We got back from our cruise on Sunday, and although there were some little obstacles, we actually got pretty lucky given that a major hurricane was making its way through the Caribbean at the time. We both took yesterday off to try to get back into a routine, and Will's school had the day off for Columbus Day as well, so we got to hang out with him after not seeing him for more than a week.
The hurricane didn't impact the cruise too much—they rerouted us from our first scheduled port in the Bahamas and we sailed for an extra day to get to Puerto Rico instead, but that wasn't that big a deal. The remaining two stops were at St. Thomas and St. Maarten, where the hurricane was long gone, so those stops weren't impacted at all.
On the way home we were nervously watching the track and impact of the storm—our home port was Port Canaveral, right outside Orlando, which was hit pretty hard on Thursday, but by Saturday they had reopened the port and we arrived and docked on time at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning. Aside from some rough seas to start the trip and a few more cloudy days than you would expect for the Caribbean, we would never have known that there was a major storm tracking around where we were sailing.
The real problem turned out to be that the hurricane was headed for my parents' house on the coast of North Carolina, so they decided to leave on Friday to head back home to batton down the hatches and take care of their animals. This meant we had to improvise another babysitter for Will since we didn't want him traveling back to NC with my parents, and luckily my sister, who lives about 45 minutes away, was in town that weekend and was able to keep Will until we got back home on Sunday.
Our exit strategy for the ship worked almost perfectly—we were among the earliest people off the boat, and the shuttle bus to our hotel was waiting for us as soon as we got through customs. We were all set to get on the road back to Atlanta by 8 a.m., but when we got back to our car, the battery was completely dead. It wasn't a huge deal—we called AAA and they got us up and running within an hour and a half, but it was stressful sitting in the parking lot while we waited for them and hoping that it wasn't something more significant that would have prevented us from getting home.
The drive back was pretty uneventful, and the hurricane actually saved us some money too—because the governor had declared a state of emergency in advance of the storm's arrival, all tolls were waived and we were able to drive through the express lanes without paying anything.
I don't even really remember what we did the first night when we got home, we were just so exhausted and trying to reacclimate to our normal lives. But I stuck to my vacation promise and didn't check work email until this morning, which is far and away the longest I've gone without checking work email in at least ten years. I had about 450 messages waiting for me to sort through and prioritize (I think the number would have been a lot higher if I hadn't been very clear with my office that I was going to be away and that I wasn't going to be able to check email at all), but the world didn't fall apart, and even the things that needed my attention weren't urgent enough that they couldn't wait for my vacation to be over, so I think I'm going to learn from this and have more email-free days on the weekends and especially when I'm on vacation.
The first 48 hours of our cruise we were at sea, so we spent the time getting to know the ship, enjoying the food, and especially enjoying our balcony. We had a corner room at the aft of the ship that cost the same as other cabins with balconies but which actually had more like a patio attached to it—we could fit two chairs, a small table, and two lie-down sun chairs on it and still have plenty of room to move around. It was bigger than the cabin itself, and the only reason we can figure it was not more expensive is because it was technically listed as "obstructed view".
The only reason we can figure as to why it wasn't considered a premium cabin is because there was some sort of framing structure at the back of the ship, but we could still see behind the ship just fine, and because of our placement on the corner, we also had a completely unobstructed view off the side of the boat just as if we were on a side cabin. I'm convinced that this cabin and its twin on the other side of the boat are the best cabins on this type of ship, and if we ever cruise on this ship or one of its sisters again, our cruise date will absolutely be determined by the availability of these cabins.
Our first port of call was Puerto Rico, but unfortunately we weren't allowed to get off the boat until after 5:30 when it was already starting to get dark, so we didn't get to really appreciate the vibrant colors of the city and its architecture. We took a food and culture tour with some other folks (there were twelve people in the group total), and that ended up being a pretty good experience. We walked around old San Juan learning about its history from our guide Victor, with three stops to experience some food: hot chocolate and a square of Puerto Rican chocolate served with cheddar cheese; mojitos, mofongo, and rice and beans at a little restaurant housed in what used to be the mayor's office; and finally flan at a little bar near where we started the tour (I hate flan, and I'm not a huge dessert fan in general, but that was one of the best things I have ever eaten).
