bay phenomenon. During his research Muir had witnessed the glaciers in action. He had noted that the ice had retreated almost all the way up. In 1888 (1889 is also mentioned in some references) when John Muir first visited the Bay, this wall was 48 miles (77 km) and retreated from the sea by 44 miles (71 km). Now, it stands retreated to 65 miles (105 km), as a remnant of the old wall of the glacier system and has 16 major tidewater glaciers (10, 12 and 15 are also mentioned in some references).”

So the bay’s a LOT bigger than it was just a while ago, getting 65 miles larger in just the past 200 years as most of the glaciers retreat.
The Margerie glacier. Great Pacific is just starting on the right of this pic.
The glacier is about one mile wide with an ice face that is about 250 feet high above the waterline.



The ice bits became larger and larger. Some were large enough to hold three seals or sea lions. They were striped with black. At the end of the right-hand fork of the bay were two enormous walls of ice: the Margerie Glacier, which is stable, and to its right, the Grand Pacific Glacier, which was the name of the glacier when it filled up the entire bay area. It’s receding at about 30 feet a year. The Grand Pacific is a LOT dirtier than Margerie. I was hoping that we’d witness a calving. We did hear a roar once and everyone was excited, but nothing we could see broke off anywhere.
Great Pacific glacier. Margerie is just to the left. Why is it so dirty?
Avalanches, rock slides, tributary glaciers and the scouring of the valley have
caused an accumulation of dirt and rock.



Going into the bay, the decks were crowded with people vying for the best photo opportunities. After exploring both arms of the bay the ship turned around and... ghost town. I got in a few more dozen shots, though. I also bought a thumb drive that has 300 professionally-shot photos. Let's see if you can tell the difference between one of those and something I shot:


The next day we came into Haines. It’s a very small town that used to be home to Ft. Seward, and many of the officers’ houses still exist and look picture-perfect. These days the town has a thriving art community and is very proud of their library. Between October and February, Haines is home to the world’s largest concentration of bald eagles. I saw photos of eagles looking like they were remaking “The Birds,” only with all bald eagles--trees covered in ‘em.

One street held a small sign: “Canada,” it said, with an arrow. The border was about 20 miles away.

My excursion was only 3 hours. Two retired ladies who were enthusiastic hunters and fisherwomen, took us out along the Chilkat River to look for bears. They knew the bears by name and personality. This was the season for one of the 5 kinds of salmon, and there was a salmon-counting station, a weir, that stretched across the river. You couldn’t park near it because the bears often used the weir to grab dead or dying fish and cars would spook them. These would be grizzlies, of course, since grizzlies like to fish and black bears prefer the berries on the upper mountain slopes.
The weir.

The ranger sits at the middle of the weir counting the various number of salmon. They’ve trained the bears not to come near their spot, and neither species bothers the other. The bear mamas teach their kids to avoid the center as well. This time of year is when the pink salmon have finished spawning, and they travel downstream to die. The weir catches a lot of them, and the bears gather them up, easy pickings.

Watch where you walk. There are half-carcasses of salmon everywhere.

It’s a beautiful river and the road ends at a park, where our bus driver yelled at some kids not to run, because that will catch a bear’s attention.

Our guide reiterated what the one in Denali had said: Bears mate in early spring. A male will kill young bears because their presence will prevent fertilization in the mama bear. Like I said: mate in early spring. But the female’s body waits to see how prepared she is for winter, so fertilization doesn’t take place until fall, when her body will either decide she’s not ready to have a kid, or will fertilize up to three eggs. The babies are born while Mama’s in hibernation: tiny, hairless things. By the time Mama gets up they’re the size of puppies and are covered with thick fur. At age 3, Mama kicks them out of her territory.

Our guide also told us about the ferry that runs in the area. It takes three days to do its route. She takes it twice a year, due to the dearth of supplies in Haines, to Juneau, where she hits a Costco and jams her vehicle to the rafters. With that done, she’s fine.

Juneau was our next stop, a nice, modern town that is cut off from everything. We saw the “dirty SOB” : the State Office Building that is COVERED with dark gray blech. Why doesn’t anyone clean it?

We took a bus to see the famous Mendenhall Glacier but frankly, I was glaciered out. Got some nice pictures. There’s a pretty waterfall next to the glacier, but we weren’t there long enough to hike down to see it. The Mendenhall retreats about 20 ft/year. The large lake it sits on wasn’t even there a century ago!

