Monday, January 30, 2012

Muses and Inky Trysts

I'll admit to literary liaisons with numerous dead authors. Gibbon, Lewis, Hugo, Emerson...Soul mates, long since passed on, whose words reveal kindred spirits that might have perfectly intertwined with mine on a bed of paper and ink. Or on a keyboard, though it's less poetic. I can't believe Calvin Klein made a perfume called "Obsession" and it doesn't smell anything like the library or a used bookstore. They are the  perfect combination of coffee and well worn books, made endearing by their very raggedness. Wouldn't it be nice to get all our lovers on the same page?

I'm currently having a daily flaming tryst with Kurt Vonnegut by reading his biography and re-reading his most famous work, Slaughterhouse Five. Vignettes from a painful, somewhat neglected childhood, the trauma of war, and the cruel tediousness of everyday family life come together and shed light on the troubled genius. I want to hold his hand and tell him everything is going to be okay. I want to tell him I understand him even if his publishers don't. I want to tell him how charming I think it is that he didn't know who Keats was when he was a university professor teaching writing. Funny. In his novels I would be able to do exactly that due to some mysterious time warp or some distracted all powerful being.  He seemed to work it out just fine without me. So I won't build a time machine. One less thing on my to-do list.

Gifted writers use words carefully to give you a little insight into the wounded crevices of their souls. What they won't tell their best friend over a beer at the corner bar, they will scribble on a page and send out into the universe to see if there might be someone, anyone, who feels the same way. Then many years later, there I am on the sofa, in my threadbare Berkeley sweatshirt, savoring the book which I know in my soul of souls was written for me. I don't know why the other 2 million people bought it. The author was toying with them, but then he has to pay the bills. I can overlook his infidelity. I know the truth.

What an author reveals to us in his work is often explained further when the biography comes out. Talented writers and researchers go on massive treasure hunts through interviews that must feel like depositions, personal letters, and other tangible clues. True life stories come forward through the shadows.  Character models and threads of real life become connected and the magic dissipates to expose raw inspiration.We get to share in the, sometimes tormented, creative process. The disappointments. The little victories. Eventually the success. We want to yell at his wife to "leave him alone, so he can write" we want to scold uninterested publishers. We want to sit in the front row of the class at a mid-western university or at Cambridge and  catch the reek of cigarette smoke or the haunting slight scent of pipe tobacco. We want to be amused at the rumpled suit and disheveled stacks of papers. Biographers allow us to do just that.

Biographers--good ones, not the ones who turn out those disastrous tell-alls--help us understand the genius and his muse. The muse isn't so much that wispy ethereal being we picture hovering over the author. Sometimes her lip is busted and she smells like gin. Hanging around with artists and writers is tough work. You think Hemingway had a wimpy muse?  She's limped along next to our favorite writers over the years helping them to slog it out at the typewriter, or on the back of a napkin when things were bad. She's kept them up at night demanding to be heard. When she's inspired the last piece of work maybe she starts looking for the writer who will tell the writer's story--the one he was creating when he wasn't writing.  After all, isn't life just a story in the end?  Biographers get to improve on it. Polish it up. Edit. They give our favorite writers back to us more easily understood and fully fleshed out. Every once in a while you can almost smell the Pall Malls.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Where the Heck is Roatan?

Madame saw a man wearing a t-shirt that said "Where the hell is Roatan? when she was in Honduras recently. That's where Roatan is; it's an island off the coast. (Click here to read about the history of the island.) Last year the cruise ship docked at Mahogany Bay a little touristy spot with lovely little shops that look like Caribbean cottages and a sky lift (think SKI lift) to take visitors over to the private beach if they don't want to walk through the lovely manicured grounds. Madame had been describing that lovely scene all week to her new friends in the hot tub or at the pool.

The danger of sharing a travel experience is that sometimes things change and then you just look, well, silly. This is what happened to Madame. This time the ship docked (or would have if another ship hadn't already been there) at Coxen Hole. The first bad sign was that there wasn't any pier and passengers had to be tendered to the dock. No big deal, tendering is actually kind of fun, unless you forget something and need to run back to the ship. Once ashore there was a charming little shopping area much like the one she remembered but at the information booth she was informed that the taxi to go to West End where there was a beach, and several restaurants and places to shop, was going to run about $25 per person. To go the mile and half or two to get to Mahogany Bay? About the same. That's a lot of money and you can negotiate with the drivers but at this point Madame wasn't in the mood.

"So there's nothing to do right here?"