By the time the tour finished, almost all of the local shops with art and jewelry were closed, so we headed back to the ship even though we weren't scheduled to depart for another couple of hours. I know the schedule was weird because it was a last-minute improvised stop due to the hurricane, but it would have been really cool to have a whole day there to explore the city on our own and talk a walk around the historic fort that sits at the entrance to the harbor. Still, I'm glad we were able to have at least some time there—maybe someday we'll be able to return for a trip just to San Juan so we can have a deeper experience with the city.
At our second stop in St. Thomas, we did what ended up being an all-day snorkeling trip that took us to two coves only accessible by boat. There were probably about 15 people in our group, and it was a pretty small sailboat (I mean, small for 15 tourists, their stuff, and the three person crew), but the close quarters were helped by the free and frequent servings of rum punch, which apparently had rum, orange juice, pineabple juice, and cream of coconut. I'm not normally a fan of rum drinks, but I can't tell you how many of those I had that day. They called it the Painkiller, but it was an overall mood improver, and also helped with the fairly rough seas we encountered on the way out to the first cove.
Our first stop was nicknamed Turtle Cove, and it definitely lived up to its name. It was located on an uninhabited island that was an animal sanctuary—no one was allowed to set foot on the island, so all the boats tied up at one of the buoys near the cove and we jumped off the side to go snorkeling. There was a reef with a few fish, including some really cool transparent ones with long thin noses tinged with blue, but the real attraction was the sea turtles, who fed on the sea grass that grew in the shallows beyond the reef. Every fifteen minutes or so they would swim up to the surface for air, so if you were lucky you got a chance to really see them up close.
That stop alone would have been worth the trip, but after that we headed to another spot they called Christmas Cove (which seems to be named something else on the official maps, but something that's not nearly as appealing as Christmas Cove), where again we anchored offshore before heading into the beach there. You could either swim or take a little boat to shore, but it was only a couple hundred yards, so we decided to swim. I had had many servings of rum punch at this point, so I was in a pretty good mood. The swim was longer than it looked, but it didn't take us too long to get to the beach where a picnic was awaiting us for lunch.
I know food always tastes better when you're hungry and tired, and after all the swimming we'd done, this was some of the best food we had the whole trip. It was pretty simple—jerk chicken, barbecued rib tips, macaroni salad, and baked beans—but it was so unbelievably good. Our table was tucked away in a corner of the beach under a tree overlooking the cove, and it was just beautiful.
Afterwards we still had time to swim in the cove (we didn't bring our snorkeling stuff because there really wasn't much to see on this beach, and aside from lunch, I was in the water the entire time (Julie swam a good bit too, but she also took some time to relax on one of the beach chairs underneath the trees). The water was so calm that I could lay on my back and keep my nose above water, so I did that for a long time, the water blocking out any noise and the gentle currents rocking me into a state that must be something like what you feel like in a sensory deprivation tank—I think I might have even fallen asleep for a few minutes.
When they started ferrying people back to the boat in the smaller boat, Julie and I both started to swim lazily back to the boat, and when we got there they still had a couple of trips to make, so I spent a few minutes climbing up to the deck and diving off the boat with an Irish man and one of his daughters who sat across from us on the trip out to Turtle Cove. All in all this was probably my favorite day from the whole cruise, and one that I'd repeat again if we had a one-day stopover in St. Thomas.
Our final port of call was in neighboring St. Maarten, and we also chose a snorkeling excursion for our main activity there. That might seem strange, but swimming in the ocean was one of my primary goals for this trip—if we had made our planned stop at Cococay in the Bahamas, I would have spent the whole day snorkeling there as well. But this trip was a little different compared to the previous one, because in addition to getting to see lots of tropical fish at a reef just off a local beach, we also got to swim under the incoming flight path of St. Maarten's infamous Maho beach, which is located at the end of the runway for the island's airport.