From there it was out to the docks – we were going whale watching! By now a cold rain was falling hard, but we were inside, they had heat, and the hot drinks were free. (On the return trip the rain had begun to leak inside next to my seat, but there were plenty empty seats to move to.)

There were several boats doing the same watch in the Saginaw Channel, and they all kept in radio contact with each other. We didn’t want to alarm the whales by having too many boats clustered, though there was one whale – I forget her name – who loved to show off for the tourists and showed up every day to buzz the boats. We saw a handful of humpbacks! You’d see them spout, then everyone would go crazy and the captain would keep watch up where he was, and then sometimes –a whale body would appear! Sometimes the tail would come up and flip, and the whale would dive. Wow!



We also saw sea lions as well as seals, which we were told were on the bottom of the food chain in the area. Poor seals.

We stopped for a fair-to-middlin’ lunch, and then went back to Juneau. One of the men behind me said to his wife, “I’m cruised out.” After a few days on a gung-ho vacation that happens. I’d guess the optimum touring vacation is 7 days.

I’d planned on taking a trip on Juneau’s tram up the side of the mountain. Travelogues had said that on a clear day you could see miles down the bay. Today I couldn’t even see the top of the tramway. Instead I shopped for a bit. Saw a cheap-looking necklace that I might be able to stand, and went in to ask the price. $6000? Thank you and have a good day. Whew!

There were expensive jewelry places at every stop along the way. These cruise people must have a LOT more money than I do!

At Ketchikan we came upon a traffic jam. Four cruise ships were already parked at the four slots of the dock. We waited in the bay, “tendering” people to shore via lifeboats. Another cruise ship sidled up to us and snuck its sneaky way into a berth that was emptying. Hey, we were here first! I watched a steady stream of small planes landing and taking off from some invisible, watery landing strip that lay between the parked ships and ours. The planes maneuvered REALLY close to the docked ships. How is this controlled so no one runs into another? Finally another ship left and, after all our port-side lifeboats returned and were secured, we docked without running into either another ship or a plane.
Sneaking up...
Ketchikan runway.


Ketchikan boasts 153” of rain a year. Our trolley driver made rude noises Seattle’s way, calling the people there a bunch of… ahem… because they complained about how much rain they had. At most of these stops in Alaska the towns got 4-6 feet of snow per year, but up on top of the mountains, 20 feet was just the beginning of what could fall. Ouch!
That's Mr. Seward with the ugly blue hat (and the three marks).

I went on a short trolley ride (other passengers complained because it cost about $20 and only lasted an hour) that took us briefly around town – really, not that much to see – and set us down at a park that had a lot of totem poles. Ketchikan has the most in the world. One of them depicts William Henry Seward, who is pictured unflatteringly with three marks against him noted. Apparently he’d been wined and dined and gifted with significant fortunes of treasures by three local chieftains when he’d visited, and in return he’d given… nothing. So he’s enshrined as the World’s Worst Guest, as a warning to others.

One of the town’s roads was constructed entirely of wood. There’s another very picturesque road, Creek Street, that is constructed on docking though it doesn’t stick out over the harbor; it’s just above the creek. Cool beans! I’ll do a painting of it soon.


That afternoon, lying flat on my back at the acupuncturist, I wondered where that faint wheezing noise was coming from. Was that me? Must be the position. That night at the Pinnacle Grill I coughed. Where’d that come from? And then coughed again. That was odd. The big man at the table in front of me had a coughing fit. Must keep away from him!

The next day was At Sea. I discovered that DayQuil cost $18 in the little on-ship store. Robbery! But I paid it. I also stole the extra box of Kleenex from my cabin. At disembarking, I sat next to a very, very sick lady who lay across her husband’s lap. She’d been quarantined for the past five days, and said the nurse blamed it on the ship's previous trip to South America.

But my trip last year to Britain had resulted in me getting a bad flu on the way home. Now this trip, same thing. What did they have in common? AUSTRALIANS. Australia was having its worst flu season ever. DARNED AUSSIES!

I did have the presence of mind to arrange for my hop-on, hop-off bus tour to be postponed until the next day and then left to find a cab. It took me to my hotel -- $400/night. I was staying for free on points! ALWAYS GET THOSE FREE HOTEL CARDS! They come with DEALS. I begged the front desk to get me a room asap. They asked me what special stuff I needed. “A bed,” I replied. I was in it within an hour.
Wow -- this guy was using a magnifying glass to BURN
artistic designs into wood!

