Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Cruise Log Part 1: Welcome to Miami (Bienvenido a Miami)

The last time I went on a cruise, I documented our trip as we went along, trying to blog daily.  This time, I didn't do that.  I took notes to remember things and started writing this account about a week and a half after we got back before I started forgetting details, but with the holidays and I was sick pretty much the whole month of January and part of February, I didn't get back it until now.  So, my memory of the details may have faded somewhat.

I blog sometimes, not to tell someone else my story, but so that I can go back and remember later.  I suppose I could just do that in a journal, but blogging is my journal that I am willing to share with others.

It took me a while to get to writing because we arrived home 10 days before Christmas this time and things were hectic.  In my mind, I knew it was Christmas.  I saw the decorations in Miami and the Caribbean, but since I have always lived in places with cold weather and snow, it did not compute to me to see these decorations alongside palm trees and sandy beaches and in tank top and shorts weather.  So, a day or two after I arrived back home, it dawned on me that Christmas was in a week and my kids were starting their winter break in a couple of days.  I had serious shopping to complete, plus other plans and arrangements to be made.

I'll likely break this blogging up into pieces, as I did with my first cruise blog, so as not to overwhelm (you OR me).

This year was our 5th anniversary, so my generous mother-in-law decided to mark the momentous occasion with a gift cruise.  All-inclusive--hotel, flights, rental car, excursions, and spending money.  We started planning the cruise back in the spring or summer, but when it got close, time seemed to fly by.

My mother and my husband's mother were going to babysit my children while we were gone.  This made me quite nervous.  If you are personally acquainted with me or have followed this blog for long, you know that my son is not a typical child, but has quite a few special needs.  Now, granted, we went on a cruise 5 years ago and my mother-in-law babysat them alone.  However, there was quite a bit different at that time.  Yes, my son was having problems at the time, but they hadn't escalated to the magnitude that they have been at this year.  At that point, there was some behavior problems and some concern that there might be a problem that needed to be investigated, but he was four years old and manageable.  Now, he is nine and has been hospitalized twice this past year for threats of violence to himself and others.  He's been suspended numerous times.  He's been diagnosed with ADHD and bipolar disorder and there are conflicting opinions about whether he might have a form of autism.  His old school couldn't handle him, so he is in a special behavior program at a new school.  And he is strong.  It's increasingly hard for me to control him, let alone his two grandmas.  The other difference is that the last time, the kids were not as involved in outside activities as they are now.  While we were gone this time, there was an orchestra concert, a music program, two karate classes, a church Christmas party for the teen girls, two youth group meetings, drama club, pancake breakfast for charity, etc.

So, I began the arduous task of writing out detailed instructions.  The grandmas scoffed and said all would be well and I shouldn't stress about it, but what they didn't understand was that that was how I was dealing with my stress.

Things got really hairy when the week before our trip, my grandmother took a nasty fall.  It was my mom's birthday and the day before Thanksgiving and we were trying to Skype my mother so the kids could sing happy birthday to her.  At that moment, my grandma showed up at my mom's house and said she had fallen at the store and thought she might have broken her wrist and needed to go to the hospital.  She says it nonchalantly and then looks around and sees that my mother is doing laundry and in true tough lady grandma form, says, "Oh, well, if you're busy, I can go myself.  Or we can go see the doctor next week."  My mom dropped everything and took her to the minor emergency.  Turned out her wrist was both fractured and dislocated.  And she would need surgery.  They scheduled surgery the same day that the moms were supposed to leave to come here to babysit.  My grandma is so tough that as soon as she got home from having a mastectomy a couple of years ago, she started doing laundry.  We thought this time would be the same.  But once the adrenaline wore off, she was in excruciating pain.  She walked the floor, moaning and crying most of the night and the pain was so bad, she was vomiting.  Thanksgiving day, mom took her to the E.R. while my uncle prepared the holiday meal (for which 8 of our large family showed up for).  They did a form of traction on her and put a cooling pack around her wrist and sent her home.  The surgery was outpatient and supposedly scheduled for early in the morning.  We were worried that my mom would not be able to come because as bad as this was going for grandma, my mom might be needed to care for her.  She moved a block away from her to be close to her and we couldn't see her leaving grandma immediately after surgery.  We would have liked for grandma to have come with mom so she could have had someone to watch over her and nurse her (my mother-in-law is a retired nurse), but she wouldn't consider leaving her house for almost two weeks, not to mention her post-op appointments.  My uncle took two days off of work and my aunt took a couple of days off after that, so they had grandma under supervision for six days with the weekend.  So, my mom decided that barring any complications, she would still come.  The surgery didn't start until the afternoon, but everything went well.  They put in a plate and several large screws.  After she recovered, my mom left and I felt guilty.