The helpful retired American (there are about 1500 of them on the island) informed her that she could walk out the gate past where the taxis were and turn right--that would take them to Old Towne. Sun sparkled on the water and some men played kettle drums outside a jewelry store with white plantation shutters. Shoppers crowded the liquor stores and boutiques. MO never has figured out the numerous diamond stores at every port the ship stops. They reached the gate and stepped out into reality. A couple of children asked for money. They walked along a treacherous sidewalk. Locales gawked. Several people asked them where they were headed and offered to take them to a beach. A young man asked them if he could help them find something. Mr. Mo said he was looking for a cigar store and the three of them headed there.

It was soon obvious that this kid had attached himself to them as a volunteer guide. Madame realized that they would need to tip him. After a shop or two where he stood patiently by as they shopped, and informed Madame whether or not it was alright to haggle, he introduced himself as Elmer Welcome. He spoke perfect English, had a very good knowledge of the history of the area. They chatted as they went through town. The main street that runs through Old Town holds no resemblance whatsoever to the gleaming cheerful tourist areas. The contrast is jolting. Buildings are ramshackle, grates over gutters on the street are missing leaving dangerous holes that could swallow a small child. There are stray dogs everywhere. Skinny ones. Between dilapidated buildings Madame would catch a glimpse of the gleaming ships in the harbor. They asked Elmer about his life. He was a high school student who was hoping to go to the local college to get a degree in hospitality. His goal was to get a job as a waiter on one of the cruise ships. Madame asked him how long the ships had been coming there.

"Fourteen years." he said.

"What was it like before?"

"There was nothing here but a dirt road, everyone was very poor before the tourists came."

Mr. MO inquired about a place to have lunch. He took them to the cleanest building in town. Still simple with outdoor seating with plastic lawn chairs, but exceedingly clean. Several locals sat with their laptops. Madame suspected this was the only place in town with wi-fi. They offered to buy Elmer's lunch but he said he would rather have cash. Mr. MO handed him fifteen dollars, thanked him and wished him luck.

Bay Side Restaurant and Grille has an excellent drink menu and delicious local food. Madame asked the waitress what the typical local meal was. Conch and fried plantain was the answer.  Mr. MO ordered the shrimp ceviche. The food was delicious, and beautifully presented. Simple ingredients were combined to make a perfect lunch. The conch was cooked in a butter and garlic sauce. MO ordered up a pina colada, after double checking about the use of purified ice. It was easily the best one she's ever had. The ceviche was beautiful and super fresh. I couldn't find a website for the restaurant but here is the link to their Facebook page.

Roatan is a beautiful island with a variety of experiences to offer. MO was disappointed that she didn't get to go snorkling this time. The reef in Roatan is now considered one of the top 7 places in the world for it. She wasn't willing to do it alone, and it really wouldn't be Mr. MO's thing at all. Next time however, even if it is a lone adventure she doesn't intend to miss it.

Happy Travels, Y'all!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Cave Tubing in Belize


The cruise line tries to scare you...

"Excursions not booked through the ship may not get you back on time."

"You don't know what you're getting."

"They may not get you back to the ship on time."

"Some of them are shady."

"Did we mention, that they may not get you back to the ship on time?"

Normally, if Madame is traveling alone, she books through the ship. She wants someone to hold her hand, put a sticker on her, and remind her what bus to get on after she's had a margarita...or two.

But in Belize this time Mr. Owner went with her and they ran into a couple who had done their research ahead of time. They took the tour with Once they found their seat on the bus, the guide, Speedo, gave a little introductory talk...


"We know what the cruise lines tell you: that we are shady, that you don't know what you are getting, that we might not get you back to the ship on time. We PROMISE to get you back on time and give you an awesome experience today."

cave tubing in belize

And they did.

It was about a 45 minute bus ride into the jungle to get to the site. After a quick stop to let off the people who were doing the ATV ride instead of jungle hike, Madame and Mr. MO  were on their way. They ended up at the same place that their fellow cruisers did. The  fellow cruisers who were paying $79 while they were paying $45. The fellow cruisers who had fancy life vests, and helmets with lights.

Helmets? Madame wondered what she'd gotten herself into.

excursions in belize

The hike through the jungle was on a path that was easily traversed, though occasionally hilly, or muddy, it was not all that physically taxing. No one was out of breath enough to keep them from chattering with fellow travelers and ribbing the patrons of other companies. Once they neared the river Madame heard splashing. Well timed splashing...

She had a moment of panic thinking she might have to jump into the river. As she rounded the edge of a cliff she could see the platform. One guide held the inner tube as Speedo held the person's hands and lowered them, carefully, into a sitting position on the tube. Madame was wearing a tank top over her swim suit and during the entire adventure it didn't get wet.