I was in Vancouver, stuck in my hotel room! It didn’t look like things were going to get better with me. In fact, I was rather worried. I used the hotel directory to call their doctor on call. He had a recording saying he was out, but to leave a message. Unfortunately you could only leave your phone number, so I called downstairs and explained the situation, so if he called, they’d direct him to my room. “Dr. X?” the guy at the desk said. “We don’t have a guest by that name.”

“No, he’s your doctor on call. He’s listed in your hotel directory.”

“Really? Hotel directory?” I had to convince the guy, who still sounded doubtful. (And no, the doctor never returned my call.) So I asked him where the nearest Urgent Care center was. “What’s that?” The next day I saw several in the city. But I finally got him to recall that there was a pharmacy a few blocks away. I dragged myself into the city, a Typhoid Mary, to find it. There I had a nice conversation with the druggist, who showed me two sets of shelves, each with the same products… except that the one on the right only contained sugar-free stuff. I got drugs from there.

Hit Subway on the way back, figuring that surely I must get hungry at some point. I hadn't eaten since the previous night. Slept some more, even though I ran the risk of sleeping too much. Nope, not with this crap. I was so tired I forgot to lock my door! The next morning I wondered if perhaps I should stay an extra day in Vancouver so I wouldn’t be sick as a dog for the trip home. Asked what the cheapest rooms were at this hotel. $400. Pshee. Checked other hotels in the area and the thought of transferring my luggage made me even sicker. At 9 AM I asked the desk for a wakeup call at 10, an hour before check-out time. At that point I ate two bites of my sandwich (I was unwilling to toss it in the trash completely wasted) and dragged my butt out into Vancouver.


Thank the universe! I was awake. My nose was running a bit, I was coughing a little, but for that afternoon I felt fairly well. The bus was wide open; all windows, including the roof, had been removed. It was only a bother along one short stretch of breezy shoreline, because it was a beautiful summer day in the city!

VANCOUVER IS GORGEOUS! The harbor, the mountains, the parks, the public statues, the glass skyscrapers next to Victorian buildings, and all the cleanliness! People were out in droves bicycling or just walking, enjoying the day. The bus driver did take note of the “bad part of town” as we went through it, with drugged people passed out or about to every few feet, but that passed quickly. Down in Gastown (named after “Gassy Jack” [this meant he liked to jabber, not that he had intestinal problems] Deighton) I saw the world’s only steam-powered clock, which is a tourist highlight. I got off to hit Starbucks and some souvenir stores, then got back on the same bus (they take a 20 minute break at that point) and continued around the town. Lovely. Lovely! If the place weren’t so expensive to live…



It was supposedly a three-hour tour and I thought twice around the city would take me up to time to leave for the airport. But the second time at Gastown the driver announced that the bus’ day ended at the port a couple stops ahead. Good enough, as the tour had gone well beyond its three-hour estimate and we were now into late afternoon. I got off at the port, found a cab, retrieved my luggage from the hotel, and made my way to the airport.

But San Francisco had – would you believe it? – fog. We weren’t leaving from Vancouver until SF cleared up. A guy behind me said that the pilot on his flight had laid down the law that he was leaving at 8 PM, come what may. I went to the counter and asked when my flight would leave. Argh. Would I get into RDU in the morning if I took it? The very young lady smiled at me, batted her eyelashes, and said, “No.”

Just “No.”

Ah, customer service.

“Well, how do I get there? I need to be there tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, really?” She acted like she’d never heard such a thing, no one had ever made such a request. After a full ten, maybe fifteen minutes of her type type typing, she got me transferred to the flight that had been scheduled just before mine (the one with the obstinant pilot). I went to sit with that crowd. You know, you’d think they’d have some kind of easier computer thing to transfer passengers. Hit two buttons – presto. Hit another one, and their luggage travels with them. Am I just being too radical here?

I think we left at 7:45. What would happen when we hit SF? The outgoing planes were just as delayed as we were, so maybe… Still, having to take an extra day in SF wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.

We had to wait again for our connecting plane to arrive. Eventually it did. Again I had one of those first-in-the-cabin seats where you can’t hold anything, but the flight attendant gave in to me begging to hold on to my box of Kleenex. “I’ll hold it like a puppy,” I promised.