By the time they arrived, it was dinner time, so we ate together and had a couple of hours to talk and go over things before I had to go back to packing and we all went to bed.  We had to be up early to catch our flight.  Long drive to the airport, park at long term parking, shuttle to airport, check baggage, go through security, then sit and wait for the flight to leave at 8:10am.

This was my first time in first class on a plane.  I have always hated flying because I am claustrophobic and I hate being squished in with other people.  It's not AS bad if you are seated with friends or family, but when it's strangers, they are inevitably in my bubble.  My first time ever flying when I was 18 and going to Germany to live with my new husband, I ended up on a huge plane (I think it was a 777) with two seats, an aisle, five seats, another aisle, and two more seats across one row.  And, you guessed it, I was in the middle of the five seats.  Fortunately, I was surrounded by some elderly church ladies who were very nice, but even that doesn't stave off claustrophobia for an 8 hour flight.  First class was great because we had priority boarding and the seats were larger with more leg room and we were given drink service twice along with snacks for the less than two hour flight.  We also didn't have to pay extra for baggage--we were each able to check three bags.

Now, this is where we hit some turbulence.  No, not in the air, but between me and my husband.  I had planned on us each having two suitcases and was desperately wondering how I was going to fit it all in for 12 days when he told me that we were allowed three.  I was relieved.  However, he didn't want me to bring three.  So, we had a brief disagreement about the bags.  The other hitch was that apparently our luggage has seen better days.  Our two biggest bags were tearing.  One was still usable, though the outside pocket was not--the other one was beyond hope.  So, we had to settle for smaller suitcases, vowing that one of our next purchases would be a new set or luggage.  And while we were at it, some of those new-fangled rolling ones that you don't have to tip--they just follow you like a dog on a leash.  We settled on my taking three bags and his taking two.  He carried on his laptop bag and I carried on my laptop/camera bag and my crocheting bag with my purse tucked inside.

Now, you may ask why in the world I needed three suitcases (and still some of my stuff rolled over to my husband's suitcase).  The last cruise, I had read somewhere that you shouldn't overpack.  Don't take too much, you don't need it.  So, I didn't.  And then I started running out of clothes.  And lamenting my lack of variety in my wardrobe.  Due to that, and the fact that we were spending three days in Miami prior to the cruise, and two days after, I wanted to have enough clothing and have a variety for whatever we decided to do.  I am glad I did.  We did do a little bit of laundry in Miami on the third day.  I came home with clean clothes, it's true.  But, I would rather come home with a couple of extra outfits than to run out or wish you had thought to bring this thing or that.

Back to the flight.  My husband put me by the window because I love clouds and I am a photographer.  My claustrophobia didn't bother me at this since we had plenty of room in first class.  We had a layover in Atlanta and then we pressed on to Miami.  The clouds were amazing and I bored Facebook friends with pictures of them.  I have long pondered whether God would allow me to play on the clouds once I went to heaven since I love them so much, so looking at them from above instead of below, or being between layers was thrilling to me.  I'm easily amused.  I wish I had gotten the camera out quicker.  Just before we landed in Miami, I noticed the shadow of our plane on the clouds and surrounding it was a rainbow circle.  It was beautiful.

We arrived in Miami after 2pm, local time.  The last time we were there, it was in the 50s and raining, which didn't bother us since we had left Kansas City with a ton of snow on the ground, but the locals acted like it was arctic there.  This time, it was warm and sunny.  I called our hotel about a shuttle and to see if we could check in earlier than the 4pm standard time and they said that they were booked up and wouldn't be ready early.  We took the shuttle there, without having anywhere else to go.  We stayed at the Embassy Suites because we really liked it when we stayed there in Ohio when we were on vacation with the kids over the summer.  They have a wonderful tropical common area and a restaurant, so there are plenty of places to hang out, if need be.  But, as it turned out, it needn't be.  We checked right in.  We were going to get a rental car, but we mused that if we didn't plan on leaving the hotel that night, it would be silly to pay for an extra day.  We ended up ordering in from a local pizza place.  Scott got a stromboli and something else and I got a hamburger sub.  We have been wary of local places after our experience on our summer vacation, but this place was good.  Though they did get Scott's stromboli wrong.  Scott went down to the gift shop to get some drinks, but they must have been there for a while because they were flat.

