Saturday, November 04, 2006

Peabody of the Caribbean - Pt. 3

Wednesday, October 25 - George Town, Grand Cayman

Another morning, another port town. The difference here is that the water is shallow, we have to drop anchor and ride tenders (4 that are on our ship, they are slighter larger than the regular lifeboats, can hold 120 people each, and 1 from the port). There are no less than 6 cruise ships anchored in the harbor, pretty amazing sight. When we arrive in the ship's theater for instructions about our excursion, we are informed that it has been cancelled. Apparently due to the rough weather that we sailed thru, the beach resort we are supposed to go snorkeling at has decided the water is too rough. Dana, still less-than-thrilled with Mexico, says she is happy to stay on the ship. I said, no, we're here, this is supposedly NOT a third-world area, let's get off and walk around. (The excursion people on the ship told us we could sign up for a different excursion, we found out later that other folks went all the way to where they were supposed to snorkel, scuba, etc. only to be told that they were cancelled. We decided to take our refund and spend that money on booze, souveniers, etc. )

We were able to catch one of the early tenders off the ship, since we still had our excursion tickets in hand (doubled as your tender ticket, the folks with scheduled excursions got to go first, no one looked at our ticket closely enough to say "hey, that excursion is cancelled, go to the back of the line!"). Once on shore, it was apparent that George Town was very different than Cozumel, it looked like any American city. Banks everywhere, as we had heard, lots of money on this little island.

I noticed right away that they drive on the left-hand side of the road, it was messing with my head when I tried to cross the street, etc. The cars were mixed, some had right-hand steering wheels, some left. Since we had no set plans, we just walked around the main drag, spotted Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville, said hey, let's go get a margarita. Stopped first in the store, the t-shirts were VERY expensive (more on that in a moment) so we went upstairs to the restaurant. The prices were kinda high, but we figured we were spending the money we would have otherwise spent on the excursion, so we said what the heck. It was getting on towards lunchtime, so we ordered the "Volcano Nachos" along with our 2 margaritas. We passed on the $13.50 "large" margaritas in a plastic bong, got a rather small one in a standard plastic cup for $7.50. They were tasty, we ordered another round. Well, when the bill came, we noticed that the menu prices had been in Cayman dollars, U.S. dollars was even more (.8 Cayman dollars to 1 USD, as opposed to 11 pesos to the USD in Cozumel). 1 order of nachos, 4 margaritas came to $50 USD. Ouch. We figured we'd eat a proper lunch back on the ship where it was paid for.

Wandered down the street, past the big wooden statue of a black pirate-looking dude, with a sign next to him proclaiming "Big Black Dick" of course all the women had to get their picture made next to this. Big Black Dick is a brand of rum apparently. Speaking of rum, we went to the Tortuga Rum store, bought rum cakes and a bottle of rum. Headed back to the ship for lunch and the afternoon by the pool.

Next - Montego Bay, Jamaica

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Rock Hall gets another shot at the Stooges

Time for my annual rant - the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees were announced today. R.E.M., Van Halen, The Stooges, Patti Smith, the Dave Clark Five, Chic, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Joe Tex, and The Ronettes are on the ballot.

R.E.M. and Van Halen are no-brainers, both original in their sound and HUGELY influential. Last year I ragged about Percy Sledge getting in the year before as a one-hit wonder, Grandmaster Flash is in the same category, the difference being that their one hit launched a whole genre, that is not only still around, but dominant. (Not that I like that, I'm just stating the facts here). Joe Tex??? I dunno, I like Joe Tex, "I Gotcha" is a great song, and I did "the bump" to "Ain't Gonna Bump No More With No Big Fat Woman" in high school, but I don't know that he is Hall of Fame material. Chic? As I said last year, the Commodores and Ohio Players should go in before they do.

Patti Smith I never "got". Her version of "Because the Night" is one of my favorite all time songs, but it was written by Springsteen. Dave Clark Five? Yeah, I can see that, they were a big part of the British Invasion, had lots of hits. The Ronettes are redundant, because Phil Spector is already in the Hall, and the Ronettes are nothing but the genius of Phil Spector.

Which leaves the Stooges. I don't know who these clowns are that vote, but how they can continue to leave out this band that was SO far ahead of their time is beyond me. They invented punk long before 1976, much like my favorite Krautrock band CAN invented drums'n'bass in the late 60s. I'm sure no one that votes for the Hall is reading this, but if you see one of them, tell them to quit screwin' around and get the Stooges in there.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Peabody of the Caribbean - Pt. 2

Tuesday, October 24 - Cozumel, Mexico

As you can see by the picture, not exactly the most lovely view upon awakening. That hideous building on the right, the orangey-pink one, is the "Barracuda Hotel". The ship's itinerary called for us to anchor here, and ride tenders to shore, but the captain makes some phone calls and we are able to dock. I did not realize until we got here that Cozumel was on an island, not on the mainland of Mexico. At the point at which the pier joins the island, there is a large gateway arch you must walk under, on either side are soldiers in full combat gear with large machine guns. How welcoming......