I hadn’t been able to eat the snack they’d given us on the first flight (had it a few days later; a fine cookie), and turned up my nose at what was likely a palatable dinner on this flight. I honked and coughed and tried to aim away from everyone. My throat was dry as a bone, and I succeeded twice in attracting the attention of the attendant so I could get something to drink. I could barely swallow, but boy! It was so nice to get something liquid into me!

Home again, home again, practically at the original time I was supposed to arrive. When I was in Glacier Bay I’d imagined popping my luggage in my car then ripping off my tee shirt to reveal the super suit beneath. I’d bound off to north Raleigh, stopping at Jerry’s Artarama to pick up some enormous canvases so I could zip back home, immediately painting masterpieces of glaciers!

Ah, didn’t quite do that. Don’t know how I managed it but I drove in the opposite direction of Jerry’s. I was swerving all over the highway by the time I got within five miles of home. Good thing it was after morning rush hour; there was almost no one else on the road. Exhausted!

I managed to climb to my front door and then threw myself into bed. I de-coma-fied a few hours later to empty the car. My neighbor came over to tell me he’d fed my fish while I was away, but I had to stand there and say, “Uhh muh gruhh.” COUGH COUGH HONK! “Duh argh.” I think he got the message. It’s been 2 1/12 weeks and I think I might be able to make it over to his place to thank him coherently for his efforts and present him with a deck of genuine Alaska cards. Well, maybe tomorrow.


The moral to this all is: GET YOUR FLU SHOT! And buy the beverage package.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Alaska, part 2: Shipboard life


I headed for the back of the bus, where theres almost always empty seats available to stretch out on. Success! We rolled away from beautiful Denali, rumbling through mountain and river territory. At Broad Pass, the Talkeetna Mountains formed a straight line to the east of us, rising suddenly above the river plain like someone had lined them up.

We lunched in Wasilla, home of you-know-who... or is it? One guide told us she still lived there part of the year, and another guide said shed moved to Arizona or someplace, near her daughter. Anyway, the town was pretty and had a large, lovely lake. It also had a restaurant that specialized in sudden, large crowds like tour buses. They served sandwich fixings and had bathrooms with real water. The parking lot had a quickie mart (with liquor) and an ice cream stand, which reminds me that Alaska has the highest per capita consumption of both coffee (understandable) and ice cream.

I think it was at Wasilla that the driver said that that fake "reality" show that chronicles a family setting up a homestead deep within the most remote, coldest regions of Alaska, is filmed about fifteen minutes outside the town. The family & everyone bed down very comfortably every night in town, and every weekend can be found partying either in town or down the road in Anchorage. Locals are very embarrassed by the deception.

We drove past what was little more than a crossroads, Willow. In 1976 Alaskans voted to make Willow the new capital. They didnt want Anchorage, the largest city, to be that, and thought the idea of a capital like Juneau, which is only reachable by boat, plane, or birth canal, was ridiculous. Which it is. Even if 1 in 6 Alaskans owns a plane. I mean, the State Fair was starting when we were there, and they couldnt hold it at Juneau because THERE ARE NO ROADS leading there! Willows on a major highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks; seemed a good pick to me. Anyway, the people in Juneau didnt want to relocate, so they blocked the funding to move everything, got another resolution on the docket, and in 1982 made sure Juneau stayed the state capital.

We had some conversations on the bus and at lunch. Once a lady said, “Don’t tell ‘em you’ve been coughing or sneezing or you’ll be in quarantine for two days.” I’d keep that in mind…

Our very funny bus driver was retired from his regular job and now works part-time for Holland-America. His son works for one of the airlines. They thus get free cruises and flights. He wants his wife to work for a rental car agency.

Anyway, he pointed out the "Alaskan mosquito eggs" that sometimes appeared over the highway. They're large orange ovals on electric lines that cross the highway. This is in case a pilot has to make an emergency landing on the roadway. They see the "eggs," and they won't hit the lines. Do emergency landings really happen that often?

Along the highway to Seward. The American TARDIS. Bring your Purell.