The next day was Thursday and we slept in.  I only get to sleep in on Saturdays and even that is subject to the whim of the kids.  It felt nice to not have to be anywhere.  When we got up, we took the hotel shuttle back to the airport and got the rental car.  I'm going to include a graphic map to show you what I am going to describe.  Our hotel was right next to the airport.  We took the shuttle to the airport and then rode a tram to the rental car station which is just east of the airport and just south of our hotel.  You'd think it would have taken us less than five minutes to get back to the hotel once we picked up the car, but we took a few wrong turns and got lost in Miami traffic and it took us at least half an hour to find our way back.  Even with our phone's GPS.  We rented a Buick something-or-other and it had a wicked rear cam that showed the track you were going to go if you kept at your current angle.  I love my rear cam on my van, but that had me geeking out.  Our hotel charged $16 a night to park there or $18 for valet parking.  We figured $2 was worth it to be able to just drive up to the front door or have someone bring the car around for us, so that's what we did.

Miami drivers are nuts!  I apologize for saying that if you are from Miami, but if you are, then you know it's true.  We were talking to a couple in the shuttle from the hotel to the airport that are from there that warned us about it.  They were not kidding.  We watched a guy in the left turn lane, suddenly decide he wanted to turn right at a red light and get over in front of the other two lanes of traffic to do so.  We saw entire traffic snarls because people would not merge when the signs indicated to do so, they would zip all the way up the line and try to squeeze over in front of all of us who had followed directions.  I was flipped the bird by some guy that I refused to let over in front of me.  He was trying to squeeze in the few inches between me and the car in front of me and I almost believed he was going to take my bumper off before giving up, but I'm stubborn and refused to give, so he got mad and flipped me off, I shrugged because it totally broke my heart [read with sarcasm], and he raced on, looking for another sucker.  He found a hole and later down the road, I passed him with smug satisfaction.  They are worse there than New York City or even Washington D.C.  We thought traffic was bad there when we visited this summer and now my oldest daughter is paranoid about people honking horns.  She hears one and yells, "who (or what) are you honking at???"  She would have LOATHED driving in Miami with all the horns honking.  Once, I took a split second at a light that had just changed before the message traveled from my eye to my brain to my foot to change pedals and the person behind me was already honking.

We went back to the hotel.  Scott had said I would be in charge of finding things to do while we were in Miami, so I set about looking at the room guide and the vacation guide that was left in our room and found a couple of things that sounded interesting.  The first was the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables.  It sounded like a tropical paradise lagoon, but was really a pool carved out of coral.  But, I found out it was closed for renovations.  Then, I saw the Coral Castle.  That sounded intriguing, but the more I looked up pictures and information about it, the more I thought that while it sounded interesting, it was not going to be worth the drive or the admission.  I decided that seeing pictures of it online would satisfy me just fine.  So, that left Miami Beach.  I wanted to go swim in the ocean and take pictures of the beach and the palm trees and lighthouses.  Scott said we were going to get plenty of beach in the Caribbean, but I wanted to go in Miami too.  And we started researching jet ski rentals.

Scott had said that the one thing he wanted to do was to ride a jet ski.  I was not interested at all.  I saw them as high speed death machines.  I do not like to go super fast and I certainly didn't want to fall off because I am not a confident swimmer.  I suggested that I would ride on the back of his, but he insisted that I should get my own.  We spent part of the day researching Groupons and reading reviews online before we finally decided on one we liked.  I had wanted to go to the Florida Keys, but it's a three and a half hour drive from Miami to Key West.  So, it would be seven hours round trip.  Neither of us really wanted to drive that long, even if I did think it would be neat to see and drive on the Overseas Highway.  So, we settled on a jet ski rental place in Key Largo.  Miami Beach was a must see for me, but I really wish I had just gone south to Key Biscayne.  But, that's a story for later.

I had wanted to spend a large portion of my spending money on the spa on the ship.  I wanted relaxation and pampering after all the stress of this year.  But, I wanted to have my hair dyed and highlighted and I figured that they would charge more than it was worth on the ship and might not have the color I wanted, so since we had really decided not to go anywhere, I decided to go get my hair dyed while I was in Miami.  I found a Groupon for a color and highlights for $63 and I called ahead and they said that if I came right away, they could get me in before closing.  So, I hurried out.  I promptly got stuck in rush hour traffic.  The highway systems there are toll roads, most of them, and they flash you as you drive under the cameras.  If you have a "Sun Pass", they charge you less, but if they have to bill you by your license plate, you pay more.  I was really ticked at having to pay to use this highway that was at a standstill.  I was paying to PARK!  I finally got there.  One thing that I noticed about Miami is that they are all super excited about Obamacare.  I saw signs everywhere and right next to the salon, there was a giant blow-up doll of Obama.  Frightening.