Once a group of 8 is secured together ( the maximum number of people per guide allowed--this was checked at the entrance by an official) the float into the caves begins. Head lamps are provided as the caves are lengthy enough to be quite dark inside. The instructions given before entering the water included heeding the "Butts up!" call to avoid certain rocky areas. The men seemed to be paying extra careful attention to that part of the speech.

The river was smooth, the caves beautiful and mysterious, and the guides in complete control at all times. It soon became clear that the helmets and industrial strength life vests on the other tubers were overkill. Even what the guides called "rapids" were only ripples in the water to experienced canoers like MO and her husband.

cruising central america

The scenery was stunning and the experience seemed both exotic and relaxing. Upon exiting the river after about an hour long float (Madame is guessing) the bus took them to a hut for a lunch that was included in the price of the tour. It was an authentic chicken tamale (whole chicken leg included) wrapped in a banana leaf. This is not the small tightly wrapped tamale you may get in the States but is more the size of an enchilada. After lunch and drinks, it was time to board the bus for the trip back to the pier to catch the tender for the ship. There was still plenty of time for shopping and drinks before that. did exactly what they promised, for half the price of the excursion booked through the ship. 

Happy Travels, Y'all! 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Where's Your Exit?

Do you yawn or check the score from last night's game during the flight attendant's safety briefing? You might want to pay closer attention next time. 

Last week I woke up, grabbed some coffee and walked out onto the deck of our cruise ship to see the BBC morning news airing the story of a sinking Italian ship. After an ugly encounter with a rocky coastline, it never actually "sank" but met its demise, nonetheless.

On a cruise leaving the States you will, immediately upon departure, have a safety drill in which you will be required to report to your muster station for roll call. This is where you will assemble to board your life boat in the worst case scenario. They are serious. Cabins are checked. Names are marked off. If people are missing the crew finds them to participate in a "make up" drill. A video about exactly what to do in an emergency is playing as you arrive in your cabin and loops constantly. Last year however I traveled across the Ionian Sea from Italy to Greece with my daughter. There was no drill. We did locate our lifejackets in our cabin, but no other instructions were ever given. There was no video in our cabins. Had anything gone wrong we might have been on our own.

At last count as I write this, there are 11 confirmed dead and 21 missing. In this instance it seems to be the captain's fault. But what, if anything, can passengers do to increase their chances of survival in what are called "low probability/ high impact (or consequence) events? 

The short answer is: To ever think about it. At all. It turns out that you have a better chance of saving yourself, and possibly others if you have mentally prepared. Simply put this means, knowing where the exits are and imagining what you would do in an emergency.

Here's a quote from the web site of the author of The Survivor's Club:

In fact, one of the most surprising things you’ll encounter in a disaster is inaction. Believe it or not, but most people do nothing. They’re bewildered. In a stupor, they wait for instructions.

Experts say that 80 percent of us are likely to respond this way with so-called “behavioral inaction.” Only 10 percent act quickly and decisively. Fortunately, just 10 percent of us act dangerously or counterproductively.

Think back to 9-11. How many people, even when they instinctively knew they should leave the building, stayed behind because they followed instructions to do so?  If your intuition tells you things are really bad, they probably are. Every book I've read on the subject indicates that passivity is dangerous. Sitting quietly and believing placating explanations from those in charge wastes precious moments. But the key to survival seems to be being able to wrap your brain around the concept that something bad has happened and action must be taken. Often passengers in plane survivable plane crashes sit stoically even when clear instructions are given.

“Paralysis seems to happen on the steepest slope of the survival arc—where almost all hope is lost, when escape seems impossible, and when the situation is unfamiliar to the extreme.” ~ Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--and Why

It turns out some of these concepts play out on a larger scale in economic downturns and  other personal crises. I'm currently reading the new bio of Kurt Vonnegut. After a lifetime of glittering parties and social status, his mother couldn't adjust to her new circumstances after the loss of the family fortune during the Depression. She killed herself on Mother's Day.

“Resilience is a precious skill. People who have it tend to also have three underlying advantages: a believe that they can influence life events; a tendency to find meaningful purpose in life’s turmoil; and a conviction that they can learn from both positive and negative experiences.”
–Amanda Ripley, The Unthinkable

Find your exits. Imagine the worst and take a moment to think about what you might do.

This concludes today's safety briefing.

Keep calm and carry on...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

What's on the Nightstand

Okay, I'll admit my reading habits are a little nerdy. I DO mean to get around to The Help and The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo, but what's at the TOP of my 2012 reading list?

And these two are on the way via the UPS man: 
What's on your nightstand?