We reached Anchorage, which is a nice-looking, neat, small city. Then we swung off to go to Seward. That road has been voted one of the most scenic highways in the US, for good reason! The road follows a rocky coastline with the mountains and high-meadow glaciers in the background. The tides there are the second-highest in North America (coming, I assume, after the Bay of Fundy). When you get away from the coast mammoth mountains come down to touch the highway. In some ways, especially with the little shacks here and there, it reminded me of the Appalachian Mountains… but bigger. Much bigger. The scenery was jaw-dropping. I was so glad not to be driving, because I would have driven us right off the road from gawping at everything!
Seward


We arrived at Seward around 4 to go through customs and pre-cruise identification procedures, then get on the walkway that led inside the MS Zaandam. You get a card with a bar code on it, and you use that not only as a key for your room, but to pay for everything (you have a credit card on file) (funny thing; I came home to find that someone had hacked into that card) and identify yourself when boarding or disembarking. They also take a picture of you that is linked in their computer system.



My room was practically at the aft of the ship, just a few rooms from the end of the hall. I got into it a little after 4. There was a ship’s schedule waiting for me, to find that an orientation lecture had been scheduled… for 4:00. Our bus was the first bunch of passengers to arrive to the ship, other than people who were staying on board after the last cruise. (Yes, people do that.)  Why would they schedule orientation BEFORE people came on board? As it was, I got in the very long line at the information desk and had to listen to the same questions being asked over and over, questions likely covered at orientation.

I was housed on the Main Deck, Deck 2. There was a passenger deck below me, and one more deck below that that we used to disembark a couple times from, the A deck, which was also where the doctor was. “The Dining Room” was in the aft section of Decks 4 and 5. (Theoretically it was reservations only on Deck 5 and walk-ins on Deck 4.) You couldn’t get to the foredeck of Deck 4 from there. Deck 5 had the lovely Explorations Café, library, a couple bars, etc etc. Foredeck of Deck 4 had the info desk, art and photography places, I think the Pinnacle Grill, and a few bars and the casino. Can’t recall where the Mondrian lecture/entertainment hall was, but it was in the fore of one of the upper decks.


You could get to the outside deck promenade from Deck 4 (“Lower promenade”) only, even if two other decks were called variants of “promenade.” Two times around equaled one mile. There was a mini-promenade up at the top of the ship. The ship’s write-up says there are basketball and tennis courts, but I never saw those. Let’s see… Going up from Deck 5: Cabin deck, cabin deck, Lido deck (8) had the cafeteria, gym, massage, etc. and enclosed pool as well as open pool, and Deck 9 was the way to the top for viewing Glacier Bay. I think Deck 9 also had an enclosed forward viewing room with a bar, but I was fairly lost when I found that. The elevators were fast as hell, and quite helpfully had rugs that informed you what day of the week it was.

With all the decks it should come as no surprise that, even with the elevator, it was easy to get 10,000 steps in each day. If I went out on a tour, I got around 6000, but if we were cruising, it was 10,000-12,000.

I had a window in my room as well as a queen- or maybe king-sized bed. It was two twins shoved together and yes, you could feel the central seam. There was a small couch and a desk with a chair. There were four closets, only one of which was large enough to fit my large piece of luggage in. There was ONE outlet. I called room service and they found me a multi-outlet extension so I could charge my stuff. I told this to other passengers, who had been complaining about the one-outlet situation.
So easy to lose track of time when you're onboard. The elevator rugs were changed every day.


Lifeboat drill was at 7PM the first day. If you didn’t show up, you were kicked off the ship. Your card was scanned, the crew checked it against your picture, and we all now knew where our boat was located. Some people complained later because the drill hadn’t been done to their exacting expectations, something about lining people up in order or something. I think they were insulted to be included with “ordinary” passengers, maybe. I didn’t get it. It seemed organized enough to me.

I was surprised to see all the people in wheelchairs. Some of the excursion tours specified that they welcomed wheelchairs, but most didn’t. In fact, some said things like, “You must be able to walk 400 yards down a gentle hill and back.”

There was a gathering for friends of some guy, and also a group of gays on board, both of which got their meeting places noted in our newsletter every day. The gays (am I stereotyping? Sorry) seemed to hang out in the gym. Every time I went by, there were all these gorgeous Adonis types on the machinery in their immaculate gym togs. Must be gays, right? And there was one very fit lady as well. I’m not going to get on a treadmill among the perfect-bodied! Go down the hallway to the inside pool, and there were all the out-of-shape men having a great time. Good to see it!

