Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Country Roads

We have left the South, driving through Florida, Georgia, both Carolinas, Virginia, a little bit of Maryland, Delaware and now in New Jersey. We had a great day in St Augustine and a fantastic couple of days in Charleston.

St Augustine is famous for its age - that picture is apparently of the oldest intersection in the US (and that is without taking my age into account)  - and the Old Town is full of wonderful shops. Well, wonderful if you like t-shirts and flipflops. Ever vigilant, though, LK spotted a bargain and we partook of the 2-for-1 sale of "Bacon Bloody Marys". These start with your basic vodka and tomato juice, added the usual enhancements (perhaps a tad heavy on the consomme) and then squeezed lunch into the glass, with a celery stick, a nice wedge of tomato, a good-sized piece of pickled okra and a green olive filled with feta. And, oh yes, a huge piece of bacon. These salads in a glass turned out to be so good that we converted the deal to a 4-for-2 sale and then walked along the waterfront back to our B&B.

 From St Augustine, we ended up in Charleston and spent several days looking at beautiful old buildings, a massive open market, gorgeous parks and fountains and, yes, lots of restaurants. Four different kinds of barbecue ribs, chicken etouffe, oyster po-boys, fried green tomatoes, a yellow spicy gazpacho, mussels, hush puppies and other treats I have forgotten. Let's just say that by the night I ordered grilled swordfish and broccoli, I felt that I was violating some secret eating code of the South. Looking around, I was pretty sure I was the only person in this very busy place that was making believe they were on the South Beach Diet.

From Charleston we headed to Myrtle Beach to spend the weekend with our new friends, Beth and Dave, One of the stranger things LK has noticed is that we have not really made any close friends where we live but manage to find people on cruise ships who are happy to let us mooch off them as we travel through their cities.

In Dave and Beth's case, they live about 4 hours away, but have a condo in Myrtle Beach and it was at the end of the wine cruise in November that they asked us to stay with them for the weekend we were passing by. It was a lovely place, overlooking the beach and close to anything you would want. 

This turned out to be the weekend that bikers gather in Myrtle Beach, and we saw the tell-tale packs of what appeared to be mostly weekend warriors heading down the highway as we entered. But having once stumbled into Deadwood on the weekend of the Sturges rally, I can tell you with absolute certainty that this didn't hold a candle to that gathering. 

There are tales to be told from our time in Myrtle Beach, but I will save those for another day. For now, I will just catch up on the journey. On Sunday we drove about six hours to Norfolk Virginia, and stopped just short of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. And for those who don't know, that is exactly what it is - a bridge, then a tunnel, then a bridge again, then a tunnel, then a bridge again - and in the middle when you think you're back on land again, you are on some man-made islands.

A remarkable achievement - and it was even more remarkable in that there wasn't all that much traffic on a late May Monday and we never had to slow down or sit in a traffic jam. 

As we neared the state line we pulled into one of the numerous stands selling Virginia hams, bacon and sausage, and bough ham, bacon and sausage. Hey - if they're selling, I'm buying.  Besides, staying for the umpteenth time with our dear friends Walt and Terry, it seemed like bringing coals to Newcastle to show up with a bottle or two of wine, so it was a special pleasure to be able to arrive and say, "Walter, we have brought you a ham and sausages!"

You may notice that we didn't tell him about the bacon. Let's just say, we have our own intentions with that purchase, and they have something to do with the jar of pickled okra we bought at the Charleston marlket.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

One Liners

In Las Vegas we bought a SIM card for our phone so we could make domestic calls without paying a bomb.  The plan was pretty straightforward - for $2 a day we got unlimited voice and text calls within the US. Sure we had to shell out $40 bucks for the card, but compared to paying through our Australian provider it was a bargain.

It stopped looking like a bargain four days later when I checked the account and saw that we had used up $47 of our $50, not the $8 I expected. A quick stop at the T-mobile web site confirmed my worst fears. This phone company made it very, very hard for you to find a phone number to call them and discuss your problem.

Eventually LK did what any sensible person would do and googled it and the number popped up. Problem solved. Well, not quite.

When I got through to the customer support rep, I was asked the password for my account. "I wasn't given one and there is none on the contract I am looking at," I told him. Then I guessed that if I had in fact set a password, it would have been the one I use for e-mail.

"Nope," he said.

I tried my birthday. "Nope."

Then he offered a hint. "It's kind of like the first four digits on the keyboard," he said. I could virtually hear him winking over the phone.

"How about 1-2-3-4," I suggested and was told we could now review my account.