There are no rules about not standing directly in the path of these landing planes (although there are lots of warning signs), so lots of people do just that, and it looks like the planes are going to hit them. We were at a bit safter distance, and there were buoys marking a no-man's-land directly underneath the arriving planes, but it was still pretty impressive, especially when a larger passenger jet from a major airline landed. It was a very unique experience—one minute you were immersed in an underwater world of coral and fish, then you'd hear the faint rumblings of a plane and look up to see it pass overhead and land at the airport.
Julie and I were the last snorkelers back to the boat, but we had another 30 minutes or so before the boat started to head back, so we swam and jumped off the second deck of the boat (which looked a lot higher when you were actually up there jumping compared to when you were in the water watching other people do it). On the way back we had food from the onboard kitchen and a drink from the bar, and again, it was some of the best food I remember having on trip simply because we were so tired and so hungry.
We hadn't done any shopping at either of the other ports—in Puerto Rico everything was closed by the time we finished with our tour, and in St. Thomas the boat was almost ready to leave by the time we got back from our snorkeling cruise (it was six and a half hours), got changed, and tried to go back to the port. We thought about going back to the boat before hitting up the shops on St. Maarten's as well, but they were on the way back from the excursion dock, so we decided to just get it over with and get our shopping done then, buying souvenirs for everyone who helped out with watching Will while we were away and a couple of little things for ourselves.
That was it for our ports—three great days in a row filled with experiences that we won't forget for a long time—but there was also plenty of other fun stuff we did on the ship that I'll write about at some point.
Today is the 16th anniversary of this site, and it kind of crept up on me this year. I'm still struggling to get something posted each day (although I at least do a draft of what I want to post for that day), and I'm starting to feel more relief when I'm away for a while (like vacation or work travel) and I know I won't be posting (my habit for several years now has been only to post on workdays when I'm actually in the office and not on the road).
So now more than ever, I wonder if the end of this blog is approaching, and it will become something that is a frozen record of a segment of my past instead of an ongoing, living document. I don't know if I could ever completely quit it, however—it's become a personal record that I refer back to in order to help remember my past, and not doing something more permanent to record my days would make them feel even more ephermal and transient than they do already.
At the same time I realize that there are many things that I've decided not to write about here that I would have written about in the past—issues at work and with my extended family primarily—so in many ways, there are already lots of things that aren't being recorded here that are incredibly essential to how I think about the world and how that point of view is changing over time.
Maybe I just need an actual personal diary and not something that's posted for the whole world to see, even if that world is generally uninterested and unaware that I'm posting it.
My mom was also affected by the hurricane—she was supposed to fly back to her home in Myrtle Beach on the Sunday that we got back from our cruise, but the flights into Myrtle Beach were canceled, so she asked the airline to send her to Atlanta instead, where she stayed with my sister for a week.
She wasn't able to stay with us becuase she was watching my sister's dogs while my sister was out of town for a few days, but we were able to hang out with her for a couple of days, and on Saturday night we all went to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens to see the Chihuly installation, which we hadn't seen yet even though it has been open since August and it's closing in a couple of weeks.
We got there just as it was starting to get dark, so we had the cool experience of seeing the pieces in daylight and then also seeing them lit up at night. Will had a great time—we let him use the digital camera we got for our cruise (it's waterproof and shock proof), and he took over 200 pictures—he was really into finding a good angle on the sculptures he liked.
We stayed a couple of hours, but Will and my mom were both starting to fade at that point, so we headed home. My mom left the next morning to fly back home, and we tried to settle back into our normal Sunday routine for the first time in a few weeks.
On Sunday I watched my first Ravens game since we went on our cruise, and it was just as brutal and disappointing a loss as the two that I didn't see while we were away. And it was a very familiar pattern: the offense got a couple of early scores, the defense played lights out for an extended period (the Giants didn't have a first down until near the end of the first half), but the offense couldn't really get anything going and the defense spent too much time on the field. We were still passing way too much, and frankly, Flacco doesn't look like he's far enough along in his recovery from surgery to lead this receiving corps to victory when everyone knows that we're going to be passing because our run game just isn't working.