Another cloudy, rainy morning, once again, as we prepare to embark on our excursion, the bottom drops out. We are quickly hustled thru a brand-new looking shopping center, complete with lots of Corona t-shirt stores, nice shirt in the window that says "Will F**k for beer" (minus the asterisks). I agree with Dana, as she says "why is there a market for that?". We found out soon enough that the reason for some of the dumpiness, as well as the brand new shopping center, is that Hurricane Wilma wreaked havoc on Cozumel last year. The reason for the "tendering" indication in the itinerary is that the docks just re-opened 3 weeks ago.

On the other side of the shopping center, our bus awaits. We are taken to the village of Cedral, which is a collection of shacks (our guide says "these may look like no one lives here, but they come on the weekends"). So these are the city-dwellers' weekend homes. All have cisterns on the roof to collect rainwater.

There is a central "plaza" which consists of a giant carport so the buses have somewhere to drop the tourists even if it's raining. On one side are crappy little shops full of "authentic" Mexican jewelry etc. (made in China I'm sure), on the other is a Mayan temple (see picture) and a Catholic church, the oldest on the island we are told. Our guide is full of "el crappo" so you can't really believe anything she tells us.

After leaving Cedral, we drive down a highway to nowhere, nothing on either side but scrub brush, little palm-looking things that are grey with a little green on top. Our guide informs us that all of this was under water during the hurricane, come back in 5 years and this will all be lush. Occasionally on the beach side of the road you will see 8-foot tall Dos Equis and Sol bottles, indicating a driveway to a bar.

We stop at a "corner" of the island, absolutely gorgeous beach area. Our guide tells us there are no restrooms, as there used to be a restaurant here, but the hurricane swept it away. All that is here now is a Mexican blanket stand, and a lot of pieces of coral that washed up.

We head back to the town of Cozumel, nasty, nasty, nasty third world place, finally the bus drops us off on the main drag, in sight of the ship. We "run the gauntlet" thru all the people trying to drag you into their store. "Hey Amigo! Come see my store! You from cruise ship?" I stop in the Hard Rock and buy a t-shirt, good deal $20 USD, no tax. We can't take anymore of the hassling from the merchants, say "no mas" and head back to the ship. The soldiers are nowhere in sight, guess they don't care if you leave.

Tuesday night - Disaster strikes. We had signed up for the late seating in the dining room, which was 8:30, it was great because we could sunbathe until late afternoon and take our time getting ready for dinner. This night, however, we never made it to dinner. Around 7 PM or so, we encountered very rough seas, starting feeling sick. We took our non-drowsy Dramamine, Dana sent me out to see "what was going on". Big mistake. I go lurching down the long hallway, there are many room doors open to "air out" i.e. get rid of the vomit smell. I get to the "centrum" the huge sculpture suspended in the middle is swaying big time. Back to the room as soon as possible, holding on for dear life to the railing. When 8:30 arrives, I'm feeling better than Dana, attempt to go to dinner. I open the door, the hallway is tilted down at about a 20-degree angle, the cabin to the right has the door open, again the smell of vomit. "Forget this!" I say and crawl in the bed, done for the night. Our room steward shows up about 9, he says "oh no, you sick too? Lots of rock tonight. I'm not feeling so good myself" (read those lines in your best African accent). Rocking continues all night.

Next - Grand Cayman, Jamaica

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Peabody of the Caribbean - Pt. 1

Sunday, October 22 - Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Arrive at the Fort Lauderdale airport after an uneventful flight from Charlotte. This is one of the most uninspired, utilitarian airports you will ever see, you'd think you were in the old East Germany or something. Proceed to the Royal Caribbean desk to get to our transfer bus to Port Everglades, a whopping 3 miles from the airport. While waiting for the bus, we meet a 50-something gay couple from Pennsylvania who are going on our cruise. We tell them it's our first cruise, they have been on 8. They tell us we will love it, but then proceed to tell a horror story about a ship they were on that sailed thru a tropical storm, 14-foot swells, they said that the passengers all went to the central area of the ship and slept on the floor. They reassured us that we probably wouldn't run into anything like that in the Caribbean. After a 5-minute ride on the bus, the ship comes into view. 962 feet long, 195 feet tall, 105 feet wide, 90,000 freakin' tons. This thing is massive. Glass everywhere, deck after deck of balconied staterooms. We breeze thru the terminal proceedings, board the ship. Our stateroom is ready, we head back. We are on the stern, the hallway from the central lobby of the ship (the "Centrum" it looks like a 10 story shopping mall atrium) to our room is about 150 yards long. Lots of exercise this week..