The ship info manual mentioned that if you had diarrhea and vomiting, you MUST see the ship’s doctor. Thanks to cutting my metformin pills in half, the first symptom was minimized quickly, and I never had the second one, nyah. I heard of three people who were quarantined during the trip. At disembarking, I met a miserable woman who’d been quarantined for five days of the trip, and was still feeling lousy. She said a nurse had told her that the ship had been in South America before it went on the Alaska trip, and that they were having flu season down there, so the ship had brought that back. On the news I heard that Australia was having its worst flu season ever. There were a LOT of Australians on board. Hm. EVIL AUSTRALIANS! EVIL AUSTRALIANS! No wonder by the second to last day of the trip I’d begun to cough. (As of this writing, some 2 ½ weeks later, I’m still trying to get over the plague. GET YOUR FLU SHOT!)
 
My office in the library. How's that for a view?

I was glad I’d bought the drinks package. I don’t drink alcohol, but that package covered any drink under $7, and something like up to 12 or 17 drinks a day. I think it paid for itself a few times over. I also bought the internet package, which was 100 minutes for $50. !!! Highway robbery! And to make it worse, the internet often didn’t work, and when it did it took FOREVER. Forget trying to post a picture on Facebook, much less a quick movie. Just trying to get Facebook to come up took five or eight minutes, if it ever did. Tick tick tick. They had a sale for ½ hour internet on the day before we disembarked, so people could print out their boarding passes. Who were they kidding?

You could also sign up for laundry service at $7/day. Or you could do itemized laundry. There was a passenger coin laundry on Deck A. I opted for the “everything you can fit into this tiny bag for $20” service. I don’t turn down dares. I had that bag stuffed within an inch of its life! Then I turned around and did the same thing a few days later. It was still cheaper than the $7/day service, and I didn’t have to waste time sitting next to a dryer.

The next day after boarding (or was it the one after that?) my sister, who NEVER posts on FB, posted a message that our mother was in the hospital. She’d tried to get through to me using the ship’s emergency number, but they said that unless Mom were dead, they wouldn’t connect her. Luckily the next day I got another message saying that Mom was just fine now, whew. I was making plans to call shore, even if such phone calls were $8/minute!!!!, but figured a quick message to her telling her that I’d received the message was good enough. As for cell service, about half the people said they could get a signal if we were in port, and half said they couldn’t.

TV was ship shopping channels, a “this is where we are” navigation channel, a couple 24-hour news channels, plus two movie channels that ran the same movie all day long. Sometimes only the shopping and movie channels worked. The ship had a library of 10,000 DVDs and a player in each room, which I wish I’d known about, as I’d have brought some DVDs from home that I’ve been meaning to watch.

We watched reports of Hurricane Harvey. There were QUITE a few people from Houston, but all reported that their homes had weathered the storm without incident. Yay!



The ship was smaller than I expected. Guess the Caribbean ones are huge? This one held 1400 passengers. There was the regular restaurant, “The Dining Room,” which had two galas during the cruise. I went to the info desk and asked if I was dressed up enough to attend. The woman there looked me up and down and gave me a scathingly sour look. “Yes or no?” I demanded, but she refused to say. Bitch. The next day I asked some passengers and they said that was ridiculous, that some men had been in shorts at the gala. One man said, “By god, I paid $8000 for this cruise. They’ll let me in when I say they will!” Whew, $8000? He must have had a suite. There was also a surprise Luncheon for Big Wigs and Important Crew Members one day so everyone else had to troop up to the Lido to eat. Dining Room, Lido, and room service were the no-charge eating venues.

Some people dressed up even if there wasn’t a gala and it was just lunch. I figured they’d watched too many episodes of Love Boat.

The galas were an excuse for the cruise to charge for photographers to take your picture. The cruise was one big con shop everywhere you turned. You got your picture made when you boarded, and could buy it for an outrageous price. There was an art store (they were always having art auctions) with ugly, amateurish paintings – all prints, as far as I could see – marked at sky-high prices.

For a couple days the art place had a Thomas Kinkade print on main display. I stopped to admire it, not noticing the signature until the end. It was a pleasant, plein-air-looking landscape piece, about 11x14”. It was marked 236/775. I asked how much it was going for. The lady told me that ordinarily it went unframed for $350, but if I bought it on the ship, I could get it for $225 or something like that. Let me see… A Kinkade print that didn’t show one of his trademark thatched-roof houses or candles in a window. $225 x 775 prints = $174,375 for the print run. And that was just one size. They can make other print runs at other sizes.

Are you kidding me?