The real backbreaker in this game, however, was the loss of cornerback Jimmy Smith near the end of the first half due to a concussion. He was the main reason that Odell Beckham was a non-factor up until that point, and after that Beckham went on a tear, having a career day and essentially winning the game for his team with two long touchdown runs, including what turned out to be the game winner with less than two minutes remaining.
It's very disappointing to be 3-3 after starting out 3-0, especially because every one of those games was winnable. Next week they have to right the ship against the Jets, a team they've traditionally done well against that is also not playing very well this year—that would give the Ravens a winning record and snap this losing streak, the longest in Harbaugh's tenure with the team. Some of this will depend on who comes back from injury—we have a lot of starters who are out right now—but no matter who is on the field, they have to find a way to beat this team if they want to salvage what looked to be a promising season after the first three games.
Our cruise had four days at sea, bookending the trip with two at the start and two to finish, and so we had to find things to do on the ship. Most days we would start off with exercise in the morning—there is a running track on one of the top decks near the pool, but once the sun worshippers roll out of bed, it's pretty hard to use because they drag their lounge chairs into the running lanes, so you had to get out there early—and we spent a lot of time on our spacious balcony deck reading.
We also went to a couple of art auctions, hoping we'd see something that caught our eye that wasn't too expensive. On our very first cruise which was also our honeymoon, we bought a print for $100 that we love, and we were hoping we could maybe find a complementary piece for that one to celebrate our 20th anniversary. But the art they had was tacky and way overpriced, so we enjoyed the free champagne and sat through the auctions without buying anything (they only lasted an hour).
We also went on a cruise of the kitchens (which was interesting, but not as interesting as I had hoped) and spent some time in the casino playing slots, and we just generally explored the ship which somehow ended up feeling smaller than the last boat we cruised on even though it was actually larger.
We didn't discover my favorite ship-board activity until relatively late in the cruise: one night while we were walking around on the deck above the pool, we noticed that they were playing a movie on a giant screen that you could watch while swimming or sitting in a poolside deck chair. It was surprisingly uncrowded, so we came back another night and had a great time.
We ended up doing this for the last three evenings on the boat, and we also discovered that you could see the movie from the hot tubs, so I would alternate between getting overheated in the hot tub for 10 minutes and then cooling down with a swim for the next 10 minutes (Julie mostly stayed in the hot tub). I was continually surprised that it wasn't more crowded, but I guess the pool people got enough of the pool during the day and were off at the bars in the evening and the non-pool people just never went to the pool at all.
It was a fun trip that provided a nice break from the stresses at work—for the first time that I can remember, I didn't check work email a single time for all the days I was away (I actually disconnected my work email accounts from my devices just so I wouldn't be tempted), and it really helped me get some perspective on all the change that we're experiencing at the institution this year.
Julie left for a conference yesterday, so it's just me and Will hanging out until Sunday. Before she left, we took Will out to dinner at Panera, one of his favorite restaurants (because of the cookie that comes with the kids meal), and then took him to the pumpkin patch at a local church to pick out our Halloween pumpkins.
He's really, really excited about Halloween this year—he loves to look at the yard decorations around the neighborhood, and he even talked us to getting a couple for our yard even though we don't normally decorate for Halloween. He picked out a spider web with glowing green lights that we hung up on a trellis in front of the house, and a skull and two hands that light up and make it look like a skeleton is trying to crawl out of the ground.
We've been in such a frenzy of motion this month that I can't believe Halloween is almost here, and the travel won't really stop for me until early November—I've got a conference next week that will take me back to Chicago for four days and then two days of recruiting travel to high schools in south Georgia the following week. And then, of course, the holiday season is upon us, which means we aren't likely to have a normal, routine week until sometime in 2017.