Stateroom is great, oversized with an oversized balcony. Balcony has 2 loungechairs, 2 sitting chairs, and a little table. Bigger than any hotel balcony I've ever had.

After several hours of checking out the ship, we head out. I'm standing on the 12th deck, the upper deck of the pool area, breeze in my hair, I tell Dana "I'm hooked already, this is awesome". Cruise down the Florida coast, non-stop highrises on the beach for miles and miles and miles. Sunset over Miami is killer.

Monday, October 23 - Key West, Florida

Awaken to bumping of ship against dock. I walk out on the balcony, can see industrial, longshoreman, shipyard-looking stuff, but town is beyond. All this to my left. It is still pretty much dark, also to my left I see lightning. Great...

We walk up on deck, can see the whole town, hear rooster crowing. Hmm, methinks that odd in a "city". Nice view of the Customs House.

After breakfast at "the Trough" as we call the buffet (we managed to avoid getting trampled by the 300-pound food-crazed West Virginians Glenn Love warned us about), we notice it is raining cats and dogs. Our "Conch Train" tour is scheduled for 10:30, we go ashore in our cool UNC windbreaker jackets we bought just for this purpose, people are walking around barefoot and with plastic bags over their heads. We manage to find an awning to stand under, finally right as we board our train (one of those open-side little trams like they have at amusement parks, zoos, etc) the rain lets up. The train tour is nice, it zips you by everything you would want to see in Key West, but unless you get lucky and hit a stop sign or light right at a point of interest, it is next to impossible to take decent pictures of anything. Apparently if you buy a ticket yourself (not a packaged excursion from the ship) you can get a ticket that will allow you to get off and back on, that would be the way to go.

Of course we saw the aforementioned chickens all over town, I'm not sure what the folklore behind that is, but they are everywhere. Not to many "alternative lifestyle" folks in sight, apparently they are all getting ready for "FantasyFest" the next week, their Mardi Gras-like festival, where things get pretty flamin'. LOTs of acid casualties, and characters straight out of Buffet songs.

After the train ride, we have enough time to wander over to Duval Street area, we go into Capt Tony's near the corner of Greene and Duval, the "original" Sloppy Joe's (1933-1937), apparently this is where Hemingway actually hung out. This place makes Troll's Bar look like a 5-star restaurant, it re-defines the word "dive". Bras hanging from the ceiling, not a bare square inch anywhere not covered in all sorts of crap tacked up on the wall.

I want to hit the current Sloppy Joe's, we walk in there, 50-something ponytailed wild man playing the piano and titillating the buzzed-on-one-drink (it's 11:45 in the morning) housewives from the cruise ships with raunchy songs and Dr. John-style piano. The housewives loved "Who Put the Pepper in the Vaseline", you get the idea. I sidle up to the bar, order a draft Key West Sunset Ale, decent but nothing to write home about. Suck that down, go in to the Sloppy Joe's store, buy a bumper sticker and T-shirt, head out. As we walk back past Capt. Tony's, there is an ancient hippie chick in the corner with an amp, an acoustic guitar, and a tip jar. Dana says "My God, she's petrified!"

Next door to Capt. Tony's on Greene Street is a kite, windsock, etc. store in a little house with a white picket fence. A guy I take to be the proprietor is in the yard. He spots my Carolina Panthers hat, says "hey, nice hat, I like that hat". Dana asks him "what do you know about Carolina?". He says "only that I had season tickets to their inaugural season, I was living in Chapel Hill at the time". Turns out he's from Kinston, graduated from UNC, went to Key West and never left. Dana asks him "would you ever go back?" "No way!" is the expected reply he gives. As we are walking away, I say to Dana "think about what you just asked him - if he would leave Key West and go back to Kinston??" I don't think so.....

That about wraps up our day in Key West, we decided we will come back for a long weekend when we can wander around.

Next up......Cozumel, Mexico

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Book Review - Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Spent the past several months absorbing this book, 818 pages worth, via the miracle of Books on Tape. I recently changed work assignments, and am back to almost 2 hours in the car everyday, I try to take advantage of that time by listening to books. One of these days I'll move into the 21st century and do podcasts, but that's for another blog posting.