I went in to the salon and they told me that even though the Groupon said "color and highlights", it only meant PARTIAL color.  Which should have been my first clue that this was not going to be a good experience.  From perusing Groupons, they are usually quite specific about "partial color" or "single process color", etc.  I asked how much for a full color, since I'd already bought the Groupon and the owner told me $20 more.  I said do it.  I showed them a picture of the color that I wanted as the base and then said I wanted some golden streaks highlighting.  We had a discussion about not going too light.  I had really wanted to do a tri-color, but I decided against it on the spot.  I was afraid this would cost even more and be even more difficult.  They went back and started mixing and were gone quite a while.  Instead of putting sort of a reverse cape on me, like I usually have, they put a smock sort of thing on me.  When she started putting the dye in my hair, my scalp started burning.  I have been dying my hair since I was a teenager and at this point, I dye it 2-3 times a year.  Sometimes I have it done professionally, sometimes I do it myself.  I don't ever recall my scalp burning from the solution.  It has when it's been permed, but never when I colored it.  I probably should have spoken up, but I figured it was just the initial foreign object and it did lessen, though it itched quite a bit.  She was really rubbing it into my scalp which was odd.  Then she did the highlights.  One thing that alarmed me was that occasionally, I would see dye go flying.  Once, a drop splattered my arm.  Once, my nose.  I saw that she had gotten some on her arm and her shirt and when I picked up my cell phone, I saw some on my case.  I was a little concerned about her carelessness with keeping the dye where it was supposed to be.  When she finally rinsed the dye out, I was surprised that she shampooed my hair at least three times during the process.  It's been a while since I have done a professional dye job, but as I recall, I don't remember them shampooing following a dye, just conditioning.  Anyway, they had taken a before picture of my hair and as she was combing it out, she asked me if I wanted her to blow dry it.  Maybe I lead a sheltered life, but generally, when I go to the salon for a chemical process, they dry my hair as part of the service.  Granted, it's not styled, but you can't really tell the true color when it's wet and you need to see that they gave you what you wanted.  Is that just a Midwest thing?  Do they not do that as a courtesy elsewhere?  I guess I should have questioned this, especially after the woman next to me when I came in had had a long, extensive blow dry.  I was beginning to think I would never hear the end of that hair drier.  So, I said sure and I figured they needed it dry for their "after" picture too.  She began blow drying and brushing and putting argan oil in my hair.  And, just like the other woman, she took a very long time.  I was starting to feel sorry for her and the owner because they were past closing time and were just staying open to finish my hair.  When she finished, my hair looked sleek and not a speck of frizz!  The main color was still just not exactly what I wanted, but I was beginning to wonder (considering this was a second attempt at this color) if my hair was just not conducive to this particular shade.  The highlights looked great and overall, I thought it looked amazing, even if the color wasn't as deep as I'd hoped.

I went to the counter to pay and not only did they charge me the $20 extra for the full color but they also charged me $35 for the blow dry!  I was shocked!  $35 to blow dry my hair???  And the kicker was that it was pouring rain outside and I didn't have an umbrella.  So, $35 to walk out and through the parking lot and have the blow dry ruined.  $35 to blow dry and oil hair that wasn't going to be seen except by my husband and the food delivery boy in our hotel room.  I had been prepared to give a larger tip, but now that I had paid $63 for a Groupon and another $55 that I felt was a total scam, I was not in a generous tipping mood, so I only gave her $10.  Even that made me cringe because my Groupon "deal" had now cost me a total of $128.  The owner and I chatted about the Miami drivers and he chalked the bad driving up to all the people from Latin America who bring their country's bad driving habits here.  He said he is from Columbia and they drive much worse there.

I ran out in the rain and sprinted across the parking lot, trying to shield my expensive hair with a piece of paper I dug out of my purse.  And I drove back to the hotel.  I mentioned that the only person to see my coif other than my husband was the food delivery guy.  I had wanted to go try Benihana since I found out they had one near Miami Beach because I use one of their copycat sauce recipes and I love it.  But, we decided not to get out again in the rain and ordered in some Chinese food that was pretty good.  In our free time, Scott played games on his laptop or napped and I crocheted or listened to my audio book.  It was nice to just sit back and relax and do whatever we wanted.  As we were sitting, eating, I noticed a blotch of hair dye on my skirt.  Her wild painting and hair dye flying had landed on my skirt because the smock wasn't long enough to cover everything.  This was a new skirt that my mom had just made me and this was the first time I had worn it.  I was furious and later gave negative reviews on every site I could find.  They were nice people, but between overcharging and ruining my clothing, I wasn't happy.  My scalp was red and flaking for days afterward, as well.