The rest of the inventory was very tired, anonymous figurative crap along with garish Peter Max crap. I heard one of the dealers on a one-on-one with a couple looking at a Max sculpture that looked like a very ugly lamp from the Sixties. He sounded like he was selling them a timeshare and they had to buy to get in on this offer within the next 60 minutes, or else! Sheesh. I also heard bids for $3000 coming over the wall at one of the auctions. People getting fleeced…

One day I was sitting in a lounge and heard the acupuncturist lecture on various types of acupuncture. She mentioned obesity. I figured what the heck, and asked at the desk about prices. I’d been thinking about going to my acupuncturist because he’d been talking obesity needles. This seemed a bit more expensive than he (of course), but what the hey, I was on a cruise. I signed up.

The first round was pleasant enough. As I was “soaking” I noticed that the office had a framed set of Dutch tulip tiles. The top two tiles on the left were switched, so the overall picture was disjointed. I begged the acupuncturist to give me an Xacto and some glue, so I could correct it. She didn’t break a smile. She was all Asian Seriousness. On the second round of treatment the next day (and I don’t think I got everything I paid for on that one), she was in an even more sour mood. She started muttering about how chocolate cake had 250 calories (she came up with the number out of thin air) and mutter mutter this and that, calories, calories. I think she didn’t like that I didn’t want to buy any of her expensive lotions and nutritional crap.

Like most Holland-America employees she spoke English with a thick, sometimes impenetrable accent. (Which was better than the way I spoke their languages.) She asked me one question and I answered. Then she asked it again. I answered, trying to speak clearly in case she hadn't understood me. In that session she must have asked me the same question ten times. I think it was a little game she played. I don't think she liked her patients.

There was a waiter with a fancier uniform than the rest, in the Dining Room. He spoke almost perfect English. "I am Brazilian!" he'd loudly announce to the room a few times during the evening.

I had a hot stone massage as well. A lady at my home acupuncturist’s told me that I should “let yourself go” to get the best results. So I tried. Meh. Hot stones. Rubbing. The masseuse wanted me to buy lots of lotions. When I refused politely, he treated me like I was just a lump of flesh.

When you don’t buy, they stop being civil to you.

There was a jewelry shop with expensive crap. A very small casino. A library. A gaming room next to that library. A jigsaw puzzle room that connected the last two. A couple bars with various music at night. A theater for lectures and night entertainment. A cooking schoolroom. An electronics schoolroom. A gym. A beauty parlor. The afore-mentioned acupuncturist and masseuse. An indoor pool and Jacuzzi. An outdoor pool that I didn’t find until the final day, that no one was in.

When not on an excursion I stayed at lot in the library, next to the Explorations Café. I could set up my computer and work on editing a book (something I’d been looking forward to) while the ocean and sometimes shore spread out in front of me. Plus, I could get a chai from the café to keep me going. There were only a few times when loud, chattering women came in to spoil the quiet atmosphere. They quickly left, I think due to chess-playing patrons giving them dirty looks. I got a lot of work done and enjoyed the vibes!

There were a couple restaurants I never went into because one only served groups family style, and I was a single (they charged extra anyway), and another that just didn’t have an interesting menu (also an extra charge). The Lido deck was mostly filled with a cafeteria serving a variety of food. You could find a decent salad there, but heaven help you find some place to sit to eat! It was rushed and noisy. It was there that served ice cream through the day, but that post wasn’t staffed and people had to run get someone to come, and they never knew exactly what was going on and where the chocolate sauce was kept and… Before and after mealtime, though, the Lido was a fine place to visit. You could sit and have a cup of tea or ice cream and look out the windows in relative peace.

Finally there was the Pinnacle Room, to which I got one reservation as part of the cruise (otherwise it very much cost extra). You had to dress up. I put on a nice blouse and said what the heck; I have a reservation. At the worst they can seat me in a dark corner. There I finally had my shrimp cocktail. It had three shrimp. Three ENORMOUS shrimp. I also got the petite filet mignon, which was one of the three best steaks I’ve had in my life. It was pretty big and came alone on a huge white plate. The potatoes came on their own large plate. The brussels sprouts came on their own large plate. ??? Great food, but those folks HAVE to work on their plating.

Food servings were modest (except the Pinnacle Room, where we all stuffed our faces) (the Pinnacle Room usually costs extra!). Desserts were also modest in volume, which I appreciated. The Dining Room’s fare varied widely in quality. I had some decent food there, but I also had some onion soup that didn’t have any onion in it, some crab cakes made without crab (it was just crispy breading), and some pretty bland crap. Good bread always, though.