On to the book - while Hamilton himself is a fascinating character, what I found most interesting about the book was the description of the times, from the American Revolution, thru the "Republican revolution" (hmm, that sounds familar) of Jefferson's election in 1800 (don't get excited, my leftward leaning friends, Jefferson's Republicans were the Democrats of today), to Hamilton's fatal duel with Aaron Burr in 1804.

If you think politics only recently evolved into a morass of slander, spin, back room deals, and downright deceit, think again. The only difference is the media used, back then they only had newspapers, handbills, and pamphlets, but they slung mud just as effectively as today's spinmeisters. These guys were actually worse than today's scumbags, especially when it comes to slander. Instead of insinuating that someone was a crook, they would call their opponent a villian, a rascal, a rake, the devil himself, you name it.

Chernow paints a very different picture of early American history than what you learned in grade school, while Washington gets the normal reverential treatment, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison, John Adams, and Aaron Burr are all painted in a most unflattering light.

But I digress, let me paint the political picture for you. Hamilton was Washington's top aide during the Revolution (I never knew that until I read this), once Washington became President, he appointed Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton, Washington, and John Adams (first Vice-President, he said of the job "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.") were Federalists. The Federalists were akin to the Republicans of today, as they were strong supporters of banking, manufacturing, trade, etc. Where they were NOT like today's Republicans (with the exception of George "big government" W. Bush) was their belief in a strong (and large) central government. They placed the solidarity of the Union of the States above all else.

Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were "Republicans", who believed America should be an agrarian Utopia, with the farmer as the foundation of commerce. They were averse to the banking and manufacturing advocated by the Federalists. Jefferson was a spiritual father to Teddy Kennedy, foppish while in France during Washington's administration, he took to dressing as a commoner once becoming President, in spite of being very wealthy.

Chernow paints Jefferson as manipulative, according to Chernow, he was a master of CYA. He would never author any documents that disparaged his opponents, but usually enlisted Madison to do his "dirty work". Adams (who eventually split with Hamilton, their rift destroyed the Federalists as a political force) is [portrayed as borderline insane, when the nation was in crisis, he would retreat to his home in Quincy, Mass, once for 7 months straight, he would also go into fits of rage and berate his cabinet. Burr comes across as an amoral slimebag, but Chernow does give him credit for being the consumate ward politician, pressing the flesh, and even compiling a database of voters, noting each one's party affiliation and propensity to volunteer for the cause.

Back to Hamilton himself, the book jacket says "In all probability, Alexander Hamilton is the foremost figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did." I agree, here is an incomplete listing of Hamilton's accomplishments:

First Secretary of the Treasury, pretty much built the American government, with many of his concepts surviving today.

Established New York City as the center of American business (although my hometown of Charlotte is creeping ever closer as the center of American banking, now a not-so-distant second to New York). Hamilton's funeral remains to this day as the largest, most elaborate in the history of NYC.

Created the Coast Guard.

Was instrumental in the founding of the Navy, the Army, and the military academies.

Was one of the preeminent lawyers of the day.

Created the first national bank.

Wrote the bulk of the Federalist Papers, the definitive interpretation of the Constitution to this day. Yes, Madison, who I listed as his political opponent above, was the other major contributor, they did not split politically until later.

Was an avowed abolitionist, most of the Founding Fathers were hypocrites, they knew slavery was wrong, but they also knew they could never pull the Union together without the Southern states, so they let slavery continue, most of them owned slaves as well, while publicly saying it was wrong. As best as can be told from the historical record, Hamilton never personally owned any slaves.

In fact, I would venture that Hamilton may have been the single most influential American period, President or not. All this from a man who was born illegimately in the West Indies, and literally worked his way up from nothing.

Yet in spite of his genius, Hamilton was prone to incredibly bad judgement, such as publishing a pamphlet where he admitted adultery to prove that he had not committed any improper acts in his role as Secretary of the Treasury. With another pamphlet, highly critical of John Adams, he destroyed his own political party, as he tried in vain to swing Federalist voters to John C. Pinckney as the challenger to Jefferson in 1800. And of course, fatally, he refused many chances to avert the duel with Burr.

As my friends know, I am not one to blindy accept any one point of view (as too many today do, accepting without thinking whatever their preferred media tell them, be it Hollywood/New York Times/CNN on the left, or Limbaugh/local right-wing talk show wackos on the right). Therefore I have just started David McCullough's highly acclaimed biography of John Adams, as I want to see if he proclaims Adams to be a total fruitcake as Chernow does, and also see how he portrays Hamilton. Stay tuned for a review of that one, check with me in a year or so, I should be right knowledgeable about early American political history.