"You deposited $50 four days ago," he told me, sounding suspiciously like me when I had told him a few seconds earlier that I had deposited $50 four days ago.

"But then you changed your plan from $2 a day to pay-as-you-go," he told me, "and your new balance is $6.45."

"But I didn't change my plan," I told him. "In fact, I went out of my way to make sure I got unlimited calling for $2 a day."

He, of course, insisted that I had changed my plan. Ever the quick thinker, I said to him, "You may have noticed that I had no friggin' idea what the password for this account was. Would it have been possible to change my plan not knowing the password?"

It was a challenging question, I know, but ultimately he conceded that it was not possible to change the plan without knowing the password. He asked to put me on hold while he spoke with his manager.

Just as an aside, I wonder if it is incompetence, lack of concern or a deliberate attempt to drive customers over the edge, but why is it whenever a phone company puts you on hold you listen to music that is muffled and full of static? Anyhow, back to the main story, when my new bff returned he said he had tried to convince his manager that they should restore my $50 deposit and put me back on the $2 a day plan I had signed up for.  That is, honor their contract with me.

"Unfortunately," he added, "my manager would have been willing to do this but when you change plans you only have 48 hours to change back, and this has now been 4 days."

"But I didn't change plans," I started to say but immediately realized that once you start repeating your arguments to the same person who has already heard them two or three times before, you have lost the game of customer service roulette.

I changed tack. "Well, I think I am going to have to speak to your manager. Not to insult anyone, but it's pretty obvious they have a few screws loose and I would like to try to tighten them."

I was put on hold again. But rather than have you metaphorically listen to the slightly off-station music, I think it would be better to tell you how proud I was of myself. Let's face it, as one liners go that's a pretty good one. And I didn't have to pause, didn't think of it four hours later, didn't even skip a beat. Nope, it was a good one-liner and, best of all, it served its purpose. When my friend came on the line again, he told me that his manager had agreed to restore my deposit and put me on the $2 a day plan.

Not all one-liners work as well, of course. Take, for example, when LK and I drove from the west coast of Florida to St Augustine in the northeast. We were only an exit or two away from our destination when the "Last Rest Stop for 40 Miles" sign showed up.

To be honest, in my 20's I wouldn't have even done a mental check on the state of my bladder. Nowadays, though, I have learned that it is far, far better to go before you really have to than to be stuck in a construction line when you cannot wait another minute. So we pulled into the rest stop.

LK didn't need to go so stayed at the car as I climbed out. Climbed isn't really the word. Slid? Hobbled? Fell? Something like that. Regrettably my knees had forgotten how to ben while walking and my first few dozen steps were taken very slowly, not altogether different from what Boris Karloff was like playing Frankenstein if he took a couple of valium before shooting the scene.

However, never underestimate the restorative power of a good pee. By the time I left the men's room, I was walking more or less normally. OK, it wasn't all that fast, but I can't remember the last time I did walk all that fast. Which is, of course, one of the other reasons I now stop before the urge to pee hits me.

As I got back into the car, LK was laughing. Not a ltitle giggle, either. Nope, a great big guffaw, the sort of laugh that makes you feel as if you have done something absolutely outrageous.

"Oh, I'm not laughing at you," she said. Which made me feel a little bit better. But then she paused. "Well, maybe a little bit at you but mostly at the other men here." Which made me feel a little bit worse.

She then pointed to the various men walking around this Florida highway rest stop. As you would expect, most were senior citizens. Almost to a man, they were walking slowly, with stiff legs, limps and halting progress.

"As I sat here," LK said, "all I could think of was that I was at the Rest Stop for the Walking Dead." And then she started guffawing some more.

I saw the humor - even if it was a bit on the mean side - but told her I felt I had walked into the men's room like that but had exited more or less normally.

"Oh no," she said. "You were definitely doing the zombie walk in, but you got back to the car so fast I wasn't even aware you were out."

That made me feel better, but I told her the whole thing wasn't very nice.

"I've had to  be nice for more than a month. I'm entitled to not be nice in the privacy of our car," she said. "And besides, that's a pretty funny one-liner I came up with. This really does look like the Rest Stop for the Walking Dead."

I had to agree, but in my heart I knew that there's one liners that get your phone service restored and then there's one-liners that get you laughing. I still don't know which I prefer.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Dear Diary

Monday morning was always going to be the true test of how well the ship could organize itself and its passengers. Because of some long-time maritime law, non-American cruise ships are not permitted to leave and arrive at American ports without stopping at a foreign port.