The next day, we were going to go jet skiing.  We headed down to Key Largo.  The place was a bit hard to find.  We found the address with the GPS on our phones and saw a sign over a parking lot indicating it was there.  But, all we saw was a gift shop and a restaurant and behind that, guys working on who knows what and boats in a channel.  When Scott went to ask someone, one of the men behind the gift shop asked if he could help me and I told him we were looking for the jet ski place.  He asked his buddies where "that girl" was and one asked me to follow him around the boardwalk that bordered the waterway.  He commented that the jet skis were brand new and nice, so we were sure to enjoy it.  Across the waterway from the gift shop, there was a jet ski dock and life preservers and a girl and a guy.  The girl introduced herself as P.J. and said she would be our guide.  Scott found me and after we talked to P.J. for a bit about what the plan was, he went to change.  I had worn my swimsuit there with a sarong covering my bottom half and a t-shirt covering the top.  I kicked off my flip flops and my cover-ups and put on a life vest and P.J. brought us some bottled water.  We had to keep our driver's licenses and water in a small "glove compartment".  I had my waterproof camera strap wrapped around my wrist.

We headed out through different channels towards the bay.  There are lots of nice vacation homes along the canals, with boats and jet skis moored in front of them.  You cannot go fast through these channels for safety reasons and also I believe it's a courtesy so the residents don't have to hear loud motors and they don't have to deal with the wakes that are caused by fast moving aquatic vehicles.

It didn't seem so hard.  Once it's started, the jet ski propels forward slowly on its own.  It's pretty stable staying upright, though turns freaked me out a bit, so I found I was only comfortable turning when I slowed way down.  My husband was flying around the bay at 50-60mph, but I didn't care about speed.  I was really enjoying it more than I thought I would and I took some video.  I got up to 30-35 mph, but that was as fast as I was prepared to go.  The kids saw the video and called me chicken.  It was really fun.  There had been another jet skier in the area where we were and when I saw someone had fallen off their jet ski, I thought it was him.  But, when our guide came zipping over, I realized it was my husband!  He said he hadn't even been going fast, just a wave caught him and instead of trying to fight to stay on, he just went in the water, like she'd instructed.  However, those things only had one bar at the back to remount if you fall off.  And it's up high, and it's spring loaded so that it pops back up if you aren't actively pushing it down.  It sits just below the surface of the water and if you are in the water up to your chest because of floating with the lifejacket, you can imagine how high you have to get your leg up to even get on that bar and then you have to pull yourself out of the water and up onto the seat from there.  And there are no good handholds.  Not good design features.  Our guide said she had trouble getting up on it from the water and she was a tiny little thing.  Scott tried and would almost get it, but then run out of strength.  Then P.J. abandoned her jet ski to jump on his to try to give him some leverage to get up.  But, the longer this went on, the worse it was because he was getting more and more fatigued.  P.J. hopped on the back of my jet ski and had me take her to hers, which had drifted away.  It was a little scary getting next to his so she could get on mine and next to hers so she could retrieve it because they had documented scratches before we went out and we would have to pay for any damage we might cause, so I was scared of scraping.  But, I managed to get close enough without scratching and she complimented my driving skills.  She'd had an idea and took off across the bay.  She went to a fishing boat and spoke with the captain.  He brought his boat over and put down his ladder and Scott was able to climb that and then step over onto the jet ski.

By that, time, he was exhausted and had had enough.  Our time was about up anyway, so we started heading back.  I totally want to do that again!  I was so crusted with salt though, afterwards!

When we got back, we went into the gift shop and bought some souvenirs.  I apparently spaced out and got myself a Key West shirt, forgetting we were in Key Largo.  Whoops!  Guess I was Key-fused!

We were tired, so we ordered in.  I got food from Burritoville (which was pretty darn good) and Scott tried the pizza place again and they got his order right this time.  We made a trip to WalMart to get some videos, an HDMI cable, some bottled pop, laundry detergent and other sundries.  When we got back, I did the little bit of laundry we had, so we wouldn't start off the cruise with a bag of dirty laundry and so we wouldn't run out of socks and underwear!

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