Julie left on Thursday, and that night Will and I went over to the house of his Cub Scouts den leader, Theresa, to finish a project he had to miss because the Scouts meeting was at the same time as his soccer game that week.
The project was pretty simple—making a bird house out of a milk carton—but Theresa ordered pizza and we hung out for a while to chat while Will played with her son Griffin. I also spent a lot of time drawing with her daughter Circe, who has a micro version of her mother's fierce personality (which Theresa finds alternately charming and exasperating). It was a pretty fun evening even though Will and I were both pretty exhausted by the time we got done with work and school.
On Friday night, Will and I went to an event at his school called Film at the Fern where they set up a giant inflatable movie screen and you sit on the grass to watch a movie in the evening. Will was especially excited that I was asked to help set up the screen, and I practically had to hold him back as it was being inflated to keep him from getting in the way.
The movie was Zootopia, which we had fortunately already seen, because the sound wasn't great and if I had needed to hear the voices clearly to get the plot, I don't know that I would have really understood the story. It also got much colder than I expected—Will and I both had our jackets, but as the evening went on, I wish we had had on more layers and/or had brought a blanket (we had one to sit on, but not one to wrap up in). He got so cold that he ended up snuggling with me for about half the movie, which was nice—I know that any minute now he's going to be big enough where he doesn't even want me to give him a hug in public, much less sit in my arms.
On Saturday we didn't do much during the day, but I decided to take Will out to a new barbecue restaurant for a fun evening adventure. We went to the Smoke Ring, which isn't too far from the new Falcons stadium, and although Will didn't like the mac and cheese much (his go-to at barbecue places), he loved the fried pickles, and he wasn't as reluctant to try the stuff on my plate as he usually is. I tried the brisket to compare it to our favorite barbecue place, Community Q, and although I didn't like it quite as much, it was still pretty good. We'll definitely come back here sometime with Julie, we'll just find something else for Will to try as his entree.
Julie got back on Sunday in time to see Will's soccer game, and then we had a somewhat normal Sunday evening routine. But I'm heading out for a conference tomorrow (my last conference of the year) that will keep me away from home until Friday night, so we'll only have a couple of days of family time before one of us is away on business again.
I got back from my conference on Friday night, and then was up first thing the next morning to do a service project with other alums from my college who live in Atlanta. We do about four of these a year, and this time it was at one of the community gardens that supplies fresh produce to the Food Bank. Lots of manual labor—shoveling mulch into wheelbarrows, moving it to a large garden plot and spreading it around, and creating large beds using topsoil. I was pretty sore the rest of the weekend, because you use different muscles doing actual work than you do when you are exercising (I do both weights and cardio regularly).
The conference wasn't too bad, but it was jam-packed—each day started at 7:30 with a pre-conference breakfast meeting of some sort, and typically didn't end until at least 8 after a conference-related dinner. I arrived on Tuesday afternoon, so I got in a five mile lakeshore run (following by dinner at Star of Siam, which I try to visit every time I go to Chicago). I was intended to run at least once more, but the weather was terrible—I don't recall seeing the sun at all, and it was as cold and windy as you'd expect Chicago in late October to be.
On Wednesday I met two of my Chicago friends at a local bar to have some beers and watch the Cubs win their first game of the series, and we were also joined by one of their coworkers and a friend of ours from Baltimore (she used to work with Julie, but now she works as a high school guidance counselor, and we typically end up at the same conferences once or twice a year).
She and I also found a few minutes after the sessions were over one afternoon to walk around the Loop a little bit to take pictures of all the Cubs decorations (her father is a huge fan) and to take the train to Wrigley to get some photos and pick up some merchandise for friends and family (I got a longtime friend and coworker an official World Series program, and I'm hoping it will turn out to be a treasured keepsake rather than a bitter reminder of his franchise's lonstanding championship drought, but at this point, it's difficult to see them pulling off two victories away from the Friendly Confines against such a talented Cleveland team).
We carved our pumpkins on Sunday afternoon, and we're all ready for trick or treating tonight. Then one last trip later this week and I hopefully will be all done with work travel for a few months.