The ship was full of the sort of people that cable news calls "experts,"  people who present themselves as knowing a lot and make things up when confronted with something they don't actually know. So we had theories swirling around that the law had to do with everything from preventing Chinese ships from going up and down the California coast using cheap labor to undercut American ships, to laws regulating that the onboard casino could not operate unless they docked at a foreign port. Mind you, these were the same people who had stated categorically that we would not be allowed to dock in Honolulu because a couple dozen of our passengers had the norovirus.

Whatever the reason, one thing was certain. The second leg of our trans-Pacific journey had originated the American state of Hawaii (you know, where Obama moved shortly after being born in Kenya - at least if you believe Donald Trump). And our cruise was terminating in Ensenada, Mexico - where lots of people who work in America should be deported back to, again thanks to the Donald for that idea.

From Ensenada, almost all the passengers were being given a free bus ride to San Diego Airport, about 80 miles north and, oh yes, on the other side of the US Immigration Border Control. Given the absolute horror of the disorganization and massive queues in Maui and Honolulu, we were all facing our most extreme nightmares about getting several thousand people onto buses early in the morning. And then getting that bus past US Immigration only two weeks after the Boston attacks.

It was a charm.  How the ship could have done such a good job here and such a lousy job at the beginning of the trip remains a mystery, but some magic happened on the way to North America. All our luggage was stored early on one of the 6-dozen buses and then the compartment was sealed so bags didn't need to be checked by Immigration when we crossed.  We were all told which bus to be on and when to show up, and the lines were short and the wait was sweet. (OK, there's always a couple of 75+-year-olds who try to cut in front of everyone, but since this wasn't the last of the bagels and lox at the buffet but a bus waiting for everyone to get on, it hardly mattered.

The cruise line had even paid for US Immigration to have 50 extra people work the buses to check passports and declaration slips. Too easy all around.

From San Diego we rented a car and drove across the desert to Las Vegas. The drive is easy since there are no turns in the road for about 200 miles and if you can stay awake you tend to have no problems.

Vegas itself, of course, is the same as it ever was. It remains a place where the big gamblers can lose massive amounts of money (some guy named Sheldon Adelsen lost over $100 million in just one day last November).  But of course, the grease that keeps all those neon wheels rolling are the smaller amounts that the little punters put on the tables and in the machines. We did our best to help the city continue its recovery from the Global Financial Crisis.

Thursday we hopped on a plane (actually, LK just got on as normal. It was me who was hopping because my knees seemed to be suffering from temporary cartilege loss.) Connecting in Houston, we landed at Tampa Airport that night. I could write about how we had to wait more than half an hour to get the car from Hertz that we had booked more than two months ago, but that sounds too much like complaining.

So let's just say we checked into one of the world's all-time great b&bs in Dunedin that night and had the absolute pleasure the next day of catching up with my sons, Ben and Tom and Ben's partner Jennifer and her two kids.

Last night Jennifer pulled school fair duty and couldn't join us but we went to eat at a very good Italian restaurant not far from where we are staying. Tom is a good friend of the chef, having worked together in the past. The chef came to our table, we were told not to order starters or desserts and then were fed just about every starter on the menu until we were begging them not to bring more food. (OK, that last bit is a lie. We would have kept eating whatever was set in front of us.)  We had artichokes, buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes, truffled buffalo mozzarella, baby octopus, fried octopus tentacles (there were only 6 on the plate, and I have no idea what happened to the other 2). There were stuffed peppers and 1 or 2 other things that I have erased from my memory because I had to use the available oxygen just to have enough energy to chew.

And rememeber, those were the starters before we were served huge portions for our main courses. Dessert (again unordered) was more moderate. Everyone had a parfait glass full of strawberries with whipped cream on top. Oh, yes, and the family-style, full dinner plate of tiramisu. But that doesn't count because it was light and we all agreed that no matter how much you ate you could always have a bite or two of that.

This morning the lovely man who cooks the breakfasts here (and they, too, are massive and superb) came over after we were done to ask Linda what he had to do so she would finish her meal. I guess he thought she didn't like the 3-cheese omelette with sauteed onions, arugula and asparagus with a huge bowl of fruit, toast, homemade yoghurt topped with nuts and berries, fresh-squeezed orange juice and coffee.

She told him she loved the food but she just needed smaller portions.

Strangely enough, he didn't have any concerns about me leaving food on the plate.

In a little while we are going over to Ben and Jennifer's for a barbecue.

Fortunately, we are passing quite a few malls and stores on the way. I figure when you're my shape already, no one is going to notice if you go up a pants-size or two anyway.