Almost every day there was a tea at 3PM in the Dining Room. I attended the first full day, and was seated with a variety of other single ladies. One of them was pretentious out the wazoo, and we all waggled our eyebrows at each other at her statements. We were offered one kind of tea only, though I spotted one waiter with a variety box. I was given hot water but no tea, and had to flag down someone who didn’t apologize. The sandwiches were tunafish and something else – no cucumber sammies here – and tiny sweets that one could find on Lido and the Explorations Café (the coffee bar next to where I hung out).

The next time I take a cruise I might take a blouse with a little glitter, but even if I forget that, I’ll still attend the galas if their menu looks good. (Note: on gala nights I had the same menu with room service, which didn’t cost anything extra.) I’ll continue to hang around the Explorations Café because you can’t beat that view while you write, and the baristas were fun and friendly, and quickly knew I took chai latte. Grande, please, if I were working on a sex scene.
Rough seas!


Our first full day was a Day At Sea. The evening before, the captain had come on the intercom to explain that some big storm was brewing with 50 mph winds and (iIrc) 20-foot seas, so he was altering our course and taking us closer to the coast. Whew. That night I woke up thinking I was on final approach to Anchorage – we were rocking and rolling! The next day it was funny to watch everyone walking down the hallways. You’d start off on the right side and then step-step-step until you were on the left, and then step-step-step to get back to the right as the ship rolled.

They closed all but two of the doors to the promenade (I didn’t know it at the time) and when I went out for a walk I began to get worried about just how safe that railing was. We were rolling, the ocean was splashing, we had a bit of rain coming onto the decking, and you couldn’t walk a straight line to save your life. Then when you said, “The heck with this!” and tried to go in – the door was blocked from the inside. I tried all the doors I could find until I found one that was still open. It might have been the one I came out of. The rolling didn’t stop until we entered Glacier Bay the next day.


The computer workshops were a dud as far as I was concerned, because they were for PCs and I’m so definitely a Mac. However, one workshop was “how to use your digital camera.” It was SRO, and I learned that my little Olympia can do many fabulous things! We were all exclaiming in delight as we discovered the wonders of our cameras! Later in Glacier Bay the instructor was on deck showing people the best way to photograph wildlife, but I was busy and couldn’t attend, but before it began I thanked her profusely for the camera workshop. Bravo! I made note of her on my survey later.

Which reminds me: the BEST buy I made for this trip was a camera strap. It took a while to figure out how to attach the camera to it (instructions were microscopic, and the YouTube video had the guy covering up what his fingers were doing), but once it was on, it was What I Wore. I felt naked going out of my cabin without it. So handy! Before I’d always had the camera bag bump-bumping around off my purse, to which it was attached, but now I could just reach down and bring up the camera and click! I took 1004 pictures on this trip.
The hand-washing station outside the Lido cafeteria.


Let’s see. Before we got on we were told there were four rules of cruising: (1) Wash your hands. (2) Wash your hands. (3) Wash your hands. (4) Attend the lifeboat drill. Every restaurant had a fancy Purell stand at its entry, and the Lido had an automatic hand-washer. You know those Dyson hand dryers in airport restrooms? (I was gratified to see at least three other brands of them now.) It’s like that, you put your hands down into the holes and suddenly water rushes all around you, sounding like a dishwasher. Heaven help you if you’re wearing delicate hand jewelry. After a while the cycle ends and you use a paper towel to dry off.

Public restrooms on board had plaques inside the outer doors telling you to use a paper towel (dispenser next to the plaque) to open the door. National park pit toilets kept their Purell bottles pretty much stocked up. Non-national park pit toilets usually didn’t have a bottle of Purell. Keep a bottle with you!

Shipboard internet (free!) gave us our schedules every day, and we also got a printout of the more general “what’s going on” daily schedule every evening. These would tell us when the ship would dock and when we had to be back onboard. One day I was hanging out on the promenade at onboard-time, and watched as the last people hurried up the gangplank to the ship. After a few minutes the gates closed. Two people came walking quickly up the dock, and were let in. About twenty minutes later, right before we were supposed to set off, a guy comes running up the dock. They had to open the gates to let him in, and he ran all the way. Whew!

Rules are: if you were on a ship-sanctioned expedition, the ship would wait for you if you were late getting back. If you were off on your own, the ship would NOT wait. It was up to you to make it to the next stop, if you could.


Next: Ports of call!